The recent University of Utah presidential inauguration featured inspiring messages of inclusion bookended by prayers invoking the name Jesus Christ. For many Jesus Christ is a source of uplift and guidance. For others the name Jesus Christ is a signifier of exclusion, a subtle reminder that they don’t belong.
This feeling of exclusion in public spaces is why one of the founding beliefs of this country is a separation of church and state. Adherence to the separation of church and state has served this country well. The university inauguration felt like an overstep of faith into one of the state’s premier public institutions. While the inauguration emphasized the importance of inclusion at the university, the prayers invoking Jesus Christ undermined the message.
I doubt this is the feeling that the new university President Taylor Randall wanted to create for anyone watching. President Randall has a remarkable track record of making personal sacrifices to expand diversity and inclusion at the university. While dean of the business school, Taylor Randall was instrumental in building programs such as the First Ascent Scholars, which expanded access to the University of Utah for students who were historically excluded. He aggressively recruited faculty that enhanced both the school’s diversity and raised the school’s intellectual standards. The examples go on and on. None of these great outcomes came for free. President Randall undoubtedly had to sacrifice an enormous amount of time with family and friends to get it done.
The idea of a prayer invoking Jesus Christ at the inauguration was well intentioned. Yet prayers that are part of the everyday cadence of the faithful often feel exclusionary to the secular. Likewise, seemingly innocuous commentary made by the secular can be deeply hurtful to the faithful. Striking the right balance to create an inclusive environment at public institutions can be remarkably hard. Oversteps by the secular and by the faithful will always happen. When these oversteps occur, what’s most important is to course correct and remember that we are building these public spaces together.
Jason Snyder, Park City