BYU shifts its hiring for religious studies, puts faith-building before scholarship

Preference could be given to seminary and institute teachers over scholars in various academic disciplines.

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Through the decades, Brigham Young University’s college of religious education has swung back and forth between emphasizing its faculty’s academic credentials (think famed ancient scripture scholar Hugh Nibley) and its devotional bona fides (cue apostle Boyd K. Packer).

At the heart of these periodic shifts are the tensions that exist between the Provo school’s academic pursuits and the religious mission of its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now, it seems, the pendulum has swayed again toward faith-building.

Late last month, BYU President Kevin Worthen addressed the religious education faculty to reiterate that the school would give hiring preference to candidates who had taught in the faith’s Church Educational System, which includes high school “seminary” classes and college “institute” courses.

Worthen pointed to a June 2019 document, “Strengthening Religious Education in Institutions of Higher Learning,” which was approved by top church leaders who sit on BYU’s board of trustees. The document said future hires would “demonstrate unusual potential for excellent teaching of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”

This would “often, but not always,” the document added, “be demonstrated by teaching experience in religious education in CES.”

When asked about the hiring policy, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins simply repeated what was in the 2019 guidelines, saying, “Religious education remains focused on hiring excellent teachers of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, who are well prepared because of their experience, training and testimony.”

Jenkins said that those teaching classes on topics such as the New Testament, the writings of Isaiah, and the Book of Mormon have “doctoral degrees in ancient scripture, language, history and other fields.”

Jenkins did not say that those “other fields” need to be related to what they are teaching.

The dean of religious education, Daniel Judd, via Jenkins, declined to be interviewed.

New direction on religious education takes hold

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) BYU President Kevin Worthen speaks at commencement in 2016.

It appears to have taken nearly two years to see the impact of that policy, according to some of the faculty who attended that meeting.

Last fall, religious education had two job openings, a religion professor said, one in church history and one in ancient scripture.

Faculty members interviewed a series of candidates for the history slot. They then voted and sent a short list to the university, but their choices were overruled at a higher administrative level, said the professor, who asked not to be identified for fear of speaking without authorization. “We were told in essence they would not continue further with these candidates, because they were not coming from a seminary and institute pool.”

Colleagues in the ancient scripture wing were not even allowed to vote for their candidates because they were not coming from seminaries and institutes.

“Some of the recent hires are very faithful Latter-day Saints,” said the professor. “They have studied and they have devoted their lives to the restoration and really take seriously the mandate ‘by study and by faith.’”

These new teachers are “better equipped to tackle the issues facing the church today,” the scholar said. “They can look at history and scripture in ways that will resonate with the rising generation.”

But they’ve been told they aren’t “overt” enough in declaring their faith in classes like world religions or New Testament studies, the professor said. “To the senior scholars, a testimony means you have to have this fuzzy feeling. If you are not crying, you are not overt enough about the gospel.”

This directive, though, runs counter to the message faculty members were receiving before the new guidelines.

The groundbreaking Joseph Smith Papers project, the multivolume “Saints” history series and the Gospel Topics essays, dealing with controversial issues in church history and theology, seemed to signal not only a new openness but also a more scholarly style.

These efforts are “not perfect,” the academic said. “But some people wished they had been available 20 years ago.”

In 2016, senior apostle M. Russell Ballard told CES teachers that they needed to face the faith’s thorniest topics head-on.

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” Ballard said. “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”

(Photo Courtesy of Brigham Young University) M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, waves after speaking to BYU students at the Marriott Center on March 3, 2020.

Ballard went on to say, “You can help students by teaching them what it means to combine study and faith as they learn. Teach them by modeling this skill and approach in class.”

That is exactly what the BYU professor said the newest religious education faculty members were doing.

“Camelot was now,” the scholar said. “What we are seeing is a retrenchment.”

BYU isn’t alone on religious education

Many universities have religion departments that follow an academic mandate, which is to teach students to think just as critically about the history and practice of faith as they do in every other field.

Schools with a stated religious mission, though, have to balance this goal with the desire to promote faith itself.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical, stating that “anybody teaching theology in a Catholic school should have formal approval from the bishop in the diocese in which the university is located,” said Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana. “This became extremely controversial, with some Catholic schools (especially Jesuit ones) not enforcing it at all and others enforcing it dramatically.”

Austin notes the question of religious orthodoxy also has erupted at some evangelical schools.

Several years ago, Illinois’ Wheaton College suspended an African American political science professor for saying that “Muslims worship the same God as Christians.”

Austin cites two reasons why BYU should take both an academic and a devotional approach to religious education: developing empathy and enhancing spiritual maturity.

In most universities, the study of religion is a branch of the humanities, he said, because religion plays a crucial role in the human experience.

“Understanding and empathizing with people requires understanding their religion. And, in our world, religious misunderstanding is at the heart of many of our social problems,” Austin said. “It does not serve students well to create a religious education curriculum built exclusively around their own religion. This actually works against empathy by creating graduates who are very sure of their own perspective and less likely to see the world through anybody else’s eyes, which is a prerequisite for genuine empathy.”

In addition, young students today have been exposed to more ideas through technology than any previous generation, he said. “They come to college with a lot of hard questions about the role that religion plays in their world. Students who can work through these questions in a safe environment often develop a mature and meaningful testimony that can’t be shaken by new historical information or social positions that they disagree with. Students who don’t have this experience often end up leaving the church. A religious studies curriculum built around affirming faith often ends up dismissing honest, difficult questions, or trying to make them seem easy.”

A shallower pool of future BYU professors

The move to limit the pool of potential professors to those with a CES background “is a massive blow” to those who took a different academic route.

“We were told to go to good schools, publish academic papers, get teaching experience. We were told to stay active in the faith but to appeal broadly to the academy and to BYU. We were told to not just publish papers in LDS venues but to focus most of our work in the academy,” wrote Alan Taylor Farnes, who has graduate degrees in New Testament scholarship and has taught as an adjunct at the Provo university. “Now, after over a decade of working to get hired at BYU, this document upends everything I have been aiming for with the snap of a finger.”

With this latest hiring direction, he felt misled.

“I shouldn’t have been focused on publishing in academic journals,” Farnes wrote on Facebook. “Instead I should have been teaching at institute on the side and publishing mainly for an LDS audience.”

He is not the only one who may have been disqualified, Farnes wrote. “There are many of us — I can think of at least 10 of my close friends — who now will have to find something else to do.”

At BYU, students are required to take at least one religion course every semester.

Many of those classes are taught by scholars trained at universities across the globe in fields such as biblical studies and ancient scripture, but just as many are taught by professors who came up through the church ranks or are experts in some other field. Few of those classes would be given transfer credit at other schools.

Trying to get hired elsewhere could be a challenge.

“In the field of religion, once you have BYU on your transcript, you’re not really taken seriously at any other school. Not only is my undergrad from BYU but also having [been an adjunct] at BYU for a number of semesters further disqualifies me from teaching anywhere else,” he said. “I will keep trying, but that’s essentially the case.”

Plus, BYU offers many more religion positions than other universities.

At Duke, where Farnes earned his master’s, there were two New Testament professors.

“If you want to teach there, you need to wait until one dies,” he said. “At BYU, there are around 40 ancient scripture professors. So there are a lot more available positions at BYU — usually at least one position every year.”

Of course, the shift could affect not only who is standing at the front of the class, but also what those who are seated in the room are learning.

It means that BYU religion courses “will essentially be institute classes,” Farnes said. “And New Testament classes will be taught by someone with a Ph.D. in educational leadership or family science.”

Change carries consequences for LDS Church

Samuel Brunson, who teaches tax law at Loyola University, a Jesuit school in Chicago, worries that BYU’s new priority sends the message that Mormon history and scripture cannot withstand intensive scrutiny.

Teachers without academic training in religion or scripture and who are not engaged in the discussions and debates of the day “shouldn’t be teaching (required) university courses that provide college credit,” Brunson argued in a By Common Consent blog post. “College courses serve a different, more rigorous, place than Sunday school classes. They serve a different place than private extracurricular religion classes. And students are best served by people with subject matter expertise.”

It’s not just an intellectual problem, he said. It’s also a “pastoral disservice” to younger generations.

“When we tell them that our religion isn’t worthy of in-depth study … we don’t give them the tools to engage a world that doesn’t embrace their peculiar beliefs,” Brunson wrote. “We tell them that their religious beliefs aren’t intellectually defensible. We don’t equip them with the tools for a lifelong engagement with the church.”

The move to draw from CES also undermines the university’s recently stated goal of attracting a more diverse faculty, he said.

It took until 2014 for seminaries and institutes to allow the hiring of women with children at home, Brunson said, which means the number of female teachers is relatively small.

And he wonders how the university will find more professors of color by looking to the seminary and institute system, which is dominated by white male teachers.

At a time when the church and school are working to lead out in rooting out racism, BYU’s recent 64-page report by the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging points to religion classes as in need of updating.

“The religious education curriculum lacks formal discussions on issues of race, unity, and diversity in [the LDS Church],” the report noted, adding that “that some of the most hurtful experiences [students] have had occurred in religion courses where sensitive gospel topics such as the [former] priesthood and temple ban and skin color in the Book of Mormon can be misunderstood or insensitively presented.”

Religious education currently has only one Black professor, and he is a relatively recent hire.

For his part, Austin remains optimistic about his alma mater.

If BYU maintains a robust exploration of Mormon history and scripture, while also working to build faith, the school can help its students grasp more than their own church’s perspective “in order to be good citizens of the world,” Austin said, as well as meeting the students’ needs “for spiritual depth and complexity.”