Oaks, Harvard, and "Religion"

Tonight, Elder Oaks spoke at Harvard. Just a little more than a week after a Newsweek article accused Harvard of ignoring the importance of the academic study of religion, Elder Oaks visited Harvard Law School as part of a series of bringing high-profile LDS legal figures to speak on Mormonism 101. Such an occasion is interesting because the intended audience (though by no means the actual audience) were non-LDS, so it interesting to see how someone like Oaks packages the gospel message in such a context.

The majority of the talk expounds some basic LDS teachings about the nature of God, the purpose of life, and the importance of revelation (this section is particularly interesting!). However, as his preface to the core of his talk on these three teachings of the Church, Oaks engages in a sharp polemic against contemporary secular education, like that at Harvard.

Oaks cites Gary Lawrence’s recent book How Americans View Mormonism, expressing disappointment that few American’s could cite the central claim of Mormonism, namely, “restoration or reestablishment of the original Christian faith.” He connected this lack of awareness about Mormonism to a broader ignorance about “religion,” by which he meant Christianity. To blame for this state of ignorance, Oaks said the following:

“Many factors contribute to our people’s predominant shallowness on the subject of religion, but one of them is surely higher education’s general hostility or indifference to religion.  Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion.  With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best.  Some faculty and administrators are powerful contributors to the forces that are driving religion to the margins of American society.  Students and other religious people who believe in the living reality of God and moral absolutes are being marginalized.”

Here, he suggests that American universities have the veered away from “their role in teaching religion,” again meaning, Christianity. He laments the “value-free” and “neutral” stand toward religion, but especially what he sees as the “marginilization” of religion. The suggestion that American universities are hostile to faith is, of course, widely dispute and several studies show little difference between professed religious belief on campus and religious belief among non-college going peers and even broader society. In many ways, one could argue that relative to the early and mid 20th century, university education is must less hostile to religion now.

He continues:

“Some have suggested that religion is returning to intellectual life.  In this view, religion is too influential to ignore in these times of the Taliban and the political influence of some religious organizations.  But it seems unrealistic to expect higher education as a whole to resume a major role in teaching moral values.  That will remain the domain of homes, churches, and church-related colleges and universities.  All should hope for success in this vital task.  The academy can pretend to neutrality on questions of right and wrong, but society cannot survive on such neutrality.”

Here, Oaks suggests, as I understand this statement, that the study of religion is happening at universities, specifically the study of radical Islamic groups and the “political influence of some religious organizations.” He acknowledges, however, that it is “unrealistic” to expect universities to teach “moral values.” Homes, churches, and church schools are necessary for this, and nothing less than the survival of society rests on the success of these institutions. Why exactly it is unrealistic, Oaks does not say. Neither does he suggest that in today’s pluralistic environment, the teaching of one particular faith in a university is a bad idea, or undesirable.

I find several of these claims to be very interesting, and regret that they weren’t fleshed out more. These polemical jabs at secular universities are all the more interesting since they appear to be entirely extraneous to the main points of the talk as well as the intended purpose of the forum. Oaks has recently deployed familiar culture war rhetoric on other topics such as religion in the public square and of course on marriage, some of which he repeated at Harvard tonight. Yet, I am unaware of him previously taking up the cry against secular education, lamenting the lack of Christian moral teaching in universities.

I am particularly interested in the nostalgia for a time when Christian “religion” was taught, as the only sure source of societal survival. Oaks seems to suggest that not only is the lack of teaching about Christianity to blame, but that any other religion would be insufficient to teach students about “moral values.” What moral values is he referring to exactly? If the survival of society is threatened by university educations which fail to inculcate these moral values, what specifically is he referring to? Is he committing to a view that social survival is only possible where Christian moral values are taught?

On the heals of the Newsweek article mentioned above, which suggested that Harvard should include a more high-profile study of religion, dismissing the Harvard Divinity School as full of “believers,” Elder Oaks offers a critique from a different direction. While the specific claims of the Newsweek article are almost all suspect, from the characterization of the resources available to study religion at Harvard, to the details of the curricular issues at stake and administrative issues in making a department of religion at Harvard, the emphasis that Harvard students should study religion is something few could disagree with. But this is not what Oaks has in mind. For the author of the Newsweek article, it is knowledge about other religions that is key to social stability in our current world: “Any resolution of these conflicts will have to come from people who understand how religious belief and practice influence our world.”

Oaks, however, takes a different tack, suggesting that the study about religions is ultimately insufficient for the survival of society, and that such a stance constitutes a threat that can only be counterbalanced by the teaching of religion, if not in universities, than in churches.

It is interesting to contrast these two messages about how society will survive vis a vis religion. For the Newsweek article, knowing about religion, what motivates people, and an awareness of the values (“morals?”) of religious people is a necessary aspect of leadership in society. For Oaks, an awareness of these things is not valued at all since it implies a dangerous neutrality. Rather, it is living the moral values of Christianity that is necessary for the survival of society. Are such ways of seeing religion as incommensurate as both views suggest?

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Christopher

    Thanks for the report, TT. This is, as you note, very interesting. I think the view Elder Oaks articulated here–that the teaching and study of religion(s) is only beneficial inasmuch as it promotes “moral values”–is fairly common among Latter-day Saints at large. The only other rationalization for such study I regularly hear from the rank-and-file membership (and it seems they’re taking their talking points from church leaders like Elder Oaks on this) is to “defend the faith” against its critics.

    Like you, I’m interested in “the nostalgia for a time when Christian “religion” was taught, as the only sure source of societal survival.” I wonder (and perhaps you could clarify whether he addressed this specifically) if his lamentation is based on Harvard’s initially training Puritans ministers and theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries, and thus they’ve moved away from that sort of promotion of Christianity. I also wonder if the school’s status as a private university factors in at all in his feelings on the subject. Does he feel that Harvard, because it is a private university, should promote Christian values and morals? Would he argue that a state school also should actively do so?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris Henrichsen

    Sigh.

    That is all I have left.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Christopher

    Ahh, just noticed that you linked to the text of the talk. Looks like he did indeed address my first question, but not the second. This is the relevant quote, I think:

    Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion. With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best.

  • oudenos

    TT,

    I too have found the recent spate of polemical rhetoric against current cultural trends coming from Elder Oaks a bit disconcerting. It just doen’t seem productive when it comes to engaging with those outside the narrow LDS community and so I assume it is intended to excite those within that community.

    So since Elder Oaks’ polemicizes against the academy within the setting of Harvard, is he obliquely and maybe unwittingly jabbing at his Church hierarchical colleagues? Is striking out at Harvard for its refusal to teach moral values or whatever, while at Harvard, suggesting that Harvard’s MBA grads, law school grads, and business/org. behavior grads are educated in some sort of morally or ethically deficient manner?

    And I am not really all that thrilled about the notion of an invited guest speaker, who is brought in to elucidate the framework of LDS doctrine, taking advantage of the situation and firing off some barbed and unnecessary darts at the institution paying his honorarium and travel/room and board costs. I get that the academy is a place where space has been carved out for the exchange of varying opinions, arguments, and ideas, but I don’t see that space as meant for unsubstantiated polemics–there are plenty of other venues offering that.

    Anyhow, I think some of bits from the speech are regrettable, although I agree that they are kind of fascinating.

  • an attendee of the talk

    Oudenos, I was there, and while he lamented the lack of religion being taught at the university level, it was certainly nowhere near the focus of the speech, and didn’t feel like “darts” at the university. Additionally, I believe that his invitation was from the law school’s LDS student society, and that the university as a whole had very little to do with it (including paying for his trip).

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org matt b

    The thing is, some of what Oaks says here is absolutely correct. The American university has, generally speaking, moved from overt Protestant boosterism to a way of thinking that claims neutrality but actually presupposes secular ways of knowing. I’d even agree this is problematic, but not for the same reasons as Oaks. He dresses the situation up in culture war rhetoric, equating religion exclusively with ‘values’ (and probably Christian values, at TT points out) rather than with ways of gaining knowledge, and seems to imply a struggle between two conscious sides, and makes sweeping pronouncements about the fate of society. That’s the part that I can’t quite get on board with.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Thanks all for the comments.

    Christopher, he was certainly addressing the issue of religion in universities at large, and he did not engage in a specific critique of Harvard. At the same time, the well-known 1636 establishment of Harvard says:

    “One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

    It could be that Oaks’ nostalgia for a time when universities’ “founding purpose” was to “produce clergymen” (note the gender!) could have been an oblique reference to Harvard.

    Oudenos,
    I think that you raise an interesting point about the productivity of this kind of discourse. Perhaps it is my own nostalgia, but I seem to remember Pres. Hinkley having a special ability to acknowledge the complicatedness of cultural trends, even while taking a stand. In some ways, I think Hinkley and Obama shared a similar rhetorical trait of trying to balance divisions by actually acknowledging and hearing both sides.
    That said, I should clarify that this was not, as I understand it, an official “Harvard” event, but rather one sponsored by the HLS LDSSA. I doubt that the university provided funding for such an event. I should also clarify that I don’t think that Oaks necessarily had Harvard in mind (though it is possible) when he made those comments.

    Thanks “attendee” for the clarifications. Would you mind commenting on what the question and answer period was like afterward? What kinds of people asked questions and what were they?

    Matt,
    Thanks for your comment. I’d like to offer another reading of Oaks’ statement about the survival of society, not to contradict you, but rather to challenge my own reading of it. It could be that what Oaks meant by such a statement was that the mere abstract study about religion does not entail the kind of belief and commitment to it that is necessary for the survival of *religion.* Rather than suggesting that civilization is going to crumble because universities no longer preach Christianity, he may have been making a more modest claim that it is Christianity that will crumble. That is, one could propose that by “survival of society,” he meant “religious society.” In this way, there is a case to be made that if we are content with abstract study of religion without any commitment to personal belief and practice, soon there will be nothing left to study.
    I’m not sure exactly how to evaluate this more modest interpretation of what Oaks may be saying, or even if such a more modest reading is justified, but I thought it important to mention.

  • http://thegooddemocrat.wordpress.com Dan

    With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best. Some faculty and administrators are powerful contributors to the forces that are driving religion to the margins of American society.

    Why do our religious leaders make this argument? It’s just not true. Religion is not being driven to the margins of American society. For it to be driven to the “margins” of society, it would imply a minority status, and a shunned group. This is just simply not the case. Why do religious leaders make this argument?

  • an attendee of the talk

    Most of the questions were from non-members, and several were from students at the Harvard Divinity School. The Divinity School questions were mostly on religious theory, about knowing how the Church is true and similar topics. One question was about – I’m not kidding – whether or not Mormons believe in time travel because we believe God and Jesus have bodies and we respect science. Elder Oaks was kind of confused by that, and Sister Oaks had to try and explain the question to him (she said “I watch more movies than he does”) before he answered something along the lines of “As far as by “time travel” you mean that Jesus can appear to any person at any period in time, then yes.” Someone asked about the Southpark episode and he had no idea what they were talking about. Most of the questions had something to do with personal revelation, and their questions were all very respectful – there were no questions about prop 8, polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc by non-members.

    Then there were several questions by members, mostly about prop 8, which Elder Oaks basically responded that members need to pray about the issues for themselves, and that they can disagree with the church’s stance on this issue as long as they don’t make a big public issue out of it (he specifically referenced Sonya Johnson and the ERA), and that we respect and love all, and that those with homosexual friends or relatives should treat them with respect. This was kind of frustrating, because I felt it was inappropriate for members to use this forum to try and get Elder Oaks to say something controversial or make themselves feel better about this issue. One young woman from Taiwan or Thailand (it was a country that started with a T) asked whether she should tell her friends that she’s LDS or Mormon, and he said to tell them whatever as long as it gets the message of her beliefs across the best, which I thought was interesting since last I heard it was “say LDS not Mormon”. One member used the time to stand there for 10 minutes and tell his story about why he was there to see Elder Oaks, while those of us who were there with non-member friends tried to stop ourselves from beating our heads against the wall. He threw in a little question at the end, but there probably should have been someone monitoring the line and taking out all the members who didn’t have legitimate questions and just wanted a one on one moment with Elder Oaks.

    The questions and answers weren’t too earth shattering. They said they won’t be in the video that will be shown during General Conference or whenever unless the questioners gave permission, so I assume that most of them won’t be available. I can’t really remember all the questions, probably because most of the answers weren’t anything that a member wouldn’t already know.

  • g.wesley

    thanks for the post, tt.

    i read the talk and in some ways agree with the diagnosis of present-day value-free neutrality actually having a marginalizing effect on christianity.

    the marginalization does not concern me so much as the potential for chaos. witness the recent summum cases, in which the circuit court in denver overturned prior decisions in utah regarding equal rights for summum to put up monuments of its neo-egyptian hermetic maxims alongside monuments of the decalogue.

    when denver sided in favor of summum, this gave the infamous fred phelps of westborough baptist church legal grounds on which to force the city of casper, wyoming to allow him to set up an anti-gay monument celebrating the murder of matthew shepherd.

    the only way to stop phelps was for the supreme court to reverse the circuit court ruling in favor of summum. it looked like a victory for small town utah against liberal denver. but the reality is that conservative mormon interests and those of homosexuals happened to coincide.

  • Mark D.

    Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion.

    The great irony in this statement is the almost universal hostility the contemporary Church has for formal theology of any kind. No one needs a university to learn faith, repentance, and baptism.

    Universities have traditionally been very effective at conveying formal, theologically inspired approaches to everything from metaphysics to the law of war. The Catholics have this down to an art. But it is a little bit hard to do in a denomination that has an unremitting contemporary hostility to rational theology. The de facto attitude of the Church to the subject is that scholasticism is apostasy.

    As a consequence, (and due to various interesting historical factors), the condition so well described by Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind applies with double force. If you purposely maintain a theological black hole, it is not surprising if it doesn’t flower in art, literature, and scholarship.

  • john

    One has to wonder which is worse: An America that was animated by powerful forms of Protestantism and hostile to the LDS church, or an America that is not particularly religious, is apathetic, and in some ways hostile, to the LDS church? I think I see what Elder Oaks is getting at ( no Ivy League education here), but although I lament the treatment of religion by higher ed (and the media), I’m not sure a return to the religious atmosphere of yesteryear is possible or even desirable.

  • Michael

    Mark D.,

    I agree with your assessment and find it a very insightful analysis of church culture. I feel that we, as latter-day saints, treat scholarship as a negative to building faith and then lament when our youth go astray in their college years. If we only teach them simple platitudes laced with emotion when they are growing up, they will naturally view church teachings as items to minimize or castaway when they are faced with true scholarship in college. I believe the antidote to this is to emphasize both faith and reason in teaching the gospel combined with deep spiritual experiences in the home through true prayer and scripture study. Unfortunately, we try and keep the youth involved through social connections and emotional storytelling instead. These things are not lasting.

  • http://mormonphilosophyandtheology.wordpress.com Jacob B.

    “Many factors contribute to our people’s predominant shallowness on the subject of religion, but one of them is surely higher education’s general hostility or indifference to religion. Despite most colleges’ and universities’ founding purpose to produce clergymen and to educate in the truths taught in their chapels, most have now abandoned their role of teaching religion.”

    What is ironic about this is that the subject of religion as taught at the Church’s seminaries and institutes, and its school, BYU, is quite shallow; in many ways this educational aspect of the religious culture is hostile to the study of religion.

    Further, it’s not like the Church is encouraging young people to study religion at the schools who do include in in their curricula. Quite the opposite; many LDS people in my area, for example, have treated me with hostility and contempt for pursuing graduate studies in religion. We cannot expect the secular society at large to see the importance of religion when in important respects we don’t see it either.

  • Michael

    Amen to what Jacob said.

  • Mark D.

    Michael: If we only teach them simple platitudes laced with emotion when they are growing up…

    I think the Church teaches a lot more than simple platitudes to young people, but there are a number of serious problems. First, the approach to teaching in the Church is extraordinarily fideistic, in other words it is heavily leans to taking the teachings of church leaders on faith rather than teaching people why they are true.

    Faith, inspiration, etc, are extremely effective at teaching people the truth of the basic principles of the gospel – the sort one can test by personal experience. But at some point one runs into difficulties where only serious thought will suffice. And how can one be inspired about an idea that hasn’t yet crossed his mind?

    I think that one of the most unfortunate consequences of this bias (especially in young people) is a predominant legalism. The question surrounding too many things becomes not “is this the best thing to do”, but rather “is it legal?” – i.e. is this something the pertinent authorities will permit?

    You see this in the debate about caffeinated drinks, R-rated movies, and so on. On the borders, nobody really debates the the merits of the question, but rather the location of the line in the sand. Because no one is taught a substantive approach to how to determine what the merits are, on any but the most superficial level. That is where fideism falls flat on its face.

  • http://weightermatters.blogspot.com AHLDuke

    Elder Christofferson is visiting Duke Law School in a couple of weeks to give a lecture to the entire law school (and not simply at the invitation of the local LDSSA or LDS law students group). The topic of his lecture is more biographical (he is an alum and famously worked with the judge who preceded over the Watergate hearings) rather than being focused on LDS doctrine. At the same time, I cannot imagine that it will not come out somehow. Duke law students are a pretty liberal bunch (I am no longer a student there as of 2 years ago, but am getting fed information by friends who are), and I would be very surprised if Prop 8, etc. did not come up at least once.

    I wonder how GAs handle these occasions when speaking to mostly non-LDS people. It seems to me that it would pose a particular problem where their claims on deference from their listeners due to ecclesiastical authority (and the particular brand of uncritical deference that LDS GAs are accustomed to) are not longer operative. I have no doubt that these are highly intelligent, accomplished and capable individuals, but it concerns me in situations like the one Elder Christofferson will be in that they are not in the custom of being seriously challenged by people who are not frightened and submissive to their title.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Christopher

    Some of the questions from the Q&A were included the Deseret News’s coverage of the story: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700012474/Dont-marginalize-religion-Elder-Oaks-says-to-Harvard-law-students.html?pg=1

  • george

    Does Oaks mean to say out-loud that the Mormon Church is becoming alarmingly marginalized?

  • Steve M

    Oaks’ claim that institutions of higher education ought to be instilling religious values simply begs the question: “Whose values?” Impliedly, he universities have a responsibility to teach those values that resemble his own–if not uniquely LDS values, then at least conservative Christian values.

    I don’t see how this can be squared with universities’ responsibility to serve pluralistic student bodies. What makes Oaks’ particular brand of morality so special? What about the moral views of liberal Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or unbelievers? I don’t see how Oaks can realistically or reasonably argue that universities owe allegiance to his particular brand of morality, especially when they serve such a diverse population.

  • Steve M

    *Impliedly, he thinks universities have a responsibility . . .

  • Mark D.

    If you believe in moral realism, the fact value distinction is not as clear cut as it might otherwise appear.

    Once upon a time universities were convinced that certain moral propositions were actually true. Generally speaking, that is no longer the case, or we wouldn’t use such insipid terms as “value” in the first place.

    Either way the answer to the question of “whose values?” is those that academia can make a good case that they are not properly speaking “values” at all, but rather moral imperatives, at least when conditioned on certain widely held fundamental propositions (pain and suffering are bad, for example).

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    8 This is just simply not the case. Why do religious leaders make this argument? Because it is what they perceive from the media they watch. There is a general hostility to much of religion and religious claims on the part of large sections of the media. So not a shunning, but a definite marginalization is what they perceive. — see comment 10.

    Comment by an attendee of the talk — thanks for the comments.

  • Mark D.

    Does Oaks mean to say out-loud that the Mormon Church is becoming alarmingly marginalized?

    He didn’t say the Mormon Church but rather religion in general:

    With but few exceptions, colleges and universities have become value-free places where attitudes toward religion are neutral at best. Some faculty and administrators are powerful contributors to the forces that are driving religion to the margins of American society. Students and other religious people who believe in the living reality of God and moral absolutes are being marginalized.

    I don’t think he is right about “value free places” though. Universities are powerful advocates of all sorts of secular values, most of which there are an overwhelming consensus for, and some which are of course rather controversial.

  • Steve M

    Good point, Mark D. Oaks seems to be conflating religious neutrality with moral neutrality.

  • Owen

    I’m always a little surprised by arguments like this since as Mormons we believe there is so much of falsehood in the teachings of religion in general. Do we really think there is something good about people having faith in and basing their moral thinking on false gods?

    I personally find it very dangerous to be encouraging belief in obviously false ideas about reality. Even something as banal as young earth creationism I see as leading to moral lassitude–why try to make the world a better place if a wizard is going to wave his magic wand and make everything perfect someday?


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