The Trouble with BYU’s Religious Education (Part II)

The previous post discussed two methodological problems with Religious Education that fostered the circumstances leading to Randy Bott’s troubling statements. In this post I will discuss what I see as the likely short-term response within RE. In the next post I will discuss my desired long-term response.

In the short-term, the Randy Bott situation will push RE professors toward what I’ll call an “orthodox professionalism.” 

Bott’s comments are a mark against not only RE but also against the University (and Mormonism) as a whole. The University will push those in RE to present themselves more professionally, which generally means that RE professors will be encouraged to only speak as experts in the fields in which they were trained. The sentiment of RE not being on par academically with the rest of the University has been building for quite some time; the Bott issue will add fuel to this fire. This pressure from the larger community in the University is what I mean by a push toward “professionalism.”

Professors in Religious Education will also come under closer scrutiny in terms of the things they teach in class and the things they say in public or put in writing. The Bott situation raises the question of how many students have heard him teach the things he said in the WaPo article. RE will work to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. I predict that there will be less tolerance of professors presenting views that students or the wider public might take as not in line with current Church teaching. This will entail a constriction toward the middle (a movement away from both ends of the liberal-conservative ideological spectrum). Writing or speaking about anything not clearly supported by “the brethren” will not be tolerated.

I doubt that this will lead to any dismissals (although it’s possible that a few may not be given Continuing Faculty Status—BYU’s version of tenure). Instead Religious Education professors (at least those with some kind of training in religious studies) will walk the fine line of orthodox professionalism by producing respectable scholarship (i.e., peer reviewed articles and books) on safe topics. So we can expect more scholarship on Ugaritic meal rites but not on the Documentary Hypothesis; more publications on narrative humor in the Testament of Abraham but not on the Book of Abraham.

In the classroom these professors will teach in a way that students will be less likely to complain that their faith has been challenged. These profs will handle this by citing current general authorities when articulating a point of belief, and supplementing this with a more rigorous (but non-threatening) historical narrative of the Bible and Doctrine and Covenants. This kind of historical approach seems to be the most allowable, in terms of rigor, and least threatening, in terms of faith.

My sense is that the next few years will be a difficult time for professors in Religious Education; especially for new hires, who will have to be vetted as able to walk the line of orthodox professionalism before they can be hired.

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