A couple of weeks ago, CES Commissioner Clark Gilbert gave a speech at education week where he discussed BYU’s recent efforts to improve racial equity and belonging. While he said these efforts were important, he cautioned that “mimicking … the world is not the way to do it. The DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) programs in the world are not the way BYU should do it. We should find a gospel-centered approach.”
What is this “gospel-centered approach”? Well, Gilbert didn’t outline that in his speech or anywhere else. But the outlines of that approach seem to be emerging. In May, President Nelson gave a devotional where he emphasized that our identities as “a child of God, a child of the covenant, and a disciple of Jesus Christ” are more important than any other identity or label. Given that this is posted on the Office of Belonging’s homepage (and I’ve heard it reiterated now many times in Church meetings), it seems this is the direction that the Church is taking its DEI efforts.
While I agree that focusing on our identities as children of God is one helpful way to create love and understanding between different groups, I’m troubled by this direction for a several reasons.
First, substantively, I think it’s a poor approach to DEI. As many commenters noted a few weeks ago on my post about BYU removing LGBTQ-affinity group materials from freshman welcome bags, this seems to really just be a version of “All Lives Matter” or “I’m not racist I don’t see race / I’m colorblind.” And while “colorblind” was a popular approach to race in the 80’s and 90’s, more recent research and thinking suggests that it is actually counter-productive. Whatever scriptural or gospel support exists for this version of DEI, there is as much (or more) support for a proactively anti-racist approach (such as the anti-racism course that James Jones put together, which is more firmly rooted in gospel principles and scripture than most Gospel Doctrine lessons or sacrament meeting talks). And, let’s face it: we’ve been taught that we’re all children of God for our whole lives. It’s not making the race problem in our Church or at BYU go away. Instead, BYU has a serious (and potentially worsening) race problem.*
Second, it’s another example of Church authorities believing that their views on any given matter are more valid than experts in relevant fields. There is a sense among many Church members (including at the top) that priesthood leaders using the power of discernment can be right about things they know nothing about. Elder Packer was pretty notorious for hating on intellectuals and positing himself as someone who by virtue of the spirit could be right about anything–arguing that “the mantle is far, far [yes, he used two fars] than the intellect”. President Oaks likewise believes that all of the thoughts that enter his mind come straight from the Lord, and has cautioned against listening to secular experts. So much for “seek[ing] diligently … words of wisdom … out of the best books.”
Third, and most importantly, I’m troubled that this direction is putting prophetic imprimatur on what is actually just a secular idea. And not just any secular idea–a conservative secular idea. Rather than allowing Church members and BYU students / administrators to explore and debate different approaches to DEI on their merits, Gilbert and Nelson have now armed LDS conservatives with the ability to fire back at progressive anti-racist proponents with the argument that anti-racism is inconsistent with “gospel principles”. This is the same thing we’ve seen played out with patriarchy and other conservative principles where old, white, conservative men repackage their political ideologies as God’s will. It stifles fruitful discussions and progress. It actually does more harm than good. I’m sick of it.
- What do you make of Gilbert’s comments about DEI at BYU?
- What do you think would be a “gospel-centered” approach to DEI?
- Do you agree or disagree that the approach outlined by Nelson and the Office of Belonging tracks conservative ideologies, or do you think it’s uniquely gospel-inspired?
- Do you have other examples of Church leaders taking secular ideas and stamping a gospel label on them? Are you concerned that this will stifle productive discussion or am I over-thinking this?
*Not the focus of this post, but Nelson places “children of the covenant” as the second most important component of our identities (beating out “disciple of Jesus Christ”!). This is particularly hurtful to LGBTQ folks who will not be able to make temple covenants.