BYU Religion’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hiring Policy

The Church Education System has just finalized new hiring standards for the BYUs’ religion departments. The new standards have a laudable purpose: they mean to “strengthen[] the faith and deepen[] the conviction” of students at the BYUs. Unfortunately, the new hiring standards will do just the opposite: they undermine the legitimacy and power of the church.

Before I go into that, though, a couple caveats: first, the document is real. Bruce Hafen referred to it a year and a half ago in an address to BYU’s religion faculty. But it hasn’t been publicly released. The linked PDF is made up of screenshots. But I have been assured by multiple people that I trust that it is real.

Second, yes, it’s dated a year and a half ago. I have similar confirmation from friends that, while it has existed since June 2019, it has just been implemented. Partly that because, in light of the pandemic, there really hasn’t been any hiring in a year and a half. Partly it’s because it took that much time to figure out how to implement it.

So what’s part of this policy is so terrible? The part that leaps out to me is this, on page 2 of the document: “The candidate demonstrates unusual potential for excellent teaching of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This will often, but not always, be demonstrated by teaching experience in religious education in CES.” (Emphasis added.)

When I read this it screams out to me: “WE DON’T BELIEVE THAT OUR RELIGION STANDS UP TO ACADEMIC SCRUTINY!” And that strikes me as a bad message, both pedagogically and pastorally.

I don’t mean to discount the many dedicated CES educators. I assume that many, and perhaps most, have deep and abiding testimonies and are excellent and dedicated teachers.

Traditionally, however, they don’t have academic training in religion or scripture. They’re not engaged in the academic discussions and debates of the day. And they shouldn’t be teaching (required) university courses that provide college credit. 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,

I’d say the same thing about me, for what it’s worth. I have extensive training, experience, and publication in the area of tax law. I’m really good at what I do. But my expertise in my field doesn’t qualify me to teach a college-level class on the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other religious topics (other than, for example, tax and state regulation of churches, which ifall entirely within my expertise).

And I want to emphasize the pastoral disservice this does to our young adults. When we tell them that our religion isn’t worthy of in-depth study, that it’s not rigorous and not intellectually worth of sustained study, we don’t give them the tools to engage a world that doesn’t embrace their peculiar beliefs. We tell them that their religious beliefs aren’t intellectually defensible. We don’t equip them with the tools for a life-long engagement with the church. We send them a terrible message.

(We also limit the potential diversity of BYU religion professors. I don’t know the demographics of CES instructors but it’s been less than a decade since CES started allowing women with children at home to have paid positions. So I imagine the pipeline of women who would meet the CES-employment requirement is still slim. Similarly, the various BYU religious departments are overwhelmingly white; I imagine that CES doesn’t have a huge pipeline of teachers of color.)

Now, this policy is clearly not absolute. It says that CES experience is often, but not always, prerequisite for being hired. For me, I’d read that to mean that that at most, at most it shouldn’t increase its CES hiring. But mine would be a fairly aggressive interpretation and would require hiring committees that actively wanted to recruit Ph.D.s without CES experience. Basically, this forces someone who wants to hire subject-matter experts to work harder to justify the hire, while it makes it easier to hire from CES.

And, like I said, that’s bad for BYU students. It’s bad academically but it’s also bad pastorally, undermining claims that our religion stands up to robust intellectual inquiry.


  1. Amen

  2. Sam, I think you are unnecessarily catastrophizing what this hiring policy says. Universities preferring to hire teachers with teaching experience in the kind of teaching the hiring department has in mind is pretty normal. (Assigning faculty some responsibility for outreach, which is what publishing for an audience of active members, as discussed elsewhere in the new policy, amounts to, alongside teaching/research/service is also quite normal.)

    I’m in favor of PhDs and expertise as much as anyone (although I don’t think it’s at all clear what constitutes expertise for teaching Book of Mormon; a lot of fields could be appropriate – let alone a course like “The Eternal Family”). Really the question is: what constitutes CES experience? It seems like a lot of Religious Education faculty have been hired after teaching on a visiting appointment. Would that still qualify? Is there such a thing as adjuncting an Institute class, and would that qualify? If my field was religion and I was looking to teach at BYU at some point, that’s what I would want to know.

    So I would drop the boldface, red letter font, and the exclamation marks. BYU wants its teachers of devotional courses to have experience with devotional teaching, and this is not exactly cause for alarm. Personally I’d like my kids to have teachers with some broader academic qualifications, but if their teacher for “Foundations of the Restoration” doesn’t have a PhD in Biblical Studies, I think we’ll manage.

  3. Jonathan, I agree that the policy, as stated, doesn’t bind the BYUs’ hiring hands. I say as much in the post (though admittedly you have to deal with a lot of my quick-and-dirty prose to get there).

    But also, like I said, this puts an (unnecessary) impediment in the way of hiring qualified professors. I sincerely doubt the BYUs were hiring people incapable of devotional teaching before, whether their hires came from CES employment or PhD programs. And honestly, if CES people have relevant qualifications, the question largely becomes moot.

    Also, I’d be less exercised if religion classes were, like Institutes at other universities, an optional extracurricular choice for students. (I mean, being housed within the university I’d prefer academic qualifications, but whatever.) But to the extent that they’re required courses–and, unless something has significantly changed in the decades since I graduated, they’re required courses–this does a deep disservice and undercuts claims that Mormonism is worthy of, and capable of standing up to, academic scrutiny.

  4. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I don’t think this screams “WE DON’T BELIEVE THAT OUR RELIGION STANDS UP TO ACADEMIC SCRUTINY!” I believe it screams “We’re not interested in applying academic scrutiny to our religion!” BYU seems to only want students to approach their religion from a devotional perspective. What they consistently fail to recognize is that a scholarly approach to Mormonism can lead to very devotional outcomes, while failing to expose students to scholarly approaches sets them up for future devastating outcomes. Actually, I guess that suggests that BYU doesn’t believe their religion can stand up to academic scrutiny. Nevermind.

  5. If only text in comments could also be red, Turtle. I think you’re absolutely right.

  6. This bit is also of interest: “The candidate demonstrates unusual potential for excellent teaching of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
    My experience with the BYU religion department is decades old, so largely irrelevant, but the problems I saw have continued to at least some extent through the Randy Bott debacle. A major problem is determining what constitutes “excellent teaching”. I doubt the administration’s view of that would match mine. I experienced what I would call abominable teaching from a number of popular and in-some-circles respected BYU religion teachers. I have seen and heard of excellent and horrible seminary and institute teachers.
    Perhaps the vagueness of the “excellent teaching” standard is intentional. But it may also function as a negative review of applicants from CES who were passed over for positions at BYU for whatever reasons, including nepotism, personal friendship, whatever.

    But I would agree with Jonathan that the function of the BYU religion departments is mostly devotional and not academic. It should probably be recognized as such. Presenting them as if they were academic departments teaching serious historical or theological content is problematic. And yet I agree with Sam that, at least for some (once including me), the qualification and style of the religion department teachers we encountered was very bad pastorally. I’ve heard at least one friend say that the thing about higher education most damaging to his/her testimony of the restored gospel was the BYU religion department. I hope it’s improved since those experiences, but part of the problem those decades ago was exactly what this policy promotes: hiring from the pool of experienced seminary and institute teachers.

  7. I have Jesuit envy.

  8. A double amen. As Wondering suggests, the school should stop pretending it teaches religion in the academic sense of the term and simply rename this group the Department of Correlated Devotional Instruction.

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    No surprise here. The BYU religion department has long been a world unto itself, plays by its own set of rules, and is not considered peer to any of BYU’s secular academic departments. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone; it exists mainly for its own sake. While I agree that turning inward and propping up the echo chamber is academically unsound, for them it is a survival strategy.

    For better or worse, BYU religion faculty (and by extension, all full-time CES instructors) are virtually unemployable in any other worthwhile enterprise, academically or otherwise. No other institution outside of those owned by the Church are unlikely to take their work seriously, let alone hire them. I think they often take themselves too seriously, but they do it because if they don’t, no one else will.

  10. It seems to me that there are two issues: the first is a concern about dumbing down teaching by deprioritizing academic credentials and experience and prioritizing devotional teaching, and that’s the one that gets the most attention, but I think at least equally problematic is the underlying assumption that experience teaching in CES is an indicator of the kind of devotional teaching ability that will actually accomplish the goal of preserving and strengthening students’ faith. My own (admittedly anecdotal) experience at BYU with career CES teachers as compared to professors with a substantive academic degree suggests that CES experience is a very unreliable proxy for ability to teach the gospel in a way that strengthens faith against the most relevant challenges.

  11. Sriously? Cherry-picking a single phrase out of a 2.5 page document and then making the apocalyptic interpretory leap that “WE DON’T BELIEVE THAT OUR RELIGION STANDS UP TO ACADEMIC SCRUTINY!” doesn’t seem to hold up to academic scrutiny.

  12. Adam, let’s assume you’re right and that my analysis doesn’t hold up to some type of academic scrutiny. I’d respond: so what? I’m not a university, I’m not teaching courses in Interpretation and Analysis of University Hiring Policies. I’m a blogger on a Mormon blog who put together a post after breakfast and before starting work.

    That is a different type of inquiry than a university that offers courses–for academic credit–to students, a university that purports to engage with questions of religion. Where a blogger’s output certainly isn’t subject to a standard of academic scrutiny, a subject taught at the university level is.

    FWIW, you’re wrong that I’m cherry-picking anything. I’m looking at a substantive part of a 2.5-page policy document, one of very few provisions with concrete application. And that concrete application isn’t good for the BYUs or for their students.

  13. And Jared, I didn’t want to go into questions of whether teaching at CES was a good proxy for ability to teach the gospel. My anecdotal–and significantly out-of-date–experience corresponds with yours, but it is anecdotal. Given that I only took 7 religion classes at BYU–6 of which were taught by CES ranks–I don’t have a representative sample. That said, I totally agree–I don’t think CES experience corresponds, positively or negatively, with teaching ability.

  14. your food allergy is real says:

    Looking at their website, it appears there are 2 departments under “Religious Education.” one is called Ancient Scripture, the other called Church History and Doctrine. Does the above apply to both departments? Is the Ancient Scripture department supposed to be more academic, and the other one more devotional?

  15. Another way to look at is is to compare it to a hypothetical Department of Literature that employed both PhDs (to teach literary analysis and Shakespeare) and MFAs or successful authors (to teach creative writing). It wouldn’t be inconceivable for the department to decide it wanted to shift direction and primarily hire experienced practitioners instead of literary scholars, especially if it planned to offer more sections of creative writing and less Shakespeare. That decision would have real and unfortunate consequences for a literary scholar who had hoped to get a job in that department, but the decision would not be unprecedented, or any kind of statement about its academic defensibility.

    In general I think it would be beneficial for Religious Education faculty (like any faculty) to be academically qualified and to engage in some amount of outward-facing scholarship. An awareness of broader issues and an understanding for how research gets made can be quite important for both teaching and outreach. Usually the way to resolve the dual demands is qualification creep: demand both advanced degrees and specialized teaching experience of applicants. But qualification creep too comes with a cost.

  16. Jonathan, I think that’s fair analysis. But it’s easy enough to figure out what “MFA in literature” or “successful author” means. I mean, my wife studied dance in New York undergrad and a number of her professors had been professional dancers in major New York companies. That may or may not mean that they’re good teachers, but they were certainly talented and experienced dancers.

    I don’t think teaching in CES functions in that same way, though. (In fact, I’m not sure what a decent proxy would be.) So at best, they’ve chosen a proxy that doesn’t seem likely to be correlated to teaching an academic course for university credit at a pretty solid research university.

    Again, my objections would be significantly reduced if the courses weren’t offered for academic credit or weren’t required. I still think they wouldn’t provide real value without an educated and informed knowledge of academic religion, offering religion classes on the same terms as you offer like Student Development classes would be absolutely just fine (and may well have value on its own terms).

  17. I’m afraid that at this time, there are relatively few church members who approach scripture and church history outside of limited devotional readings. Policies such as the one in the post will only serve to continue the trend, even among our academically gifted and future professionals.

    I honestly don’t understand the need for the reductionist approach to teaching our religion that we are seeing in CES and at BYU. In spite of real advances over the last decades, such as the Joseph Smith Papers and the Gospel topics essays, it seems we are spinning our wheels. I wish I was wrong, but I believe that this approach only developed because at least some within CES lack conviction that the teachings of the Restoration can stand academically alongside those of other faiths and ideologies.

  18. I took 5 religion classes at BYU and while two were snoozers, the other three were well taught, interesting, educational and uplifting. I am glad I took them. I am not, however, under any delusion that any of them rose to the level of even the easiest general education class I took. Class discussions were essentially very good gospel doctrine lessons, and out of class time was spent reading the scriptures (which I should have been doing anyway, though I probably wouldn’t have) and some manuals that were just collections of apostle quotes about those verses. The general opinion of the student body was that religion courses could be a good spiritual experience, but at the same time no one was happy if they had a religion professor that seemed to think that their class should be as challenging and time consuming as all the “real” classes we were taking.

    BYU should have an institute program like many other universities have. Obviously, it would be much bigger, but the majority of the religion courses could move over there. Like at other universities, they should encourage all students to be enrolled in an institute class. They can still house it in the same buildings they use for the religion department. At the same time, they should make a real religion department. I’m sure all the structure and people for it is already partly in place, it’s just so diluted by the fluff that most of the students don’t notice it. Rather than seven 2 credit hour classes of Sunday School, require students to take 2 or 3 classes that are worthy of being part of a university. Surely there are many university level classes on the bible being taught out there that we can mirror.

    With a system like that, everyone wins, right? Students get a more serious religious education. Students can still take all the same religion classes they have been, and those are not without value. Instructors can still teach classes, both the institute ones and the university ones, so not too many people need to lose a job. (Total attendance will probably drop somewhat as the institute classes won’t be required for a degree.)

  19. One of the most alarming things to me as a student at BYU was when I discovered that the Religion classes were not academic classes, and that most of the credits would not be recognized at another university. I had a clutch of panic thinking that maybe my degree wasn’t actually legitimate or that having attended BYU would throw my credentials into question. I did not find that to be the case on the whole, thankfully, but I completely agree with Sam, Turtle, and the others who feel that this looks like a vote of no confidence on Mormonism holding up to academic scrutiny. The subsequent addition of nothingburger classes like The Eternal Family only cements that perception.

    I was incredibly disappointed with the academic quality on offer from the RelEd dept, even when I had teachers I enjoyed from a pastoral perspective. I also found it shocking (and this was in the 80s, mind you) that there was (at that time) only one woman teaching in the department. There were not infrequent sexist comments and jokes made by the teachers I had. This change is only a change in that it’s steering into the worst impulses of the Religion Dept more deliberately.

    The solution would be quite easy. Simply convert the entire “Religious Education” department into a non-academic Institute just like at non-LDS schools like ASU (Forks up!) and if you must (because *sigh* I know BYU believes it must dictate exactly how one lives one’s religious life), I guess require being enrolled in Institute.

  20. keepapitchinin says:

    I know three professors in RelEd whom I wish could teach fully academic courses in Ancient Scripture and/or Church History. In their cases, I have no doubt whatsoever that their academic courses would also be devotional. I don’t know how much of an exception to the rule they are; they’re just the ones I happen to know. In other words, I don’t think an academic approach is a death knell for faith. I wish I had access to such teachers myself, for that dimension of religious study that is completely absent from devotional teaching in our wards. I don’t see any value in transferring our ho-hum ward experiences to the BYU classroom,

    We deserve to have academic approaches to religion available to us, and if not at BYU, where?

  21. Bro. Jones says:

    Woohoo, another reason not to send my kids to BYU.

  22. I agree, keepa. Academic rigor is absolutely not antithetical to faith. And by pitting the two against each other, CES suggests that they are (in many cases, I suspect, to the detriment of faith).

  23. Clark,
    I like your middle ground. My father taught for CES in the 70’s-90’s.

    I am going to look at this a little differently. My dad was a CES instructor for 35 years and had a PhD in The History and Philosophy of Religion, so he was trained and a good teacher as well. But, I am wondering if they are having a hard time finding CES teachers to teach institute outside of Utah and this is a hint that if you want to teach at BYU, you better teach some Institute with CES. Along with that, a number of Institute teachers do so while working on their PhDs. It does not become a full-time gig, but they do to help make ends meet. I believe Phillip Barlow taught Institute while at Harvard.

    With all that, I do wish the church would tighten its religion program. It is a shame that a religious school like BYU doesn’t even offer a degree in religion. That does not look like confidence to other religious schools out there.

  24. When I was an undergrad at BYU the possibility of a student asking “Did any of this stuff actually happen” in BoM class was remote. Not so today. Former CES instructors can bear testimony in affirmation. A bit trickier for a scholar.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    This war was already raging 40 years ago. I know, because exactly 40 years ago I was TA to a religion prof (on the relevant degree side). I remember great concern among that group over the growing incursion of CES personnel with degrees in instructional technology or whatever. They would get together clandestinely to plot strategy. After at least 40 years of struggle, they finally lost, pretty definitively.

  26. Truckers Atlas says:

    Sam, let me first say I’ve come to appreciate your posts the last few months for their willingness to confront certain issues in a very direct, pragmatic way.

    I boil down the thinking of the Religion Dept. folks and commenters like Jonathan Green as, “When it comes to a BYU New Testament class, being a good enough teacher can overcome any deficiencies in academic credentials re: church history, biblical scholarship, etc.”

    But is it really so hard for the department to find skilled religion teachers with respected academic credentials that relate to their course material? Probably not. On the other hand, I bet it actually is quite difficult for a “RelEd” hiring committee to find a man (they don’t seem super keen on the notion of a female professor over there) who is engaging in the classroom, capable of publishing research in outside publications and presses, and who possesses the limited intellectual curiosity of, say, Brad Wilcox.

    For example, when I wasn’t sleeping through Spencer Fluhman’s Doctrine and Covenants class (it was an 8:00 AM class so I throw myself a bone), I found the course to be the single example during my BYU experience of just how enjoyable a religion course could be when taught by a fun, nuanced person who was also an actual scholar (see: published and capable of having a conversation with an outside academic).

  27. This was brought on by the very people you defend, Sam. They were going on about how bracketing was a necessary component of good religious scholarship (as you have defined it) and it appears as though the Brethren took them at their word. To be learned is good, but if you want to go on about how you must bracket truth claims to engage in serious scholarship don’t be surprised if you are replaced with people teaching these classes who are not ashamed to unbracket and accept the doctrine.

    It isn’t that they are against scholarship. After all, I doubt you could seriously argue that Nibley and his extensive scholarship would have little trouble getting a job a BYU — because he was unapologetic about his apologetics (to turn a phrase). Teachers of undergraduate religion who want to spend their time discussing minutia while staying away from central issues of faith (or even disparaging faith) are useless in that setting. Good for BYU.

  28. You don’t have to be fundamentalist and anti-intellectual to favor devotional-type religious instruction. Unfortunately, anti-intellectual sentiment is strong in the CES and in the BYUs’ religion departments. That’s the source of the problem. It’s not that these folks think that the faith can’t withstand academic inquiry, it’s that they’re suspicious of academic inquiry per se. Intellectual work in general, in any field, is potentially a threat to faith. It follows that it’s a mistake to invite intellectual work into the inner sanctum of religious education at all.

    Of course, not everyone in the religion departments thinks this way. There are quite a few genuine, committed, faithful scholars there too. So there’s a deep cleavage that runs all the way down. In fact, the cleavage even runs through the fundamentalists themselves, giving them a kind of split identity. Being part of a full-fledged college in an academic institution, they have to pose as scholars. That’s how they qualify for the prestige and the money that come with teaching as a professor at a university. On the other hand, they have to protect their flanks by crafting policies like the one that Sam points to. The policy gives a nod to scholarship, but makes scholarship clearly subordinate to teaching. Because the anti-intellectual strain of the CES has dominated the religion departments for so long, this type of policy effectively gives primacy to the fundamentalist approach.

    This is a tragedy, largely for the reasons that Jonathan Green points to. It doesn’t have to be this way. Wonderful devotional instruction can exist alongside wonderful, faithful, challenging scholarship. These things can strengthen each other. It’s just far harder to make that happen at the BYUs than it should be. Some teachers are doing great things in religious education there, but they’re doing it against the run of play, so to speak.

  29. Jonathan, I’m afraid your creating a straw argument (or, rather, a number of them here), given that I’m not defending any particular people and, to the best of my knowledge, there aren’t serious arguments going on about bracketing. As Truckers and Loursat and other point out, faith doesn’t stand in contrast or opposition to knowledge or vice versa. But if the hiring position of the various BYUs’ religion departments assumes they do, that’s bad for the institutions and for the students.

  30. Sam, I would include a link to a talk from Elder Holland that I think would be worth reading. Particularly the point of his call with then-Commissioner Maxwell. I won’t make arguments, here, as you perceived what I was saying above as a straw-man. But I think there is a lesson to be gained if you will look for it.

    Click to access 2018-Maxwell-Institute-Annual-Report-small.pdf

    The place I would direct you to is page 12 and it might give insight into what is going on and why.

  31. Wait — scholarship = minutia and avoiding issues of faith? I think not.

  32. “Wait — scholarship = minutia and avoiding issues of faith? I think not.”

    Nope. Read the entire comment — that phrase you pulled is clearly about those engaged in bracketing. In fact, just two lines above I stated:

    “It isn’t that they are against scholarship.”

    I then, for good measure, included an example of someone who engaged in scholarship that would be welcomed. No honest reading of my comment could conclude that I was saying that I was equating scholarship with minutia and avoiding issues of faith. For any sort of rational discussion to happen (maybe asking too much online, I know) both sides have to fairly engage the arguments of the other.

  33. JimmytheDar says:

    Sam, frankly, as a fellow lawyer, I’m surprised that you think the church does or can stand up to academic scrutiny. It has undoubted, profound benefit in the lives of its adherents, but the mental gymnastics required to support its truth claims from an academic perspective would be worthy of gold at the Fairytales are True Olympics…

  34. Clearly, Terryl Givens was not consulted to develop the new hiring qualifications for the department.

  35. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think I had a religion class with a CES person when I was an undergrad. CES people in Religious Ed was still a newish phenomenon. My profs were either Rel Ed or profs from other departments slumming it. The Rel Ed profs were all great, except for one guy who taught NT, but he was really old and on the verge of retirement. He was terrible. The profs from other departments were basically teaching at a Sunday School level.

    I had very good experiences with CES people here in Illinois, but I always suspected part of that was the autonomy they had being far removed from the mother ship. And it has been probably a couple of decades since we had full time CES people in the area.

  36. It would seem that the time is right for the Church to privatize BYU, just like they privatized their medical institutions. Currently, the Honor Code is a continuing disaster, the police department is struggling, the devotional component of the religion department is a mess, allegations of discrimination by students and faculty of color, etc.

    Devotional (doctrinal and inoculation) religion classes should move off campus into a separate Institute like at other universities. The Church could then hire whomever they want to teach these devotional classes. And the grades from these classes wouldn’t show up on a university transcript.

    The Church could grant scholarships based on need and qualifications to the new university. It could take the money saved by extricating itself from the BYU morass, and use it to fund scholarships. Maybe scholarships to any university.

    The way BYU is currently configured, it provides a subsidy to middle class Americans. But half the Church membership now lives in developing countries. How can the Church better serve these members? General scholarship would be a step in the right direction. Apparently, there are few students and faculty of color at BYU.

  37. There’s an aspect of this religion department hiring that I’d like to understand better. Most of the discussion centers on teaching and suggests a devotional vs academic divide. I’m listening.
    But I also have a sense that the LDS community at large accords special status to BYU religion faculty, as though their writings whether devotional or academic have a “church approved” overlay, a Mormon imprimatur. I wonder if I’m making it up? If there is something to that observation, I wonder whether the hiring practices are meant to screen with that quasi-authority in mind?

    For what it’s worth, and to tie to Sam’s personal experience a little closer, I’m aware that these questions are asked and considered about academics in religion and theology at Catholic schools, and in different places about academics in religion and theology at Evangelical Christian schools.

  38. Nope

  39. Oops, I apologize — my previous burp is not an answer to your question Christian. Good questions; hope someone can weigh in.

  40. Trucker Atlas: It would be more accurate to say that good teaching in introductory-level college courses outweighs the specialized knowledge and experience conveyed by a PhD, and to judge by the hiring of part-time instructors and full-time lecturers with MAs to teach those courses at the vast majority of schools in nearly every discipline, this view seems to be nearly universal. That’s not a comment on the validity of those introductory 101-202 courses. They can be still useful or important, but in practice there’s little reluctance to put someone with an MA in those classrooms. (Or less; the department head who offered me a crummy stipend to teach a summer course while mentioning that there was someone with a BA who could teach it if I wasn’t interested – and I wasn’t – was at a state flagship.) I like to think a PhD is useful even for teaching 101, but a lot of subjects get taught by people without one, and BYU Religious Education isn’t alone in that.

    The 101-202 comparison might be helpful. If you think of BYU religion courses as something like an introductory sequence of lower-level classes, it makes administrative sense to hire people primarily for teaching, give them a higher teaching load, and make everything else a lower priority, especially for a set of courses required of all students but not part of any major program. (No disrespect to 101-202; I’ve been the guy teaching a lot of 101, and it’s amazing to see what students can learn in a semester.) Meanwhile, it can be incredibly frustrating for faculty to see the intellectual and disciplinary potential for courses that aim higher or add up to a solid academic program, and to keep pointing out that there are qualified faculty and interested students and really interesting classes that would get healthy enrollment, and to find no administrative support for that at all. (I’ve been that guy, too.)

    It’s entirely reasonable to believe that it would be better to make some of BYU’s religion classes closer to advanced coursework, and I might not even disagree with every proposal for that. But my point is that those are very normal kinds of curriculum discussions to have at universities and introductory sequences can still be useful and valid, if that’s what an institution decides what it wants to offer. (Administrative decisions such as this one can also come at a high personal price for people whose qualifications are no longer needed, however.)

    (Also, in case there’s any confusion, I’m not “Jonathan” also posting above. I don’t mean to agree or disagree with what he’s saying – I downloaded the PDF he linked to and read the page he cited, but I can’t figure out what his argument is. Maybe he could spell it out for us?)

  41. Christian: I went to Catholic School from grade 2 through High school. Many of my teachers were nuns, monks, former monks, and not academically trained. Our classes were much more focused on praxis and indoctrination (in a positive way) than history or theology. We learned Social Justice (I and our study of the bible was coupled with Scott Peck’s “The Road less Traveled” and other texts. I think this policy indicates a similar concept here, that the religion classes at BYU are for praxis and indoctrination first and foremost.

    Sam, my concern with your position is I don’t know what to do with it. You discount yourself as qualified with your JD. Do you discount educators like Joseph Spencer because his PHD is in Philosophy and not History? What PHDs are qualified to teach which classes? Terryl Givens PHD is in comparative literature, is that ok? What qualifications do you feel are needed to teach “missionary prep” or “jesus christ and the everlasting gospel”?

  42. Jonathan (Not Green) says:

    “Also, in case there’s any confusion, I’m not “Jonathan” also posting above.”

    Can confirm. :)

    Also, the point is that Elder Holland was in the position of having Ivy League credentials (including a Ph.D. from Yale) and yet his discussions with Elder Maxwell (along with revelation, as he describes it) directed him that the better use of that education was within the CES environment. He took that route — eventually replacing the former CES director (Elder Maxwell).

    I expect you will have a hard time convincing a Yale Ph.D. who chose the CES direction as the better choice that others who take the CES route are inferior scholars. And there is the fact that at least in Elder Holland’s case the Lord directed a future apostle that going the CES route was a better route than going the traditional academic route. While there are no firm conclusions that we can draw from that it does provide some indication that the Lord doesn’t see the CES program as inferior to the academic route, either.

  43. Jonathan Green, I’m actually totally comfortable with your comparison to introductory level classes up to a certain level. Like, I don’t think that 7 required courses should be introductory; two, though? Sure. Even still, the instructors in introductory-level courses have MAs in the relevant subject, right? So go with that.

    Matt W., there’s a difference between grade school instruction and college-level instruction. I teach at a Jesuit school and just took a look at the full-time faculty in our theology department. Almost every one has a PhD in a relevant topic. (At least one has a degree I don’t recognize, but it’s from Italy and it looks to be the equivalent of a PhD in the U.S.)

    Re: Dr. Spencer: I’m not sure why you think he should have a degree in history. His research, at least, seems to focus on the philosophy of scripture so it seems directly on point.

    Dr. Givens? I have no idea. His professional focus has been literature afaik. I don’t know that I prefer loaning out like that, but I don’t know that it’s entirely irrelevant.

    That said, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t love Dr. Givens teaching a class on the Old Testament or Dr. Spencer teaching on ancient Near East languages and literature. I don’t think either of those are in their particular wheelhouses (though I could be wrong–I frankly don’t follow either of them closely).

  44. My experience with BYU’s religion department is dated. I was a student there some 30 years ago. I had the pleasure of taking Stephen E. Robinson his second year at BYU. It was my sophomore year. His class was like a revelation. He held a Ph.D. in ancient scripture from Duke University and his class was both devotional and academic—I always felt it was a nice balance. But there was certainly much more meat on the bone in his class compared to the classes I took as a freshman from seminary teachers (CES religion faculty). Most people know Robison from his wildly popular book, Believing Christ. However, to see him toggle between ancient Greek and Aramaic to make a teaching point was strong sauce. His classes took work too–no automatic A.

    After a year of New Testament from Robison, I started scrutinizing the religion faculty from whom I took courses. Roger Keller’s World Religions. Dong Sull Choi’s History of Christianity. Two of the best classes I took from the religion department. (Many of the more traditional classes I took are completely unmemorable to me.) Both Keller and Choi were converts and both came from more traditional academic backgrounds. (Choi would complain that BYU wouldn’t accept his doctorate from a top university in Korea so he earned another Ph.D. at BYU.) Keller, who had been a minister in a protestant sect before his conversion, didn’t teach powder puff courses. When you took him you knew you were signing up for some rigor.

    I simply don’t understand the bias toward CES educators. Many of the greatest teachers at BYU in my generation were both devotional and academic. Truman Madsen, Hugh Nibley (although retired by the time I was a student), Eugene England, Jim Faulconer all come to mind (whom I think is still teaching). Madsen and Faulconer (Philosophy) and England (English) were not religion faculty, but show you don’t have to be a religion teacher to leave a profound imprint for good on the testimonies of students.

    The religion department hiring policy signals a concerning turn, and saddens me. I have pre-college teens who are extremely bright and well read. For many other reasons their interest in BYU is tepid. This, I’m afraid, would further turn them off. (Their biggest complaint is that high school seminary is too simple and elementary, and that “getting emotional everyday doesn’t help my testimony, but learning does, and answering hard questions does” as they have shared with me.

  45. Mack Turtle, you stated the following: “BYU seems to only want students to approach their religion from a devotional perspective. ” Let’s expand that idea to its logical conclusion…

    BYU only wants students who approach their entire education experience at BYU as devotees to the Church. Don’t enter BYU with anything less than a solid testimony. Don’t question the Church. Don’t have doubts about truth claims or history. BYU does not view itself as a place where these issues can be dealt with or resolved. BYU views itself as a place where your pre-conceived world view is confirmed and supported.

    BYU isn’t looking for works in progress or projects. It’s looking for future Church leadership. And it figures that if a kid hasn’t bothered to attend four years of seminary, that kid doesn’t need to catch up at BYU.

    Finally, shame on you if you enter BYU with a testimony and then begin to have doubts once you’re there. Be careful who you tell. You might get a cool understanding bishop, you might not. The Standards Office views your modified testimony as a violation of the Honor Code if that includes anything less than regular attendance in a BYU LDS ward. There’s an entire organization (Free BYU) that deals with this.

    Some of you seem to think that the hiring practices of the BYU Religion Department are about that department. And what I’m telling you is that these hiring practices are about the pervasive compliance culture at BYU. BYU has it’s own version of political correctness and cancel culture.

  46. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I have a PhD, and teach, and it’s worth noting that qualification to teach college courses is not simply a matter of having a PhD. Getting that degree required that I specialize in a sub-field of my discipline, and I am particularly qualified to teach courses in that area. I can also teach some introductory-level courses, or 200-level in some areas that touch upon my research interests, as well as research methods courses. But there are courses offered in our department that I would have no business teaching. Faculty with a PhD in religious studies will be in a similar situation. Adequately teaching a course on the Old Testament requires a very specific knowledge, as with NT or ancient languages. It’s a big field, and nobody has the qualifications to teach all areas. CES faculty at BYU simply won’t have specialized knowledge, born of years or focused study, research, and publication. A serious department of religious studies would be recruiting and hiring people with not just PhDs in religious studies, but with expertise in areas that need to be taught. You can’t just turn this over to CES faculty with generalized knowledge. That BYU doesn’t take this seriously is an indication of how serious they are about producing graduates with a robust understanding of mormon, or other, religion.

  47. Noah Lines says:

    Coming from a current BYU student, this is actually a big deal among the student population. Most religion courses I have taken are largely devotional. When it’s the Book of Mormon, a more devotionally structured course makes sense; but when it’s a more rigorous course like World Religions or Isaiah, a more academic approach is much more beneficial, especially in a college setting. That’s not to say that a devotional style isn’t appreciated, but it is not what most students are looking for at a university level.

  48. I am firmly in Camp Brunson. Perhaps it is my MA in Comp Lit that has sown the seeds of my faith crisis but there is also the problem of our sacred cows i.e. Book of Mormon chiasmus or Book of Abraham and the ongoing restoration (I mean internet deconstruction) of things we once held dear.

    I have signaled to my TBM wife that I’m not really interested in Come Follow Me but we have agreed to watch the Come Follow Up program on byutv hosted by two PhDs on the religion faculty. They did a zoom call with Bushman which was cool but then they also have guest “experts” like Tad Callister and Sister Oscarson.

    Once in ward council no one understood my comment about Sunday School that we are teaching the Bible through a Mormon lens and for that reason, new converts aren’t necessarily ready for Gospel Doctrine.

  49. nobody, really says:

    Chet, I absolutely agree. Several years ago, I participated in a weekly evangelical Wednesday-morning Bible study at work. It became obvious that when evangelicals study the Bible, they sit down and study the Bible – going through a chapter slowly, discussing how various verses strike them, how they want to change their behavior based on those teachings, and what the verses “call us” to accomplish.

    When Mormons “study” the Bible, they find a topic, then read isolated verses that support Mormon interpretation of that topic. And if the verse doesn’t fit, it gets JST’d, Conference Talked, D&C’d into place, or firmly ignored.

  50. Stephen E Robison was the most influential religious teacher I ever had. His educational background was such a relief in religion classes. He expected you to study the topic and read. Other teachers just wanted you to fill out a calendar promising you read for 15 minutes a day on your honor. Which no other college class would ever do. His insights were so refreshing. It isn’t that he preached a different gospel, it just wasn’t straight apologetics from a CES manual like I was used to. It gave me confidence that a testimony was able to be built on a foundation that wasn’t just proof texting. That it was okay that we didn’t know some things and that we didn’t have to support every controversial thing the church ever did as pure doctrine.

  51. pconnornc says:

    Nobody, really – I don’t think we corner the market on your criticisms of how we study. I’ve been to a few groups just recently that pick verses that support their doctrine, and when verses don’t “fit”, they either twist the verbiage, do gymnastics to make it fit, or just ignore.

  52. Kingsley says:

    I agree with Jonathan regarding the red capital letters. I haven’t been to this site in years, & when I saw those I assumed it had taken a turn for the worse.


  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] 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 […]

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