Once upon a time, people thought that America was sliding toward moral relativism. A few minutes on Twitter today should disabuse anyone of that notion — morally loaded claims are everywhere.
But there is something strange about this ocean of moral evaluation: Many people seem ambivalent about the existence of moral truth. People speak of universal justice and human rights, but also resist external authority and unchosen “truths.” We are told that no one should “impose” their values on anyone else in the same breath that we are chided for not being moral enough.
There are complex reasons for this ambivalence, but there’s one moral issue in particular that colleges and universities around the country are wrestling with right now: belonging. How do you create an environment where people of various races, backgrounds and beliefs feel like they belong as full members of the campus community?
Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen recently introduced a “Statement on Belonging” that seeks to address “the needs of all marginalized individuals on (BYU) campus.” This “unique” approach will provide the framework to evaluate all proposals to foster belonging at BYU.
Will it succeed in helping marginalized people feel a sense of belonging?
To answer that question, we have to go one step deeper and ask: What should the basis of belonging be? It will be useful to imagine two broad approaches to creating a community of belonging: belonging based on difference and belonging based on truth. In belonging based on difference, the shared value is openness to people and lifestyles different from one’s own, especially those that have been historically marginalized. Difference is valued because everyone should have space to be “who they really are,” and because limitations on difference perpetuate oppression and exclusion. Openness to difference ensures that no one is excluded; indeed, it preempts the possibility of exclusion (but perhaps not for everyone). As we often hear these days, the focus on difference is necessary to make sure that everyone and all people are welcome and included.
Belonging based on truth takes a different tack. Belonging based on truth assumes that truth can be known and shared, and that dedication to the truth is edifying for us as individuals and unifying for us as a people. In the Latter-day Saint context, it can supply an answer to the question of “who we really are” — children of God, made in the image and likeness of God. Rather than seeking to preempt exclusion by removing norms and standards, belonging based on truth invites all to join a common cause in pursuit of a worthy objective. Crucially, this dedication to truth makes deeper unity possible — as the philosopher John Crosby writes, people “can be together in the good in a way that they cannot be together in the merely agreeable.”
Belonging based on difference seeks to remove all walls so that no one is left out. Belonging based on truth seeks to transcend walls by ascending towards God together. Belonging based on difference seeks to pull down hierarchy. Belonging based on truth seeks to elevate all through dedication and devotion to the Most High.
These are ideal types, of course, and in the real world these tendencies are mixed together in complex ways. Further, the good sought in belonging based on truth may not be a personal God but some other matter of “ultimate concern,” to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. And even belonging based on truth can include openness to change and uncertainty — Latter-day Saints believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
Where does the new BYU Statement on Belonging fall between these two broad approaches? Though it is possible to read some sections to support either approach, the overarching message is clearly one of belonging based on truth. The opening line states:
“We are united by our common primary identity as children of God (Acts 17:29; Psalm 82:6) and our commitment to the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ (BYU Mission Statement)” (emphasis added).
From its first words, the BYU Statement on Belonging identifies important truths and claims them as the basis for unity. It does not seek to prescind from important questions regarding morality, metaphysics and the meaning of life. Indeed, it imports the whole gospel of Jesus Christ as the foundation for unity. The statement ends with a reiteration of a distinctively Latter-day Saint mission and purpose:
“The full realization of each student’s divine potential is our central focus (BYU Mission Statement).”
This final statement identifies a particular end goal that all members of the BYU community should strive for: the full realization of divine potential, with all that that entails in Latter-day Saint teachings. The BYU Statement on Belonging is saturated with truth from beginning to end.
There is one section which could be read as supporting belonging based on difference. It reads:
“We value and embrace the variety of individual characteristics, life experiences and circumstances, perspectives, talents, and gifts of each member of the community and the richness and strength they bring to our community (1 Corinthians 12:12–27).”
But this also expresses an important truth: Each person is worth knowing and loving, and each has gifts and talents which enrich the community. The scripture which accompanies this section is Paul’s famous metaphor of the church as the body of Christ — each member with a different but essential function, all working for the good of the whole. The loss of one member would be a loss to the entire body.
What this passage should not be read to mean, in my view, is that every choice or “perspective” should be equally honored in the community. This would be a self-defeating position, and it is not clear that anyone would want it. In the very same talk that President Worthen introduced the BYU Statement on Belonging, he said that the Office of Belonging would take steps to combat “prejudice of any kind.” Prejudice is clearly a “perspective,” albeit a very undesirable one. Is this institutional hostility towards prejudiced perspectives consistent with being respectful towards people who are “different?”
Of course, but we can see how it turns out that the focus on “difference” creates new outsiders — those who do not respect the demands of difference. College administrators around the country emphasize the importance of being open to difference on campus, seeming to hold the door open for anyone and everyone to come in. However, the commitment to difference means that some attitudes and beliefs will not be let in — those based, for example, in prejudice, bigotry or hatred. Belonging based on difference is no less a moral (and sacred) project than belonging based on truth.
Will BYU’s Statement on Belonging work to foster belonging on campus? That depends on the extent to which the restored gospel of Jesus Christ actually does elevate students, faculty and staff to live “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians. 12:31). BYU’s Statement on Belonging stakes its claim on “the virtue of the word of God” (Alma 31:5), and it will stand or fall based on the strength of that word and the dedication of the campus community. Choosing belonging based on truth may, in the end, make all the difference.
Daniel Frost is an assistant teaching professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.