Hiring of Michael Young at UW an opportunity to promote religious tolerance
With the hiring of Michael Young as president of the University of Washington, we have the opportunity to put aside prejudice and experience someone who will be a tremendous addition to higher education, writes guest columnist James Wellman.
Special to the Times
ABC News ran an editorial, "Anti-LDS Slurs in Washington," about the recent selection of Michael Young as the new president of the University of Washington.
Some of the comments were predictable: The Church of Latter Day Saints supports polygamy, excludes blacks, and is anti-gay; anyone who is religious shouldn't be in charge of an institution of higher learning.
Of course, none of the allegations are true — Mormons have outlawed polygamy, allowed African Americans to hold the priesthood and have accepted gays but don't advocate for gay marriage, a position that most Christian groups share.
I have to say as well that some of my colleagues wondered what it would mean to have a committed Mormon as our new president. And to be honest, this hit home. In my first year of teaching, in a course on American religion, I summarized the history of the church, at one point saying, "Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. Isn't that scary?"
A student astutely spoke up: "Why did you say it is scary?" I demurred and changed the subject, realizing that I had drifted into my own prejudice. I needed to rethink my position.
Coming to the UW, I was impressed with the quality of graduate students in the master's program in comparative religion. Lo and behold, I found a third were Mormons, most of them active in the church. In fact, several became research assistants and some of my best teaching assistants.
Needless to say, I have changed my mind about Mormonism, having come to enormous admiration for young people raised as Mormons.
It turns out that teaching religion in an International Studies program is an ideal setting to attract students from the Mormon religion. They travel, they go on missions all over the world, they speak languages better than most other students, and their level of sophistication and general maturity tend to be exceptional. In fact, I have gotten to know many of their families and have been impressed by their compassion and service to the community.
So when I heard Young was leaving the University of Utah for the UW, I was pleasantly surprised and overwhelming pleased. In contrast to some former presidents, Young has had a distinguished career as an academic, with a record of achievement long and impressive. His obvious strength in raising money and more importantly in service to the country is also significant.
And in the process of doing my own research, I found out more about Young and his life story. Because of his Mormon faith, Young advocates for religious freedom not only in this country, but across the world. At Columbia University, he helped to start a first-of-its-kind program that combined issues of international human rights and religious freedom.
He later worked for eight years on the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, which was created in 1998 to advise the federal government and the president on how best to encourage religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.
As a scholar of religion in America, I know that religious freedom is one of the chief reasons our country has avoided religious violence. I also know that religious freedom powerfully mitigates violence in a world often torn by ethnic and religious conflicts.
Overcoming prejudice is a fundamental reason for why I teach. One of the most profound experiences as a teacher is to see students give up their prejudices. We have that opportunity, as citizens of Washington, to put aside prejudice and experience someone who will be a tremendous addition to higher education.James Wellman is associate professor and chair of the Comparative Religion Program at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. His new book is "Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest," published by Oxford University Press.
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