At an event sponsored by the Interfaith Student Council, author and scholar, Randall Paul spoke to students about his new book, Converting the Saints: Religious Rivalry in America, and the importance of embracing religious contestation in today’s society.
Paul, who is the founder of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, has lectured widely and written numerous articles on establishing healthy methods for engaging with differences in religions and ideologies.
Paul’s book focuses on the religious history of America and the Protestant missions to Utah, in an attempt to convert Mormons to traditional Christianity. Even after members of the LDS faith acquiesced to federal laws established to combat polygamy, Paul writes that the religious conflict over the church’s legitimacy remain unsolved.
He began his speech by telling a story of how he left his professional career in pursuit of answering one question: “How can a universally divine parent be so parsimonious in revealing the truth to his children?” This question drove him to study religious conflicts at the University of Chicago, and obtain his MBA at Harvard University.
In his studies, Paul came across a Puritan theologian named Roger Williams. Paul said that it was Williams’ establishment of the Providence Plantations and their representation of religious freedom that caught his interest early on. This ideology — which would ultimately lay the groundwork for the First Amendment written by Founding Father, James Madison — connects the idea of religious freedom to modern-day missionary work, according to Paul.
“America is not a consensus over our values,” Paul said. “The American ideal is the continual contestation in a mode of respectful persuasion. Contestation is not the same as contention.”
Paul went on to ask attendees if they had ever loved someone greatly and also experienced a heated argument with them. Further elaborating upon his point, Paul referenced American psychological researcher John Gottman, who studied long-term marriages. In these studies, Gottman studied “contempt muscles” in the face, and ultimately found that two-thirds of conflicts in successful marriages went unresolved.
“Gottman found that the rhythm of engagement allowed these couples to be full and real with each other, but soothing with each other following their argument,” Paul said. “This overpowered their conflicts in actuality and is a prime example of how missionary work can play out today.”
Paul wrote in his book that there are three main scenarios of religious issues in America’s history. The first was a conflict over land between Americans and Native Americans, with the American’s excuse for taking over the land being that they viewed the Natives as lesser beings because of their religious beliefs. The second was the Civil War, where according to Paul Christian denominations excommunicated each other and used the bible to justify slavery. And the third, Paul wrote, were the “Mormon Wars”, where explicitly religious reasons were said to take contestation to contention.
Explaining why the offense against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fell short, Paul said that looking for solutions to the lack of dialogue between religions is what ultimately kept the majority of Mormons from being converted.
“I study missiology from the point of view of politics. So, I think it’s important for all of us to think about this question of how to adequately persuade someone,” Paul said. “ Missionaries who came to Utah found that they could not get a Mormon to listen to them unless the Mormon was convinced that he had a shot at them too.”
Paul added that he thinks the best approach to missionary work should be less one-sided preaching and more mutual understanding of religions and cultures.
“The future of missionary work is mutual missionary work. Imagine a Catholic and a Jew on TV, who both know greatly about each other’s religion,” Paul said. “Engaging with each other at that level, in a way that is so deeply respectful, it can happen and it needs to happen.”
Layton Bethea, a junior exercise science major, is the co-president of the Interfaith Student Council. Bethea said that the process of bringing Paul to UVU was months in the making.
“One of our advisors, Blair Van Dyke, is really good friends with Randall. So he suggested we bring him in because of his unique interfaith work,” Bethea said. “Most times when you think of the word interfaith, you think ‘leave your religion at the door,’ but Randall provides a unique view of strengthening relationships with trust rather than simply agreeance.”
Junior literary studies major, Logan Jones is also a member of the Interfaith Student Council. Jones said that he sees the merit in Paul’s approach to religious diplomacy.
“I think that we can’t go into these dialogues expecting anybody to change their deepest beliefs,” Jones said. “Just expecting a mutual interest and a mutual belief between them is what his speech truly illustrated.”
Paul’s historical study of the mismanagement of religiously-influenced conflicts in America provides practical insight for today’s world where many political and social conflicts are heavily influenced by religion. With society being so troubled by religious conflicts between uncompromising opposites, that desire of mutually exclusive religious and political ends is a necessity in society today.