Our ward has been exploring the idea of Unity in our sacrament meeting talks this month, and I’ve heard the same attribution to Elder Dallin H. Oaks several times. It apparently comes from a “News of the Church” article in June 2007 which discusses the growing diversity in the Church. According to the article, Elder Oaks “said that the growing diversity among the members is simply a condition, not a Church goal. The real goal is unity, not diversity.”
Perhaps’ I’m not listening closely enough, but the discussions of this idea seem to have missed the balance of what was attributed to him in the article, in which Elder Oaks says, “We preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population.”
In my view this is actually the key to unity (be it science or art). The key to unity is, in fact, the tolerance of diversity.
In a sense, what Elder Oaks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are teaching are really very close. And, I think a reading of the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. as a struggle between unity and diversity might bear that out. [Please excuse the U.S.-centered analysis. I'm not sure I know enough about other countries to make the relevant arguments.]
We have, I’m told, a natural tendency to prefer and trust what we are familiar with over what we are not familiar with. So we trust thinks that we know over what we don’t know and things that look familiar, things that look like us for example, over what isn’t familiar and doesn’t look like us. So we have throughout history grouped ourselves into tribes and nations and races. Our comfortuable groups become us, while everything else becomes them, something to be mistructed, and feared, and sometimes hated.
So even when we in the U.S. realized an obligation to give others basic political rights, there was still an instinct to segregate, to redline, to keep those who are different apart from those who look like us. Whatever unity we had then as a nation was based more on the idea that we, to a large extent, all looked the same, believed the same and thought the same. (Although, the US had, in fact, already assimilated many that we believed did not look, believe or think as we did — they were Germans, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian and other “white” races who, by 18th and 19th century thought, were different than the English and French that made up most of the country).
At least one of the changes the civil rights movement brought to our culture is a change in our assumptions about unity. We now talk about and even value diversity. The belief is that everyone should be able to participate and benefit from our government and society.
But that doesn’t mean that we want a divisive society. I’ve heard political scientists, and even members of the general public overseas, who believe that it is not possible for a diverse society to remain stable. They argue that the interests of different groups will never be reconciled, and will eventually tear any nation that tries to accommodate those differences apart. Our recent history has seen that happen. There is at least a racial or ethnic element to most conflicts around the world today, and racial elements have led to the disintigration of Cechsolvakia and Yugoslavia and the division of India that created Pakistan (I’m sure there are more).
I hear this argument here in the U.S. among those opposed to immigration, who argue that those coming don’t look like we do, don’t believe like we do or don’t think like we do. The cultural disparity they bring, we are warned, will tear our nation apart.
Regardless of whether they are right or not, these elements seem present in our debate in the U.S. today. I’m sure I’ve argued both sides of this question on different occasions, sometimes arguing, without explicitly saying so, for limiting a question to a particular group (some argued as much with the recent Mormon of the Year recognition) and other times arguing for including everyone. And I think some times considering just a particular group, or taking pride in membership in a group is fine (when it is fine is probably another post). I suspect most of us today end up arguing both sides of this question from time to time.
In U.S. society today diversity has become a kind of social good — many Americans assume that diversity is something to be desired. But I think they assume something like what Elder Oaks says in the quotation above, that the diversity will not come at the expense of the basic unity we need to preserve a nation. The question for the nation is then, how much diversity can we manage without loosing the unity we need?
From a gospel perspective, however, we can learn an important lesson here.In the past, both the U.S. as a nation, and the Church as a people, found it much easier to achieve unity. Unity is relatively easy when everyone looks, believes and thinks the same. The challenge comes from trying to achieve unity when those things are not true.
As Elder Oaks suggests, “We preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population.” In the context of our experience in the U.S., it sounds to me like diversity might actually be an important step toward learning true unity. I can even see an argument that the Lord may have given us increasing diversity to help us learn to be truly united.