Studying Mormonism in the Academy
However, the fact that religion is often treated superficially, if at all, in addressing this ultimate question behind the liberal arts may have other causes, one local and another more widely shared.
Garrison Keillor can charm a radio audience on any given Saturday by recounting narratives of the mythical town of Lake Wobegon. In considerable measure the humor depends upon the idea that, as Keillor once said explicitly: "Everyone in Minnesota is Lutheran - whether they are Lutheran or not." This is decidedly not so of Mormons and Utah. Everyone in Utah is not Mormon, and those who are, and those who are not, tend to be highly conscious of the distinction.
For the past half century, the attempt to initiate a formal study of religion in higher education here has been heretofore undercut by forces afraid that the enterprise would become a disguised fostering - or undermining - of religion and of Mormonism in particular.
A second reason why the study of religion may be shunted aside is that its nature is often ill-understood: "Its all that sticky-sweet God and church stuff." Or: "It is simply enacted fanaticism." By contrast, incidentally, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are in some quarters trained to recognize that religion is crucial to mental and social health or dysfunction. As one supervisor of psychiatrists instructs his colleagues: "Find out what your patient's religion is, even if he does not know she has one." The implied definition of religion here is "worldview"; everyone has a worldview, hence everyone is religious. Others talk about religion as one's "ultimate concern," or as the quest for meaning, God, or the transcendent.
But a religion is more than the "religious impulse" of individuals. A full-blown religion (that is, a religious movement) is comprised of, among other things, a worldview, a system of values and ethics, a community ("religio": to bind together), and a devotion and devotional ritual that symbolizes the worldview, values, and community. The formal academic approach to these elements, developed especially since the 1960s, is known as "Religious Studies." Religious Studies, however, is variously understood. It is sometimes construed as treating a topic, and sometimes as a discipline.
As a topic, Mormonism, like any other religion, may be fruitfully studied by historians, philosophers, anthropologists, students of literature or the law, and others. In the right hands, we may go farther: these elements of a religion may be compared to those of any other religion. I say "in the right hands" because the comparison presupposes substantive competency in more than one tradition, which is difficult.
In a more disciplinary sense, Religious Studies may be construed as going beyond comparison and contrast to concern with a different sort of inquiry. The focus is on matters of religion and identity and culture, and on how religion "works." In particular, the inquiry asks after the relationship between belief and behavior, and between a religious community and the surrounding culture.
What Religious Studies as a discipline can bring to the study of Mormonism is to relate religion to these distinctive questions of religion's workings and of their relation to culture and identity, as exemplified particularly well in the works of Jan Shipps and Kathleen Flake. And what Mormon Studies potentially contributes to Religious Studies is a spectacularly rich instance - one of the best case studies available - through which to apply these questions.