Studying Mormonism in the Academy
This is because, first, as Shipps has argued, Mormonism may be construed as the emergence of a new World Religion (like Christianity or Buddhism). In addition, Mormons have been from early in their history world-champion record keepers. The emergence of this new world religion is thus extraordinarily accessible for study - and this from its very beginnings, unlike any other genuine World Religion. Indeed, a study of Mormonism's emergence, distinctive as it is, even has the potential to pose hypothetical scenarios for the rise of the classic world religions. That is, the probing of Mormonism has the capacity to generate insights, categories, and systems that may reveal patterns illuminating the still obscure history of the world's major religious traditions.
Religious Studies in the context of the liberal arts may ask such questions as: How does a new religion get "birthed" and, once here, how does it find traction in the world, establishing its new vision of the world and its new values and ritual and community? How do successful religious traditions survive their infancy and transcend the culture in which their formation occurred, so as to become world religions? Once established, religions either change or die; how does a religion navigate profound change without losing its identity? What portions of a tradition's literature become sanctified as scripture, and why and how?
Given this rich potential of such questions, Mormonism might even be a prime candidate for inclusion in a course on World Religions. If the influential Jonathan Z. Smith has it right, we ought not teach introductory courses for their own sake; rather, we ought to teach them in the interest of liberal education. Smith argues that as long as we don't misconstrue undergraduate education as simply a preparation for graduate education, then "There is nothing that must be taught, there is nothing that cannot be left out" in the Introductory course. We are commissioned to teach critical thought. "Arguments and interpretation are what we introduce; our particular subject matter serves merely as the excuse, the occasion, the example." Less coverage, in the tradition of the college "survey" course is better. Mormonism, because of what I suggested earlier, might prove a marvelous though unconventional subject for such a purpose.
Despite Mormonism's colorful and distinctive ways and history, then, study of the movement can function as a potential tool for better understanding the dynamics of religion as such. It follows that the study of Mormonism ought not be only for Mormons. Brian Birch is more able than I to comment on the situation among philosophers, but if I were to venture to name the dozen best or nationally most influential historians or sociologists or formal students of Religious Studies who focus on Mormonism, perhaps half of them would not themselves be Latter-day Saints. In graduate programs around the country, an increasing number of students who are not LDS are attracted to the problems and opportunities of the field. And in an environment such as Salt Lake City, one is simply a less competent citizen than she might be if she knew Mormonism in a more probing way than can be achieved by casual encounter.
Conversely, LDS students at the University of Utah need to know that LDS scripture and LDS leaders encourage secular knowledge and religious knowledge. And they need to learn that Religious Studies represents the opportunity for crucial secular knowledge about a religious topic. Many students are of course going to think: Why would I need secular knowledge about my religion?