Is Mormon Studies Possible at a Mormon University?

“Should we begin with a prayer?” One of the most common, simple, and straightforward questions for anyone who knows anything about Latter-day Saints. I mean, really, what LDS gathering doesn’t begin with a prayer? Still, this time it was different . . . very different. This time it was anything but mundane and insignificant. For one of the very few times in my life I had to think seriously about how to respond. And, if I’m being brutally honest, I was even a little upset with Richard Bushman for even asking it. I still don’t know if it was a calculated move on his part, but part of me remains convinced that he must have been conniving or scheming, because anyone who knows Bushman knows that that’s exactly the kind of fiendish person he is. In all seriousness, though, with the exception of the few times when I’ve been in the company of those who insist on praying vocally at restaurants, this common question had never generated quite so much unease.

As I recall, it was the last week of August 2007 that myself and around ten of my friends studying at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) and Claremont School of Theology (CST) were gathered together in a small classroom at CGU to formally organize what would become the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association (CMSSA). A group of students had been getting together about once a week during lunch since at least the time that Armand Mauss began teaching the first and only course in Mormonism offered at the School of Religion (in the fall of 2005). Our specific areas of study ran the gamut from New Testament to sociology, from philosophy of religion to history, and from political science to theological ethics. Most of us were active members of the LDS Church, but neither membership nor level of commitment mattered. What brought our little rag-tag group together was one thing: we were all Mormon studies geeks.

We typically met somewhere on the campus of Claremont School of Theology, where we’d spend an hour or two talking about the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of grad student life, debating LDS theology, history, scriptures, and cultural issues, and thinking through the complex ways in which our diverse scholarly pursuits impacted our various religious perspectives. Conversations were completely free-flowing and open-ended, and no topic was considered taboo. If it was related to Mormonism, we probably critically analyzed and strongly debated it at some point. Indeed, it seems to me that we disagreed far more than we agreed, but that’s one of the things we loved about our time together; and we kept coming back for more because we valued each other’s diverse points of view, respected one other personally, and felt safe expressing our numerous heterodox and even heretical positions. Indeed, for many of us these conversations were often the highlight of our academic work-week.

Unsurprisingly, one of the more common issues we discussed was the question of Mormon studies itself. What is it? Is it actually an identifiable or describable phenomenon? Whatever it is, is it something can be successfully done at Claremont? Are the interests required to engage in the academic study of Mormonism at odds with the interests of the LDS community of believers, such that there might be an insurmountable translation barrier? Given that there’s no way that the program would even get off the ground without the financial support of faithful LDS donors, would its reliance on such sources allow for a sufficient degree of independence and autonomy to produce legitimate scholarship? If the major, if not exclusive, sources of funding are orthodox members of the Church who sometimes see the new program as a way to further the missions of the Church, what will happen if the critical examinations of scholars and students are not entirely friendly to the Church? Indeed, given that the group responsible for the fund-raising efforts—the LDS Council on Mormon Studies—is comprised of various lay leaders, including an Area Authority and Public Relations director, does that limit the sort of work that’s possible to produce?

In the face of varying levels of skepticism expressed by the faculty, students, lay members, and even members of the press, Richard Bushman was eventually selected as the Chair in the spring of 2007, and that’s about the same time that we students began talking about moving beyond our little lunchtime chats, and formally organizing ourselves into a group that could provide a kind of support structure for those in the area who had an interest in the academic study of Mormonism. It was shortly after Richard and Claudia Bushman’s arrival in Southern California to begin their work in Claremont that we met in that little classroom to talk about our visions for the group, what our mission might be, what kind of leadership positions we would need, what kind of activities we might sponsor, etc. Before we even opened the meeting, however, Richard Bushman turned to me and asked, “Should we begin with a prayer?”

I don’t know if I showed it on the outside, but on the inside I was completely flustered. “Why would you even ask that? What’s the best way to respond? I know I don’t want to be the one to make the decision?” I hadn’t become the President of group yet, but since I had played a fairly active role in pushing things forward and getting everyone together, they looked to me as at least a temporary leader. Realizing that there was a great deal of significance bound up in Bushman’s question, I quickly deferred to the rest of group. “Well, that’s something we should probably talk about. What do you all think?” This wasn’t a new conversation by any means, but it was one that we probably needed to get clear on right up front, as it would set an important tone going forward. The general consensus was that we were organizing an academic and not a religious group, and that anyone was welcome to join, LDS or otherwise. Furthermore, just like the Mormon studies program itself, we would be operating primarily under the auspices of School of Religion, which is part of a secular university. We were thus, albeit in our own small way, laying the groundwork and defining the parameters of Mormon studies for ourselves, and we viewed praying at our meetings as a signal that we were a religious group engaged in religious work. We didn’t envision either Mormon studies or our student group that way, so we decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate to offer prayers at our meetings.

Self-reflexivity—or perhaps navel-gazing depending on your perspective—is definitely not in short supply here at Claremont, and the inceptive moment of CMSSA was just one of many occasions that the question of Mormon studies has been raised. The first time that it was dealt with in a more formal scholarly setting was in October 2004 at a three-day conference entitled “Positioning Mormonism in Religious Studies.” That event was actually the public “kick-off” for the future program, and it opened with a lecture by Grant Underwood entitled “Is It Safe? Mormon History and the Secular Academy.” John Charles Duffy would raise the question again a couple of years later at the Sunstone West Symposium, which was held at CGU, in an essay entitled “Prelude to Claremont: Faithful Scholarship and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies.” And, the question received a wide-ranging treatment in April 2010 at our conference “What Is Mormon Studies? Transdisciplinary Inquiries into an Emerging Field.” The nature and future of the field have thus been repeatedly examined here, and they remain very much open to additional inquiry. However, what I think can be safely said at this point is that given the various courses, lectures, conferences, theses, and dissertations that have been produced so far, the “Claremont experiment” has largely been a success.[1]

With established programs at Utah Valley University, Utah State University, Claremont Graduate University, a new Chair soon to be announced at the University of Virginia, and courses being offered and conferences being convened in various places throughout the country, not to mention a regular barrage of new books and journal issues, it would appear that the future of Mormon studies is quite bright. However, if the Claremont experiment has provided any indication of the difficulties involved with being dependent on member-donors, what if the sponsoring institution itself is owned and operated by the LDS Church? What about doing Mormon studies at a place where it has historically met with some of its greatest resistance—namely, Brigham Young University? Is Mormon studies possible at a Mormon university? For its part, the answer was given last month by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (MI) when it unveiled the details of its “reboot” of the Mormon Studies Review. Actually, what happened is probably more akin to the installation of an upgraded operating system than a simple reset of the machine, but, either way, there is very little question that if Mormon studies is possible in Provo, the dream team assembled for the new review are the right people for the job.

Unsurprisingly and understandably, however, all is not well in Zion, and the leadership of the “old school”—those who favor the classic FARMS approach in the study of Mormonism—has repeatedly expressed frustration that they weren’t retained alongside the MI’s “new school.” Peggy Fletcher Stack gives a nice summary of the disparity in her most recent column, but much of it obviously boils down to incompatible visions of Mormon studies. Perhaps the rift that remains is no more apparent than in John Gee’s recent essay in the Interpreter, “Whither Mormon Studies?,” wherein he rather strangely asserts that “the real experts on Mormon Studies are General Authorities,” oddly laments that the “interests and incentives of those who engage in Mormon Studies are not necessarily, and for the most part are not at all, the interests of the Kingdom,” and misguidedly concludes that “the question is not whether serving God with all one’s mind can include Mormon Studies, but whether Mormon Studies is actually serving God.” As problematic as such statements are, for reasons that should become apparent below, Gee at least does a nice job of highlighting some of the tensions that the MI will likely face as it forges ahead on its new path.

According to its handbook of instructions, the purpose of the LDS Church is “to assist in God’s work to bring to pass the salvation and exaltation of His children,” and to fulfill this purpose it participates in the activities of “helping members live the gospel of Jesus Christ, gathering Israel through missionary work, caring for the poor and needy, and enabling the salvation of the dead by building temples and performing vicarious ordinances.” Accordingly, because it is founded, supported, and guided by the Church, the mission of BYU is also “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” And, as an entity formally operating under the auspices of BYU, the new mission of the MI is “to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths through the scholarly study of religious texts and traditions.” Obviously it’s that part about nurturing discipleship that is of interest to me here.

I want to be perfectly clear: it’s not that there’s anything wrong with nurturing discipleship or working to assist individuals in their quest for exaltation. These are worthy endeavors. Considered on their own, I see absolutely nothing to be nervous about in those three mission statements. The question, however, is whether and how they’re consistent with the activity of doing Mormon studies. I’m hopeful, maybe even cautiously optimistic, that a coherence between them is possible, but I’m not entirely sure at this point. Of course, everything depends on how one defines Mormon studies, but having spent a bit of time looking at, participating in, and teaching about Mormonism through an academic lens, I remain somewhat skeptical. Why? Because, as we realized when we organized CMSSA, Mormon studies is not a religious activity, and it doesn’t, nor should it, maintain a commitment to the missions of the LDS Church.

So, just what exactly is Mormon studies, then? Here are nine working theses that I think are worth including in any discussion of the question. I don’t imagine that any of them are particularly novel or terribly insightful, and some are no doubt more controversial than others, but I take it that all of them will be fairly familiar to most who consider themselves part of the field.

  1. Mormon studies is the academic study of, scholarly inquiry about, or critical analysis of Mormonism. As an academic activity, its primary space is the academy, which is non-religious in orientation and pluralistic in character. The academy is, in other words, a public community that it is comprised of a variety of voices, a multiplicity of methods, and a cacophony of influences, no one of which is absolutely authoritative. As a scholarly activity, Mormon studies involves a kind of intellectual rigor whose immediate audience is the community of scholars to which it belongs, and secondarily interested non-specialists. As a critical activity, it performs the following type of work: postulating theses, developing theories, gathering evidence, interpreting data, analyzing information, and articulating arguments.
    1. Just as scholars seek to understand the worlds that they study, they also belong to a world that influences everything they do. As such, the critical thinker should be self-aware that he or she is always historically situated and culturally conditioned, guided by certain presuppositions and prejudices, and limited by certain dependencies and relations. Analysis is never performed outside some particular context that it both affects and is affected by. Critical thought thus recognizes that “objectivity” as traditionally understood is no longer a meaningful notion, because such would require a “view from nowhere,” which is ultimately no view at all.
  2. Mormon Studies is a sub-field or area of research within religious studies, which itself belongs to the wider domain of the human sciences. Because Mormon studies is a research area within religious studies as well as the human sciences, its primary commitments are to those scholarly communities, so it seeks to adhere to their norms, meet their standards, and further their agendas. Mormonism has been and can be understood in a variety of ways, but because it is, first and foremost, a religious tradition, the data observed, tools used, and methods employed by scholars of religious studies are considered by many to be the most appropriate for engaging in the activity of Mormon studies. Hence, while Mormon studies might draw upon a wide variety of non-native resources, its primary home is the comparative religion department or school of religion.
  3. Mormon studies is primarily a descriptive anthropological enterprise, rather than a prescriptive theological endeavor. Because it seeks to understand and give accounts of the richness, diversity, and variety that constitutes the complex phenomenon of Mormonism, it is mainly a work of description. By description I do not mean merely classifying things into categories, or making relatively shallow observations about things. Description involves a great deal more than just “cataloging” stuff, not the least of which is painstaking research, careful observation, critical comparison, theoretical framing, rich contextualization, etc. Furthermore, because it is centrally concerned with a human phenomenon, it is essentially a work of anthropology (in the broad sense). Historical events, sacred texts, religious experiences, common teachings, normative practices, political activities, and cultural expressions are all part of the multi-faceted mosaic that makes up Mormonism. As such, all of these provide the primary data to be researched, interpreted, and described by Mormon studies.
  4. Mormon studies is not a prescriptive theological endeavor, nor a religious activity, nor a devotional form of discourse. Although it critically examines normative beliefs and practices, it does not seek to determine what ought be normative with respect belief and practice. Put differently, it does not seek to build, uplift, edify, increase, or otherwise inspire personal piety; nor does it seek dissuade individuals from adherence to a religious form of life. It does not engage in either the promotion or the negation of faith. It does not seek to persuade people to either accept or reject the teachings and practices of Mormonism. It does not seek to either defend or denigrate the truth-claims of Mormonism. It seeks to think, speak, and write about Mormonism, not to persuade belief in or instill testimony of Mormonism.
  5. Mormon studies has no immediate, direct, or explicit commitment to any particular religious community. As noted above, no second-order thought or reflective inquiry is ever entirely objective or value-neutral or without prejudice. However, as an academic or scholarly endeavor, Mormon studies remains neutral with respect to the interests, objectives, or missions of any particular religious community. It does not, in other words, actively seek to serve the interests, further the cause, or fulfill the mission of any group of believers; nor does it actively seek to undermine the interests, stultify the cause, or inhibit the mission of any group of believers. To the extent that its work might be of some benefit to religious practitioners or groups, therefore, that would be an indirect consequence and not a direct result of its primary concerns or main objectives.
    1. This doesn’t mean that Mormon studies isn’t interested in the truth about Mormonism or its truth claims. It just means that it’s not in the business of—i.e., its primary concerns or main objectives don’t involve—either supporting or rejecting those claims. Instead, the truth claims of Mormonism provide a kind of data for analysis and research. As such, with respect to the specific activity of faith-building/destroying, or testimony-building/destroying, or kingdom-building/destroying, Mormon studies maintains a position of neutrality.
    2. Here are three concrete examples among many that exemplify what I have in mind: Armand Mauss’ All Abraham’s Children, John Turner’s Pioneer Prophet, and Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People. With regard to serving the interests of the LDS Church or fulfilling is mandates, these works take no position either for or against—at least not as I read them. And, yet, they provide important contributions to our understanding of Mormonism.
  6. Mormon studies is concerned with any and all expressions of Mormonism. Just as the phenomenon of Mormonism is neither reducible to nor synonymous with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormon Studies is not synonymous with study of the LDS Church. In principle, any individual or group who self-identifies as Mormon is open to investigation. Because the LDS Church is the largest and most well-known branch, it typically receives the greatest amount of attention, but the subject matter of Mormon studies includes any branch of Mormonism that traces its origins to the religious movement began by Joseph Smith.
  7. Mormon studies is multi-disciplinary. Mormon studies is not a monothetic term or a unified discipline. Instead, it is a polythetic notion that points to a multiplicity of sometimes disparate activities. Its primary home might be the department of religion, but it is a diverse field or area of study within which many individuals and institutions practice their crafts, so it has no clearly discernible boundaries. As a multi-layered and multi-faceted activity, it examines Mormonism from a wide variety of vantage points, and draws upon a diverse range of methodologies–e.g., sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, feminist theory, political science, linguistics, literary theory, etc.
  8. Mormon studies is contextual and comparative. It seeks to understand Mormonism within its native settings and in relation to the larger contexts of which it is a part. As with all human beings, Mormons always reside within a larger life-world that they affect and are affected by. As with all human institutions, Mormonism belongs to some socio-political setting that it both shapes and is shaped by. Mormonism always exists among a profound plurality of ways of being the world, some of which it shares significant points of commonality, and others of which it radically differs. Making sense of it thus requires a sensitivity to and appreciation for the numerous cultural currents that flow into and out of its borders. Critical comparative analysis and interdisciplinary research are thus necessary to do exemplary work in contemporary Mormon studies.
  9. Mormon studies might examine theology, but it does not do theology. Although a descriptive form of theological reflection (or philosophy of religion) might be possible and proper within Mormon studies qua religious studies, a prescriptive, constructive, or normative type of theological reflection would not be. As a religious activity, prescriptive forms of theology might provide data for religious studies scholars to do their work, but they are not typically considered part of religious studies proper.
    1. On this point, the eminent scholar of religious studies Jonathan Z. Smith invokes what he calls “a principle of subordination.” He writes, “In what I freely acknowledge to be a necessarily imperializing move, theology is one appropriate object of study for religious studies. From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum, the theologian is a native informant. . . . We need to be far more attentive to the exegetical labors of religious folk, to their systematic projects of articulation and understanding. In the same spirit in which I welcome the study of . . . totalizing mythic endeavors . . . I would hope, some day, to read a consonant treatment of the analogous enterprise of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.”[2]
    2. As concrete examples, Charles Harrel’s This is My Doctrine would represent the kind of descriptive theological work I have in mind, while Blake Ostler’s Exploring Mormon Thought series would fall into the prescriptive category.

If this is vision is a viable one, then it isn’t entirely clear to me how to square it with the explicitly religious mandates noted above. Is a “BYU experiment” possible? Only time, and the scholarship produced there, will tell.


[1] Armand Mauss coins the term “Claremont experiment” in contrast to the “Chicago experiment” of the Church in the early part of twentieth century in his recent memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport. Mauss’ account of the history of Mormon studies at Claremont gives an excellent summary of the events that have transpired so far, along with a very astute analysis of its potential going forward.

[2] On Teaching Religion, 74-5.

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