Expanding Mormon influence places high demands on young Latter-day Saints

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It began as a sort of experiment — students from various Christian and Catholic denominations joined several LDS counterparts in an LDS Institute building in Berkeley for an investigation of Mormonism.

Over the course of several months the scholars, students of the Graduate Theological Union and UC-Berkeley, examined LDS scriptures and explored Mormon history and culture under the tutelage of LDS scholar Robert Rees.

After a successful first year, GTU administrators are now hoping to accumulate the required funding to establish a chair to oversee a Mormon Studies program, a growing academic domain, according to Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

“It’s a developing field,” Barlow said. “Mormonism is gaining a certain traction as an important phenomenon in American society.”

Harvard, Columbia, UNC-Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt, Arizona State and the University of Richmond are among those institutions that have offered credited courses on Mormonism in recent years. Meanwhile at USU, UVU, Claremont and the University of Wyoming, such classes are more permanent fixtures.

According to longtime Columbia professor Richard Bushman, who served as the inaugural chair of Claremont’s Mormon Studies program, the increase in such studies and the resulting growth in the core of Mormon scholars (whether they are LDS or not) is precisely what is needed to foster understanding in the broader public.

“Nothing speaks for itself,” Bushman said. “Everything is interpreted. Mormons as people are respected but their beliefs are not because they seem exotic and extravagant.”

Fortunately, said Bushman, we live in an age of full disclosure.

“It is widely accepted that independent inquiry renders the best results,” Bushman said.

As other institutions jump to offer such opportunities in Mormon studies, Barlow notes that Utah’s colleges and universities are not exactly ahead of the curve. BYU notwithstanding, Utah’s first Mormon studies program wasn’t created until 2006.

Barlow suggested that religious studies were slow to develop in Utah because of an underlying concern that they presented a surreptitious way of corroding religious beliefs. This was contrasted, he said, by a smaller but even stronger misgiving that religious studies would develop into a furtive attempt to promote Mormonism.

“Both are legitimate concerns,” Barlow said, noting that the same anxieties have been expressed about Mormon Studies programs in other parts of the country. “But that isn’t the job of a secular university.  [These programs are] designed neither to promote nor to denigrate Mormonism, but to study about Mormonism.”

While Bushman and Barlow see only positive outcomes of Mormon studies programs at other universities, Richard E. Bennett, associate dean of Religious Education at BYU, is somewhat more reserved.

“I don’t think they’re going to increase spiritual sensitivities,” Bennett said. “But they absolutely increase awareness. Whether or not that’s going to be beneficial is hard to say.”

Both Bushman and Bennett are adamant that raising awareness is merely a fraction of the battle. According to Bushman, a convergence of intellectual development, financial investment and institutional support has already created a golden age for Mormon history and scholarship that runs parallel to an increasing cultural fascination on the part of the American public.

“Mormonism has a grip on modern American society,” Bushman said. “[It] may be admired or despised … but it is acknowledged.”

Together, these trends are thrusting open an age of Mormon cultural power, Bushman said, and the greatest threat is in explaining the depth of Mormon thought in a way that can be grasped by the world at large.

“Joseph Smith would be astounded that the Book of Mormon would be the subject of a play,” Bushman said. “At the same time, we’re being talked about in way that we don’t want to be. It’s like looking in the mirrors in a funhouse. There is a lot of discontinuity.

“Right now the issue is not digging deeper into our past or into our scriptures, it’s making them intelligible in broad cultural terms. Our real challenge with all this interest in Mormonism is to make it understandable.”

For this to happen, young Latter-day Saints need to take a closer look at what it means to be in the world, but not of it, said Barlow, using the analogy of an autobiography as compared to a biography.

“We have ingrained  presuppositions and political opinions, even when we believe that we are thinking independently,” Barlow said. “The outside view has advantages if they are intelligent and informed because they can see some things that those who are so closely involved cannot.”

Young Latter-day Saints need to be broadened, challenged and encouraged to allow their outlook on the world to be influenced by outside sources without leaving Mormonism behind, Barlow said.

He also suggested Latter-day Saints in general need to develop thicker skins.

“It’s not too much for us to ask for accuracy in describing our doctrines and beliefs, but it is too much to demand it,” Barlow said. “Being caricatured and mocked is something that is going to happen when you’re important in the national culture but not all criticisms [of] Mormon culture are empty … we’re like other people in the sense that we’re not perfect.”

Barlow said the best way to handle criticism is to be more informed and less defensive, a sentiment echoed by Bushman.

“This generation … will have to be fast on its feet,” Bushman said. “They will need to know theory, be conversant with modern scholarship in many fields, and be knowledgeable about American and world cultures. And [when faced with criticism] they cannot lose their cool, they cannot come out fighting.”

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