[We are pleased to host this contribution from JI’s good friend Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Mason holds a PhD in history from Notre Dame University, and his first book, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford UP, 2011), has received great praise. His work can be found, well, everywhere nowadays, and is currently working on (at least) two projects: a volume, co-edited with David Pulsipher, on a distinctive Mormon theology of ethics and peace, as well as a biography of Ezra Taft Benson, which will explore the rise of both Mormonism and the Religious Right. For Part II of his commentary, this time on the ramifications of Romney’s loss on Mormonism in general, see his post at Peculiar People.]
The Mormon Moment was good for Mormon Studies. It raised the profile of Mormonism in universities, media outlets, churches, and living room conversations across the country. The fact that a devout Latter-day Saint was a serious contender for the White House made his religion a serious topic of conversation, even for people who find the religion’s faith claims anything but serious. Like it or not, academics, journalists, and public intellectuals learned, Mormonism is a force to be reckoned with.
Even if Mitt Romney didn’t want to talk about Mormonism, it seems like just about everyone else did. That meant that all of a sudden Mormon studies mattered. In their deadline-driven need to quickly digest a completely unfamiliar topic, journalists turned to the “experts.” Seemingly overnight, in a profession where top scholars can go their entire lives never receiving a single shout-out in a popular news source, Mormon studies practitioners found themselves all over the internet, newspapers, radio, and TV.
Now the moment has passed. The public awareness of Mormonism will not go back to pre-Romney levels, but the calls from the media will return to being few and far between. I have heard some express concern about what this means for the Mormon studies enterprise. What will the passing of media attention mean? Will the funding for programs and chairs dry up? Will journal and university press editors stop accepting, let alone seeking out, Mormon-themed manuscripts?
If Mormon studies atrophies as a scholarly field because the media and public turn their attention elsewhere, then it wasn’t much of a scholarly field to begin with. Academic work should never be driven by the 24-hour news cycle. The legitimacy, solidity, and sustainability of an academic field should not be determined by whether or not it places its people on The Daily Show (no matter how cool that is). African American studies may (or may not) have had a modest boon when Barack Obama was elected, but it did not stake its legitimacy on who resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The worth of what we do in the academy cannot be measured simply by popularity or media attention. While the Mormon Moment no doubt helped raise a modicum of awareness of and respect for Mormon studies, in the end the field must stand on its own two feet. A Romney win, while providing a fascinating set of data points for scholars to study for years to come, would have been a crutch for the field, with scholarly legitimacy resting on the shifting sands of popular politics.
For the past year, the media was never really all that interested in Mormonism—they were principally (and sometimes exclusively) interested in what made Mitt Romney tick. To at least some degree that dynamic took over the Mormon studies community in the past year. It would have only gotten worse if Romney occupied the Oval Office, thus constraining some of the imaginative, creative, expansive work that Mormon studies needs as it continues to mature. If things had been different on Tuesday, practically every book, article, and conference related to Mormonism for the next four years and beyond would have felt obliged to at least partly refract its topic through the lens of the Romney presidency.
The media plays an essential role in our society, and I believe that academics, when called upon, should cooperate with journalists in the service of public education. But while present concerns always shape our scholarship, current events and the 24-hour media cycle should never set the agenda for academic inquiry.
The research university, as my provost is fond of saying, is one of humankind’s great inventions. At the core of the university is the presumption that certain intellectual and aesthetic pursuits simply have intrinsic worth. They are not worthy because they are tied to politics, or to the latest Broadway hit—they are worthy because they are part of the human experience. At its best the academy protects the human value that we can dedicate ourselves to the study of something simply because we are drawn to it. Some things are just good, some things are just beautiful, some things are just interesting, for no greater reason than they simply are.
We are all indebted to the miraculous results of applied research. But the academy must always preserve and protect the inherent worth of pure research. For the past year or more, Mormon studies has necessarily, and productively, been drawn into the realm of applied research. Insofar as Mormon studies scholars have helped illuminate certain elements of contemporary religion, politics, and culture that were previously shrouded for the vast majority of the populace, this is immensely helpful. But for Mormon studies to thrive, it must retain and clearly articulate a lively sense of its own intrinsic worth. It must continue to ask the big questions about how the study of Mormonism helps illuminate certain aspects of the human condition.
Mormon studies is bigger than any of its individual subjects. A Romney presidency would have held the field intellectually captive in many ways, and thus would have offset any of the other gains that may have been had by sustained media and public attention. No doubt a Mormon in the White House would have had a sustaining legitimizing and popularizing influence. But the short- and long-term success of Mormon studies never depended on the fortunes of one particular political candidate. There are certain research questions that cannot be asked since we will not, for a long time, know what it would look like to have a Mormon in the White House. On the balance, however, Mormon studies scholars and students should recognize that a failed Romney candidacy has permanently raised their profile, however marginally, yet left open the horizons for future scholarship unfettered by the vagaries of the latest Rose Garden news conference. And for that we should be grateful.