Thanks to Matt and everyone at JI for this opportunity.
For those of us who are interested in Mormon history, particularly in graduate school or the early years of our academic careers, the question of how to position oneself is always a vexed one. I was one who very consciously did NOT want to write a “Mormon dissertation.” That’s why I chose a comparative topic: violence against religious minority groups in the postbellum South. Mormons were one of these groups, but at the time of my dissertation proposal I thought they would represent only a minor aspect of the study. I was as surprised as anyone when they turned out to be the best part of the story, and got twice the coverage in the dissertation and eventually became the centerpiece of my book.
Shortly after finishing my dissertation, I was contacted by an editor at a very good university press—in fact, my original “first choice” press—who asked me to submit my manuscript. I was thrilled, but told her that I hadn’t even touched it. She assured me it would be fine, and encouraged me to submit it as-is, which I naïvely did. It was promptly rejected, with one reviewer being rather scornful in his/her judgment. Getting the reviews, and being dropped by the press like a rock, was probably the most depressing day of my professional career. Moral of the story: never submit an unrevised dissertation to a publisher. I knew better, but was flattered by the invitation.
The only glimmer of light was that even the most negative review said that the Mormon material was original, and good. So despite some advice otherwise, I decided to focus my book on anti-Mormonism in the postbellum South. I spent another summer doing intense archival work. Then I rewrote the whole thing from scratch (though obviously incorporating some of the original dissertation). It was something of a gamble, because I was losing the comparative aspect and potentially branding myself as “just” a Mormon historian. But the more the manuscript developed, the more I was convinced it did in fact make a significant contribution—not only to Mormon history, but also to southern history and American history. Oxford UP had just published Massacre at Mountain Meadows, with considerable success, so I figured if there was ever a time to submit another manuscript on Mormonism and violence, it was then. Never underestimate the power of good timing.
In my early years on the job market I did my best to position myself broadly. This was partly tactical but it was always sincere – from the moment I stepped foot in graduate school, and still today, I consider myself an American historian in general, and an American religious historian in particular, with a special interest in Mormonism. Of course, my new position will give me tremendous opportunities to pursue Mormon studies, and I will take full advantage of it, but I wouldn’t have been offered the position at Claremont unless I had bona fides as a scholar of American religion more generally. It’s tough to tell, pre-Claremont, how potential employers viewed the Mormon scholarship on my CV. It obviously didn’t prevent me from getting two good jobs (at the American University in Cairo and back at Notre Dame). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some search committees, or at least individual members of search committees, saw my work in Mormon history and held it against me. On the flip side, others might have been intrigued. I made sure that any Mormon scholarship I did was outweighed by other things, and so I think my CV, if looked at objectively, is one of a scholar who is interested in the broader story of religious minorities in America, though with a special interest in Mormonism.
It’s too early to tell how my book has been received by scholars of southern history; academic reviews take months and usually up to 2-3 years to come in. Frankly, I’ll be disappointed if the book is ignored completely, as I wrote the book with southern historians as one of my key audiences. I have gotten some good informal feedback from colleagues in American religious history. One bit of validation was getting my article, “Opposition to Polygamy in the Postbellum South,” published in the Journal of Southern History (August 2010). It distills some of the main arguments of the book specifically for southern historians, and was enthusiastically accepted by the journal’s editor (and a leading southern historian), John Boles, who also graciously wrote one of the blurbs for the back cover of the book. I’m convinced that this needs to be one of the futures of Mormon studies – reaching out to and being published in the premier journals of various non-Mormon, and even non-religious, subfields. The fact is that it’s mostly Mormons who read Mormon-themed books, no matter the press, but getting into a “secular” journal guarantees (or at least suggests) a somewhat wider readership.
Now that I have the freedom to do even more work on Mormonism, I’ve got a couple of projects in the hopper, although they are both still in infancy. One is a book on Mormonism and peace, coming out of an article I published in Dialogue several years ago and building on the really outstanding conference we just held at Claremont on the topic. Another project, which will be years in the making, is a full biography of Ezra Taft Benson. Why Benson? For one, I want to push Mormon studies more into the 20th century. Even more, Benson is not only a pivotal figure for late-twentieth-century Mormonism but also a key player in the ideological and organizational origins of modern American conservatism. Although I’d love to have the book out by the Republican primaries next spring, don’t expect to see anything soon—I’m just now starting to read up on the topic. (I’ll just cross my fingers that we have Mormon presidential candidates again in 2016.)
What do I envision for the Claremont Mormon Studies program? I’m fortunate to be building on a strong foundation laid by Richard Bushman, with assists from Claudia Bushman and Armand Mauss. I plan to maintain the current emphases on Mormon theology (as well as history) and women’s history. But I also want to use the program there to push Mormon studies into the twentieth century, as well as paying more attention to international Mormonism, especially given southern California’s strong connections to both Latin America and Asia. Claremont has a new MA program in religion and politics, so I could foresee that becoming an area of strength, particularly as I get further into my Benson research. For instance, I could easily imagine putting on a conference next spring on religion and American presidential politics, with Mormonism either at center stage or occupying a significant supporting role. The wide range of interests among the many graduate students at Claremont who are interested in Mormon studies will be one of the primary determinants of what I hope is a vast array of topics we cover in the classroom, in conferences, and beyond.
Which brings me to the question of the Hunter Chair’s relationship to the institutional church. Officially, there is no relationship. The Howard W. Hunter Foundation has no formal connection to the Church; it is made up of Latter-day Saints from around southern California acting as individuals, and is organizationally and financially independent from the Church. It was clear from the beginning that in order for the university to sponsor the endowed chair, the person filling the position would have complete academic freedom and not be beholden to the Church or even the foundation. However, the members of the foundation are faithful Saints who care about the Church as well as advancing Mormon studies at Claremont. Their investment in this endeavor is a significant trust that I do not take lightly. Without wanting to sound naïve, I am confident—or at least hopeful—that there will not be any significant difficulty in navigating my overlapping identities as a faithful Latter-day Saint and as a serious, credible, even critical scholar. Although not without some trepidation, I welcome the visibility that will come with the Hunter Chair: I am one who believes that scholars should generally be more (not less) engaged as public intellectuals, though always taking care to speak cautiously and responsibly. Nevertheless, the role of the scholar—no matter his/her personal temperament or relationship to the Church—is not to tell the Church what it should or should not do, but rather to provide thoughtful, informed, and considered analysis. Thankfully, I believe we are in an era in which significant portions of the Church hierarchy, and certainly the Church History Department, understand the valuable role that highly trained and independent scholars can have in helping us all better understand the Mormon experience (historical and contemporary) in all its richness and complexity.
Finally, a word on Mormonism and Catholicism, given my lengthy tenure here at Notre Dame, first as a grad student and now faculty. To some degree, it’s hard for me to say how much I have been formed by the Catholic character of Notre Dame, precisely because I’m still swimming in it. One of the things that I deeply admire about this place is its ability to be big-C Catholic and small-c catholic at the same time—that is, committed to both the particular identity of the Church as well as a universal, cosmopolitan outlook in line with the highest values of the academy. This is not always an easy paradox to live out, but in my mind it is a highly fruitful one. Perhaps this is my greatest takeaway, that the tension between particularism and universalism can be a productive one. Going with President Hinckley’s appropriation of an older mistranslation, hopefully we can forge an identity that is at once big-M Mormon and small-m “more good.” Furthermore, while I appreciate all the theological and historical work that has been done on Mormonism and evangelicalism in the past couple of decades, it’s time we shed our inherited anti-popery and start looking seriously at our Catholic counterparts as well.
After all, in the coming years Notre Dame football will be winning national championships while BYU is still hoping to get into a real conference. And I’ll be in southern California enthusiastically cheering against USC no matter who they play.