Brian Birch-The Awkwardness of Mormonism and its Place in Religious Studies

By September 15, 2009

Brian D. Birch is director of Utah Valley University’s Religious Studies Program and serves on the Board of Directors for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He is director of the recently created Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy, and a member of the steering committee for the American Academy of Religion’s Mormon Studies Consultation. His latest book, Mormonism and Christian Thought is forthcoming through Oxford University Press. Brian participated in the September 8, 2009 informal discussion on Religious Studies and Mormon Studies at the University of Utah (see this announcement) and, like Dr. Phil Barlow, has been kind enough to share a version of his remarks here at the Juvenile Instructor.

The Awkwardness of Mormonism and its Place in Religious Studies

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here and to be among good friends and colleagues. Before I begin, I would like to thank Muriel Schmid and the other members of the Research Interest Group for having us here today. My job, as I understand it, is to talk about the relation between religious studies [hereafter RS] and Mormon studies [hereafter MS], particularly the place of MS in the liberal arts curriculum.

As Muriel indicated, I graduated from the University of Utah with both my BA and MA in philosophy. While I was studying here, I was one of many students who passed through the institution who would have pursued religious studies as a major or minor were it available; so to watch this program move forward is a very welcome development and I support the efforts of those involved in this project..

When I graduated in 1992 I couldn’t have imagined returning in this capacity and talking about this issue. Despite my background, I had little interest in MS as I pursued my doctoral studies at Claremont Graduate University. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this was so (perhaps it was some combination of naïveté and ambivalence). Whatever the case, it wasn’t until I returned from Claremont and began teaching at Utah Valley that I began to see the need for, and potential benefits from, the presence of Mormon studies at state universities in the Utah system.

In 2000, under the leadership of my late colleague Eugene England, then UVSC received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to explore how to develop Mormon studies in a state institution of higher learning. The grant supported a year-long seminar for UVSC faculty and administrators and included some of finest scholars in the academic study of Mormonism. Throughout the seminar, there were active debates over what the academic study of Mormonism could hope to accomplish for our students, for the surrounding community, and for the academic community more broadly.

One on the one hand, some argued that the academic study of Mormonism should be guided primarily by concerns in cultural studies, an important objective of which is to identify and ultimately overcome injustice. Eugene England was quoted widely during this time as saying that Mormon studies should both “celebrate” Mormon cultural achievements and also to scrutinize and “criticize” beliefs and practices that were viewed as detrimental to social justice. This view was driven by Gene’s passion for equality and his unyielding hope for cultural transformation.

Others, such as myself, argued that this approach faced both methodological and practical difficulties. The methodological issues are perhaps best kept for another discussion, but the practical difficulties were obvious to me. Which features of Mormonism were to be celebrated? Which were to be critiqued? Who decided? This is certainly not to say that cultural studies could not be a part of a Mormon studies program. In fact, UVU offers a class called “Mormon Cultural Studies” in which issues of race, gender, class, etc., are explored, examined, dissected and the like. What I tried to argue was that this should not be the defining objective of a program around which other educational values revolved.

This second vision for Mormon studies program is to create a space wherein diverse methodologies and perspectives were allowed voice. This imagined space would protect, facilitate, and cultivate ideological diversity, which is itself a core educational value, and perhaps one more central than those of cultural studies. Critics, apologists, dispassionate scholars, and interested observers could be welcomed and supported. The criterion for inclusion and exclusion would be the extent to which a perspective contributed to a rich and stimulating academic discussion.

Tragically, Eugene England became ill and passed away before this discussion had fully developed and I regret not being able to work with him to develop the program in way that integrated both of our perspectives.

The second part of my remarks involves a few observations and comments for further deliberation and discussion. I will begin by stating that, in my judgment, the religious studies community has not quite known how to deal with the rapid rise and influence of Mormonism. Some of this is due to the obvious prejudices that have existed in the American academy, both from secular scholars and the Christian theological community. This is somewhat expected given the history of religious studies in the United States and its still tangled relationships with divinity school education.

At the same time, Mormonism resists tidy categorization. Is it to be understood as a new religious movement, fourth Abrahamic religion, cult, Christian denomination or part some yet to be determined architectonic? Many of us are familiar with Jan Shipps’ argument that Mormonism is a new religious tradition comparable to Christianity’s relationship with Judaism. And though this has been the “go to” characterization of late, the Latter-day Saints themselves are acting more and more like a Christian denomination. This is a long way from the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, which refused to categorize Mormonism as a religion in order to avoid an invitation.

Mormons themselves have found difficulty in characterizing their tradition for academic audiences. Church educational culture has displayed a manifest reticence toward the academic study of Mormonism. For example, as the largest religiously sponsored university in the nation, Brigham Young University has a large faculty in religious education and has committed substantial resources to the study of Mormon history and to projects in ancient near eastern studies. The newly formed Maxwell Institute for Latter-day Saint Scholarship is an impressive organization that supports numerous influential projects in the study of Mormonism. Yet despite its size and influence, BYU has conscientiously avoided support for religious studies. Very few professors have academic training in religious studies or theology despite having a large department of Church History and Doctrine.

Though the situation is changing, LDS students have traditionally been discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees in religious studies, and have been steered instead toward the perceived safer climes of ancient near eastern studies, biblical studies, or advanced degrees in education (to name a few).

Moreover, the sensibility continues to persist that anything not for Mormonism must be against it. This Manichean worldview, though theologically valuable, has limited explanatory effectiveness beyond the Mormon faithful.

I’ll end with two quotes that amplify the importance of perspective and context. The first comes from Alan Wolfe in his essay “Mormons and Money” (penned for the New Republic); the second from Richard Bushman in his address at Weber State University in 2008. This is Wolfe:

“Secular people may laugh at the idea of Joseph Smith coming across a holy book in western New York or discovering that Adam and Eve had lived in western Missouri, but these revelations are neither more nor less believable than Jesus walking on water or Moses parting the sea. It is, however, true that, in comparison to Christianity and Judaism, Mormonism is a very young religion and, consequently, has not had nearly as much time as its counterparts to develop theological justifications for its miracles.”

Now Bushman:

“all the revealed religions are based on miracles. Christianity has its resurrection, Judaism has the parting of the Red Sea and the visit of God on Mount Sinai, and Islam has Mohammed being carried by Gabriel in the night to Jerusalem for a vision. And those revelations, those miracles, are always the most controversial but the most powerful part of the religion because they represent the moment when God intervenes into the world. And it gives immense momentum to people that think that they are in touch with the divine. But at the same time they are always contested simply because they are so miraculous and fabulous.”

Mormonism represents a very real challenge to some of the traditions and sensibilities in the RS community. It is a vibrant proselytizing religion separated from its founding miracles by a just a handful of generations. It thus presents, in my mind at least, a challenge to RS to recalibrate the ways it approaches new religious traditions. This “awkwardness” of Mormonism, however, is also an opportunity, and one that a state institution like the University of Utah can take up in a very positive and constructive way.


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  1. Another thoughtful, engaging meditation on the subject at hand. One point that I would like to see fleshed out is the recommendation to “create a space wherein diverse methodologies and perspectives [are] allowed voice.” Practically speaking, what kind of space is this? An alcove of Religious Studies? Some kind of institutional forum for interdisciplinarity? How exactly does it differ from those spaces created and inhabited by cultural studies (which are typically interdisciplinary themselves)? I agree that a cultural studies paradigm should not be the sole and driving force behind Mormon Studies, but if we are looking to make spaces, I wonder what kind alternatives are available.

    Comment by Ryan T — September 15, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  2. Thanks for this. I want to comment about the following:

    This ?awkwardness? of Mormonism, however, is also an opportunity, and one that a state institution like the University of Utah can take up in a very positive and constructive way.

    I’ve loved hearing about Mormon studies programs/seminars coming into being at universities across the country over the past several years. And I agree that the “awkwardness” problem is actually an opportunity. My only quibble is that I wonder whether the problem can best be ameliorated by Mormon studies programs at Utah state universities, that is, within the state of Utah. True, a majority of the sources and resources are in Utah — it only makes sense to have a foil to BYU within the state — but to the outside world, I wonder how well a MS program from a Utah university can minimize the “otherness” of Mormonism. Doesn’t such a (Utah) program sort of reinforce the existing academic prejudices?

    (I don’t mean to threadjack or detract in any way from Birch’s wonderful presentation.)

    Comment by Hunter — September 15, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  3. Hunter, it is a matter of supply and demand. Where are you going to have a consistent interest in such study outside of Utah? It is sort of like the University of New Mexico and Arizona State having a heavy emphasis on Native American Studies.

    I think for non-Mormons the Utah-LDS connection is obvious and not particularly complicated.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 15, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  4. Yes, Chris H., of course it makes sense on so many levels — including supply and demand — to have a program in Utah. (I disagree with you that for non-Mormons the Utah-LDS connection is not particularly complicated. I think it’s extremely confused and complicated.)

    You ask where, outside Utah, there would be consistent interest in Mormon studies? Well, for one, I’m thinking about the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University. I have long presumed that LDS donors, in part, helped fund that program. (I could be totally wrong.) If so, I have wondered whether there weren’t conversations during the process of setting up that program, about this issue (i.e., the desirability of a Mormon studies program at a non-Utah university). Things seem to be chugging along quite nicely there. And its very existence — outside Utah — must be interesting to outsiders.

    Comment by Hunter — September 15, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  5. Well, since there there is not a graduate program in religious studies in Utah, and not really any undergraduate programs, it does make sense that the program would find its way to Claremont. But Claremont is a somewhat different school that will serve a certain purpose, but I do not think that it will advance the growth and development of MS in the way that a larger state school (whether UVU or USU) can. If there is going to be Mormon Studies programs, there should obviously be Mormon Studies programs in Utah as well.

    I think you Utah issues, might be rooted in something else. So, I will leave it at that.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 15, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

  6. Wow, that is a lot of typos, even for me.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 15, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  7. Chris H., interesting points all, except for that last suggestion — I absolutely don’t have any “Utah issues.” You’re wrong on that one.

    Back to the OP, I think it will be fascinating to see how Mormon Studies programs develop (cultural studies vs. something more open-ended), both within and without Utah.

    Comment by Hunter — September 15, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

  8. I’m ambivalent about the UofU’s religious studies program. The UofU is my alma mater and I still spend a great deal of time there. I’m concerned that the program doesn’t include a Mormon studies component per se. That is, it is a general religious studies program and I fail to see how it addresses Mormon Studies at all. The good news is that the UofU’s program is being shaped and not a fait accompli.

    I echo the concerns that having Mormon Studies programs in Utah does nothing to overcome the prejudice against Mormons — the prejudice that says that Mormons cannot be trusted to define their own beliefs and especially that the Church controls everything that happens in SLC. While this latter prejudice is hogwash, it seems to me to be widely believed in academic circles that I run.

    I am not sure how a general religious studies program even impacts Mormon Studies beyond the kind of programs that already exist in philosophy and so forth. Since Peter Appleby passed away the UofU has been sorely lacking in any kind of religious studies or philosophy of religion offerings. I am a strong advocate of wrenching Mormon Studies out of the monopoly of historical studies and especially keeping expression of Mormon theology and philosophy away from historians who — in my view — often fail to understand the underlying issues and who often (tho not always) poorly articulate the theological ramifications that are at issue.

    I admit to also being a bit uncomfortable about making Mormonism a subject for study at the UofU. There are several departments in my experience that have many (even all) faculty who are overwhelmingly openly critical of LDS culture and beliefs (dare I point to social sciences, women studies and english departments without causing rancor that I really don’t want to dredge up?) My experience suggests that Mormonism may not be treated with the respect I’d like to see. Perhaps that would change with a Mormon Studies program – but I fear it will just be exacerbated with a general religious studies program.

    Comment by Blake — September 15, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  9. Thanks, Dr. Birch, for allowing us to post your thoughts here.

    Blake, you write:

    I am a strong advocate of wrenching Mormon Studies out of the monopoly of historical studies and especially keeping expression of Mormon theology and philosophy away from historians who ? in my view ? often fail to understand the underlying issues and who often (tho not always) poorly articulate the theological ramifications that are at issue.

    I don’t fully understand what your beef is here. Those darned historians, always wanting to put theology and philosophy in their proper historical context. They just really don’t get the ramifications at stake in their research, do they?

    Comment by Christopher — September 17, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

  10. Question: At a school, (like Claremont), how many students (in the program) are needed for a workable Mormon Studies program?

    Comment by Bob — September 18, 2009 @ 11:11 am

  11. […] I think is directly related to the first. This view was recently articulated by Blake Ostler in a comment here last week. The point I want to address is this: I am a strong advocate of wrenching Mormon Studies out of the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » In defense of Mormon history — September 23, 2009 @ 2:21 am

  12. […] following is courtesy of Loyd Ericson. This has been a popular topic on our blog, see here, here, and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Call for Papers: What is Mormon Studies? — October 28, 2009 @ 10:37 am


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