Philip Barlow on Mormon Studies in Relation to the Liberal Arts

By September 14, 2009

Philip Barlow is the Leonard Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. Dr. Barlow has written Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991); as well as the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (Oxford, 2000, co-authored with Edwin Scott Gaustad); and with Mark Silk co-edited Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Denominator? (Alta Mira Press, 2004). He is past president of the Mormon History Association, 2005-2006. On September 8, 2009 at the University of Utah, an informal discussion was held about the place of Mormon Studies in the larger field of Religious Studies. See this announcement. We’d like to thank Dr. Barlow, who has been kind enough to share his prepared remarks for that discussion here at the Juvenile Instructor.

Mormon Studies in Relation to the Liberal Arts

Mormon studies in the liberal arts invites consideration in two domains I’d like to touch on.  One is conceptual and theoretical.  The other is political and social.

When I departed my Utah homeland decades ago for Boston to study religion, I intended to study everything but Mormonism, which I thought I understood.  Over the years, as I considered the sources by which scholars drew their examples and conclusions, however, it dawned on me that my homeland was a rare goldmine of resources for the study of religion.

After graduate school, as I moved about the country, talking, teaching, and continuing to learn about religion, I was increasingly fascinated by the absence of a programmatic course of study in Utah’s secular colleges and universities.  For several years, I spent time making hundreds of maps of aspects of religion in America.  Had I thought to, I could have made one showing the locations of programs of religious studies in the nation, thereby demonstrating a large and prominent Gap in the Rocky Mountains.

It’s a mark of the maturing of the culture that this is changing.  And I mean both the religious and the secular culture.  I congratulate the University of Utah for contributing to this change, and for its achieving the establishment of a formal “Minor” in Religious Studies for students and the beginnings of a wider place for the academic study of religion on campus and in the state.  This step of progress has, I know, been hard won.


Schools may of course offer pre-professional training–in, for example, engineering or medicine or computer science.  But at the core of a genuine university is the liberal arts.  And it is useful to remember that the disciplines that comprise these arts are artificial and evolving.  They are inventions: more or less useful tools and procedures.  If one asks a student what these tools and procedures are for, one may hear that the liberal arts “make us into well-rounded people.”  Or, among the more schooled, that the liberal arts foster competent citizenship.  Behind such responses, however, lurks a more basic question.  This question doesn’t always get conveyed in an explicit way to undergraduates.  (Because of poor teaching?  Or over-specialization among the faculty?  Or students? eagerness for certification and employment rather than a liberal education?)  Perhaps the question is not always discerned even by those who teach the undergraduates.  In any case, the question can be structured something like this:  What does it mean to be human? How have diverse societies gone about it across time?  How shall we?  What is the nature of the physical and biological universe in which we are making our way?

One would think it self-evident that the study of religion fits easily within this project.   Religion, it might be argued, is the most obvious of laboratories for our consideration, where individuals and organizations pursue what it means to be human in distilled, compressed, and intentional ways.  Religion is either the most powerful motivating and directional force on the planet, or it shares that honor with money and other forms of power.  In a post-September 11th world, and in an era when religion unmistakably influences American politics, it seems hard to ignore religion altogether, and perhaps that helps account for the recent sea-change in Utah’s universities.

However, the fact that religion is often treated superficially, if at all, in addressing this ultimate question behind the liberal arts may have other causes, one local and another more widely shared.

Garrison Keillor can charm a radio audience on any given Saturday by recounting narratives of the mythical town of Lake Wobegon.  In considerable measure the humor depends upon the idea that, as Keillor once said explicitly:  “Everyone in Minnesota is Lutheran”–whether they are Lutheran or not?  This is decidedly not so of Mormons and Utah.  Everyone in Utah is NOT Mormon, and those who are, and those who are not, tend to be highly conscious of the distinction.  For the past half century, the attempt to initiate a formal study of religion in higher education here has been heretofore undercut by forces afraid that the enterprise would become a disguised fostering–or undermining–of religion and of Mormonism in particular.

A second reason why the study of religion may be shunted aside is that its nature is often ill-understood: “Its all that sticky-sweet God and church stuff.”  Or: “It is simply enacted fanaticism.”  By contrast, incidentally, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are in some quarters trained to recognize that religion is crucial to mental and social health or dysfunction.  As one supervisor of psychiatrists instructs his colleagues: “Find out what your patient’s religion is, even if he does not know she has one.”  The implied definition of religion here is “worldview”; everyone has a worldview, hence everyone is religious.  Others talk about religion as one’s “ultimate concern,” or as the quest for meaning, God, or the transcendent.

But a religion is more than the “religious impulse” of individuals.  A full-blown religion (that is, a religious movement) is comprised of, among other things, a worldview, a system of values and ethics, a community (“religio”: to bind together), and a devotion and devotional ritual that symbolizes the worldview, values, and community.

The formal academic approach to these elements, developed especially since the 1960s, is known as “Religious Studies.”  Religious Studies, however, is variously understood.  It is sometimes construed as treating a topic, and sometimes as a discipline.

As a topic, Mormonism, like any other religion, may be fruitfully studied by historians, philosophers, anthropologists, students of literature or the law, and others.  In the right hands, we may go farther: these elements of a religion may be compared to those of any other religion.  I say “in the right hands” because the comparison presupposes substantive competency in more than one tradition, which is difficult.

In a more disciplinary sense, Religious Studies may be construed as going beyond comparison and contrast to concern with a different sort of inquiry.  The focus is on matters of religion and identity and culture, and on how religion “works.”  In particular, the inquiry asks after the relationship between belief and behavior, and between a religious community and the surrounding culture.

What Religious Studies as a discipline can bring to the study of Mormonism is to relate religion to these distinctive questions of religion’s workings and of their relation to culture and identity, as exemplified particularly well in the works of Jan Shipps and Kathleen Flake.  And what Mormon Studies potentially contributes to Religious Studies is a spectacularly rich instance–one of the best case studies available–through which to apply these questions.

This is because, first, as Shipps has argued, Mormonism may be construed as the emergence of a new World Religion (like Christianity or Buddhism).  In addition, Mormons have been from early in their history world-champion record keepers.  The emergence of this new world religion is thus extraordinarily accessible for study–and this from its very beginnings, unlike any other genuine World Religion.  Indeed, a study of Mormonism’s emergence, distinctive as it is, even has the potential to pose hypothetical scenarios for the rise of the classic world religions.  That is, the probing of Mormonism has the capacity to generate insights, categories, and systems that may reveal patterns illuminating the still obscure history of the world’s major religious traditions.

Religious Studies in the context of the liberal arts may ask such questions as:  How does a new religion get “birthed” and, once here, how does it find traction in the world, establishing its new vision of the world and its new values and ritual and community?  How do successful religious traditions survive their infancy and transcend the culture in which their formation occurred, so as to become world religions?  Once established, religions either change or die; how does a religion navigate profound change without losing its identity?  What portions of a tradition’s literature become sanctified as scripture, and why and how?

Given this rich potential of such questions, Mormonism might even be a prime candidate for inclusion in a course on World Religions.  If the influential Jonathan Z. Smith has it right, we ought not teach introductory courses for their own sake; rather, we ought to teach them in the interest of liberal education.  Smith argues that as long as we don’t misconstrue undergraduate education as simply a preparation for graduate education, then ?There is nothing that must be taught, there is nothing that cannot be left out? in the Introductory course. We are commissioned to teach critical thought.  “Arguments and interpretation are what we introduce; our particular subject matter serves merely as the excuse, the occasion, the example.”  Less coverage, in the tradition of the college “survey” course is better.  Mormonism, because of what I suggested earlier, might prove a marvelous though unconventional subject for such a purpose.

Despite Mormonism’s colorful and distinctive ways and history, then, study of the movement can function as a potential tool for better understanding the dynamics of religion as such.  It follows that the study of Mormonism ought not be only for Mormons.  Brian [Birch, who also participated on the panel] is more able than I to comment on the situation among philosophers, but if I were to venture to name the dozen best or nationally most influential historians or sociologists or formal students of Religious Studies who focus on Mormonism, perhaps half of them would not themselves be Latter-day Saints.  In graduate programs around the country, an increasing number of students who are not LDS are attracted to the problems and opportunities of the field.  And in an environment such as Salt Lake City, one is simply a less competent citizen than she might be if she knew Mormonism in a more probing way than can be achieved by casual encounter.

Conversely, LDS students at the University of Utah need to know that LDS scripture and LDS leaders encourage secular knowledge and religious knowledge.  And they need to learn that Religious Studies represents the opportunity for crucial secular knowledge about a religious topic. Many students are of course going to think: Why would I need secular knowledge about my religion?  But this is a bit like thinking, “God made my body; why would I need medical knowledge about my body?”  Or: “God made the universe; why would I need to study chemistry or geology or biology?”  Such rhetorical questions entail errors in both logic and Mormon theo-logic.  Moreover, such sentiments are out of touch with new attitudes and policies issued by the Church itself, which has cited with approval the development of Mormon Studies in secular university settings.  A parallel expression of open attitudes is expressed on the official LDS website, whose Newsroom section maintains (since June 11, 2009) a remarkable, healthy statement on history.  This statement is legitimately a religious document, offering a kind of theology and philosophy of the role of history for members of the church.  But while, as a religious document, it is highly conscious of God’s hand in dealing with the Mormon people, it is also a remarkably open and thoughtful document, whose spirit amounts to an invitation to a deeper partnership with professional-quality historical inquiry.  The statement observes that…

The Mormon worldview compels a historical consciousness.  [And] the Mormon historical consciousness impels one to step outside the comfortable confines of the present [and to] develop empathy to understand the past?. To preserve history is to shape identity?.  The new Church History Library is the substance behind the growing emphasis of transparency in the Church’s interaction with the public?  It is in the interests of the Church to play a constructive role in advancing the cathartic powers of honest and accurate history. In doing so, the Church strives to be relevant to contemporary audiences that operate under changing cultural assumptions and expectations. A careful, yet bold presentation of Church history, which delves into the contextual subtleties and nuances characteristic of serious historical writing, has become increasingly important. If a religion cannot explain its history, it cannot explain itself. [Quoted from “A Record Kept”]

Among LDS believers hoping to integrate the life of the mind with the life of the Spirit, this has to be encouraging language.

The teaching of Religious Studies in a university classroom in Salt Lake City, and the fostering of a program in which one can Minor in Religious Studies, is apt for the foreseeable future to require clear, thoughtful, imaginative, patient-but-not-reticent expression.  It is also going to require sensitive attention to institutional and cultural context.  This is not a secularized Europe, which is in need of not only Religious Studies but also something like what has been launched at Trinity College in Connecticut by my friend Mark Silk: a Center for the Study of Secularism.  In Europe, a professor might need to instruct students with such a preface as this: “There was, before your time, a civilization–the majority of civilizations that preceded and are contemporary with you” that constructed reality very differently than you do?.”

But at the University of Utah, where half the students are Mormon and the strong majority are religious, the success of the enterprise to teach of religion (let alone Mormonism) from an academic vantage is sure to be constricted if it fails to make a plausible, comfortable space for inquiry among its natural constituents.  This in turn will require some building of bridges, some reaching out, some laying of groundwork for and to places like the Newman Center, the Hillel Center, and the LDS Institute of Religion.  A start has been made, but these good endeavors will need to grow strong roots if they are to overcome almost a century of mutual suspicion.

Dr. Barlow has published Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991); the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (Oxford, 2000, co-authored with Edwin Scott Gaustad); and, as co-editor with Mark Silk, Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Denominator? (Alta Mira Press, 2004). He is past president of the Mormon History Association.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks to Phil for allowing this to be reproduced here. It is a very thoughtful presentation and encouraging.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 14, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  2. Thanks for this. As a historian-in-training in a ‘religious studies’ program and someone constantly contending within myself about the value of both disciplines, this provides good food for thought. I especially appreciate the thoughtful articulation of exactly why a ‘secular’ awareness of the Mormonism is good Mormon doctrine. I also think the argument striking that Mormonism represents an ideal domain for religious studies…I’ll be interested to see if my fellow-students and faculty here agree.

    Comment by Ryan T. — September 14, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  3. Thank you Phil for this contribution. I appreciate that you identify that both secular and religious communities have matured in their understandings of one another (and that they still have some maturing to do).

    Ryan, I also find the argument compelling.

    Comment by Jared T — September 14, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  4. Thanks for posting it. Now I don’t feel so bad about my laptop battery dying.

    Comment by BHodges — September 14, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  5. Fascinating. Glad I got to read this. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — September 15, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  6. […] 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 27, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  7. I remember being a college student (twenty years ago) meeting with others at the Barlow’s home. Phil and Debe Barlow helped me to understand that it doesn’t mean your faith is weak if you ask questions. I am so happy that he is in the position now to help others to see that as well.

    Comment by Susie — March 12, 2010 @ 4:23 pm


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