Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Misadventures of Mormon Academia

This isn't about FARMS, Dialogue, Brigham Young University, or any other Mormon specific educational organizations. It is about the rash of Universities that are taking up Mormon studies and holding a few classes. The verdict is still out how successful the studies will be, but the promise is covered in a few shadows.

The first major hurdle is finding a purpose behind the University studies. There is a saying that the purpose of a University education is for the education itself. Most who stand by that conclusion either are full-time educators and humanities students. Those who seek a practical education find University education as a means to an end of making a living. Mormon studies falls specifically in the category of impractical knowledge for knowledge sake. I suppose it falls into the category of Feminist and Black History studies. They are nice for political and self-awareness reasons, but few can get a job by graduating in the subjects.

An example of the lack of usefulness for Mormon studies is Michael D. Quinn who had two strikes against him. His books were highly praised, but were filled with controversial conclusions that cost him broad readership from the audience that cared. Frankly, he would have done better with them if he would have thrown out all sense of scholarship and become purely anti-Mormon. His second problem had a relationship to the first, as he had nowhere else to go with his studies. Having been made a darling with a very minor demographic, he could do no more than write his books. There were no Mormon seminaries that could get him a job as a preacher. There were no Universities that had a need for a Mormon studies professor other than the one that was run by the LDS Church that he had upset.

All the truly successful Mormon writers and academics had other wider interests. Some of the more critical academics who focused on Mormonism were amateurs who held other jobs. Another set were professors who taught other subjects, such as Richard Bushman who was a professor of early American history. Those most invested in Mormonism taught at Mormon institutions, but what they wrote was often more devotional than academic. This has become increasingly the normal expectation. It is hard to know if this is because of Brigham Young University, an unfortunate unintended trend, or the questionable Deseret Books editorial board.

Enter the new fashion of Mormon Studies and Chairs in a few academic circles beyond Mormon central. There is an excitement in the air among some Mormons and particularly those who have been following writings on the subject. As one narrative puts it:

The formation of Mormon Studies Chairs at Utah State University and Claremont Graduate School with similar programs in the works at other institutions of higher learning suggests an affirmative answer to this query [of a place for academic Mormon studies]. I think it is obvious that our intellectual predecessors have worked long and hard to make this possible, and consequently we should be grateful. The formation of chairs, along with other movements in the media and politics, mark a new era in the scholarly study of Mormonism, as universities “scramble” to create classes in Mormonism.

At first glance this makes sense with the list of developments. What has not been reported is that once Romney left the spotlight so did Mormonism in the media. What used to be daily stories of Mormons, Romney as a Mormon, and sometimes Mormon history and theology has disappeared. What remains is the usual suspects of the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. Mormons have by and large fallen off the map again. Then again, that is typical of the news on most subjects. If it isn't immediate (or in the East or California) then it isn't news. The vultures have eaten the hanging flesh and gone to other kills.

Mormon studies haven’t even been able to get off the ground for more than a passing interest. It is great that Universities have taken up some classes, but those who are participating put the positive development into question. It is more like creating a pre-school for a few unruly children who want to finger paint:

Are the Chairs important developments? Absolutely. And Richard L. Bushman and Philip L. Barlow — who were chosen as the first chairs — are both top-notch scholars who produce excellent work both inside and outside of Mormon studies.

The problem is that they are both active, believing members of the LDS church and they both would be welcomed with open arms at BYU — which is where all of the other professors of Mormons Studies, with the exception of a couple professors at Graceland University — are employed. As long as Mormon Studies professorships require an LDS temple recommend, it’s not really at the Academic Table. Sure, everyone’s having Thanksgiving in the same room, but a special kiddie table has been set up for the Mormons.

Mormon studies will not arrive until there are top-notch non-Mormon professors and chairs included in the discussions. Believe it or not the worry isn't that non-Mormons would teach anti-Mormonism, but that they wouldn't understand the texts or history beyond the narrow stereotypes. The Mormons involved with the academic movement might be imperfectly yoked to the religion, but as participants probably better understand Mormon culture. Perhaps by teaching from the inside a few non-Mormons will gain a more rigorous understanding of the often misunderstood religion and peoples. That is a start, but depends on if the adventure can get off the ground.

Perhaps a stept would be teaching from books and articles on Mormonism written by non-Mormon academics. There are a few really good treatments from this group, rare as the choices. They could be used both to compare the responses by Mormons and also as a start to widen the dialogue and viewpoints. That is a list that will be discussed next time.

No matter what at this point, Mormon studies are in danger of dying before getting off the ground.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How Mormons are Viewed by "Other" Religions

The word "Other" was deliberately put in quotes in the title. It seems the only viewpoint noticed by Mormons or the news is from Christians of various denominations. Nowhere has there been news stories about how Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or even Wiccans view Mormonsism. Why this is especially important is the "Mormons are weird" theme that dominated the media. And where does that perception seem to always come from? Christians and atheists. There were a few Jewish perspectives that questioned the Mormon practice of Baptism for the Dead, but ultimately were uncomfortable putting a label on the faith's history and doctrine.

What this seems to say is the media has a myopic vision of the world. It also seems to say that Mormons have an equally myopic vision of the world as they care so much about what newspapers and pundits have to say. Finally, and with the most controversy, it says that the United States is in fact a Christian Nation. That goes for European Civilization as representative of the kinds of stories coming out of those nations. Muslims don't always get treated any different in newspapers where views about Mulsims dominate more than Muslim views. Stories about other religions (despite the number of Hindus around the world for example) are near non-existant.

Religious freedom in the United States might be a tentative fact, but religious diversity is not a reality. It is disengenious to look at Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and etc. and claim religious diversity exists. When Mormons, who consider themselves Christian, are often ridiculed and excluded by the larger religious pluralities then there is serious questions that need answers. If anything, Mormons need to reach out more to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and even Wiccans as a show of solidarity against a tide of monism disguised as pluralism.

The day Mormonism no longer cares what other Christians think of them is the day it might truely become a World Religion in worldview. Breaking out of the Western American mindset will be difficult. Much of its leadership still comes from Utah and Idaho, with pockets of South and Central America. It will be interesting to see the reaction of other religions outside the Christian tradition if Mormonism grows beyond its roots. Will the "weird" label remain? What will criticism from other religious traditions be like? Will compliments of "nice people" be replaced or more likely co-exist with something else? I really want to know how other "Others" see Mormonism, because the United States is less of a melting pot than it would like to pretend. Mostly it comes from a personal curiosity about finding new topics rather than argue the same old stereotypical throwbacks.

I'm bored with Christianity. Bring me something new and interesting to discuss. :)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Mormon Obama Mania will End

I admit that I jumped on the vote for Obama to get back at the GOP (especially Evangelical Christian) bandwagon. This has Mormon Democrats and liberals giddy. However, there are some serious cracks in this floor that will ultimately prove Mormons will walk a path most taken. In the end, ideology will trump anger and revenge. The realization came from reading more than one blog that stated reasons Mormons should vote for Obama. My conclusion was there weren't reasons enough.

For those interested, you can read this Obama mania here, and here, and here to get an idea of what is going on. It sounds plausable enough until you read behind the words. There are still some serious issues that divide mostly conservative Mormons from Democrats and especially liberals.

My first clue to the lack of support Obama will get from Mormons is in the wildly positive Behive Standard Weekly. It starts out persuasive enough. It talks about the Mormon and Evangelical split that occured and the anger of Mormons that one of their own wasn't supported enough. Even worse, the less than hidden anti-Mormon attacks that even the MSM, perhaps as a victory dance, talks a lot about. There is an open pledge by some that they will vote for Obama to remind the Republicans that they can't do without them.

The second half was a huge reminder of why this isn't going to happen. It states, "If Obama moved a small step towards the middle, he could also persuade Mormon right-wingers that he is their candidate as well." Some things are less a step to the middle than an obfuscation or re-working of words and terminology. Others are so seriously different from what Obama's liberalism is right now that the change would be a "flip-flop" that would make powerful Democrats angry. For instance:

Allowing the states to make their respective choices allows the fight to be made at the local level as long as he would support the notion of avoiding one state from having to recognize the more liberal policies of states that might expand rights to their respective gay communities

and then:

On the issue of taxes, simply a pledge that he would allow the markets to work themselves out and not attempt to recreate the "Great Society" policies of the past would easily calm the concerns of Mormon conservatives.

followed by:

Assurances that he would counsel with his generals in making a wise choice on how and when to pull out would not offend many if it was measured and did not waive a white flag of defeat.

It sounds like from these few suggestions is that Mormons would vote for Obama if he was to become Republican. Much of what the quotes above represent is Republican conservative ideals that Obama has proven in the past he doesn't support. The chink in the mail is a voting record that the conservative Mormons would reject:

In the Senate, Obama's liberal voting record belies the centrist themes he strikes on the stump.

The liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action gives Obama a 100 percent voting rating - 5 points to the left of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who gets a 95 percent grade.

Obama backed a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, supported international funding for groups that provide abortion, and opposed reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

And a Congressional Quarterly review found Obama has a near-perfect partisan voting record, casting his lot with the Democratic Party line 97 percent of the time - higher than Clinton and dead even with Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

Among some of his votes that would have Mormons look again, he:

*Voted against extending the Bush tax cuts on capital gains and dividends.

*Voted against the bankruptcy abuse bill.

*Voted against confirmation of Sam Alito AND John Roberts as chief justice.

*Opposed any bans on partial birth abortions.

*Voted against prohibition of state funding for abortions.

*Voted no on notifying parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions.

*Opposed prisoners paying court costs for frivolous lawsuits against the state.

*Voted against having school boards install software on public computers accessible to minors to block sexually explicit material.

*Voted no on paying down federal debt by rating programs' effectiveness.

*Opposed constitutional ban of same-sex marriage.

*Voted yes on factoring global warming into federal project planning.

*Voted no on prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

And the list goes on. Now, these are among the most liberal stances. However, they are still ones that are important to conservatives, and many Mormons. A more comprehensive list shows what he has said on topics and not just his voting record. A second look by Mormons at Obama will prove the end of the mania for the man. As one person said, they might think he is a nice guy and could be friends depsite disagreements, but they wouldn't want him as President.

And so in conclusion I predict that Obama will not get Utah or a large portion of the Mormon vote. That will reluctantly go to John McCain who at least has a conservative record on some things, no matter what he did on others. At most what will happen is a lower than normal Mormon voting turn out. There might even be a minor Romney write in that gets one percent of the votes. Sorry Mormon Democrats, but you have to do better than photo-op and point out how awful the other team has treated the religion. That is a discussion for a later time.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Where do Mormons go from Here?

It has been a very eventful few weeks for Mormons. The beloved prophet Pres. Gordon B. Hinkley died with lots of sorrow and promise for the future. A new First Presidency was called with Pres. Monson taking the mantle. Then Romney suspended his U.S. Presidential run with some fanfair. Perhaps things will return closer to normal, but not without deep changes.

There is so much that was learned, even if it was already an intuitive understanding of the situation. Probably the worst and largest lesson is that Mormons are generally a hated minority. Many who are not Mormon (or Mormons who hold a more positive outlook on people) say this is mostly a persecution complex. A few non-Mormons and many Mormons believe the bias is large and active.

Although Mr. Romney’s withdrawal from the race is likely to quiet the controversy for now, many church members believe the turmoil of the past year will have lasting effects.

“There will be a long-term consequence in the Mormon church,” says Mr. [Armand] Mauss, the Mormon sociologist. “I think there is going to be a wholesale reconsideration with how Mormons should deal with the latent and overt anti-Mormon propaganda. I don’t think the Mormons are ever again going to sorrowfully turn away and close the door and just keep out of the fray.”

The question is, how are Mormons going to stay in the fray? There is no political side Mormons can go to in order to get some respect. Regardless what Democrat Mormons have said, the attacks have come from both the Left and the Right with about the same arguments. Frankly, the negative views on Mormonism are the only thing both sides agree with. If you look at the arguments from both sides you can't tell them apart, other than one side quotes the Bible sometimes. Mormons are alone and don't, like blacks and Jews, have immunity because of powerful political correctness standards.

It is perhaps for this reason my blog has become so inactive lately. Enthusiasm for doing more than commenting on other blogs has softened. One of my goals, beyond a defense of "Orthodox" Mormonism, is trying articulate Mormonism for those who aren't a part of the religion. Not only have I recognized my blog has pretty much gotten ignored by that demographic, but news reports have basically misrepresented and distorted the faith. Nobody really cares to change what they already think and believe. The recent call for members to get more active in blogging came too late. That is a business I have been in for years with little positive to show for the effort.

There is one thing that I have noticed and would like to pass along. It is something that is very difficult to do because stereotypes are easier to digest. The saying goes that the more you learn about Mormonism then the more disturbing it becomes. That is the complete opposite of the usual education about a topic. However, my experience has shown that to be true if the person doesn't seek to understand how Mormons understand Mormonism. Once I have gotten past the "what" of Mormon beliefs and gotten to the "why" and "how" then viewpoints have changed. At least, for those who are more open minded and less quick to judge. They become fascinated by the complexity, richness, and even liberality of the theology.

The problem is that I have found few people willing enough to open themselves to such discussions. It is easier to read about the history and theology of the most unusual kind and dismiss it without question. For the Conservative Christian it is too heretical. For the Liberal it is too religious and literal. Perhaps Mormons must come to the conclusion that they will not be liked or understood because its message is "a curse on both your houses." Not an idea that makes friends easy.

So, should Mormons somehow accept their radicalism? Should they accept the outsider role they have been given? And if they should, what does that mean and how should it look? Maybe Mormons should continue to close the door and keep out of the fray. This time living our lives as we always have and accept, conditionally, second class citizenship and a mediocrity of irrelavancy. Mormons have a work to do and it isn't becoming popular and getting someone elected to the office of U.S. President.