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.