Mormon Studies as a Counterweight

Originally posted April 14, 2013 on UnusualExcitement.com

This blog post, written by CGU PhD student Tom Evans, references the recent CGU Conference in honor of Armand Mauss. The video will be uploaded to the CGU servers soon. Stay tuned for updates to this post and future posts that will direct you to the streaming videos of this conference and other guest speakers.

As Catrina’s post on Monday demonstrates, Claremont Mormon Studies allows for a unique space where insiders and outsiders to the tradition mingle, exchange ideas, and learn from one another.  Another one of the features of student life at Claremont Graduate University is that, due to the efforts of the Mormon Studies Council and the Hunter Chair, a stream of guest lecturers and conferences every year. We hope to highlight these events in this blog as they occur in order to analyze and discuss what top scholars are contributing to Mormon Studies.

On March 15 and 16, Claremont hosted a conference entitled “Beyond the Mormon Moment: Directions for Mormon Studies in the New Century.” The event was subtitled, however, “A Conference in Honor of the Career of Armand Mauss,” and as a consequence featured many homages to Armand and his distinguished career as a sociologist. To open the conference Patrick Mason reflected on the passing of the most recent Mormon Moment and on the nature of Mormon Studies. In the rest of this post, I will briefly discuss part of what Mason said about the nature and future of Mormon Studies interlaced with some personal musings about my journey through Mormon Studies.

Mason sees one of the roles of Mormon Studies as the “counterweight to all the silliness that passes for news and public information.” Most of us have witnessed, either firsthand or in the media, misunderstandings of Mormonism, ranging from laughable to grievous. For instance, upon hearing that I studied Mormonism, one acquaintance of mine expounded his theory of how Brian David Mitchell (Elizabeth Smart’s notorious kidnapper and ex-Latter-day Saint) was simply recruiting plural wives for the fundamentalists in southern Utah. I was able to disabuse him of this notion and give some quick context. However, even despite our best efforts, this type of conversation happens over and over. Personal exchanges are helpful, but they do not fix the larger problem of public information. The presence and persistence of quality Mormon Studies scholarship will probably not quell many memetic Mormon myths, but the continued establishment of Mormon Studies programs will lead more media outlets to consult qualified experts. The visibility of the programs themselves is the most important part of this equation, but the importance of the outflow of Mormon Studies alumni, both insiders and outsiders, into the academy (and other jobs) is no less important.

Mason also hinted at the problems of insider Mormon myths, often as erroneous as the public information profiled above. Mason quoted Armand Mauss, saying that “the policy of denying the priesthood to people of African ancestry was an unnecessary and completely avoidable burden on the fundamental mission of the Church.” As stated, this proposition will likely be debated and contextualized for years to come — but at the very least, the exposure of “racist folk doctrine” that lies hidden in the lived reality of Mormonism benefits all the members of the Church. One of the benefits of Mormon Studies that I have personally experienced is this very type of autoethnographic reflection where I can contextualize myself as a Latter-day Saint and learn what really does (and often what ought not to) constitute my faith.

Continuing, Mason argued that Mormon Studies must “retain and clearly articulate a lively sense of its own intrinsic worth.” What then is the “intrinsic worth” of Mormon Studies? Mason saw this worth stemming from research. Even though applied research helps me and others correct misinformation, Mason sees “pure research” as valuable in its own right.  Quoting CGU’s President Deborah Freund, Mason stated that “The research university is one of mankind’s greatest inventions.” The study of Mormonism, beyond correcting pernicious rumors inside and outside of Mormon circles, “illuminate[s] certain aspects of the human experience and offer[s] insights to all the big questions.”

To conclude, Mason addressed the electoral loss of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, positing that “If Mormon Studies atrophies as a scholarly field because the media and public have turned their attention elsewhere, then it wasn’t much of a scholarly field to begin with.” My time at Claremont has shown me that Mormon Studies as a field is indeed vibrant, compelling, and important. Having been lucky enough to be a student of both of the current Chairs in Mormon Studies (at CGU and Utah State), I have reaped intellectual and personal benefits from Mormon Studies in the academy.