February 20, 2008
Mormon Religion Hot on the Curriculum
by Rachael Grant
“Mormonism and the American Experience” is a new class being featured by Harvard Divinity School, USA, to join other classes on American Buddhism, Jewish Apocalypticism, and Classical Sufism.
The decision to add the class to the timetable reflects the amount of interest, shown nationally, in studying Mormonism in higher education.
The first endowed chairs in Mormonism have been introduced by Claremont Graduate University in California, and Utah State College, both of which are non-Mormon universities. Following on from this, a new group for specialists in the area of Mormon studies has been introduced by The American Academy of Religion.
The increase in interest in the area of Mormon studies has been reflected in academic press, as well as a rise in the number of conferences on the subject, and the number of non-Mormon people choosing to study it.
Melissa Proctor, a visiting professor teaching the new class at Harvard, who grew up in the Mormon church, and who is currently writing a book about contemporary Mormon women, says that some believe it is a Golden Age for studies in Mormonism. “It’s becoming something other religious studies scholars have to take account of and pay greater attention to,” she says.
William. A. Graham, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, admits that Melissa Proctor’s willingness to teach the subject is a big bonus, but it is yet to be clear how long the classes will be available for. He went on to say that Mormonism does appear in other classes which have a wider focus on religion, not usually as a topic for a course itself. He added that as there were so many religious beliefs and areas of life to cover, other traditions such as Shinto or Taoist traditions took priority over Mormonism.
It has been suggested that the visibility of the religion in popular culture and politics has increased the interest towards Mormonism, which may play a role in the demand for classes.
In recent times, negative attitudes towards Mormonism were examined during the campaign of the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney’s race for presidency. The religion has also been considered to be depicted critically on stage and screen, in the HBO series ‘Big Love’, a documentary ‘The Mormons’, and the drama ‘Angels in America’.
However, scholars say that in addition to these factors, there are other reasons for the rise in interest, such as demographic shifts which are seeing Mormons dispersed further than the inland West, as well as religious departments in universities expanding their offerings.
Mormonism has been viewed as a difficult religion to study, in part because of the excommunication of scholars in both 1993 and 2000, when they expressed views that the church considered dissent. Overly restrictive policies regarding access to archives has also been cited as another reason.
Elder. W. Rolfe Kerr, the commissioner of church education, who has previously served as a higher education commissioner in Utah, says that the church is committed to co-operating with researchers. “We’re certainly pleased with the level of interest – we know there will be some lumps we’ll have to take along the way, but that’s part of the process,” he said.
He went on to say that the church is showing a good deal of openness.
The increasing number of Mormon children across America has been another reason cited by the scholars for increased interest in the academic arena. This means that there are not enough places for them at Brigham Young, a church-run university in Provo, Utah, and that Mormon children are entering non-Mormon universities with a demand to be able to study their religion.
Brian. D. Birch, the director of the religious studies program at Utah Valley State College, where four courses in Mormon studies are available, says that “I think it’s safe to say that some combination of academic elitism and religious bigotry has delayed the development of Mormon studies”. He considers one of the reasons is that the religion is viewed to be cult-like, and therefore should not be taken seriously.
Proctor, focusing her Mormon Studies course in areas of history, theology, culture, and society, says that there are plenty of Mormon and non-Mormon people interested in taking the classes, and that after fifteen had enrolled (the maximum allowed) she had to turn people away. She is worried, however, that people will react to the recent excommunications, and that it may be possible that the scholars will be ‘ghettoised’ within academia.
Max Mueller, a 28 year old student in the class, who considers himself to be a ‘loosely liberal Protestant’, hopes to become a scholar of Mormonism. He considers the Mormon history to be an integral part of the history of American religions. “The scholarship is mostly done by insiders, and outsiders have only recently started to pay attention with something other than derision,” he continues, expressing his wish to be part of the developing movement in academia.
Discuss this in the Interfaith forums
Story link: Mormon Religion Hot on the Curriculum
Previous: « Brethren Sect Cleared Over Election Ads
Next: Evolution To Be Taught As ‘Scientific Theory’ In Florida Schools »
Visited 2525 times, 1 so far today