12 Questions for Kathleen Flake

We are pleased to announce that Kathleen Flake is the next participant in our 12 Questions series. Flake_book Professor Flake’s highly regarded book, The Politics of American Religious Identity (2004), explores the national crisis that developed upon Apostle Reed Smoot’s election to the United States Senate in 1903. She writes that the book is framed by two primary questions: first, “How do religious communities change over time and retain a sense of sameness with their originating vision?”; and second, “What are the political terms by which diverse religions are brought within America’s constitutional order?” Several of us have read or are reading this book now, and heartily recommend it. How often do you get a chance to read a book and concurrently ask the author any questions you may have?

Professor Flake was a lawyer for 15 years before beginning her graduate work in religion and history. She has an M.A. from Catholic University in Liturgical Studies, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in History of Christianity. She currently teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. Last month she presented a paper at Claremont Graduate Univerity’s conference on Mormonism, entitled “Positioning Mormonism in Religious Studies and American History.” She also presented on “Joseph Smith’s Narrative Theology” at last year’s Yale conference on Mormon perspectives.

For more information on her book, here is an article from the Salt Lake Tribune, and here is a brief post by Nate, with some interesting comments. And here are some terrific posts about Smoot from Justin B. at the Mormon Wasp.

Please suggest any questions you would like to ask Professor Flake by Friday, December 10, either by posting in the comments here or by emailing me. Based on your submissions, we will select twelve questions for her and post her responses.

20 comments for “12 Questions for Kathleen Flake

  1. John H
    November 22, 2004 at 1:10 am

    My question:

    The Smoot hearings were a key part of the Mormon transformation at the turn of the century. What specific consequences of the hearings contributed to the transformation, and would the shift Mormonism experienced have been the same had the hearings not taken place?

  2. Kevin Barney
    November 22, 2004 at 10:43 am

    I would be interested in any war stories she has about being a Mormon and teaching at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. How is she received by both colleagues and students? Has she built up enough adacemic goodwill that her Mormonism is a non-issue at this point, or does it still intrude in the department and/or the classroom, and if so, how do those intrusions manifest themselves and how does she react to them?

    Conversely, how has the fact that she is an academic teaching at Vanderbilt affected her church life, if at all? Do members view her with a sense of suspicion, or curiousity, or are they pretty much oblivious?

  3. November 22, 2004 at 11:17 am

    Kathleen Flake wrote one of the best essays I’ve ever read about dealing with the tensions between individuals and institutional authority within the modern church, titled “Rendering Unto the Corporation.” I would love to hear about any feedback she may have received about that very revealing essay, whether she would retract or add anything to it or from it today, and perhaps just reflect a little bit about her intellectual journey as a member of the church.

  4. Greg Call
    November 22, 2004 at 12:02 pm


    Where can I find this essay?

  5. Jim F.
    November 22, 2004 at 7:44 pm

    I would be interested in Professor Flake responding with her thoughts/views/ideas about the relevance of narrative theology to Mormon thinking.

  6. Kaimi
    November 22, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    What are her views on the recent election and the widespread perception (perhaps correct, perhaps not) that religious identity is becoming a useful political tool?

  7. November 22, 2004 at 9:58 pm


    The essay was titled “Rendering to the Corporation: A Personal Ecclesiology,” and was published in the December 1994 issue of Sunstone. I don’t know if it has ever appeared anywhere else.

  8. Aaron Brown
    November 22, 2004 at 10:03 pm

    My question:

    What do you make of the fact that Kaimi thinks “Wenger” should precede “Welch” in a alphabetized list of blogger names, and what is the likelihood that Kaimi will bring order to alphabetic chaos on the sidebar now that I’ve pointed this out to him?

    Aaron B

  9. November 22, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    I’d be curious about her thoughts regarding the neoCalvinist trend in LDS sociology (LDS members who conflate wealth with proof of God’s Grace which comes from inherent merit, much like Calvinists thought that good fortune was proof of salvation, being a worthy vessel).

    Having finally seen Hero (and being tired of artistic tragedy that is unnecessary — vs. the historically necessary heroic sacrifice) I’m also curious how anyone could find that sex scene as objectionable as the ones more common to movies and what that says about LDS culturally.

  10. November 23, 2004 at 10:22 am

    I’m curious to know if there was an institutional reaction or response to her paper, “‘Not to be Riten’ The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon.”

  11. Kevin Barney
    November 23, 2004 at 1:12 pm

    Any reactions to the recent Claremont conference and your participation there? Any thoughts on what they are trying to do in terms of establishing a Mormon studies program?

  12. November 23, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    BTW – Jim, exactly what is narrative theology? You’ve mentioned it several times and I confess my ignorance.

  13. Jim F.
    November 24, 2004 at 12:32 am

    Narrative theology focuses on narrative as theology. Hans Frie was one of the initiators of the movement. See his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. There is presently a huge literature on the topic.

    The basic insight/claim is that theology should focus on the narrative expression of faith (usually but not necessarily expressions in scripture) rather than on developing a metaphysical system that is often assumed to be the structure underlying scriptural and other narratives of faith.

    For a good overview of narrative theology, see this paper.

  14. David King Landrith
    December 6, 2004 at 12:30 am

    I don’t know a great deal about the Smoot hearings. I’ve read some of the more titillating excerpts in contexts where they used in an attempt to discredit this or that LDS claim or practice. I’ve always been under the impression that the hearings were motivated mostly by vindictive and voyeuristic desire to confirm or extract every lurid detail they could dream up about Mormonism. In all likelihood, my impression is fairly common, even though it has all the earmarks of a vastly oversimplified point of view.

    Thus, my question: To what degree do you view the hearings as legitimate use of governmental power? And how would you characterize the motivations that lead to them?

  15. December 6, 2004 at 7:59 pm

    I would be interested in hearing what relationship if any Professor Flake sees between the legal hostility to Mormonism at the turn of the century and the legal hostility to corporations and trusts on the part of legal progressives during the same period.

  16. December 8, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    Here are two questions for Prof. Flake:

    1. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson was once viewed as something like historical trivia, but in recent years became active and relevant precedent when the Senate in our day had to run an impeachment trial. Do you have any sense that the Smoot hearings might likewise become suddenly relevant at some point?

    2. I have sometimes felt that the experience of President Joseph F. Smith travelling to Washington and testifying before the committee — which receives remarkably little comment in traditional histories of the Church — was the key event in transforming the LDS position (the real one) on polygamy, rather than a spiritual prompting toward the Second Manifesto (I haven’t heard the story told that way) or more practical considerations relating to politics and the Smoot question. What was the impact of Pres. Smith going to Washington?

  17. Larry
    December 8, 2004 at 7:25 pm


    If the press had been present when Peter was heard to deny the Saviour three times, what would have been the political fallout? What would have happened if he hadn’t? How does President Smith’s experience differ from Peter’s, if at all, in terms of “lying”?

  18. Rob Briggs
    December 18, 2004 at 7:47 pm

    I haven’t quite finished the book yet but one new view emerging from my reading is that Joseph F. Smith, to a much greater extent than I had realized, is the architect of the modern Mormon church of the 20th & 21st centuries.

    To advance his goal of achieving some degree of acceptance and tolerance for Mormonism in a rabidly anti-Mormon America, Joseph F. steered the church away from polygamy to monogamy; from the political and economic kingdom to the status of a denominational church; from Joseph’s Smith’s last revelation (plural marriage) to his First Vision; and from isolationist retreat from American religious pluralism to participation in pluralistic America. It’s quite remarkable. And quite remarkable that he doesn’t have more prominence in our thinking. How strange that there is no good biography of Joseph F., at least none that I can think of.

    I wonder if Professor Flake is in agreement and if so, would care to elaborate on the central role of Joseph F. to the modern church. This may be overstating things a bit but based on my reading of Flake, I’d be inclined to accept the argument that:

    The modern Mormon church is the church that Joseph F. built.

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