Mordred had a point…

Among Mormon History nerds, “Camelot” refers to the period of time in the 1970s and early 1980s when Leonard Arrington served as Church Historian. It is traditional to look back on it as a Golden Age that was tragically lost. To be sure, Arrington’s tenure as Church Historian was a heady period of open access to sources, institutional support for Mormon historians, and daring young-turk researchers producing thrilling task papers on subjects like “Andrew Kimball and the Indian Territory Mission” and “The Mutual Improvement Association : a preliminary history, 1900-1950.” The end of Camelot, according to the traditional story of events, was the beginning of the dark ages in Mormon studies. Arrington and his knights of the round table were sent packing to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute at BYU, and access to the archives was severely cut back.

There is some real truth to the traditional story of “Camelot” and its fall had a certain tragic element. I wish that researchers had more access to materials in the Church Archives. (Although truth be known, there is much more access today than many a pessimistic dabbler in Mormon history assumes.) Still, at the end of the day, I think that killing off Camelot was a good idea. The problem comes precisely because with the increasing sophistication of the work of Arrington and others, the Church qua Church would have been required to take positions on particular issues of scholarly interpretation. Yet it seems to me that this is precisely what we don’t want. I really don’t want an official Church interpretation of Mountain Meadows, or — on a more pedestrian level — the relative merits of economic or ideological explanations for the failure of this or that 19th century Mormon communitarian endeavor. To be sure, one can work for the Church without producing history that is in some sense “official.” And it is nice that the Church puts resources behind the study of Mormon history — like building the new Church History Library or supporting the perennially delayed Joseph Smith Papers Project. I am not against involving the Church institutionally at some level in Mormon studies. On the other hand, the idea that the best and the brightest Mormon historians ought to be having their arguments within the confines of the Church Office Building strikes me as a bad idea.

38 comments for “Mordred had a point…

  1. I think that’s a good point. At the same time though we then need independent bastions of Mormon Studies. And that’s only really been happening the past couple of years. It would have been nice had it started in earnest 20 years earlier.

  2. One effect of the end of the Arrington spring is that it created a strong market for historical Mormon documents. If the archives had not been closed, Mark Hoffman would not have been able to scam the church like he did. Manyof the fakes he created were actually in the archives. This cost the church not only millions of dollars in money but much in reputation. The back lash of having a evil genius like Hoffman almost change the perception of church history slapped many like Quinn, who were honestly exploring new avenues and perspectives, right in the face. Every new idea was suspect. If Hoffman could fool the prophet with his lies then any historian was suspect. In the lay Mormon mind history is not reliable, not to be trusted. We have still not paid the entire price for this as the internet floods the world with information and mis-information more quickly than the scholars can process it.

    If you ask many ex-Mormons why they left, often you will hear a story about a journey of discovery. If we had been more open about our history back in the 1970’s and reached more of a thoughtful concensus of what likely happened and what didn’t and why, I do not think many of these journeys would have been possible. These apostates would have been forced to come up with a better reason to leave or maybe, not left at all. In the future many more of these journeys will be likely as more gain access to computers. The church finds itself too much on the defensive now with a story that can not stand close scrutiny.

    As far as the church taking positions, they do not have to under any circumstances. Read the front of President Hinckley’s book, Standing for Something. It states that the opinions are his and not the official opinion of the church. Hwe ahs been an apostle for over 40 years and running the church for maybe 15-20? This strikes me as absurd, but the attorneys must be obeyed.

    I don’t think that the best and brightest historians were ever confined to within the walls of the buildings the church owned either at BYU or in Salt Lake or anywhere else. The idea that they could or would be confined strikes me as odd. This is not the middle ages, people all over the country talk about Mormon history. Whether we as a church want to be part of the conversation or not is our only choice in an open society.

  3. Nate:

    The Church continues to produce “Official History”. Richard Turley, Jr., the Managing Director of the Family and Church History, writes books, talks at conferences and enforces policy regarding access to historical materials. BYU produces films about Joseph Smith’s life, the museum produces exhibits, the Ensign publishes historical articles, the church publishes collections of statements by the past presidents of the chuch.

    This is, for the most part not peer reviewed “scholarly” work, but rather work for a popular audience, inside and outside the Church. And that is an important part of what Arrington, Allen, Leonard and the others who worked with them tried to do as well.

    I remember how excited my mother (just a regular stay-at-home mom with 5 kids) was by a talk Arrington gave in our local “education week” in Boise the early 70s about opening up the trunks of records that had been packed during the Utah war and not unpacked since.

    The tragedy is not that high quality scholarly professional history won’t be done outside the chuch office building, it is that high quality quality popular “Official History” won’t be done inside it.

  4. Mike, forgive me for being blunt, but to your point about the church not needing to take official positions despite , because we can always put in disclaimers, I say, “Baloney”.

    Who reads disclaimers? Every time I sign up for some internet news service or install an update to an old software package, every time I change my telephone service, every week it seems in connection with this or that nowadays I am faced with an eight-page-plus “disclaimer” which I promptly ignore. Do you read all of those? More to the point, GAs have been putting disclaimers in their books for decades. Do church members pay those disclaimers any attention? Not that I’ve seen. Maybe they should, but to insist on this is spitting into the wind. For practical purposes, work that comes out from researchers whose work is sponsored by the church will be seen as normative, or quasi-normative, by most readers. Hence the church has to exercise discretion in what research it supports, or even cooperates with.

    That said, I think the church is right to be expanding again the historical work it directly supports.

  5. Ironically, in the wake of the closing of the Smith Institute, a lot of the JS Papers folks have packed their bags and moved back up to SLC.

  6. Ben, I think the reason the disclaimers are important is so that people who disagree can point to it and say it isn’t official church position. That’s been very helpful over the years in Priesthood and Sunday School discussions. So perhaps not every reader pays attention, but when people promulgate the ideas, it definitely affects how discussions play out.

  7. But when people are actually in the golden age they rarely even know it. It’s not that they don’t gaze at each other in wide-eyed stares of amazment at their good fortune, which they do — it’s that they don’t fully realize the rarity of what they’re witnessing. And I’d dare say that Times & Seasons in general and Nate Oman in particular are of the nature of such an Age: Never have I perused a blog of Nate’s that wasn’t just bristling with conflict, like all good literature — Nate, a scholarly Indiana Jones, always exuberant about some gem of insight, some reconciliation that renders some old confusion or another newly understandable; with Nate, we witness someone taking a moment to lift his head up from his study of some mysterious-to-us blueprint; but whereas those of us who are only casual onlookers sees only piles of stacked limestone on pallets and some footings having been set for some structure or another that’s yet to be, we can sense that in Nate’s eye’s is a vision some shining and marvelous temple soon to be realized. And of those people who come to scoff, out of their number are some who happen to be experts and who come to the scene with sincerely skeptical questions, and to one or another of them Nate will on occasion look up from the blueprints to suggest some glorious observation or redeeming explanation about this design of how things could be, if only they could be thus envisioned — and how, for those who have come to bring this enterprise about, these things will soon come to be.

  8. Ahh. I worked in Camelot. And I have to say it was a wonderful time. Such energy and hope and belief and optimism.

    But I’ll also agree Nate is cool.

  9. DKL, of course you are right that the disclaimers are important. I am very glad they are there, and I have pointed them out to people on more than one occasion. My point was just that they don’t remove the need for discretion in writings (or speakings) that are likely to be taken as authoritative because of close connections with the church.

  10. Nate’s statement that “the Church qua Church would have been required to take positions on particular issues of scholarly interpretation. Yet it seems to me that this is precisely what we don’t want.” seems to me to be probably a soft-pedal of the actual facts (I don’t think the man has a naive bone in his body). The Church by exercising controll over sources, establishing norms through departments, molding majority opinion through “popularizing” versions of Mormon history, etc. to intervene actively in adjudicating between versions of history, whatever the alibis it can muster about positions being official or not.

    I’m disappointed with T&S because, although it is often very topical and in-tune with the daily news, its boards have completely ignored (even when, as here, it fits in perfectly with the discussion) the Wall Street Journal article yesterday, April 6th, precisely on the types of control that denominations and persuasions exercise on scholars and their fields of study through the academic hiring process in religious studies departments seeking to create religion-specific chairs. Searches in Mormon Studies at the U of Wyoming, U of U and Claremont were subjects of discussion in the context of their systematic discrimination against dissident scholars. D. Michaell Quinn was included in the article to illustrate the sad case of a man and scholar who finds himself sleeping on the floor in his mother’s house because he has been rendered unhireable through the subtle and not-so-subtle exercise of control over history as practiced by the Church and the members it influences. Now, it doesn”t surprise me that some on this and other boards might take issue with some of Quinn’s scholarship, etc. But, I do think it’s a shame that he doesn’t again even merit a mention. As if no one here reads The Wall Street Journal.

  11. Aletheia: Um, the article is mentioned above in the comments on this thread. Furthermore, there is an excellent discussion of this article by Clark Goble at, and I saw no reason to duplicate the thread here. I did link to Clark’s discussion on the sidebar. In addition, there was a good discussion of the WSJ article at There are lots of things at T&S to get outraged about, but I don’t think that this is one of them…

    As for the Church’s involvement, I don’t deny that it is there. In a sense, I think that the Church has a legitimate interest in having a voice in academic discussions about it and its past. I just don’t think that the Church Historical Department should necessarily be the primary forum for Mormon history. I do think that you are making the case a bit too strongly to suggest that the Church has some sort of policy of exerting pervasive control over scholarly discussions of its history. Furthermore, the cases discussed in the WSJ article were not of the Church qua Church intervening to control Mormon Studies chairs, but rather of institutions making decisions with an eye to the donor base, which quite naturally for Mormon studies consists of active Mormons, which is somewhat different than the Church itself. Indeed, the only statement from a Church official in the article was quite pointedly neutral about Quinn and acknowledge his scholarlly qualifications.

  12. There are lots of things at T&S to get outraged about, but I don’t think that this is one of them…
    What are some of these thing? I’m bored on a Saturday night and would love to get my blood boiling.

  13. Who knows where things will end up, but I spent this week in the Church Archives and I think people may be surprised at how open they are…

    The Dark Ages are over.

  14. Nate, I may have inadvertently missed the mention of the article when I perused the messages above. As I said in my own post, I am more disappointed than outraged although my disappointment does have the overflowing content and slight acidity that characterize outrage on the Internet.

    That said, there are a few points where I disagree with you. I think the constituency for a Mormon Studies position at a public university is the whole swath of its students and its faculty. You’re right that donors that would endow such a chair are more likely to be active Mormons and even active Mormons who would like to pursue an intellectual agenda through their endowment. I think, however, that universities (and this doesn’t just hold for Mormons or religious studies) have a responsibility to attenuate their donors’ desire for influence by remembering their larger constituency and their missions to safeguard vigorous, secular and bias-free education. Certainly this is an ideal and I’m nowhere near naive enough to think that university committees and fundraising deans always stick to them. But, I also think that when the donor is someone like Ira Fulton who says out of one side of his mouth that he doesn’t influence hiring decisions and out of the other side that Mr. Quinn is a “nobody” or when Dr. Larsen at the U of Wyoming is making promises to “church leaders” that the position won’t be in “anti-Mormon studies” with the implication that they would be the arbiters of such a thing then, perhaps, the school should consider foregoing the donation or setting terms for its acceptance that serve the university better. Mormon studies shouldn’t be a position for Mormons only nor one “owned” by Mormons nor one guaranteed to be sympathetic to Mormons. (To be sure, I have a problem with “sympathy” being the seeming proposed standard among the hiring committees portrayed in the WSJ article. I think the process of becoming a professor in the field is a strong guarantor of knowledge and interest, the real qualifiers beyond sympathy).

    Now for a disagreement that is more definitional than anything else. This has to do with this entity we’re calling the Church qua Church. When exactly might this entity take responsibility for its real world effects? It seems to be a thing that keeps displacing itself not only in the discussion here but in entries on this board that I’ve been reading for months. The LDS Church relies on a hierarchized but lay priesthood so one can’t draw a line – here the church is at work, here it’s not – by looking at the activity of priests, bishops, etc. as against laity as one might if she were to oversimplify in the analysis of the Catholic or Greek Orthodox Church. Would official church documents, memoranda and the like be the trace of the Church qua Church in action? What level of inspiration and authority would they have to have to be deemed so endowed? (In the inspired canon? Out?) Could we count the Church’s work through subsidiary and controlled organizations (Bishop’s storehouses, say)? What about the formation of opinions and paradigms among members that effect how they behave towards others and interact with extra-religious institutions? All of which to say that the Church as Church – mystical body if you will, association of religionists and structure of hierarchy – is involved when someone like Quinn is excommunicated, persecuted administratively (Let him participate at the Yale conference and we’ll pull our dough), and finally marginalized to the point where he’s living with his mother at the age of 62. If it’s not a pervasive and conspiratorial exercise of influence, it is certainly non-accidental and non-individual. And it isn’t just academic institutions being sensitive or exercising decision-making or individual donors standing up for an independently-arrived at view of the function of the position.

  15. I’m sympathetic to a lot of your points, Aletheia. Your point about what counts as action by the church and what doesn’t is very interesting and important. If we have a lay priesthood, and priesthood holders act in the way they think best, in light of their understanding of what is good for the church, what the truth is on spiritual or ecclesial matters, etc., is that the church acting? The answer isn’t obvious.

    I think you are being pretty idealistic about academia though if you think Quinn lacks a job because of some church-based conspiracy. Quinn is in a tough spot, and it is sad things worked out that way, but there are plenty, plenty, plenty of people who one would think deserve an academic job who don’t have one. Academia is a tough, tough market in any field, and the position he was turned down for at the U is the only university job primarily in Mormon Studies I know of. Others are being talked about, but they don’t exist yet. So for someone whose scholarly work is so focused on Mormon history, it’s not actually that surprising that he doesn’t have a job. I think it is a serious problem for Mormons that one can’t get a job doing scholarship mainly on Mormonism, because we need more work to be done in Mormon Studies, but there are a few contributing reasons for that, and we will just have to see how things go with these new efforts.

    As for how to set up such positions, and how to select people, if you want to trust academic training to produce scholars who will speak perceptively and responsibly about Mormonism and the like, well, where is the program in Mormon Studies that would produce these people? There isn’t one. So there is no such thing as a standard credential. (Quinn is a trained historian, but what if someone trained in European history goes and writes on ancient Ur? It’s anyone’s guess if it will be sound work.) So we have to fall back on other ways of identifying quality. A standard practice in hiring for special positions like this is to get letters on the candidates’ work from others in the discipline, but there isn’t really a discipline here in the usual sense. There is more of one for Mormon history than for Mormon Studies in general, but even that is quite different from, say, the state of the discipline of American history. Without a standard credential, and without a healthy community of scholars, it is difficult to identify quality work, and more, it is difficult for anyone to do quality work the way one can in established disciplines. One of the things a community of scholars does is review work and give criticism that improves it and corrects for the odd biases or blind spots of any particular researcher. I don’t know Quinn’s work myself, but I have the sense that it has not benefited from the sort of peer review one normally expects in academia. That is in part just bad luck, but if we’re thinking about how to judge those who are trying or preparing to hire people in Mormon Studies, it’s not their fault the discipline is in its infancy either. Under the circumstances I can understand their being wary about hiring Quinn, particularly given how controversial his work has been. I have done and will continue to do some work in Mormon Studies, but I don’t expect that to be the main reason anyone would hire me, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that it won’t be. Fortunately, I have lots of other things I want to work on, mainstream stuff to be circulated in and judged by the established institutions in my field.

    I happen to think Clark’s analysis was very sharp on this, so I hope you got a chance to read his post.

  16. Ben, I would agree that there is no simple answer to the question of “Is the Church acting here and in what capacity?” given LDS lay priesthood and given the complex ways (direct, indirect and in-between) that what one might call the “official” Church can act. That said, I think it is rhetorically, argumentatively and intellectually dishonest to declare that the Church is not at work when it works by consensus, shared values or indirect mechanisms.

    I think I was careful in my posts to state that I don’t think a conspiracy is at work. If not, let me repeat: I don’t think a conspiracy is at work. Neither do I think that Pres. Hinkley has issued a fatwa against Quinn. I do think that there is a combination of circumstances (an emerging sub-field in religious studies, a distaste for Quinn among some members of the Church put off by the mark of excommunication (A Church act if there is one), a sanctioned image of a “good” candidate among the hierarchy (that someone like Dr. Larsen can play up to and against, etc.). In other words, amongst many factors, the Church is exercising influence and that can’t be excused by an “But it wasn’t us” argument.

    Mormon studies is in its infancy and, I’d say, Mormon history as a distinct sub-field is still a toddler. I think the recognition of this fact – in some of the posts on the sites Nate kindly referred me to but, let me insist, not yours – is made for surreptitious purposes. I’ve been around academia enough to know that declared reasons for the disqualification of a candidate for a post are often not reasoned or sound (and hide alot of other, even less reasonable ones). So, for example, these posts suggested that Quinn should have known he was specializing in the unemployeable or that his academic work was substandard because he published with Signature (Where, I say, was the man supposed to be publishing, especially after his split with BYU, excommunication? What’s more, what mainstream journals were open to a trailblazer in a new field?) The acrimony of some of the arguments leads me to think that, perhaps, a Mormon Studies professorship is premature and the focus should shift to changing a university culture towards that is often hostile towards Mormonism in depts. like Cultural Studies, American Studies or history so that specialized scholars like Quinn can pursue their valuable studies in a setting that, with changes, would allow them to maintain some of their intellectual/scholarly integrity. [After all, I think its wrongheaded when not meaningless to expect a scholar to be positive or talk nice about his subject (with here the institution of the Church rising up like the Loch Ness)]

    Finally, I’d simply declare some of the reason for my interest. I’m the type of non-Mormon who has taken classes on Mormon history and would be interested in taking classes in Mormon Studies. As the sort of constituent that I would hope is also in the minds of faculties, donors and the Church when they think about encouraging the development of such positions and the giving of classes, I am disheartened by the “Quinn affaire”. I’ve read his books, liked them reasonably, and think he’d make a solid addition to a faculty. For all the attacks on him, I haven’t hear any mention of solid, alternative candidates except maybe Shipps (Who are they? Are they really competitive with the man or just more palatable?). And, one of my fears is that, once the triumph of the entry of Mormonism into the secular academy as a subject of study has passed, a rather poor version (for everybody involved) of Mormon history, culture, etc. will be put on display.

    [As a kind of addendum, Ben, let me give a nod to your overview of the problems of academic formation, peer review, etc. that come from the field being a nascent one]

  17. Aletheia: Figuring out what is or is not Church involvement is difficult. It is probably best to think of it as a continium, with Arrington as Church Historian at one end, and a local bishop recommending a book to a friend on the other end. It is a messy old world. You seem to want to have a world in which the Church is an entirely passive spectator in the scholarlly discussion about it. This is silly and unrealistic. The only way that one could get such passivity is for the Church to be dead, and frankly much of what makes it interesting is the fact that it is not dead. Let me give you a counter example: I work in law. There is a relationship between the legal profession and the legal academy. It is both an intellectual as well as an institutional and financial relationship. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it does not. The academy likes to gripe about the profession and the profession likes to gripe about the academy. Furthermore, the legal academy consciously seeks to influence the profession and the profession consciously seeks to influence the academy. While from time to time this relationship become rather pathological (e.g. Harvard Law School in the late 1980s), on the whole I think that both sides benefit. Certainly, I think that the influence of the profession on the law schools can be a very healthy intellectual force. Obviously, I think that certain kinds of Church involvment in Mormon studies is a bad idea. On the other hand, I don’t think that ALL church involvement in Mormon Studies is bad.

    As for Quinn, I think that he would be a solid addition to someone’s faculty as well. Frankly, I think that to the extent that his excommunication keeps him from such a position, that is sad as well. As for his relationship with Signature, I think he would have benefited from publishing elsewhere. He did publish one book with Illinois UP. He could have published other books there. Recently books on Mormon studies have come out of Cambridge UP, Oxford UP, and North Carolina UP. One might argue that this is a relatively recent phenomena. True. On the other hand, it is not a phenomena that Quinn has done anything to push forward. That is regrettable. As for his scholarship: From my limited exposure, I think that it is important but problematic. As for other candidates: Terryl Givens, Phillip Barlow, Grant Underwood, Sally Gordon (she’ll never do it; too good a gig at Pennsylvania); Kathleen Flake, Ron Esplin, Kathryn Daynes, Laurel Thatcher Urlich (doesn’t really do that much in Mormon studies, per se, but would no doubt do really awesome stuff if encouraged to do so) are names that come to mind for me.

    As for where Mormon studies should be done, to the extent possible it should not be done at BYU, Sunstone, Signature, Dialogue, the Journal of Mormon History, or BYU Studies. All of those fora are important, but to the extent that ability and topic permits, scholars of Mormonism should do their work in mainline fora. Some try to do this — Givens, Barlow, and Flake are good examples — to my knowledge, Quinn has never done so (with the exception of his Illinois book).

  18. Nate, I wouldn’t quite put my position into the words that you chose for me and I’ll definitely deflect the silliness label that’s attached to them. We haven’t quite come to a workeable definition of what it means the Church to be active much less to be appropriately active in an area such as this. But, even so, I would say that I definitely do not think that is appropriate for the Church, especially what might be called the “official” church or church hierarchy, to try to be the definitive voice in university hiring processes. It just shouldn’t do it and I think any attempt at justification of it rests on a fundamental confusion between the subject of Mormon Studies (which includes but isn’t limited to the Church or to the Church in its present formulation) and the Church itself. So input, discussion, education, etc. sounds great and necessary to me but arbitration, the imposition of a will or program doesn’t.

    What’s more, because of the secular mission of the public university and the distinct character of professional development within academia (A Mormon Studies Ph.D. would, I imagine, be looking for another job in academia not in the Church), the analogy with law faculties and legal practitioners doesn’t hold or hold fruitfully. What’s more, if it did, we’d have to give ear to a multiplicity of voices (just like in law, it’s not all big firms).

    Again, I think it’s unrealistic to expect Quinn to have published exclusively in academic presses that didn’t solicit or market books in his subfield until recently. Later and younger scholars (from a web search, the names you kindly provided seem to be those of younger, less published scholars than Quinn) have frankly benefitted from the work of trailblazers. So, although I agree that scholars should preferably publish in peer-reviewed, mainstream publications, it seems to me that scholars have more opportunities for realistically doing it. [I hate to seem to repeat myself but it’s my feeling that, just like with the question of the accuracy of Quinn’s footnotes, this is something of a red herring. Quinn is the old man of the field and one of the few ways to draw attention away from this fact is to consider avenue of publication or the accuracy of footnotes as the principal or exclusive marks of scholarship and then condemn him]

    Anyway, Nate, I appreciate your comments. They are always considered, give me sources and perspective, and are just generally helpful.

  19. “I would say that I definitely do not think that is appropriate for the Church, especially what might be called the “officialâ€? church or church hierarchy, to try to be the definitive voice in university hiring processes.”

    I don’t think that anything even remotely like this is happening, nor do I think that you can support such a claim from the WSJ article. At best it shows that the primary finacial backers for Mormon Studies positions are active Mormons and that there is fear among university administraters about alienating them. This is quite a way from saying that the Church is somehow setting out to veto any academic who might occupy a chair in Mormon studies.

    As for a Ph.D. program in Mormon Studies, I think that it would be a horrible idea.

    I am sorry that you think that my point is a red herring. I don’t think that I have anywhere suggested that Quinn is not qualified to be a professor of Mormon Studies. If it is any consoloation, I am happy to come out and say it explicitly: I think that D. Michael Quinn is thoroughly qualified to be a professor of Mormon history. Emminently qualified even. My point in criticizing Quinn is simply to suggest that while he is clearly an important and talented historian he is not without his problems. The problem with Quinn’s status as a polarizing figure is that both sides make rather ridiculous claims about. Some want to argue that he is some sort of academic puff ball without any serious scholarship to his name. This is clearly silly in my mind. Others want to suggest that he is the apotheosis of what Mormon history can and should be and that anyone who voices any criticisms of his work is motivated by blind religious hatred, their arguments mere red herrings. Equally implausible in my book.

    Incidentally, you seem to be assuming that the relationship between the legal academy and the legal profession consists purely in the fact that the academy produces people who enter the profession. If I understand you correctly, you deny the usefulness of the analogy on the grounds that Mormon studies is not producing people for the Mormon church but for the academy. If this is right, you are missing part of what I am saying. The feed back between the profession and the academy doesn’t come simply because the academy trains lawyers for the profession and the profession is concerned about the quality of their training. It also happens because both the profession and the academy are concerned with how is that one understands the law and how the law develops. The relationship between them is thus intellectual. The most obvious way of thinking about this is to realize that academics are involved in the interpretation and understanding of legal precedent. Judges are also involved in the the interpretation and understanding of legal precedent. Both sides realize that they have different ways of doing this, but this does not mean that they are indifferent to how the other side thinks. In other words, there is a conversation between the two, although it is by no means the only or dominant conversation in the field. It is, however, one of the things that make law so much more fun than chemistry. When was the last time a chemical compoud voiced an opinion about a chemist’s theory about it?

    BTW, while I do think that religious influence at public universities can be a problem, I think it would be a mistake to think that all universities — public or private — have a duty to keep all of their discussions and decisions purely secular. Indeed, I think that were this the case the academic world would be poorer for it.

  20. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect Quinn to have published exclusively in academic presses that didn’t solicit or market books in his subfield until recently.”

    So do I. I would point out that Quinn has published — to my knowledge — exactly one book with an academic press. I don’t think that this means that his work published with Signature is somehow less scholarly or important for this reason. I’m simply point out that it is probably not good academic politics, particularlly if you are going for jobs at institutions that frankly really don’t know all that much about Mormon studies. This doesn’t mean that they are justified in not hiring Quinn. It just means that it is a mark against him with the hiring committee, and academia is a world where there are legions of unemployeed scholars with perfect CV’s.

    Incidentally, I suspect that the Quinn-killing dynamic on hiring committees is a bit more complicated than the WSJ suggests. My bet is that on any hiring committee there are several factions with regard to hiring someone who does Mormon subjects:

    (1) Mormons?!?! Who the hell are then, and why would we want to hire someone who specializes in that?! No.
    (2) Mormon studies? Hmmm. Sounds interesting; I don’t really know all that much about it. If we are going to hire someone, lets make sure that they have been publishing in good presses and have some other expertise as well. What is Signature books? Nothing but Mormon stuff? No.
    (3) Mormon studies! Great idea. On the other hand, we should be savvy about how we do this. There is no point in alienating a bunch of potential donors. Quinn’s got too much baggage, let’s find someone else. No.

    The problem for Quinn is not simply group 3. It is also group 1 and 2. For example, I suspect that at the U of U, group 1 had as much to do with group 3 in killing off Quinn’s canidacy.

  21. Nate, as far as the relationship between legal education and the legal field are concerned, my assumptions are precisely the opposite of the ones you think I’m making. I recognize that all sorts of practitioners – judges, big law farms, small to medium-sized firms, solo practitioners, policy makers, G.Q. public citizens and others with a whole host of competing concerns – are interested in molding and influencing legal education and influence it through a variety of means with greater or lesser success. The point I was hoping to make was that it is a mistake to assume that the subject of Mormon Studies is exclusively the Church as an institution (for lack of a more inclusive word) and that to conflate the voice of this body (whether in tones of approval, offense or whatnot) is to misrecognize the large swath of people that should have a say in what this should look like if we are going to open things up. Thus, Jack Mormons, Mormon housewives, the local bishop, the hierarchy in Salt Lake, splinter groups like the Aaronic Order, RLDS members, secular humanists, students of comparative religion, etc. are really the larger body of experts and, especially within the context of the university, the larger constituency for classes. Returning to the analogy (for what it’s worth), to do otherwise would be to say that 5 whiteshoe firms in New York should have a determinative say in legal education by anointing alll new hires.

    About what sort of action the Church is engaged in, well, I’lll stand my previous posts by reiterating that I don’t think there is a smoking memo someone in Salt Lake setting down official policy on Quinn. From my understanding, the Church is savvy enough not to have one and doesn’t generally work this way. I do think that there have probably been discussions with donors setting out a broad church position. I do think that the mark of excommunication on Quinn has an effect on a constituency that is vocal in its opposition and that has been taken as centrall and representative by people like the hiring committee at Claremont. I do think that among the hierarchy there is an image of what and who would be an acceptable candidate and a consensus that Quinn isn’t it. That said, I think that the structure of lay priesthood and a common worldview complicate the discussion and I want emphasize that I’m not propounding some kind of Elders of Zion conspiracy. I am propounding the thesis that the exercise of power and influence is at work, emanating from a Church that you otherwise agree should exercise some input in the process (and thus, by extension, is acting somehow). Some of this is shown in the closed consultation process between U of Wyoming and “church leaders” or the Church’s threat to withhold money from Yale’s conference. But, the world being like it is, most of it falls out in ways that aren’t amenable to a prosecuting lawyer’s triumphant display of Document No. 1.

    About the secularity of universities and of religion departments in general: I think the disciplinary structure of religious studies depts. as I have experienced them try to guarantee freedom of inquiry (which menas unsympathetic or bothersome topics or portrayals of faith groups are allowed), avoid adjudicating between competing religious truth claims and allow for contradiction between professors’ lives and the tenants of the faiths and groups they study. I think that these are some of the hallmarks that distinguish the teaching of religion in the context of faith-based schools and seminaries and secular institutions. Both serve their purpose. What bothered me (even accounting for the intention of the WSJ article and its selectivity in choosing and presenting material) was that – the LDS Church, members or donors, wherever you want to place the onus – there isn’t a respect for the modes and practices of the secular institutions in which Mormon Studies is hoping to find a place but an attempt to make them look more like the faith-based institutions that have a closer and more obedient relationship with the churches involved.

    As for universities being purely secular: I don’t think secularity can be purified like cane sugar. We would probably disagree profoundly on where the bounds are and when they’re overstepped. However, I believe you appreciate the secularity of universities and would be more vocal in pointing out areas where you think it is troubled or threatened if you were confronted with the activities of another religious group or its members as they attempted to influence a particular faculty or department. To give you a case, I imagine you’d be very critical of some of my Orthodox correligionaries if they attempted to give greater currency towards their very spirited and experience-informed views on the Soviet Union by sponsoring a professorship in a Russian-language or History dept. open only to those who were in good standing with the Church and stridently oppositional to materialism in all its forms. Or, to place it within religious studies, an Orthodox Studies position that made opposition to the Church in Rome and avoidance of Greek persecution of Muslim minorities a litmus test. Faculties and universities are there to, by rejecting donors, broadening positions, establishing norms, etc., allow for inquiry against such strictures. Is this an ideal? Unrealistic at times? Sure, but I like the ideal.

    About the red herring; I think you conscientiously and honestly put forward the argument about the venues in which Quinn published and I wouldn’t attribute blind religious hatred to you. I don’t think others are so honest (although I wouldn’t posit them as ignorant and spiteful believers either) and that’s why I declared it something of a red herring in general. People sometimes pursue arguments as a way of pursuing goals even when these arguments are deficient. That’s all. Furthermore and finally, I agree that Quinn is something of a ball that gets thrown around. He’s become a figurehead, a symbol, who acts like a projection screen. He is neither an academic god nor a “nothing person” as Ira, the WSJ sample donor stated. Agreed.

  22. Nate, let me apologize for a few cases where my prose becomes telegraphic. Like, “avoidance [of the topic of] Greek persecution of Muslim minorities…”

  23. Aletheia: I didn’t suggest anywhere that the Church is the only constituency for a Mormon studies department. Nor do I think that the the universe of Mormon should be confined to the Church (whatever that means). These are not things that I said. Given this fact, I think that my analogy to legal education still holds. It is hardly as though the profession is the only or even the dominant presence in legal scholarship. Far from it. Nevertheless, it has a voice. It is not indifferent to the academy. I think that there is a benefit to the academy in this.

    I actually don’t think an ideal candidate for a chair in Mormon studies would be someone who simply produced materials indistinguishable from correlated materials. Nor do I think that this is what the Church is trying to do. FWIW, I think that it would be a huge mistake for the first endowed chair of Mormon studies to be occupied by someone percieved as hostile to the Mormon church. This would have a horrible impact on the extent to which Mormon studies would be able to find financing. This doesn’t mean that I think that the only academic conversations about Mormonism should be ones that all practicing Mormons are comfortable with. Nor does it mean that I think that Quinn ought to be denied an academic job anywhere. I just think that you should probably not start off with a high-profile burning of bridges to your natural donar base. Let people get comfortable with things initially, see that broader academic discussion of Mormonism is not going to degenerate into Light house Ministries, and then start bringing in more diverse voices into high profile positions. I am simply being pragmatic. I also think — as a pragmatist — that to the extent that Mormons are seen as pulling the strings behind any Mormon studies chair it is a bad idea, since that is likely to delegitimate its holder in the eyes of some. It may be that this is an impossible political tight rope to walk. It is certainly a delicate political dance not amenable to a black hats-white hats world view in which the insidious influence of believing Mormons is pitted against the forces of unbiased academic discussion. It would be nice if everyone involved in these discussions took a couple of deep breaths and cut everyone else a bit of slack. (Except me, of course ;->. I’m just right and the rest of you are wrong ;->….) It is a bit of a false dicotomy to suppose that our only choices are white-washed, exclusively pro-Mormon discussions of Mormonism, and absolute indifference to Mormon sensibilities.

    I am sure that you are right that I would feel more threatened by the religious involvement of other denominations in universities — public and private. FWIW, I was recently on the academic job market, and I had interviews with several (non-Mormon) religious schools, where I would have been happy to land a job. I was also contacted by some religious (non-Mormon) schools that I declined to interview with because from what I gathered I would not be comfortable as a religious outsider with the role that religion played in the school. Hence, I am aware of the different ways that religion can be involved in higher education, and I am by no means a fan of all of them. I just think that there is some benefit to having different institutional models. I assume that they are all engaged in a series of overlapping conversations. I don’t think that there needs to be perfect homogeneity in terms of institutional ground rules. So long as we have a diversity of approaches and sufficient overlap in world-views to have lots of productive discussions, I’m happy. Think of it as a kind of Rawlsian vision of academic inquiry.

  24. BTW, I find it very ironic that on a post suggesting that official retrenchment away from direct involvement in Mormon studies may not have been an unmitigated disaster, I find myself defending Church involvement in Mormon studies. In the concrete instances, I don’t think that its involvement has been an unmitigated success. I didn’t see the Yale conference and don’t know that much about what happened behind the scenes. I did go to the LOC conference, however, I was frankly embarassed by the attitude and quality of some (but not all) of the Mormon presenters.

  25. Nate, re #24, don’t forget (4) age discrimination. Some places might balk at hiring someone who won’t be around very long, or on the other hand, will hang around longer than they’d really like, into his 70’s or later. One more sad facet of a very sad story.

    I think that the Church’s lay priesthood is a red herring in this discussion. Catholicism has lay orders, Protestants have the priesthood of all believers, etc. If the donors are allergic to Quinn, the dean or provost in the discussion has the option of taking the money with strings attatched, or declining it if he can’t talk them out of it. I don’t think that kind of situation is at all uncommon in the world of major gifts to universities. There are limits to what deans should agree to, but the church’s lay ministry has nothing to do with the appropriateness of placing conditions on donations, or with accepting them.

  26. Nate, as happens on these boards, when a “you” is singular or plural can get muddied. I wasn’t attributing all opinions to you. Instead, I think if the legal analogy is to hold at all and to shed any light on how things should work, we have to recognize that there are all kinds of practitioners of law. Their voices and their money have an impact on law faculties. They lead them in competing and sometimes conflicting directions and, when considered on a national level, the effects are positive. (Although some constituencies and their money, heard too loudly and followed too closely, can have some very bad effects in my opinion. I’ll just invoke the name of one of my local law schools: Chapman University). So, perhaps, in the spirit of bridge-building and consensus, the hiring process should open itself up to the larger range of interested people, people Mormon Studies would serve, in making a choice for or against candidates.

    That said, I recognize that the donors for such positions are a certain subset. However, inasmuch as he’s representative and represented well by the WSJ article, Ira is a bad posterboy for donors in general (who one would like to think are conscientious, concerned and open people). He wants to up the Mormon presence at ASU and doesn’t seem to have put much thought into anything else. Now, if I had $150 million dollars that was the lucre gained from a construction empire, I would fund a position myself and try to be a more considered participant. Unfortunately, I don’t. But, if anyone starts a fund out there and wants a few hundred dollars, I’m in. Ditto if any university wants to appeal to a wide range of small donors.

    I think the bigger danger – and the danger the WSJ article polemically presents to its readers – is precisely that the Mormon Church will be seen as pulling the strings behind any position. As a matter of pragmatics, maybe the Church should publically declare that Quinn is eminently hireable and that it would like him to receive a position somewhere. This would go a long way to mitigate against the perception (and this is all WSJ here) that it is working behind the scenes through bodies like the Utah legislature to ram through a yes-man candidate at the U. From a PR standpoint, it might also send the signal – even to Quinn’s most trenchant opponents – that this is someone who isn’t to be feared at all. The big, bad wolf has no teeth after all.

    As for homogeneity across universities: I don’t see myself as arguing for a one-size-fits-all standard (although I was certainly holding up some kind of universalizeable bottom line). Perhaps, people on the ground at the U of Wyoming or some involved Utes would have a different perspective on what’s going on and what’s involved. This would cut both ways, however. If it might make my California criticisms less applicable (or less immediate since I might find myself on a committee one day considering the creation of a position or candidate X trained by Professor Y), it also might shore up some of the positions taken by faculty on the ground at Utah, a place which comes in for alot of criticism here and elsewhere for its perceived anti-Mormon bias. I’d just stop short of sanctioning a larger, nation-wide diversity at the expense of the out-and-out disallowance of viewpoints locally.

    And, let the ironies ride. Be it a question of degree, time or place, or whatnot, you’re not talking out of two sides of your mouth.

  27. “So, perhaps, in the spirit of bridge-building and consensus, the hiring process should open itself up to the larger range of interested people, people Mormon Studies would serve, in making a choice for or against candidates.”

    What makes you think that this is not currently the case?

    ” Ira is a bad posterboy for donors in general (who one would like to think are conscientious, concerned and open people).”

    He is the WSJ’s choice not the Association of Mormons Willing to Donate Large Sums of Money to Universities for the Study of Their Faith (AMWDLSMUSTF). You are reading a difficult political dynamic as being much more sinister than it actually is.

  28. Maybe it is the case, Nate. But if it is, it isn’t a problem of my perception but a problem of an outreach effort that needs to be made more evident and thoroughgoing. Especially when placed against the WSJ article that we’ve bandied about so much that makes it seem that this is thoroughly not the case.

    Additionally, if we really thought this was the case, maybe we should stop talking (see #29 above) as if the dialogue is even approximatively complete when it takes place only between monied donors and receptive universities.

  29. I experienced a delay with the last part of your post. I know that the WSJ picked Ira intentionally and polemically. I’ve said that it was a polemical article. I even said that Ira was not a posterboy “inasmuch as he’s representative and represented well by the WSJ article”. That allowed room for the possiblity that he is not representative (there being more thoughtful donors out of a group of thoughtful donors) or that he is misrepresented (Ira made a number of other comments that showed him in a better light; he declared his educational philosophy, view of the field, etc. and these were left out). As it is, he comes off as something of a philistine in the coverage. So much so that Ira as WSJ character isn’t capable of sinister acts.

  30. Ok, maybe a part of it is a problem of my perception. But that’s why we have dialogue.

  31. By the way, I like the long acronym. Maybe all organizations should adopt them. That way, media outlets woulld have to dedicate enough time, research and print space to their explanation. It would make for better articles.

  32. I think you’re right, Aletheia, that PR-wise it could be a good move for the church to make some friendly gestures in the direction of a scholar whose work doesn’t always cast the church in the most favorable light. It would do a lot to deflate some people’s impression or suggestion that they are pulling strings in inappropriate places, and it would be generally a magnanimous sort of thing to do. Given some of Nate’s points about Quinn, though, I’m not sure Quinn is the right guy for them to do this with. It doesn’t help much if the person is not hired for other reasons. As Mormon Studies slowly expands, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them doing this in a few years.

  33. Mormon studies scholar Nate, a faithful Saint, believes this newly emerging discipline to be something the faithful could support (are supporting), which would need to be separate from the Brethren’s official support and more importantly shielded from their displeasure. But non-member Mormon scholar Aletheia says Nate, not naive, soft pedals the obvious influence of lay non-elders of Zion — although it’s funny how that phrase actually fits! — as the Wall Street Journal shows in its expose (/hatchet job) through the example of donor Ira’s blackball of quasi-apostate Quinn. I just love Times & Seasons: I just ask you, where else can ya get this stuff!

Comments are closed.