'Perfect storm' sobering for LDS, historian says

Published: Thursday, March 13 2008 12:47 a.m. MDT

There are things that Mormons can do to better the world's view of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Richard Bushman told an audience of close to 400 people gathered at Weber State University.

The Mormon scholar, accompanied by his wife, Claudia, who is also a historian and author, spoke March 5 in Ogden. Bushman is the author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling."

Bushman has received the prestigious David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Evans Biography Award twice, once for "Rough Stone Rolling" and once for his earlier work, "Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism."

"It's called double-dipping," Bushman said while being introduced.

During his lecture, Bushman used wit and his straightforward style to speak on Mormonism being taken seriously in academic circles. Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and holds the Huntington Library fellowship in Pasadena, Calif. He is a former Harvard graduate and professor who also taught at Brigham Young University, Boston University and the University of Delaware. This fall, he will be chairman Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Bushman said in the last 10 years, there has been huge exposure of Mormonism to the world. The "perfect storm" of Mormonism, Bushman called it, began with the Olympics in Salt Lake City, moved past Joseph Smith's 200th birthday and onto Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

It's exciting, Bushman said, but it has been sobering for many Mormons to see so much negative discussion about their religion in the wake of the storm. When Romney lost, in a certain way, Bushman said, Mormonism lost. There was the realization that "we are not quite first-class citizens," Bushman said. "There are huge segments of the population that don't believe a Mormon is qualified to be president."

Bushman said recently The New York Times magazine published an article that said the peculiar thing about Mormons is the extreme normalcy of the people and the extreme oddity of their beliefs.

"It's the angels, the gold plates, the inspired translations," he said.

Bushman's answer is that all the revealed religions are based on miracles.

"Christianity has the resurrection," Bushman said, "Judaism has the parting of the Red Sea and the visit of God on Mount Sinai. Islam has Mohammed being carried off in the night by Gabriel to Jerusalem for a vision."

Those revelations and miracles are always the most controversial, but the most powerful part of the religion, Bushman said. It is the same with Mormons.

Bushman quoted Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, who said Mormons are not more radical, they are just more recent.

Claudia Bushman is the best person he knows to cope with criticism of this sort. When someone asked her how she can believe in gold plates, she said: "If you come to church with me next Sunday, I'll introduce you to a lot of people who believe the same way."

Bushman said that may seem like a coy or clever answer, but actually it is powerful influence on one's mind to see how many people believe a certain way. It's all about familiarity, he said.

"Like having someone believe that a dead man rose from the dead and ascended to the heaven," Bushman said.

The fabulous nature of the Mormon belief is not as critical a problem as many Mormons think, Bushman said, and "it will solve itself with time."

Bushman said that there is a sense among evangelicals and intellectuals that "Mormonism is not only incredible, but it's dangerous."

Philip Jenkins, Pennsylvania State University professor of history and religious studies, said this is always true of sects and cults — they are feared to be fanatics.

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