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.
"It is true that we are in a sense secret," Bushman said. "It will be difficult to remove the suspicions when there is a certain fact to it."
Bushman said he doesn't like when Mormons say the temple is not secret, that it is sacred.
"It is secret," he said. But he appreciates how excellent Mormons are at creating sacred spaces.
"Those temple spaces are just different from the rest of the world," Bushman said after watching people walk silently with arms folded through the Manhattan Temple before it was dedicated. The process to be able to go into a Mormon temple evolves around keeping it sacred and at the same time, secret.
"Important as anything," Bushman said, "is you don't speak about the temple, even to those who go to the temple."
But, the LDS Church is speaking out on some issues.
"We are now officially as a church coming completely clean on the Mountain Meadows Massacre," Bushman said. "We don't try to hide it, we tell it in all its bloody gory truth. And we don't say it was someone else's fault. It was our fault."
Bushman said piece by piece, these charges against Mormonism can be coped with, and rationally dissipated.
During World War II, Bushman would brag that the G.I. dog tags Mormons wore were neither Protestant nor Catholic.
"We were proud of the fact that we had to have a tag of our own," Bushman said. He said Mormons pride themselves in being separate from the world. However, when the world tells them they are not Christian, "they get all upset and start complaining."
"That's a mistake," Bushman said. "We have not provided a useful label for people to use."
We should let people come up with their own answers and find their own explanation, Bushman said.
One of the best answers, Bushman said, was given by Richard Land, former head of the Southern Baptist Association. Land said Mormons are the fourth Abrahamic religion.
"Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Mormonism," Bushman said, "That's good company."
He said Mormons should be what they are and not worry about what other churches think.
An incredible amount of energy and money in the LDS Church is spent on history and apologetics, Bushman said. Mormon historians are world renowned, and the apologists do well.
But Bushman believes the governing question for the future of Mormon scholars is defining the humanistic meaning of Mormonism.
Helen Whitney, producer of the recent PBS series about the Mormons, asked many Mormons about their perspective on the world. She had one specific question: What can you say that could be used by the rest of the world?
Bushman and several other prominent Mormon historians and scholars attempted to answer, but "none of us could give her an answer," Bushman said. "Mormons have all sorts of perspective of immense value. None of them communicated with Helen."4 comments on this story
Bushman said many doctrines that are second nature to Mormons are so deeply embedded in the problems of understanding life.
"So rather than apologists or historians," Bushman said, "we need people who can make literature in comparative religion and philosophy who will situate Mormonism in this larger scheme."
It is true that Mormons don't understand the strength of their position, Bushman said, "because we haven't put it to the test. We haven't brought it up against all these other ideas to find the meaning."