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California graduate university takes academic approach to Mormonism

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 8:54 p.m. MDT

The School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University) The School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University)

CLAREMONT, Calif. — Years before the so-called "Mormon Moment," a private graduate-only research university in California began educating students in earnest about the religion.

Claremont Graduate University has been offering graduate-level Mormon studies courses since 2005.

Founded in 1925, CGU has a current enrollment of 2,177. The School of Religion, one of nine schools in the university, has 208 students.

The decision to add Mormon studies to the curriculum came from the School of Religion's desire to have representation of religions not normally at the table with ones such as Protestantism, Judaism and Islam.

"You had to have a broader range of what is religion, especially in the United States context," said Tammi Schneider, dean of the School of Religion. "To have no classes in Mormonism would be silly."

Patrick Mason, Ph.D., the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University) Patrick Mason, Ph.D., the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University)

Schneider says there was some nervousness about implementing the Mormon studies program, just as there is with any program on a religion, because the sponsoring council sometimes wants the approach to be more doctrinal than academic.

"We decided that it can be done, it can be done well and it can be done in a way that offends neither the academics nor the adherents to the religion," Schneider said. "I think thus far we have managed to do that."

The goal for Mormon studies at CGU is to approach the faith and its history objectively as scholars, says Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter chair of Mormon Studies.

"We speak primarily in the language of scholarship while respecting the language of faith," Mason said.

Mormon studies classes at CGU came about through the efforts of the Latter-day Saint Council on Mormon Studies, which was formed in 2002 and has no official connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After CGU began offering individual courses on Mormonism in 2005, the Howard W. Hunter Chair was established in 2008, ensuring that Mormon studies courses would be offered on a regular basis.

Patrick Mason, Ph.D., the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University) Patrick Mason, Ph.D., the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University)

The chair was named for the 14th president of the LDS Church because of his connection to Southern California. President Hunter served as a stake president in Pasadena, and one of his children attended Claremont.

"I think it's perfect and a great honor for President Hunter's legacy and really a perfect fit for the program," said Mason, who was appointed as the new chair in 2011.

The first person to hold the position of chair was renowned Mormon scholar and LDS Church member Richard Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling." Bushman taught courses in Mormon studies and the history of religion in America. His wife, Claudia, and visiting scholar Armand Mauss also taught Mormon studies classes on campus. Bushman "did an amazing amount" for the program, Schneider said.

Mason received his bachelor's in history from Brigham Young University and master's degrees in history and international peace studies and a doctorate in American history from the University of Notre Dame. He taught at Notre Dame and the American University in Cairo. He is the author of "The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Antebellum South."

Students sit outside the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University) Students sit outside the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. (Provided by Claremont Graduate University)

"Patrick is cutting edge in religion," Schneider said. "He's fresh, he's young, he's new, he's excited, he is smart. ... He's something really special."

Mason teaches a North American religion course and a Mormon studies class each semester.

The Mormon studies class differs each semester depending on student interest and needs, he said. Last fall the course was "Approaches to Mormonism," which looked at how different scholars have understood or approached the study of Mormonism.

This semester Mason is teaching a course called "Gendering Mormonism," which explores the interplay between Mormonism and gender. Future courses might be "Mormonism and Politics," especially if Mitt Romney becomes a presidential nominee, and "Mormon Theological Tradition."

Schneider says it was "unbelievable foresight to get this in place before the election." She says Claremont can provide "authoritative sources about Mormons that are academic, scholarly, knowledgeable, not offensive toward Mormons but have a clean secular stamp on them to help navigate what is going to be a very complicated year."

Mormon studies isn't a degree program, but students can take Mormon studies classes and fit them into the curriculum of their other studies, such as Women's Studies in Religion or History of Christianity and North American Religion.

The students who take Mormon studies classes "are paying attention and see Mormonism matters," Mason said.

"They see Mitt Romney, they see 'The Book of Mormon' musical, they see the popular and dynamic nature of Mormonism and say, 'We have to figure this out. We have to know something about this.'"

Many of the students who take Mormon studies courses are Latter-day Saints. But of the nine students in this semester's "Gendering Mormonism" class, only four are LDS.

Elizabeth Mott, who is LDS, is pursuing a doctorate at CGU in the History of Christianity and Religions of North America. She is the president of the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association.

The CMSSA is "a good forum not only to increase our knowledge about Mormon studies but also to have that camaraderie with other students here," Mott said. About 10 members regularly attend Thursday lunch meetings to discuss academic articles and papers about Mormon studies.

Mott became interested in Mormon studies after she observed the media attention Romney and Mormonism received in 2007 and became intrigued by the representation of religion in the media in general.

"Religion studies tries to take a neutral position in truth claims," Mott said. "We're not so much concerned about whether Mormonism is true; we're concerned about describing and explaining how these religions have interacted with historical events.

"I think that I'm hoping that (Mormon studies) can raise the level of understanding about Mormonism so that it's taken seriously, not only in academia but also just in the wider public."

Donald Westbrook is also enrolled in the History of Christianity and Religions of North America Ph.D. program at CGU. Westbrook is not LDS, but personal history and academic interests led to his interest in Mormon studies.

Westbrook was raised Roman Catholic but often rubbed shoulders with Mormons. Many of his friends growing up were LDS, and he had participated in an LDS-sponsored Boy Scout troop.

At the LDS institute near the University of California, Berkeley, he met Mormons who were "more intellectually self-conscious of their faith, which impressed me," Westbrook said in an email.

While attending Fuller Seminary for his master's in theology, Westbrook had the opportunity to go to an Evangelical-Mormon dialogue session in Provo, where he met with Evangelical and Mormon intellectuals and church leaders, including Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"These types of experiences have taught me the true spirit and method of learning about another religious tradition: The best way to learn about Mormons and Mormonism is to talk to Mormons themselves," Westbrook said.

A degree in Mormon studies could be offered in the future if more universities begin offering courses on Mormonism.

The students who come out of Claremont through one of the religion programs will be the next generation of religion professors and scholars, Mason says. He hopes that graduates who have taken the classes "will go out and actually know something about Mormonism."

With the general interest in Mormonism today, Mason says those graduates will be needed.

"There has never been a time when Mormon studies has been more relevant or more needed," Mason said in an email. "As Mormonism grows in size, influence and public interest, it is essential to have scholars who can comment on historical and contemporary trends thoughtfully and fairly, with equal sensitivity to the Mormon and non-Mormon communities. At Claremont we definitely see our mission as not only traditional teaching and scholarship, but also public education."

Email: rbrutsch@desnews.com

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