Editor's note: This commentary by Columbia University’s Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History, Dr. Richard Bushman, is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought. An earlier version of this essay formed the basis of a speech delivered in Oakland and Palo Alto, California.
I wish to tell you about three experiences occurring over the past 10 years. At the time, they seemed quite distinct, but they are beginning to blend in my mind. The first is involvement in the establishment of Mormon studies professorships at Claremont Graduate University and the University of Virginia. I put a lot of effort into these campaigns because they struck me as an opportunity too good to pass by. The surprising thing about both of the schools was that we did not have to persuade them to accept a Mormon Studies chair. Both schools came to us asking for help without any solicitation on our part. They were happy to establish the chairs if we would raise the money. The same thing is now happening at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and at Harvard Divinity School. Both schools want a Mormon Studies chair if we can find the donors. More and more religious studies departments think of Mormon courses as a desirable part of their curricula.
Since an endowed professorship costs about $3 million, part of the work has been fundraising and that led to my second experience. One interesting by-product of these campaigns for me has been an introduction to private Latter-day Saint philanthropy. I have been learning where Mormons give. When my requests for donations are turned down, the prospective donors often explain themselves by describing where their funds are going. They can’t give to a Mormon Studies chair because they are doing something else. They are funding micro-nutrients for starving populations in New Guinea; helping the children of lepers in India; teaching Steve Covey’s principals for successful living in inner city schools; funding an orphanage and school in India again; advancing cancer or other research; and many others. I was vaguely aware of all this activity because of Warner Woodworth’s argument that Mormons would bring in the law of consecration individually by creating a multitude of private charities. To prove his point, Woodworth named scores of these enterprises. Through my fundraising, I have learned for myself how accurate Woodworth was. There is no doubt that Latter-day Saints are into philanthropy in a big way.
Which brings me to the third experience. Claudia and I have been involved in another kind of philanthropy: the creation of a Mormon Arts Center in New York City. The aim is to create a welcoming metropolitan home for Mormon creative artists of all kinds — visual artists, film-makers, poets, novelists, composers, jazz musicians. We want Latter-day Saints to become more aware of our rich artistic tradition from the beginning to the present, and we want to give Mormon artists wider exposure in the art capital of the world. Besides exhibitions and performances, we are planning an encyclopedia of Mormon arts and a gathering of Mormon scholars and artists to discuss how best to teach the history of Mormon arts. Glen Nelson, our collaborator, has identified 1,600 living LDS composers, 100 of them with doctorates in music. We want to make these people known so that the world and our children will understand — in the spirit of the I Am a Mormon campaign — that one way to be a Latter-day Saint is by making art.
These three experiences — raising money for a Mormon Studies chair, learning about Mormon philanthropy and creating an art center — seem quite disparate in their nature, but, as I say, they have come together in my mind. All three are indicators of growing Mormon influence in the world. Universities think Mormonism is significant enough to warrant a professor of Mormon Studies; individual Mormons have accumulated enough wealth to underwrite significant philanthropic endeavors; and our artists are doing work of sufficient quality and quantity to deserve presentation in the art capital of the world. Mormon influence is being felt in many segments of our society.
Since its founding, Mormonism has shaped the world by converting people. We have grown steadily and sometimes quite dramatically through convert and member baptism until now we are about 16 million members of record. That has been how we have measured our impact — membership numbers. But at the same time, something less measurable has taken place. Beyond our membership numbers, our influence has grown. I believe we should take note of this fact.
The rate of growth in membership has varied since our beginning in 1830. After a period of stunning growth at the end of the 20th century, in the past decade the number has declined. At our peak, the growth rate varied between 4-5 percent. In 2016 it was 1.59 percent, one-third of the previous rate. We may think this shows us faltering in our mission, but in our preoccupation with numbers, we may fail to note that the decline in baptisms has been balanced by a countervailing surge in influence. Looked at this way, the church is not faltering at all.
Never have Mormons been as prominent in the public eye as in the last 10 years. You may not like “The Book of Mormon the Musical,” but it has put the name of our key scripture onto billboards and television screens all over the country. In the same years, we have broken all records in politics. Some Americans may have been repelled by Mitt Romney’s religion, but everyone knew he was a Mormon and nearly half of the nation was willing to make him president of the United States. In 1844, Joseph Smith ran for president in one of the more obscure and unsuccessful campaigns in U.S. history. In 2012, a major party chose a Mormon as its candidate.
The growth in Mormon influence can be measured in other less dramatic ways, beginning with millions of individual Latter-day Saints. We had a striking example in our own ward in Manhattan. A few years ago, a Latter-day Saint, Peter Pilling, was hired as athletic director at Columbia University. Columbia is not known as an athletic powerhouse. Its football team has at times gone years without a single victory. But Pilling came into this less-than-promising situation and had an immediate impact.
Over the past two years, he has made Columbia proud of its athletic program with national championships in some sports. An article in the student newspaper this past spring told the story. The writer emphasized Pilling’s impact by dint of his winning ways. He instilled goodwill and a cooperative spirit wherever he went. There was a little bit about his religion, but mainly the article emphasized that he had succeeded because he was a good person.
Think about Pilling multiplied a million times throughout the world. Think of all the individuals who have an impact simply because they live good lives. The psychiatrists, the teachers, the policemen, the bosses, the coaches, the construction workers, who are admired and appreciated by the people around them because they are decent, generous people — people of good will. Some are in a position of considerable power in business, in the law, in academia, in government, in the entertainment industry or in sports. Hardly anyone realizes that the four top banking lawyers in the U. S. are LDS. Everywhere you turn, you find Mormons in positions of power and influence. But the influence goes beyond the eminent and powerful. It is exercised by ordinary Latter-day Saints going about their everyday lives. They may not trumpet their religion to their associates, but they elevate their workplaces and neighborhoods by working for the good of the people around them.
Add to the individuals, all the institutions where Mormons gather, usually in connection with other people, to achieve some cultural end: The Mormon History Association; the Association of Mormon Letters; the Mormons involved in the study and implementation of National Defense policy; Mormon sociologists; the Reuben Clark Law Society chapters all over the country; the Center for Religious Liberty at BYU; the Wheatley Institution; the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship; the Mormon Transhumanists; the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology; and now the Mormon Arts Center.
You may be waiting for me to name your favorite. Don’t wait, name it yourself. There are scores of these organizations where Mormons gather to figure out how to carry on their professions or promote their interests more effectively. They are trying to figure out what it means to be a Mormon and a philosopher or a politician or a doctor. There you can see Mormons at work. To these organizations can be added the universities and colleges in Utah and Idaho either run by the church or with strong church influences operating in them. All of these institutions spread Mormon influence apart from the proselyting and teaching missions of the church.
The more you explore the forms of Mormon influence, the longer the list grows. Think of all the publications by Mormons. The journals and magazines: the Deseret News; Dialogue; Exponent II; and the scholarly journals like the Journal of Mormon History; the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies; the Religious Educator; Mormon Studies Review; Irreantum; and on and on. Plus the books by Mormon authors: Steve Covey’s Seven Habits; Orson Scott Card’s Mormon-inspired fiction; Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga; and all the rest of the science fiction and fantasy literature where Mormon writers flourish, much of it visibly touched by the authors’ Mormonism. Plus all the blogs like by Common Consent and Times and Seasons and Feminist Mormon housewives where Mormons talk about their lives and their culture in public.
Some of the people in these enterprises have a strong church connection. Others may not. But even those with attenuated connections extend Mormon influence. Brent Scowcroft the national security adviser was not frequently in attendance at church, but he had strong Mormon influences in his life. He called himself a “religious and cultural heritage Mormon.” In the Mormon Art Center, we say Mormon art is art made by artists who identify as Mormons. Though not all are active in the LDS Church, to some degree or another they exercise a Mormon influence in the world.
I call all these people and their work, the institutions and publications, the philanthropists and the professionals, the entertainers and the scholars, the business leaders and the politicians, all the many forms of Mormon influence “radiant” Mormonism. The term suggests that these people radiate from Mormonism like rays of light and beams of energy from the sun. They are not official, but a part of each of them originates in the church and in core Mormonism. They are part of a great Mormon sphere of influence that reaches far beyond the church itself.
Radiant Mormonism is not core Mormonism. It is not under ecclesiastical priesthood direction. Its aim is not typically conversion or salvation — the work of the church. But radiant Mormonism is elevating. It improves the world. It operates on the principle of good will. Underlying it is the desire to work for the good of mankind.
Of course, Mormons are not the only people of good will. The world is filled with such people. Radiant Mormonism collaborates with these other good men and women. It works closely with people who are devoted to the good of the order. It gives people of good will courage and direction. It focuses and magnifies good influences everywhere. It is not exclusive but cooperative. It readily joins hands with other good people to advance good causes. It is what Mormons do instinctively and naturally because our church upbringing has taught us to cooperate for the common good.
Radiant Mormonism does have theological significance, however, and here I ask you to grant me a little room for speculation. To understand the potentialities and mission of radiant Mormonism, think for a moment of the end times. Let us imagine a moment when there is heightened chaos in the world as is often foreseen in the scriptures. Society needs to be steadied, to be brought back into order.
At this moment the Savior comes, and the famous phone call is made from Salt Lake City to Rome. We have been told that our task in the last days is to prepare a kingdom to present to Christ through which he can reign during the thousand years. This kingdom is the church which is well-adapted to these times of disorder because it is so tightly organized. A call from Salt Lake City to Mongolia will be answered. When directions are given, they will be carried out. Our organizational structure will prove to be immensely useful in times of distress because we can put people to work in very short order, all over the globe, wherever there are Mormons.
But this tight organization will not work unless it is trusted. When Mormon Helping Hands went door to door after Hurricane Sandy on Long Island and New Jersey, people at first would not accept the offers of help because they were not sure they trusted strangers mucking out the mud in their cellars. Only after they had seen the Mormons in action for a few days were people willing to let them in. Once they did, they were grateful. In the celebratory parade after the cleanup, Mormons were invited to participate. When they marched by in their identifying jackets, they were cheered jubilantly. Nothing worked until there was trust. Everything was possible once trust was established.
Say you are living in the Ukraine in a time of disaster and a Mormon comes by and offers you help. Will you trust her? You will if you know two things about Mormons. The first is their intentions. They have your best interests at heart. They are not maneuvering for their own gain. They only want to help. The second is that they are competent. They know what they are doing. They have skill.
During Hurricane Sandy, a Mormon developed an electronic system for matching up families with needs for help with the hundreds of helpers who were flowing into the area with their tools and willing hands. A family could register at this center, specifying the nature of the work needed, and the helpers could check in to find the people who needed their aid. It was a Mormon who devised the system and made it work. It is not enough to be good-hearted. We have to know what we are doing.
I believe that radiant Mormonism has as its mission the formation of trust wherever Mormons are. We have to show that we only desire the best for the people around us, and we have to demonstrate our competence. We don’t engage in this work in our church meetings. We develop trust in the course of our ordinary lives, in our professions, in our neighborhoods, in our organizations, in our writing. We do it in places where we advance good causes and demonstrate our skill. We do it when we show our integrity, our good hearts, our capacity. That is how we ready ourselves for the disruptions of the last days.
Does this mission for radiant Mormonism in some way downplay the role of the church with its mission of salvation. I think just the opposite. It magnifies the essential mission of the church. The church is the sun where the rays originate. It is the core where nuclear fission generates energy and light and sends it beaming out into space. Nothing works if the church does not perform its vital function. Generation after generation, it has to produce people of good will. We need more and more people like the missionaries with their humility and zeal. When they come to our house for dinner and ask sincerely is there anything they can do to help, I almost weep. What is the miracle that is producing young people like these? Where do they come from? How are they shaped? I bless the church for turning them out by the thousands year after year. They are truly the hope of the world.
What is the power that creates that kind of goodwill? It is not money. These young people are not working for money. Nor is it fame. They suffer plenty of humiliation in the course of their two years. What is it that makes strong, competent men and women willing to sacrifice everything, going out as missionary couples or temple presidents or on countless other assignments at considerable personal sacrifice.
What is the nuclear fusion at the core of the sun?
I am searching for the words. Is it testimony or faith? The scriptures speak of the precious fruit desirable above all other fruits. The Savior called it the pearl of great price. I think of it as salvation. I think the only thing that would motivate so much selflessness is the promise of becoming what we want to be in our highest aspiration. It is the hope that God will lift us up. He will make us holy, loving and intelligent. He will make us worthy to be loved and accepted. That promise moves us to consecrate our lives.
When Claudia and I started to teach in the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University, a faculty member invited me to lunch. We had scarcely put in our orders when he turned to me and asked, "Richard, how can you believe in Joseph Smith?" In one of the few instances when I have risen to the occasion, I said, “When I live the Mormon way, I become the kind of man I want to be.” Only something like that, like redemption, is powerful enough to create the good hearts of our missionaries and our faithful brothers and sisters.
And so the church must perform its mission of salvation. And so radiant Mormonism must extend Mormon influence. We must tend to the core where the energy comes from, and we must welcome the radiation of Mormon influence across the face of the earth. Every day we add to the sum of goodwill among humankind; some day that goodness may save the world.
Dr. Richard Bushman is Columbia University’s Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History.