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Mormon-studies professorship is California’s first

Times Staff Writer

Claremont Graduate University is establishing a new professorship in Mormon studies and hiring a prominent historian and biographer of the religion’s founder to fill that slot -- starting the first such academic program in California and the second of its kind at a secular school nationwide.

Non-Mormon academics and Mormon church leaders described Claremont’s appointment of Richard Lyman Bushman, professor emeritus of early American history at Columbia University, as a significant advance in serious scholarship about the religion, which is growing quickly worldwide but also raising puzzlement and even hostility.

Bushman is a devout Mormon whose 2005 biography of the faith’s prophet, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” garnered many positive reviews, although some critics said it uncomfortably straddled reverence and logic. In the last year, he gained national attention as a media commentator about Mormonism’s role in American life and the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon too.

Bushman’s post at Claremont is to begin next fall and last at least three years. The new professorship shows that “Mormons believe that their religion is worthy of study at the highest academic level and, secondly, that it can bear up under that kind of scrutiny,” Bushman said.

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The professor, who is 76 and earned his bachelor’s and graduate degrees at Harvard University, likened the Claremont professorship to the start of Armenian studies at Harvard in the 1960s.

“It’s the same thing: groups that are marginal to American society who want to have a foothold in major American institutions,” he said.

Claremont has raised about $1 million, mainly in donations from Mormons, to establish the Howard W. Hunter visiting professorship in Mormon studies, named after the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who was a lawyer in California. The goal is $2.5 million for a permanently endowed chair, which supporters hope to garner by next year, and another $2.5 million for scholarships, conferences and library books.

Claremont had hoped to be the first secular institution to offer a formal Mormon-studies program but was beaten to the punch by Utah State University, which started classes on the topic this fall. But being the first school outside Utah -- the center of Mormonism -- is itself an achievement, said Karen Torjesen, dean of Claremont’s School of Religion.

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The Mormon classes will be part of Claremont’s efforts to diversify its study of beliefs. Its religion school recently started a master’s program in Islamic studies and established eight advisory councils involving representatives of Coptic Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims and Mormons.

Torjesen’s school, which enrolls about 200 students in various master’s and doctoral programs, and its parent graduate university are part of the secular Claremont Colleges consortium. The nearby Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, is a separate institution, although it cooperates with its neighbor on issues such as libraries and some classes.

Besides its increasing prominence in the United States and worldwide, Mormonism presents special scholarly interest because the religion is less than 200 years old and its growth can be more easily traced than ancient religions, Torjesen said.

While a non-Mormon might one day hold the new professorship, the dean said a highly respected historian who also has been a church activist like Bushman had strong appeal for his insider knowledge. But Torjesen stressed that she expects debate about Mormon doctrine and history.

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“That’s what the university does. The university is the place you deal with hard things,” she said.

Bushman agreed that a non-Mormon scholar could occupy the chair but said that a Mormon should not be excluded in any attempt to find objectivity.

During an interview last week at the Huntington Library in San Marino, where he is conducting research, Bushman said, “Would you say that the only people who can do black studies are not blacks, or that to do women’s studies you have to be a non-woman? You get all sorts of people who have deep personal commitments to a subject they teach, and that has its advantages.”

Keith Atkinson, a spokesman for the church in California, said Mormons support fundraising for the professorship not only because it shows academia taking the faith seriously. The university’s ecumenical approach is appealing as well, he said.

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“We felt it was a good opportunity to be part of a group that really wanted to have an interfaith dialogue that could help us appreciate the best in each other,” Atkinson said.

Many Americans have only passing knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some hold outdated stereotypes about its long-renounced practice of polygamy.

In September, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found 51% of Americans said they knew very little about Mormonism. Nearly a third said it was not a Christian religion. The poll suggested that Romney could face a hard time with white evangelical Christian voters.

With Romney’s Republican candidacy, reporters have turned to Bushman as a source about the Mormon church and politics.

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In reaction to an article in the New Republic raising concerns about the church’s potential influence over a Romney presidency, Bushman wrote a response in January in that magazine in which he insisted that the church does not dictate policies to Mormon elected officials. Bushman, a former president of the church’s Boston stake, said in the interview last week that he knew Romney and respected his “competence as an executive,” but declined to say whom he supported for president.

For much of his career, Bushman focused on non-Mormon topics. His writings include books on the rise of etiquette and middle-class taste in 18th and 19th century America and a social history of colonial Connecticut. At the Huntington, he will be working until the summer on a book about the economic pressures on colonial farmers.

Bushman said he never faced overt discrimination as a Mormon in secular academia although he experienced insensitive comments and “expressions of scorn.” Mainly, people show “a great curiosity: How can you be a scholar and believe in all of these extravagant doctrines and happenings,” he said. His personal response and that of most Mormons is not to push back too aggressively.

Bushman is keeping his apartment in Manhattan, where he is a patriarch, a respected elder who offers blessings, in the Mormon stake. But he said he and his wife, Claudia L. Bushman, who also taught history at Columbia and will be an adjunct professor at Claremont, are delighted to at least temporarily live in Southern California -- and not just for the weather. The couple have six children and 20 grandchildren, including three in Orange County.

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California is an ideal place for religious studies, Bushman said. “It embodies the diversity of American life, especially cultural and spiritual life,” he said. “Everything is here. It also happens to be one of the centers of Mormon population and a center of Mormon wealth.”

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

About the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally organized in upstate New York in 1830 with six members. It now reports a worldwide membership of nearly 13 million. With a strong missionary movement, the church has more than half its believers outside the United States.

Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. is said to have had sacred visions, including one in which the angel Moroni told him the location of gold tablets detailing God’s revelations. Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, which tells of the ancient Israelites’ forming a new society in the Americas and of Christ’s visiting them after his resurrection.

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Smith brought his followers westward before he and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered by an Illinois mob in 1844. Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, led a difficult migration to Utah, where the church is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Under pressure from civil authorities, the church ended its approval of polygamy in 1890. Since then, Mormons have gained a more positive reputation for their emphasis on family values and organizing their own welfare programs. But the church is set apart from more traditional Christianity by some of its doctrines, including the beliefs that God has a physical, although eternal, body and that the essence of each human has always existed even before birth.

-- Larry Gordon


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