"How do you not have Mormon studies at the University of Utah, which is at the center of Mormondom?" asked Bob Goldberg, professor of history and director of the Tanner Humanities Center. "That's a great question."
The answer speaks to the history of the U. and the challenges inherent in teaching about the LDS Church from a secular perspective in a place where, for so many, it is anything but academic. But as the faith's profile grows in popular culture think Mitt Romney and "The Book of Mormon" musical and academia, the U. is taking steps to establish a minor in Mormon studies within its also-new religious studies major.
"In Utah, particularly, we live in tribes, and the barriers between tribes are pretty high," Goldberg said. "My hope is to break down those kinds of barriers in this community."
He also plans to examine touchier topics, such as gender and race, in church history and in the present issues that the U. is well-positioned to tackle. There are other solid academic reasons for scholars to study the development of the LDS Church, said Philip Barlow, chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.
"Throughout its history, way disproportionate to its size, Mormonism has been kind of a cultural lightning rod in various ways," he said, from the post-Civil War uproar about polygamy to the recent Proposition 8 controversy. It's a distinctly homegrown American religious tradition, the development of which some scholars have compared to the rise of Islam from Christianity, with a history that's been meticulously documented.
"We're in a place where you can actually have a fascinating, rich and well-sourced object for study," Barlow said. "A lot of the best scholars are not just studying Mormonism, they're actually studying how religion works, and this is a particularly rich case study."
The historical relationship between the U. and the LDS Church, though, wasn't simple. The school was founded in 1850, just a few years after Mormon settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, as the University of Deseret. Though LDS leadership and the government were almost inseparable in those days, the school wasn't entirely a religious institution.
"In a lot of ways it was a church school, but there was this attempt to formally create a university through the territorial assembly," explained Gregory C. Thompson, associate dean of special collections at the U.'s Marriott Library. It was overseen by church leaders until 1915, when the faculty clashed mightily with the administration over academic freedom, part of a national wave of such battles. The U. was sanctioned by the American Association of University Professors and the U. president resigned.
"There was a national movement to help protect the faculty and declare the right of academic freedom of speech and right to tenure," Thompson said. In Utah, "the secular authority was firmly put in place at that time."
The crisis would help establish the school's national academic bona fides, but it would also mark the beginning of decades of separation from the wider culture, to the point that, in 1992, Goldberg, a Jewish transplant to the state, gave a speech titled "Anti-Mormonism at the University of Utah."
"I am deeply concerned that, despite the gravity of the matter, the university appeases prejudice through silence," said Goldberg, according to a text of the speech. "… Administrators and faculty have adopted a double standard and do not even conceptualize anti-Mormonism as a problem."
Though it was part of Utah history courses, in-depth academic study of the LDS Church largely went by the wayside as well. The U. press stopped publishing scholarly works on Mormonism in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, religious studies a fairly young academic field began to sprout around the country, and that included Mormonism. The University of Illinois would become a major publisher of such work starting in 1965 with a history of Nauvoo. Other Utah schools eventually started to establish their own programs. Logan's USU hired Barlow in 2007, and Orem's Utah Valley University has a religious studies minor with a concentration in Mormon studies.
"When we have classes in Mormonism, typically they fill up," said Boyd Petersen, who runs UVU's program. "We only have the minor right now, but I think we're gearing up to where when we want to shift to a major, we'll be ready."
In a state where most students were reared in the LDS Church, professors do walk a fine line.
"It's sort of asking the proverbial fish … about water. They think the water is everything," Barlow said. "I make some points saying no matter whether you're a believer or not a believer, we can explore this question. It takes a number of weeks to get people to trust you're not here to construct or deconstruct, but to induce critical thought."
Still, it's the right time for the University of Utah to plunge into the topic more strongly, said Paul Reeve, who teaches Mormonism and the American Experience, the first Mormon studies course at the U. in at least 30 years, according to Goldberg, who has also overseen the establishment of a Mormon studies doctoral fellowship and a Book of Mormon as literature course.
"Religion is something academia is paying a good amount of attention to," Reeve said. "Certainly, my approach in this class, the religious studies approach, is not about the truth of claims, proving or disproving. … It's really about how religion motivates people, how religion functions in people's lives."