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Provo • Defensiveness has left Mormonism in a pickle, according to one of the Utah-based faith's leading intellectuals.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is respected for its Mormon Tabernacle Choir and pop singing groups, dancers, pro football players and competence in times of disaster.
And, yet, said Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, "in return for qualified esteem, the public reserves the right not to take [it] seriously as a belief system."
In fact, a 2007 survey ranked Mormons along with Buddhists and Muslims among the nation's least-liked faiths.
"Mormons like everyone else," wrote Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, "while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons."
Givens was the keynote speaker Thursday at the Mormon Media Studies Symposium at Brigham Young University. The two-day gathering at the Provo school's Conference Center continues Friday.
The symposium is examining the way the LDS Church and its members think about, use and create media in their varied forms from public relations to film.
Givens, a Mormon, traced the faith's difficulty getting its theology taken seriously through three periods of its history, beginning with the church's early decades when founder Joseph Smith was denounced as a fraud and the Book of Mormon as a forgery.
His survey continued through the latter half of the 19th century, when Mormons were dismissed as subhuman because of the practice of plural marriage, and he pinpointed the moment the religion began to gain a cultural toehold: when the Tabernacle Choir wowed listeners at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
Mormons, he said, let detractors frame the issues and, in fact, savored their role as "blessed" victims.
"Mormons were perfectly happy to play by the rules that had been inaugurated by their detractors and opponents," Givens said. "They have played defense."
Starting with Smith, he said, the church's message has been more about claiming compatibility with mainstream Christianity than proclaiming its distinct theology.
"You could almost see a fractured sense in his [Smith's] writing of the Articles of Faith," Givens said, responding to a question from the audience of about 300 after his talk. "It's as if he's going back and forth."
"Mormons are still characterized by that kind of schizophrenia," said Givens, who called the Book of Mormon a "completely untapped resource" that is regarded more as an icon of Smith's prophetic call than a theological source.
One early LDS apostle, Parley P. Pratt, took a different public-relations approach, Givens said. In tracts and debates, Pratt unabashedly proclaimed the distinct doctrines of the church such as man's deification and God's embodiment, Givens said. Pratt was trying to get the critics to engage the new faith's theological claims.
"I've always admired his pluck," said Givens, whose biography of Pratt, co-written with Matthew Grow, will be published next year.
"Pratt's attitude seemed to be Christendom was a ship about to sink and Mormonism had the lifeboats," Givens said. Pratt resisted the impulse of most Mormons to head back to the foundering ship. "Where Mormonism will steer its boat in the 21st century is not yet clear."
Bountiful resident Ann Marie Blodgett, a former blogger about Mitt Romney who is considering blogging again, said Givens is right about one thing.
"On one hand, we want to be accepted and, on the other, we want to be different," she said. "What I took away is we don't need to be afraid of who we are."
About the speaker
Terryl Givens is an upstate New Yorker who graduated from Brigham Young University, served an LDS mission in Brazil and did graduate work at Cornell University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia. The author of several books, his most recent is When Souls Had Wings: Premortal Existence in Western Thought, published earlier this year. Givens was the keynote speaker for the Mormon Media Studies Symposium, which ends Friday at Brigham Young University. Information is available at http://ce.byu.edu/cw/mmstudies/