If one were to offer sweeping generalizations and a broad periodizing scheme regarding dominant intellectual movements in Mormon Studies, one might suggest that the “New Mormon History” was the focal point of excitement and energy from perhaps the late 1960s until the middle of the 1980s. Its successor, from the middle of the 1980s until probably the present, is the “Faithful Scholarship” project. The two movements differ in a number of ways, but perhaps most explicitly in that Faithful Scholarship attempts to present a specifically Mormon and explicitly believing account of Mormon history and society, while the New Mormon History attempts to analyze Mormonism in terms that are acceptable to both Mormons and non-Mormons.
The philosophical underpinnings of both movements have played a surprisingly important role in intellectual struggles between them. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of this is to read John-Charles Duffy’s excellent intellectual history and critique from Dialogue earlier this year, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Postmodernism” (41:1, Spring 2008: 1-33). Duffy recounts how Louis Midgley and David E. Bohn, in particular, used philosophical positions often referred to as “postmodern” in order to offer a critique of the New Mormon History’s attempts at achieving objective accounts of the Mormon past. This critique, in Duffy’s account, was devastating and has provided the intellectual basis for a marginalization of work in the style of Leonard Arrington and other New Mormon Historians since the 1980s.
Duffy is clearly right to point out that many of the most important current venues for research and publication in Mormon Studies have adopted positions related to Midgley and Bohn’s philosophical critiques of the New Mormon History. In particular, Faithful Scholarship is characterized by what Duffy identifies as “perspectivism,” i.e., the philosophical claim that all intellectual claims originate in one or another ideology. Since there is no a priori or objective way of determining which ideology is true or correct, we are forced instead to conclude that all perspectives are at least in principle valid. To the extent that scholars and readers in the broader intellectual community accept this position, they should welcome (or at least not reject out of hand) historical, social-scientific, literary, and other contributions that explicitly reflect Mormon faith. Such appeals to perspectivism have been explicit in Richard Bushman’s articulations of the faithful history project, as well as in past versions of the mission statements of BYU Studies and the late Joseph Fielding Smith Institute. (One might note in passing that the current mission statements of BYU Studies and the Maxwell Institute lack formal perspectivist language, although they seem to retain some flavor of the position. Perhaps a move away from this rationale for Mormon intellectual work is under way?) More broadly, this perspectivist position has generally been how Faithful Scholarship work in Mormon Studies has packaged itself for consumption by the broader scholarly world.
It is evident that ironies abound here, as Duffy, Massimo Introvigne (“The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective,” in Mormon Identities in Transition, Douglas Davies, ed., 1996.), and others have noted. One might note, for example, that the development of perspectivist positions has been strongly influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche — not the philosopher most closely connected with Mormon orthodoxy in most believers’ minds.
Beyond the strange-bedfellows irony just noted, there are deeper tensions in the Faithful Scholarship project as framed by these philosophical commitments. An appeal to perspectivism in particular, and postmodernism (however defined) more generally, can open the door to scholarly legitimacy for research that openly reflects current orthodox Mormon understandings of our past, our theology, our social practices, and so forth. Yet this philosophical background also makes explicit that current orthodox Mormon points of view on these topics reflect only one of many equally valid perspectives from which scholarly research could proceed. Someone who fully accepts the philosophy that allowed Faithful Scholarship to marginalize the New Mormon History must necessarily agree that an explicitly faithful Buddhist, Catholic, or Muslim recounting of Mormon history is just as valid and just as useful as explicitly Mormon Faithful Scholarship on the same topic.
Indeed, it gets worse. Faithful Scholarship, as articulated by Bohn, Midgley, Bushman, et al., has no intellectual (as opposed to spiritual) grounds for preferring research conducted from an explicitly Mormon point of view to research conducted from an explicitly secular point of view. Thus, the Faithful Scholarship critique of New Mormon History is, if taken seriously, entirely self-defeating; the New Mormon History was just as valid, as a perspective, as its successors have been. Furthermore, a perspectivist has no intellectual basis whatsoever for preferring an explicitly Mormon account of the Mormon past to an explicitly anti-Mormon account of that same past. Anti-Mormonism, after all, is simply another ideology, one that we can neither judge nor consistently rule out.
So far, so grim. Yet the collection of ideas often called postmodernism has at least one more unpleasant surprise for the Faithful Scholarship project. Simply put, perspectivism and other late modernist/postmodern philosophical positions are committed enemies of universalizing categories such as “faithful Mormonism” or “the Mormon perspective.” Such categories are, from postmodern perspectives, simply tools of marginalization used by the powerful. There is no “Mormon perspective” in the singular; there are only “Mormon perspectives.”
For example, it is incorrect and inconsistent to claim that Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith reflects what Mormons believe about Smith’s life. No; the book reflects what a Mormon, named Richard Bushman, believes about Joseph Smith’s life. Other, quite different, Mormon perspectives exist and can claim equal legitimacy. A perspectivist ought, in principle, to be as interested in a well-written biography of Joseph Smith from a 19th-century Josephite perspective; from a modern-day Strangite perspective; from the point of view of a critical Mormon feminist; from the perspective of a Peruvian convert; or from the vantage point of a secular, disillusioned former Mormon who believes Joseph Smith to have been a liar and a pedophile. None of these perspectives, Bushman’s included, can really hope to recover Joseph Smith’s life as Smith himself understood it — indeed, even if one of them did happen to recover that understanding, we lack access to Smith as a source of validation that would allow us to confirm which text had gotten it right. Instead, all simply represent equally valid perspectives on the Mormon past. Yet only some of these perspectives are acceptable to the church hierarchy and the other institutional and scholarly actors who have promoted Faithful Scholarship at the expense of other approaches to Mormon Studies.
This is the central tension with Faithful Scholarship. The project seeks to open space for explicitly Mormon faith discourse in the broader intellectual community — but only a certain space. It seeks to discredit existing authorities that deauthorize Mormon faith perspectives in intellectual discourse, but it also seeks to replace those authorities with a new power center that chooses which Mormonisms are allowed to speak. This incoherent position simply cannot hold.
If Faithful Scholarship is to succeed in its goal of scholarly acceptance over the long run, it will fail in its goal of focusing Mormon intellectual discourse within an authoritative account of Mormon belief and practice. The other Restorationist perspectives will suddenly be given equal intellectual standing. University presses will publish faithful biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff from the point of view of current practitioners of polygamy; explicit anti-Mormons will occupy Mormon Studies chairs. Alternatively, if Faithful Scholarship is to succeed in its goal of presenting normative Mormon perspectives, the broader intellectual community will eventually marginalize it as simply a propaganda wing of the church. At some point, difficult choices will have to be made about the relative importance of maintaining the hegemony of normative Latter-day Saint belief as compared with scholarly acceptability.