Scholar becomes explainer in a 'Mormon moment'

New York Times/July 31, 2007
By Dan Gilgoff

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Richard Lyman Bushman was offered some friendly advice by a favorite professor: he was a fine student, but his Mormonism was seen by the Harvard establishment as a "bunch of garbage."

Bushman would do himself a favor, the professor told him, to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints behind as a relic of his upbringing.

"I reacted just the opposite," Bushman said in a phone interview. "I said, 'You're not going to bully me, you big representative of Harvard culture."'

That was 57 years ago. Since then, Bushman has retained his Mormon faith even while forging an Ivy League academic career, earning posts at Columbia and Harvard.

In fact, as his teaching and research focused on colonial American history, Bushman also managed to become something of an ambassador for Mormonism to the outside world.

Now, with the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney (whom Bushman knew when both were at Harvard in the '70s and whose son is a member of Bushman's New York congregation), Bushman is being thrust further into the public spotlight, becoming the nation's chief defender and explainer of Mormonism.

When The New Republic published a cover article in January questioning whether a Mormon was fit to be president, the magazine asked Bushman to write a "Mormon" response. At the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's journalism conference in May, Bushman was asked to lead a session titled "Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?"

And as news media outlets run stories about the current "Mormon moment," his phone keeps ringing. He considered it a blessing that he was already on his way out of New York for his annual summerlong sojourn in Provo, Utah, when "Good Morning America" and "The Daily Show" started calling.

"I'm still kind of a babe in the woods when it comes to TV," Bushman, 76, said from Provo, where he is joined by his wife, Claudia, who has also taught at Columbia and has written books on Mormonism with him.

And yet he says his stomach for so many media appearances, answering the same questions over and over, is born of duty to his faith. He believes Mormons can overcome prejudice only through vigorous dialogue with outsiders. For the nation's nearly six million Mormons, a largely insulated community that is barred from discussing rituals outside of temple, it is not a natural posture.

As they receive more public attention, not only from Romney's candidacy but also from the HBO series "Big Love," about a polygamist family, and the coming movie "September Dawn," about a 19th-century massacre led by Mormon zealots, "Mormons are ambivalent about how to respond," Bushman said. "There's this feeling that we'll rise above the fray."

"I think we've overdone that," he said. "That's how a lot of misunderstanding gets propagated."

At the same time, Bushman's efforts to straddle the devout Mormon and secular academic worlds have won him critics in both. His 2005 book "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (Alfred A. Knopf), a biography of Mormonism's founder, upset some believers with its depiction of Smith's father as an alcoholic and its claim that Smith wed 10 women who were already married.

Some secular historians, meanwhile, criticize Bushman's reliance on the writings of Smith and his followers as the best sources on early Mormon history.

"He never follows things to their final conclusions to say this did or didn't happen," said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis who admires Bushman's work. "He simply tells the story the way that Joseph Smith and his family and followers tell the story."

Bushman, who published a book of essays in 2004 titled "Believing History" (Columbia University Press) admits as much. A Columbia professor emeritus who is being considered for a new chair in Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, he is the first to warn Mormons against defensiveness. He responds to the news media's questions - which often reflect incredulity at Mormon beliefs - by owning up to Mormonism's eccentricities, calmly explaining its doctrine, and, if need be, gently setting the record straight.

"Every time you meet a reasonable Mormon, you have to readjust your beliefs about how wacky Mormon beliefs are," Bushman said. "You have to say, 'I can't stomach it myself, but apparently it really works for these people."'

So when a journalist at the Pew conference asked Bushman about the historical justification for polygamy, which thrived in Mormon circles before the church outlawed it in 1890, he framed it as a "perplexing problem for Mormons" themselves because it is "so contrary to Mormon contemporary ideas of family." He also floated a practical-sounding theory, that roughly half of all plural wives were converts to Mormonism who lacked husbands or older brothers in the Mormon community; plural marriage provided male protection.

Once the conference transcript was posted online, e-mail messages from Mormons poured in to Bushman, praising him for braving "the lions' den" of reporters.

Even the church, which had not previously endorsed Bushman's work, linked to the transcript on its Web site. The church has also expressed interest in a seminar he is convening this summer, bringing together Mormon intellectuals to discuss how to better communicate Mormon doctrine and history.

Still, Bushman has his work cut out for him.

"He was really, really good, and as good as he was, people still came away with questions," said Michael Cromartie, a religion and politics scholar who moderated Bushman's appearance at the Pew conference.

For Bushman, the invitation to address an elite group of journalists on Mormon history and doctrine was itself a victory.

"Simply being accepted as normal is a pretty big step for Mormons," he said. "That is the only progress we can hope for."

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