Slate has a lengthy and fascinating essay on Michael Quinn, who was excommunicated by the LDS in large part because of the historical studies he published. A historian with a PhD from Yale he became active at a heady time in Mormon scholarship, when the archives were opened in the 1970s more broadly than ever before. Unfortunately for Quinn, the brilliance of his scholarship did not lead to a brilliant academic career. Forced out of Brigham Young University, he was basically black-balled, prevented from tenured jobs at the University of Utah and Arizona because of efforts from administrators or faculty. On one level, his story is not unlike that of historians of other American religious traditions who have dared to challenge the official story of their communities, but to lose out on jobs at secular institutions because of fear of backlash from the LDS is unconscionable.
Jackson Lears reviews a number of recent works on Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the history of Mormonism:
As Terry Givens suggests in his probing book People of Paradox, the Mormon divinization of the material, even the banal, is akin to a sacramentalist outlook, but without the sense of transcendence and mystery that a remote God provides. Givens is a practicing Mormon with an uncommon sensitivity to the complexities and the vulnerabilities of his faith. He acknowledges the risk of hubris in the Promethean quest for Godhood, recalling the serpent’s promise in paradise (“ye shall be as gods”). This Promethean impulse is reinforced by a Mormon tendency to use a language of empirical certainty, even for propositions that may seem anything but empirical—a tendency traceable back to Joseph Smith. As a result of his visionary experience, he said, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” The search for empirical (or pseudo-empirical) certainty, bounded by priestly authority, is one engine of eternal progression. Salvation is a process, not a goal; its core is action, not introspection. Much of this theology resonates with commonsense American sensibilities—the priority of matter, the organizer God, the celebration of doing over being, the faith in progress, the prospect of perpetual personal growth.
Lears links the materialism of Mormonism to its success in fomenting capitalism and in the union of the two finds an explanation for Mitt Romney’s career. That might be going a bit far.
Mormonism continues to fascinate scholars and the general public, in part because of the many secret or semi-secret practices as well as the story of its origins. In the biography of Joseph Smith as well as in the story of finding of the Book of Mormon and the tension between the Latter-Day Saints and mainstream America in the 19th century, there is enough detail to puzzle over. That the modern LDS church presents itself as a denomination within Christianity and that contemporary Evangelicals have embraced Romney’s candidacy, shows how far Mormons have come on the road to respectability. It will be interesting to see what happens between the Mormon-Evangelical alliance if Romney loses.