Editor’s Note: The following is part one of a two-part series on secularism from Ralph C. Hancock. 

Is “secularism” a problem for religious people? That should be a no-brainer. Secular means worldly, or of this world, and it is clear in the Bible and every other scripture that to choose eternal life is to resist worldly temptations, which include illicit pleasures, vain concern for honors, a complacent sense of one’s own self-sufficiency, and in general an undue attachment to this life and to its goods. Nobody has said this better than Nephi: “I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.” Of course Nephi’s warning is perfectly compatible with a due appreciation of goods of this world (especially since the best of them continue in the next, glorified).   But the warning stands.

Scholars, academics and other intellectuals of course have a right to disagree with this warning against “secularism.” Disagreement I can deal with. As a scholar of political philosophy and its history, you can say that I’m in the disagreement business. But what I still find a bit frustrating is not to be able to agree on just what it is we are disagreeing about.

So it is with recent discussions of the question of “secularism” in relation to “Mormon Studies.” (These discussions have centered on a major shift in emphasis at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute, but the question of “secularism” of course is of more general interest.) Defenders of a new openness to “secular” scholarship in Mormon Studies (at BYU in particular) like to describe their critics as fearful, narrowly orthodox, and unwilling to learn from non-orthodox scholars. But this is too convenient; the question lies elsewhere.

To get clear on the question surrounding a new “Mormon Studies,” let us first state what should be obvious: there are many different ways to approach the study of Mormonism, and no approach should exclude any others that are intellectually honest and that shed some light on Mormon things. So there is good reason to welcome a plurality (which is not to say an infinite diversity) of approaches to enlarging our hearts and minds and to building the Kingdom.

Some who want to encourage openness to “secular” approaches to the study of Mormonism find it convenient to construe “secularism” simplistically to mean, essentially: whatever is not comfortably within orthodox LDS teaching and therefore is experienced as fearsome and threatening by those who are “conservative.” This characterization fits comfortably into an ideological map according to which the enlightened, “progressive ones” are ready to evolve and adapt, while “conservatives” are “threatened by change.” Since everyone who has thought about the matter at all (including Edmund Burke, arguably the founder of “conservatism”) understands that individuals and communities must “evolve and adapt” (in some ways to some things), then the implication is clear that conservatives are narrow, brittle, unreasonable, driven mainly by irrational fears, and thus ill-equipped to confront the exigencies and the opportunities of the emerging world.

A more charitable view of a “conservative” position would have to say something about things that are judged on balance to be worth conserving, and about strategies for conserving such goods while evolving and adapting where such evolution is rationally judged to be necessary and/or beneficial. But for those who find comfort in identifying with “progressives,” it is simpler to reduce the question to one between those who are rationally adaptable and those who are irrationally fearful. Once the teams or tribes have been divided up in this way, it is not hard to choose the worthier side:

The good guys are open to historical facts. They have read some history and know that Joseph Smith was married to many women. This they seem to have learned from “secular” history, and so secularism is a good thing, because it taught us this true fact.

The bad guys, apparently (I don’t know who this could be, but they must be quite a force, because the internet is rife with arguments straining to keep them at bay and to suppress their influence) do not like such “secular” history and do not want to accept such facts.

The good guys are open-minded and open-hearted. They will take a non-LDS (“secular”) historian to lunch, and maybe even share a dessert, if not a coffee. (Maybe a coffee-laden dessert! Wouldn’t that be daringly progressive!) They, like Joseph Smith, are ready to find Truth wherever it lies, and there’s every chance some of it might lie with the nice “secular” scholar across the table.

The bad guys would of course be too fearful to risk such a lunch. And even if they were foolhardy enough to brave the risk, what would they have to say to a “secular” interlocutor, since they cling to the orthodox reading of scriptures and prophets and are little interested in anything else – except, that is, when they turn to the search for ancient evidence? These narrow souls would have nothing to talk about except to be hell-bent on converting any prospect to their own rather confined and non-evolving views, with only stylometrics and repentance to deploy in preaching to the heathen.

As I say, this is a rather convenient mapping of the difference between “progressives” and “conservatives.” And I have learned from long and hard experience that no evidence of higher learning can save one from the label of fearful and backward “conservative” as long as one dares to question the assumptions of the Progressive tribe.

Let me then be clear what the debate concerning “secularism” in Mormon studies is not about: the question is not whether the Church is right to make available historical facts that some members may not welcome. I fully support the Church’s recent initiatives to be more forthcoming about certain historical matters (Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, multiple accounts of the First Vision, etc.) that some have had difficulty digesting.

For my part, I have never felt that anything was hidden from me. That said, I don’t see why anyone would expect the polygamy question to be brought up in primary, and whether it’s the most useful theme for, say, seminary discussion, is a question upon which reasonable people can differ. Milk before meat is just common sense. Who would put seer stones in the missionaries’ First Discussion? Or on the front page of the Ensign or L’Etoile?

When I was a teenager (not in benighted Utah, but well within the secular mainstream of greater Seattle), a senior home-teaching companion introduced me to Dialogue, and I saw immediately that I could learn from it, and also that there were things to take with a grain of salt. Later on I was aware of scholarly work by Hugh Nibley and Truman Madsen, and then a little later by Noel Reynolds and Richard Bushman and Jack Welch (just for example – there were many others), and I never doubted that I could find out still more about potentially sensitive topics by consulting these author’s sources and references and by asking people who knew about such things. So I never felt that things were hidden from me, perhaps because I understood the prudence behind the practice of letting people find information according to their interests and their needs.

Of course the explosion on the internet of “information” (and much pseudo-information, and worse), unfiltered and unmediated, has changed the game, and so it is natural and good that the Church is “adapting” to new circumstances by being more pro-active in publishing sound information in a suitable frame.

If there is a generation that feels surprised by polygamy or seer stones, then I genuinely feel for any who are troubled, even if I wonder just why stones in a hat should be more offensive to you than, say, stones illuminated by the very finger of the Lord to light a boat, which you might have been expected to read about. But be that as it may, let us say that I have “evolved” in accordance with the times on the information question, so that now I am practically a “progressive” on this point.

But the question of basic factual information has little to do with the question of “secular” Mormon Studies at BYU’s Maxwell Institute or elsewhere. It is not that I am incapable of being excited about new developments in Mormon Studies that include publishing in very distinguished non-Mormon presses and engaging in rich conversations with non-Mormons. For example, Terryl Givens’ works, published for a wide intellectual audience in prestigious presses, would have to count prominently among the new and exciting advances in Mormon Studies, and I have often openly praised these works. For example: “Brother Givens has stretched our minds and at the same time enlarged our souls with his studies of the meaning of Mormonism within the broadest spiritual and intellectual contexts.” And of course my interviews with Brother Givens have been published at this very site.

Similarly, I have praised features of David Holland’s work, a faithful Mormon writing for a scholarly, mostly non-Mormon audience, and whose work is favorably reviewed in the latest issue of the Maxwell Institute’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Here is what I said of Holland’s work:

In his interest in a universal human seeking David Holland’s perspective points to a breadth beyond the widening circles of contextualization that form Ben Park’s vistas. And a philosopher can certainly appreciate this interest in the inexhaustible forms of the human search for the divine, for whatever answers we think we already possess can be fully appreciated — even, arguably, really understood — and ever-renewed, only in the light of our continued exploration of the fundamental human questions. This suggests a breadth of horizon for “Mormon Studies” that goes well beyond contextualization in the American 19th or any other century.

Brothers Givens and Holland are faithful Latter-day Saints very skilled in engaging interests of non-LDS scholars. In doing so they, necessarily to some degree, “bracket” their testimonies in order to find a meeting ground of discussion with the honest of heart of other faiths or of none. While such bracketing carries certain risks, I am persuaded that it can contribute to the spiritual journey of a faithful Latter-day Saint.

My argument, then, is not that the New Mormon Studies, a scholarly enterprise that wishes to merge into a “secular” discipline, is too broad, too bold, or too venturesome. No, I think it risks being too narrow, too “professional,” too limited in the scope of its questioning and in its sensibilities. In fact I seem to think more highly of reason than do the “secular” or “progressives” voices who, for some Mormon intellectuals, are taken to represent the very summit of intellectual openness. I think more highly than they of reason and I am more suspicious of “secular progress.” Because I think more highly of reason, I am more suspicious of secular progress; I have less faith in secular progress.

I think more highly of reason because I think reason is inherently responsible for, responsive to some Good, some real (if elusive) Good that is not merely “historical,” not a mere product of human construction. Or to put it more simply: I do not think “reason” can be separated from the question of the meaning of life. What I am inclined to criticize, as a matter of principle, is not the provisional bracketing we find, for example, in Terryl Givens’ work, but a narrower kind of bracketing that increasingly defines the approach of professional, “secular” historians, a bracketing that tends to reduce the question of the meaning of Mormonism to that of the ways in which Mormonism (and notably the Book of Mormon itself) exhibits its 19th-century American context (or perhaps some slightly broader historical frame).

Such a dismissal of any wider (specifically Mormon or other) conception of truth is deemed necessary in order, as Brian Birch argued in the first Mormon Studies Review, to achieve “objectivity” such as might satisfy the criterion of “publicity” upheld by a self-authorized academic guild whose authority it would be unseemly to question. Stephen Taysom, in the same MSR, made the case more explicitly for the tradeoff necessary to “be held in esteem by the larger academic community”: the “rules of scholarly inquiry,” he stated plainly, must be severed neatly from “those that govern eternal truth.” And these rules imply that Mormonism is a cultural phenomenon…a human construct.”

Now, no one who has given the matter any thought would dispute the idea that Mormonism is in some ways a “cultural phenomenon,” subject to being shaped by “human construction,” up to some point. But the question at hand is whether we should purchase “maturity” as a secular discipline at the cost of reducing the meaning of Mormonism to such historical, cultural, human construction. Should we buy uncritically into the assumption of historical relativism in order to win the favor of the academic guild? My critical reason leads me to question the “objectivity” of this requirement more than the enthusiasts of the New Mormon Studies are inclined to do.

I have no problem with the proposition that we can learn interesting and perhaps even edifying things from “secular” scholars who willingly put on this reductive strait-jacket of historical construction. I do not contest the value of some studies that limit themselves to the question of historical context. What I do contest is the imperialism of such methodological limitations; I contest the claim that such a narrowed framework should set the standard for what is “objective.”

The question, then, is whether we should embrace these limitations for ourselves as a mark of our “objectivity” and thus our “maturity.” The question, in other words, is whether we should set methodological boundaries on our search for the truth in order to play the scholarly game on the field already defined by … well, by those who get to define the field. The Editors of the new Mormon Studies Review declare themselves disinclined to define any prior commitments of the Maxwell Institute; in order to avoid being considered “parochial” they are willing to embrace the indeterminacy of a “multiplex subjectivity” and to reduce the Mormon element of Mormon Studies to the simple idea of “friendship.”

Well, this gesture of friendship is sweet, but its effect seems to be to allow or rather to invite, not only non-Mormons, but non-Mormons committed to the substitution of the question of Historical Construction for Truth. to set the terms of the friendship by setting the agenda for “objective” scholarship. Under these terms, it is fair to state flatly “that there were no ancient gold plates,” but evidently not fair, or scholarly, or mature, to say: well, I think there were. (And actually to openly contradict such a flat statement by advancing evidence in favor of ancient origins, thus associating oneself with those marginal “conservatives” – so named in the New Maxwell Institute’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies –, who insist on taking seriously the Book of Mormon’s own account of its origins, would clearly be outright bad manners, either embarrassingly crude or just plain nasty.) To propose, as one less “mature” student of Mormonism[i] once did, that , “everything in the Church—everything—rises or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth” would clearly constitute an automatic disqualification from the exciting new field of secular Mormon Studies.

(In the next installment, we will see that the New Mormon Studies’ embrace of “secularism” has implications for one’s understanding of morality.)


[i] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland