Claremont Graduate University is establishing a new professorship in Mormon studies and hiring a prominent historian and biographer of the religion's founder to fill that slot -- starting the first such academic program in California and the second of its kind at a secular school nationwide.
Non-Mormon academics and Mormon church leaders described Claremont's appointment of Richard Lyman Bushman, professor emeritus of early American history at Columbia University, as a significant advance in serious scholarship about the religion, which is growing quickly worldwide but also raising puzzlement and even hostility.
Bushman is a devout Mormon whose 2005 biography of the faith's prophet, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," garnered many positive reviews, although some critics said it uncomfortably straddled reverence and logic. In the last year, he gained national attention as a media commentator about Mormonism's role in American life and the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon too.
Bushman's post at Claremont is to begin next fall and last at least three years. The new professorship shows that "Mormons believe that their religion is worthy of study at the highest academic level and, secondly, that it can bear up under that kind of scrutiny," Bushman said.
The professor, who is 76 and earned his bachelor's and graduate degrees at Harvard University, likened the Claremont professorship to the start of Armenian studies at Harvard in the 1960s.
"It's the same thing: groups that are marginal to American society who want to have a foothold in major American institutions," he said.
Claremont has raised about $1 million, mainly in donations from Mormons, to establish the Howard W. Hunter visiting professorship in Mormon studies, named after the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who was a lawyer in California. The goal is $2.5 million for a permanently endowed chair, which supporters hope to garner by next year, and another $2.5 million for scholarships, conferences and library books.
Claremont had hoped to be the first secular institution to offer a formal Mormon-studies program but was beaten to the punch by Utah State University, which started classes on the topic this fall. But being the first school outside Utah -- the center of Mormonism -- is itself an achievement, said Karen Torjesen, dean of Claremont's School of Religion.
The Mormon classes will be part of Claremont's efforts to diversify its study of beliefs. Its religion school recently started a master's program in Islamic studies and established eight advisory councils involving representatives of Coptic Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Muslims and Mormons.
Torjesen's school, which enrolls about 200 students in various master's and doctoral programs, and its parent graduate university are part of the secular Claremont Colleges consortium. The nearby Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, is a separate institution, although it cooperates with its neighbor on issues such as libraries and some classes.
Besides its increasing prominence in the United States and worldwide, Mormonism presents special scholarly interest because the religion is less than 200 years old and its growth can be more easily traced than ancient religions, Torjesen said.
While a non-Mormon might one day hold the new professorship, the dean said a highly respected historian who also has been a church activist like Bushman had strong appeal for his insider knowledge. But Torjesen stressed that she expects debate about Mormon doctrine and history.
"That's what the university does. The university is the place you deal with hard things," she said.
Bushman agreed that a non-Mormon scholar could occupy the chair but said that a Mormon should not be excluded in any attempt to find objectivity.
During an interview last week at the Huntington Library in San Marino, where he is conducting research, Bushman said, "Would you say that the only people who can do black studies are not blacks, or that to do women's studies you have to be a non-woman? You get all sorts of people who have deep personal commitments to a subject they teach, and that has its advantages."
Keith Atkinson, a spokesman for the church in California, said Mormons support fundraising for the professorship not only because it shows academia taking the faith seriously. The university's ecumenical approach is appealing as well, he said.
"We felt it was a good opportunity to be part of a group that really wanted to have an interfaith dialogue that could help us appreciate the best in each other," Atkinson said.
Many Americans have only passing knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some hold outdated stereotypes about its long-renounced practice of polygamy.