California school weighs LDS studies program

A California school is looking at opening the first chair for LDS Church studies outside of Utah for study of the faith's history, people and traditions.

Karen Torjesen, dean of religious studies at Claremont Graduate University's School of Religion, said separate councils studying possible chairs for several religions are due to file their recommendations next year, a Salt Lake newspaper reported Saturday.

The Deseret Morning News -- a newspaper the LDS Church owns -- quoted a source it didn't identify, said Claremont's Mormon chair could be named after Howard W. Hunter, the former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The LDS studies program could be among several new chairs in religious studies Claremont is examining for such religions as Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Utah State University announced several months ago it had secured funding for an endowed LDS chair as part of a new religious studies emphasis at the Logan, Utah, school.

The study of LDS history has been a staple at Utah State University school since church historian Leonard J. Arrington donated his 700-box collection of documents to the school before his death in 1999.

Another effort to open an LDS studies chair at Utah Valley State College has met resistance. Some residents of Orem, Utah, fear it could evolve into a Mormon-bashing program undermining the faith of the school's 24,000 students, most of whom are Latter-day Saints.

"There is so much cultural baggage and still a lot of hurdles we have to jump over in order to make the community feel comfortable with academic study of Mormonism," said Brian Birch, director of religious studies at Utah Valley State College, who received his doctorate at Claremont.

By contrast, Claremont's initiative has been met with "a great deal of interest," Torjesen said. "What we're doing with all these different councils and religious communities is envisioning a partnership. We want to do the study of religion in relationship with people who practice it so it's not an adversarial relationship."

To help build the foundation for LDS studies, Claremont held a conference two weeks on "Positioning Mormonism in Religious Studies and American History" that brought together key scholars in the field.

LDS Church members in southern California like the idea, said Amy Hoyt, a

doctoral candidate in women's studies at Claremont and a member of the school's LDS advisory council.

"There's some surprise that it's a secular, non-Utah university" that would take up LDS studies, she said. "I also get a sense of relief from people, like 'finally someone is going to take us seriously.' "

She said the LDS Church is becoming a topic of increasing interest among religion scholars as it grows beyond the Western Hemisphere into a worldwide faith.

Yale University held a scholarly conference on Mormonism two years ago, and Harvard University also is taking an interest.

"Mormon studies is coming into its own," Hoyt said.