by John-Charles Duffy
Question: What’s the difference between (a) a study of religion in the American west and (b) a study of American religion that happens to take place in the west
Case study: A few months ago I defended my dissertation, which examined interfaith dialogue between Mormons and evangelical Protestants in the United States—a recent (late 1990s) and unexpected development. To explain why the dialogue emerged when it did and what it “meant,” I contextualized it in relation to historical and cultural developments on a national scale: evangelical anxieties about Mormonism’s expansion outside the Intermountain West; Mormon efforts to reshape public perceptions of their movement; the rise of the new religious right and “culture war” politics; and the emergence of a nationally distributed literature in which evangelical thinkers grappled with questions around religious pluralism, interfaith dialogue, civility, and tolerance. The big “payoff” point for the study was that Mormon-evangelical dialogue offered a window into how American religious conservatives at the beginning of the 21st century were coming to terms with pluralism.
While the contexts I sketched for the dialogue were national in scale, the dialogue itself was centered in western states. Not surprisingly, Utah was a key location: one of the most active evangelical dialogists was a young Baptist pastor working in that state; most of the Mormon participants were professors at Brigham Young University; and Utah was a natural site for conferences and other events intended to promote friendlier relations between the two faith communities. Evangelical institutions in Colorado and California played key roles as well. A faculty member at Denver Seminary (Littleton, CO) coauthored the first published Mormon-evangelical dialogue with a colleague at Brigham Young University (Provo, UT); a number of closed-door meetings between Mormon and evangelical dialogists were hosted at Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, CA); and Biola University (La Mirada, CA) exchanged student delegations with BYU.
While Mormon-evangelical dialogue was centered in the west, it certainly wasn’t confined to that region. Mormon and evangelical scholars scheduled gatherings to coincide with the annual meetings of the AAR/SBL. One published Mormon-evangelical dialogue began as a public forum held at Roanoke College (Salem, VA). Dialogists were featured at high-profile Mormon studies conferences hosted by the Yale Divinity School and the Library of Congress. Dialogists made “field trips” to Mormon sacred sites in New York and Illinois.
Still, the dialogue took place largely in the west. Occasionally, I was even surprised by how western it was—or at least by which western locales came into the story. I wasn’t surprised, given the geography of early 20th-century fundamentalism and pietism, that the most prominent evangelical presses publishing works of Mormon-evangelical dialogue were located in the Midwest: Illinois, Michigan. I hadn’t expected, however, to find significant works of anti-Mormon polemics (the kinds of literature for which the Mormon-evangelical dialogue was supposed to provide a salutary alternative) coming from an evangelical publishing house located in Eugene, Oregon. Nor would I have predicted that one of the most famous evangelical anti-Mormon writers would set up shop in Issaquah, Washington.
In the end, though, I’m unsure how much significance to assign to the fact that Mormon-evangelical dialogue has been a predominantly western phenomenon. I’m convinced that the dialogue represents something noteworthy about “American religion” at the beginning of the 21st century. But does it illuminate anything meaningful about “religion in the American west”?
• Certainly I can frame the dialogue as a consequence of Mormonism’s expansion beyond the Intermountain West. That is, I can frame the dialogue as a response to evangelical anxieties triggered by Mormonism’s increased visibility and to a more widely diffused uncertainty among Americans over where to place Mormonism on the national religious landscape. (Is Mormonism Christian? Is it a cult?)
• Certainly the Californian evangelists and institutions that have participated in the Mormon-evangelical dialogue can be placed in a history of evangelical outmigration from the South into the western part of the Sun Belt.
• Less certainly, I am inclined to think that the story of Mormon-evangelical dialogue shows the continuing importance of eastern institutions as arbiters of cultural significance: this western-centered initiative was able to claim some measure of national prominence when it gained access to eastern venues such as Yale Divinity School or the Library of Congress.
• It is tempting to assign regionally framed significance to the fact that the coordinators of Mitt Romney’s 2007-2008 presidential campaign flew the two most prolific Mormon-evangelical dialogists from the Intermountain West to New England to advise them on how to cope with evangelical opposition centered in the South and the Midwest.
Perhaps, though, I’m overemphasizing the regional in all this. When I see that Mormon-evangelical dialogue is centered at institutions in Utah, Colorado, and California, I think—Of course, how natural, the key players are in geographical proximity. But how important is geographical proximity in an era of telecommunications and air transportation? Recall the Mormon-evangelical dialogues at Roanoke College or the AAR/SBL. Could Mormon-evangelical dialogue have flourished just as well if the individuals passionate about pursuing it had been located not at places like Denver Seminary and Fuller but at institutions farther east—maybe Wheaton (Illinois) or Gordon-Conwell (Massachusetts)? Then again, would those individuals have become so passionate about dialoguing with Mormons if they hadn’t lived in or near major Mormon population centers—that is, if they hadn’t lived in California or the Intermountain West? How important is the west in the story of this dialogue? Is the largely western setting meaningful or incidental?