When we left off, Mormonism was dealing with the clash between modern scientific ideas and its own truth claims. I used the example of Darwinian evolution because it’s instructive as to the response of the institutional church to new and challenging theories. But this wasn’t the only front in the conflict. Far from validating Mormonism’s claims, advances in such diverse fields as archaeology, history, and Egyptology had brought new challenges to the faith. No longer were criticisms of the church coming solely from polemical “anti-Mormons,” but even the religious anti-Mormons were employing scholars in their critique of Mormonism. Rev. Franklin Spalding, for example, in 1912 sent copies of the three facsimiles from the Book of Abraham to noted Egyptologists, who confirmed the spurious nature of Joseph Smith’s explanations of them.
Initially, then, the institutional response was to exclude challenging or controversial scholarship as topics of discussion both in church and educational settings among members. Just as we have seen with Evangelicals, science and religion seemed to have been relegated to different spheres with different purposes, “two sciences” dedicated to the building of different but equally valid structures, although it must be said again that Mormonism always privileged spiritual truth over rational or scientific truth. Joseph Fielding Smith said in a conference address in 1930, “The word of the Lord means more to me than anything else. I place it before the teachings of men. The truth is the thing which will last. All the theory, philosophy and wisdom of the wise that is not in harmony with revealed truth from God will perish. It must change and pass away and it is changing and passing away constantly, but when the Lord speaks that is eternal truth on which we may rely.” Simply put, when faith and “the teachings of men” collide, one must always choose faith.
Eventually, however, the teachings of men could not be ignored, and they slowly made their way into the curriculum at church institutions. By the time I took a freshman biology class in 1982, evolution was taught openly and clearly. However, the professor (who would shortly thereafter serve as a mission president) began his discussion of evolution with a disclaimer to the effect that he had a testimony of the gospel and of our divine heritage as children of God but that for the purposes of science, evolutionary theory had the most explanatory power of any theory and thus would be taught. Similarly, two of my Latin American history professors insisted that what we would be studying about pre-Columbian history was in no way related to what we would read in the Book of Mormon. One of the professors went so far as to say that “there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. Anyone who tells you othwerise is lying.”
Thus the exclusion of religion from “real” science had not only become complete, but Mormon scholars had apparently accepted that exclusion. Study of Mormonism’s religious claims was to take place in a religious context, not in the scholarly study of anthropology, history, literature, and archaeology. That doesn’t mean that scholarship wasn’t brought to bear on religious ideas, but rather the intent of the scholarship was not so much to discover as it was to bolster the faith claims of the church. As such, then, apologetics is a different pursuit from secular science and thus properly has no place within the secular academy. Daniel Peterson, head of the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS) wrote,
The unspoken conventions of the academy work strongly against sectarian apologetics or confessional testimony. Arguments directly for or against the truth claims of Mormonism would be beyond the pale at a mainstream academic conference or in a mainstream academic journal — just as arguments for or against Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, or Buddhism would be.
For what it’s worth, I appreciate this convention. I think it proper and useful. It helps, among other things, to maintain peace in the “public square.”
Am I hesitant to advocate my position? Am I embarrassed by my religion? Do I lack confidence in my overall beliefs? Good grief. I should think that if anything about me is obvious, it ought to be that the answer to those questions is an emphatic No. But I would no more bear my testimony of Mormonism in a secular academic conference than I would bring a ham sandwich into a mosque, wear a tuxedo to a football game, or start a political argument during mass.
Strictly speaking, to engage in “faithful scholarship” is not so much a process as it is a perspective or attitude toward the process. Apologetics brings secular knowledge and research to the effort to validate or rationalize religious truth claims, an effort that as Dr. Peterson rightly says would inappropriate in an academic setting.
Some critics have suggested that engaging in apologetics taints one’s academic reputation. It’s not surprising that some apologists take offense when their apologetics are criticized; although they recognize that apologetics and secular scholarship are separate fields, they clearly feel that there is some overlap and that their apologetics are a reflection of their “legitimate” academic activities. Witness, for example the sarcasm apologist Bill Hamblin uses in announcing the publication of a biography of Muhammad: “More proof (if any is needed) that DCP is a pseudo-scholarly hack.” The implication is that, if the apologist is a recognized scholar in another field, his or her work in apologetics must likewise be respected.
So, there is often an awkward tension between the desire to be taken seriously in producing apologetic works and the recognition that one must sacrifice some academic legitimacy in doing so. An instructive example is Dr, Jeffrey Meldrum, a biology professor at Idaho State University. Meldrum brought his academic credentials to a FAIR treatment of “DNA and the Book of Mormon,” but the article turned out to be an apologetic work based on the premise that DNA evidence does not apply to Lamanites because kinship is not necessarily related to genetics: “memes are stronger than genes.” But at the same time Meldrum’s expertise is called on to bolster Mormon claims, his work in Bigfoot studies is dismissed as irrelevant. The reason for this is that Bigfoot studies and Mormon apologetics have both been banished from the academy, while proponents of both seek legitimacy for their own endeavors.
This outline of the relationship between scholarship and apologetics is not meant to suggest dishonesty or shoddiness among those who would defend their faith. I have interacted with many apologists whose integrity and intellect I respect completely. But I would suspect that, although they would see their endeavors as legitimate, they would agree that they are outside the boundaries of academic study.