Back in March, Diane Winston reviewed two new Mormon history books for The Washington Post. Diane, the Knight Chair for Media and Religion at the Annenberg School at USC, is a journalist of great renown as well as a Princeton-trained historian. (And, since this is a post about self-disclosure and the ways autobiography affects our writing, I should point out that she's a much-admired personal acquaintance of mine. In short, she is awesome.)
The books in question are Matthew Bowman's The Mormon People (Random House, 2012) and LDS in the USA by Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander (Baylor University Press, 2012). Diane expresses frustration at the fact that in neither book do the scholars reveal their LDS affiliations:
In “The Mormon People,” Matthew Bowman synthesizes previous scholarship to create a church history that is neither truly secular nor wholly sacred. Bowman is himself a Mormon, a fact that he does not mention in the book, yet which can be discerned through an online search, and which inevitably shapes his work and his judgments. The issue is not whether he can write more or less objectively than a non-Mormon, but rather how his commitments inform his approach to the material. Knowing an author’s point of view, especially on sensitive religious subjects, helps readers evaluate the intellectual and emotional arguments threading through a given text. In this case, I spent a lot of the time looking for clues.
Reading her whole review essay, however, it seems like her issue is whether an LDS author can write more or less objectively about Mormonism. I found this odd at the time, but since I hadn't read both of the books in question, I didn't feel qualified to weigh in. Now I have, and here is my answer:
Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander should have come clean. Matthew Bowman does not have to.
Bowman's book is far more sophisticated and balanced than she gives it credit for. He is able to see both secular and sacred forces at work in the early Mormon movement. He is far-ranging in his source material, including both faithful LDS accounts and more critical ones with equal weight. And the second half of the book, which traces the development of the LDS Church as a bureaucracy in the twentieth century, is truly groundbreaking.
In contrast, LDS in the USA is underresearched and far less nuanced. It too often uncritically adopts the Church’s official explanations and history at face value. For example, the authors assert that Joseph Smith got his "first vision" in 1820 at the age of 14, which is now the official party line of the LDS Church. But you will be hard pressed to find any professional historian presenting this as the only POV, since there are at least eight conflicting versions of the story, with varying details about Smith's age at the time and the contents of his vision.
Smith is presented uncritically as a "Jacksonian hero" who "pulled himself up by the bootstraps" to become a self-made man. The bootstraps analogy also comes up a bit later, but this time as a hyperbolic reference to the entire Mormon religion. The footnotes for the theology chapter are revealing in that most of them are from Joseph Smith’s own history or from church-produced curriculum. And in a brief chapter on popular culture, the authors promise to discuss Big Love, which I was pleased to see. However, they then proceed to discuss two of the Church’s official pronouncements about the series without taking into consideration the show’s actual content, historical and political context, etc. The book does not make it sound as though the authors have even watched the series they are criticizing.
My conclusion from all this is that not all Mormon authors need to reveal their religious biases, because some are already well aware of them and take pains to offer balance and divergent perspectives. But some authors do need to be more transparent to benefit their readers -- and it's probably the case that it's precisely the authors who don't think they need to do this who actually do.
The larger question, of course, is whether scholars of all religious traditions need to reveal their biases, not just those representing traditions that are considered controversial. I once took a graduate course in Eastern religions with Robert Thurman. Was he biased when it came to Buddhism? Heck yes. To hear him tell it, Tibetan Buddhism was the most advanced strand of the planet's most advanced religion. I counted it a privilege to study with someone who was best buds with the Dalai Lama, but always with the knowledge that there was probably a lot more to the story. Such knowledge can be a helpful thing.
But it's unfair to a religious minority to assume a default position that says its scholars must reveal their affiliations. It depends on the scholars themselves and the quality of their work.