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UVSC to offer program of Mormon Studies

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It's akin to living in Rome and giving the Vatican nary a glance.

Although the example is a bit simplistic, a lack of study in Utah about the LDS Church is essentially the reason Eugene England persuaded Utah Valley State College to start the first Mormon Culture Studies program in the state's higher-education system.

"Just growing up in a culture does not reveal to us it is indeed a culture," said England, a former Brigham Young University English professor who is now the Orem college's writer-in-residence.

England, who oversees the UVSC program that last week won a $25,000 one-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, questions why Utah colleges don't dedicate more study to the influence wielded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over its members and those who live in a state where the majority of residents are LDS faithful.

"In Utah higher education we sometimes forget we need to understand our own culture," said England at Thursday's 20th annual Sunstone Symposium, a forum for Mormon scholars. "A study of our culture can only make us better."

Despite the state's roots in religious freedom and the sometimes blurry line separating church and state, Utah's higher-education system is one of five nationwide that does not boast a four-year degree program in the study of a higher power, said Brian Birch, a UVSC philosophy professor. Birch hopes the Mormon Studies program, which consists of guest lectures and conferences, will eventually mature into a religious-studies degree. It baffles him that students cannot earn a degree in a subject that is "arguably the strongest force in our society."

Religious beliefs drive economic policies, political decisions, gender roles and the society's hierarchy, he said. And a study of what makes LDS faithful tick could fascinate many social scientists.

To wit: One of Birch's studies attempted to find out if residents in Utah County — where the percentage of LDS Church members is said to be 90 percent — believed that wealth was an indicator of righteous living.

He found that wealthy people did not believe that large houses and fancy cars are purchased with money bestowed on them by the heavens for good deeds.

But poor people begged to differ, according to the study. The working poor said the wealthy were blessed for more faithfully obeying God's word.

A critical look at the reasons for such findings in a neutral forum, as well as an opportunity to dispel common misconceptions about Mormonism and counter anti-Mormon sentiment, are reasons a Mormon Studies program is needed, England said.

Elaine Englehardt, assistant vice president of academic affairs at UVSC, promises the classes will not evolve into hour-long bouts of Mormon bashing.

The fear administrators had when the program was proposed last year was that the school was "going to get in trouble with people who think we are either proselytizing or being critical," she said.

Mormon scholars such as Mary Ellen Robertson, who earned a master's degree in Women Studies in Religion from Claremont Graduate School, believes that "faith and scholarship work hand in hand."

"I think the academic study of religion is an energizing and worthwhile endeavor," she said.

E-MAIL: jeffh@desnews.com