- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The University of Utah is considering offering its first-ever Mormon Studies minor, a program that would mark a shift from decades of stark separation between the school and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Bob Goldberg, director of the school’s Tanner Humanities Center, said discussions are underway with the dean’s office to develop a 15-unit, secular course of study under the umbrella of religious studies. The proposal comes after the school offered a class in the fall examining the Book of Mormon as literature.

“We’ve basically had a test run with literature, and the evaluations were very strong,” he told The Associated Press.

Adding such a program would mark a shift in a complicated relationship between the state’s flagship school and the worldwide church headquartered in the same city.

Founded in 1850, University of Utah was overseen by church leaders until 1915, when the faculty clashed bitterly with the administration over academic freedom. The university was sanctioned by the American Association of University Professors, and the school’s president resigned, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The separation between the school and the religion prompted Goldberg to give a speech in 1992 denouncing anti-Mormonism on campus.

Students seeking to study Mormonism through a Mormon lens can find ample opportunities at the church-run Brigham Young University. To graduate, students entering as freshmen must take 14 units of religious education courses focused on scriptures including the Book of Mormon, the New Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants.

Options are scarcer outside of BYU, but they include an interdisciplinary program in Mormon Studies at Utah Valley University.

Professors point out the cultural challenges of studying Mormonism from a secular standpoint when most students have been raised in the faith.

“It’s sort of asking the proverbial fish . about water. They think the water is everything,” said Philip Barlow, chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. “I make some points saying, ‘No matter whether you’re a believer or not a believer, we can explore this question.’ It takes a number of weeks to get people to trust you’re not here to construct or deconstruct, but to induce critical thought.”

Barlow said he sees great opportunity in ramping up Mormon studies in the heart of Mormon country.

“We’re in a place where you can actually have a fascinating, rich and well-sourced object for study,” he told the Tribune. “A lot of the best scholars are not just studying Mormonism, they’re actually studying how religion works, and this is a particularly rich case study.”

The proposal for a minor calls for new classes in Mormon architecture, Mormonism in politics and Mormonism and Christian theology. The university already offers a course in Mormonism and the American experience.

Students also would take a general religious studies course to round out the minor.

The proposal still must clear several bureaucratic hurdles before approval, but Goldberg said the minor could be in place by fall 2015.

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