Matthew Gowans isn't the only Mormon DePaul University has hired in its 114-year history, but he is the first ever brought on to teach students about Mormonism. The kids, Gowans says to me last month on the Chicago campus of DePaul, my alma mater, "really have no clue what Mormons fundamentally believe."
That does not, however, mean students at the largest Catholic university in America are uninterested in learning. "Toward the end of my class on environmental ethics I give students a choice of what they might what to discuss and a majority chose Mormonism on environmental ethics," Gowans says.
The newfound interest in Mormonism among students and the larger American public convinced the Religious Studies department to transition Gowans's part-time contract into a full-time one. Fr. James Halstead, the Augustinian priest who chairs the department, talked often with Gowans about his religion. The priest told him, "Bring these things up in your class."
At first, Gowans was hesitant. After all, there hasn't been a whole lot of study of Mormonism outside the Latter-day Church itself. Richard Bushman recently became the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Gowans says: "Before that, nothing!"
"The Church has been somewhat isolationist," Gowans admits, "but it's all coming into view." Claremont won't be the last to have a chair in Mormon Studies. Gowans has already taught classes on Mormonism at the Evangelical Lutheran affiliated Carthage College in Wisconsin.
With his new class, the American Religious Experience -- where students will learn about "Mormon cosmology, church organization and hierarchy, revelation, scripture, family, and temple worship" -- Gowans hopes to include Mormonism where it has typically been left out. "If you were to look at textbooks on the American religious experience, they usually don't consist of more than a paragraph or a page on the Church."
He promises this won't be a whitewash. For instance: "I would do a huge disservice to students if I didn't discuss polygamy." Even though the Church left polygamy behind in the late 19th century, Mormons are reluctant to discuss it. "It wasn't like the Church said, 'Polygamy was wrong.' It was: 'God asked us to do that, and now He said we no longer have to.' That's a hard thing to defend."
I ask him if he will talk about another charge often leveled at Latter-day Saints: that they are polytheists. "We've been called that before, but we're not Hindus," Gowans says. The problem is the Trinity -- the dogma that God is one being, though three distinct persons. Mormonism agrees with the "persons" part but rejects the "one in being."
This is one of the big reasons, Gowans says, why many critics say Mormons aren't Christian. Latter-day Saints, for their part, often have a very negative "gut reaction" to these criticisms and all chance for real discussion is lost.
Discussion is precisely what he aims to foster. He served as a missionary in Milan when he was 19, but academia has become his new mission.
He has quite accidentally picked a good time for it. As Gowans admits, Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy has forced the Church "out of obscurity." He isn't worried about Romney's "character," but he hopes to remind people that "there are Mormon Democrats out there," as well.
Gowans worries about the "pride" that Romney's insistence on American exceptionalism can encourage, though he is quick to situate it within the Mormon view of history. Mormons believe the Founding Fathers were "led by God" during the Constitutional Convention. While not Scripture, Latter-day Saints believe the Constitution is "something that needs to be protected in its pristine and original content." Gowans himself would hesitate to say that the Constitution is a "holy text," but admits he'd catch some flak for that, especially from his in-laws.
Gowans and his wife of 13 years have three children. The family, Gowans says, is the Church's "primary focus." The family, Latter-day Saints believe, is "eternal." Here, Gowans suggests, is a point of ecumenism with Catholics. Where society attempts to "dismantle" eternity, Mormons and Catholics can work to stop it.
After all, Mormons see "everybody as a child of God" -- one big family. I ask him if that explains the whole "Mormon nice" thing? Gowans stops and laughs. Then he tells me he's met his "share of mean Mormons."