With Mitt Romney running for President and Harry Reid the top guy in the Senate, Mormons are definitely making themselves felt in the mainstream. The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter Day Saints has been with us for sometime -- it's not a new religion -- but until recently it was largely marginal to American life.
But growing up in the West, the LDS church has had at least a degree of prominence. I've had my share of Mormon friends and while I'm not at all inclined to be a Mormon, nor do I find its theology at all compelling, the people as a whole are in my experience genuinely good folk.
But, they aren't well understood. That Claremont Graduate University is launching a Mormon Studies program -- the first in California and the 2nd at a secular university -- is a good sign. That is, there is an effort underway to bring the study of Mormonism into the center of the academy. According to an LA Times report, the first person to hold the new chair (a visiting position) is Columbia University historian, Richard Bushman. Bushman is both a distinguished American historian, he is also a devout Mormon. Having written more broadly on American religious history, he is the author of two biographies of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. I read the first one, published in 1984 years ago while a graduate student.
Whatever your feelings about this religious faith, it is essential that we understand it. Hopefully, this program will be a start!