August 11, 2005
To Whom It May Concern:
I hope that you will not find an unsolicited letter presumptuous, but I wanted to give you my thoughts on what I see as Dialogue’s problems and some things it could do to improve. First let me say I wish Dialogue well, and I want it to succeed. I am very heartened to see the appearance of important works on Mormonism in places like Oxford University Press or the Harvard Theological Review. However, while there may someday come a time when the publishing of Mormon Studies can occur entirely outside of the ghetto of wholly Mormon venues, that time has not yet come. Furthermore, for certain topics I don’t think that it will ever come. That being the case, I care a great deal about the health and public reputation of Mormon intellectual fora.
I think that Dialogue has some serious problems. My thoughts on this are based on many hours of conversation about Mormon intellectual life with LDS grad students and other young people who care about such things. I hope that you are under no illusions: There are any number of talented young intellectuals who will be the leading Mormon scholars of this generation who are unwilling to publish in Dialogue because of the perception that it is the in-house journal of the disaffected Mormon community, and they have no desire to be associated with it. I think that this is unfortunate. However, it is a reality, and I understand the concerns of young Mormon scholars who shy away from Dialogue. Frankly, I share some of them. The problem is that for younger scholars in particular, the professional rewards of publishing in Mormon Studies are virtually nil, and the belief that publishing in Dialogue will create a negative perception among the broader Mormon community leads them to think that it simply is not worth it. (Dialogue publications — as is true for all publications in explicitly Mormon fora — have very little professional value to tenure committees.) I realize that this perception of Dialogue is not entirely fair. You publish a lot of stuff that has little or no discernable ideological content, and pieces that are thought unduly critical of the Church or of Mormon belief no doubt get a disproportionate share of attention. Nevertheless, Dialogue has an image problem that is a substantial barrier to participation by many younger Mormon intellectuals. I doubt that any of this is news to you.
It is too easy, I think, for Dialogue to write off its image problems as evidence of Mormon anti-intellectualism, and wash its hands of the issue. First, the concerns that I have heard about Dialogue are coming from those who are intensely interested in Mormonism, consider themselves intellectuals and frankly have the scholarly credentials to back up the claim. However, they also consider themselves loyal and faithful Latter-day Saints. In other words, these are the concerns expressed by the people who should be your core author pool and audience. My impression is that you are losing them. Second, such a response is a recipe for increased marginalization and ultimately for institutional suicide. It transforms the perception into a self-fulfilling prophecy and would guarantee that ultimately Dialogue will in actual fact simply become the in-house journal for disaffected Mormondom. When this happens, Dialogue will have completely failed its original mission. Third, washing your hands of the issue is too easy. I believe that there are things that Dialogue can do to improve its situation. What is needed is not self-pity but a solution.
I think that the best way of mitigating these problems would be for Dialogue to solicit articles aggressively from well-known, established, conservative scholars arguing for overtly conservative positions. For example, you could ask Lynn D. Wardle to write an extended article on why same-sex marriage is a bad idea from both a policy perspective and from the perspective of LDS theology. Another possibility is to ask Daniel Peterson to write an article on why viewing the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction would be spiritual suicide for the Church. Perhaps you could get Lou Midgley to write a defense of excommunicating Mormon intellectuals who attack the Brethren. In other words, publish articles that are going to make aging liberal cultural Mormons who have been loyal Dialogue subscribers since the 1960s absolutely furious. You need to be thinking in each and every issue whether or not you have published something offensive to this group. Dialogue has shown a willingness to offend conservative or orthodox Mormons. I would work explicitly to make it a two-way street. Obviously, no one expects Dialogue’s board to agree with everything that the journal publishes, but consistently publishing one article in every issue for several years that took a recognizably conservative position on a theological or political issue would do much to signal that Dialogue was serious about…dialogue. However, doing this will require that you aggressively solicit pieces from those who have otherwise written Dialogue off as a lost cause. I assume that you are not publishing these articles because the manuscripts are not coming in. If they are coming in and you are refusing to publish them on ideological grounds, then Dialogue is a lost cause. I hope and believe that this is not the case.
Ultimately, I don’t know if the suggestions here can help Dialogue. I am a sometime subscriber and consistent reader of the journal. I think that I have at least thumbed through every single issue of Dialogue ever published. I wish you well, and I think that it is very important that Mormonism have a place for scholarly discussion. I hope that Dialogue can make the changes necessary for it to become a vibrant part of that discussion. Without changes, however, I think that its future is bleak.