Ironically, the main problem with Mormon intellectual discussions is that all too frequently we have no intellectual agenda. Or at least so it seems to me. To understand what I mean, consider an intellectual discussion that does (or at any rate did) have a clear research agenda: the law and economics movement.
Beginning in the early 1970s Richard Posner and a group of other scholars mainly centered on the University of Chicago law school began publishing law review articles centered around a simple theme: legal rules created incentives and these incentives could be modeled and evaluated using the tools of microeconomics. This basic insight provided a research paradigm that has lasted a good two generations. The positions taken by scholars have changed, and the economic analysis has generally become more sophisticated (although the legal analysis, in my opinion, has declined in quality) but the basic approach has remained the same. The movement was centered on a set of claims about what provided the best method of analyzing the law. In other words, law and economics had an intellectual agenda.
Mormon studies does not have a clear intellectual agenda. Rather, by and large our discussions have been dominated by pastoral or political questions rather than intellectual questions. For example, the most intense historiographic debates within Mormon history â€“ the most professsionalized part of Mormon intellectualdom â€“ have centered on theological and pastoral questions. Hence, people are tremendously concerned about questions like, â€œIs Mormon history faith promoting? Should it be?â€? Alternatively, the discussion has been dominated by political questions centering on how the Church could be made more liberal through intellectual discussion, or alternatively how the nefarious liberalizing tendencies of some Mormon intellectuals can be countered with intellectual discussions.
What is interesting is the extent to which the big debates in Mormon studies are generally not about intellectual issues. There are very few real methodological debates. There are relatively few debates about the relative merits of various explanatory theories about Mormonism. There are relatively few debates about potential implications of Mormonism for other fields of study. Instead, the highest profile debates are about pastoral or political issues.
Of course, I am overstating my case here, and increasingly (I hope) the discussion is less focused on pastoral or political issues. This is all to the good, as it seems to me that real intellectual progress is going to require that we start having debates about the relative explanatory power of differing theories. In other words, it will require that Mormon intellectuals actually start talking about intellectual issues, rather than their political ambitions for Mormonism or how one manages a crisis of faith. These are important questions, to be sure, but they are not the stuff of which enduring research agendas are made.