There are two “religious” magazines that I like to read fairly regularly. Neither is Mormon. The first is First Things, which “is published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” The other is Commentary, a Jewish journal of public life. Both of these publications are vaguely “neoconservative” and hence are likely to be demonized today, but on the whole they are bastions of well-written and thoughtful commentary on culture and public affairs. Both of them are religious in some sense. Both are identifiably Christian and Jewish respectively. Yet they are not really about religion. Many of the articles have no religious voice at all, and they are largely unconcerned with “inside baseball” religious questions, except to the extent that internal conversations have some relevance to broader public discussions. Furthermore, both journals regularly publish articles by non-Christians and non-Jews (including the odd Mormon). There are ideological limits on contributors but no religious ones.
I would love to see a Mormon version of First Things or Commentary, but for a number of reasons I don’t think that this will happen. The biggest problem is that Mormons are too interested in themselves. In some sense, I think that the early Sunstone-istas had a vision of Sunstone along these lines: a magazine of Mormon thought capaciously defined to include not simply intellectual discussions of Mormonism but Mormonly intellectual discussions of the world. To be sure, such articles make their way into the pages of Sunstone and other Mormon publications from time to time, but on the whole such fora are generally all inside baseball all the the time.
The second problem, sadly, is the intellectual shallowness of the Mormon pond. We simply don’t have a lot of top flight Mormon intellectuals who have interesting things to say about public life. The result is that Mormon attempts along these lines fall into two patterns. First, one hears repeatedly from the same voices, which have a few good insights but one ends up hearing the same good insight over and over again. Second — and much more often — one simply gets mainstream opinion at second-hand. Such things are not on the cutting edge of mainstream opinion. They don’t move that conversation forward. Yet neither are they strongly Mormon enough to move forward some intellectually Mormon discussion. My own reaction is “Eh? I think that I would rather read Commentary.”
The third problem is bringing in the outsiders as both authors and readers. For most intellectuals Mormons and Mormonism are still a joke a best, an odd religious artifact of the American West. For others Mormons are either a threatening cell within the Religious Right or else a heretical cult that must be defended against. Virtually no non-Mormons think of Mormons and Mormonism as interesting or valuable interlocutors. The result is that I doubt that non-Mormons would pick up a Mormon version of Commentary expecting an interesting discussion, and non-Mormon writers are not going to publish in such a journal with the expectation that they are participating in the national dialogue. Their assumption — if they could even be found — would be that in writing for this magazine they are talking to Mormons, not the broader reading public. Both of these factors, however, will push the magazine toward insular, Mormon discussions.
Still, perhaps I am too pessimistic. Perhaps a high-quality Mormon journal of culture and public life will emerge where neither the subject matter nor the audience is exclusively (or even predominantly) Mormon. If it shows up, I’ll subscribe, but I’m not holding my breath…