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The Richness of Religion

The Sorensen family supports Mormon studies and American religions

When Steve Sorensen was called to lead a Mormon community in Isla Vista, he soon got to know UC Santa Barbara. The strength of the programs and the people behind them inspired Steve and his wife, Shannon, to explore the university as a place for their philanthropy. Together, they endowed a chair: the Sorensen Director of Choral Music to support teaching and programmatic excellence. Music can help us understand beliefs and traditions, and so can the study of religion. For Steve, the two are inextricably linked. Steve rallied his mother and brother to collaborate on another significant gift to campus, this time for the acclaimed Department of Religious Studies. By supporting two visiting scholars of Mormon studies over a two-year period, the Sorensen family creates a new area of scholarship at UC Santa Barbara.

The Sorensens — Steve, his brother Greg and his mother, Verla — united to support a rotating position for a visiting scholar to teach and research at UC Santa Barbara for two years. The first scholar is Professor Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. The project has been a source of discovery and growth for the Sorensen family, who worked closely to realize their vision for Mormon studies in addition to a generous gift to UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Music.

“Working together as a family is what we’ve been doing for 86 years, and it’s been working out very well,” Verla said. Steve describes his mother as a force for good.

“Education and service are very important to her,” he said. “She is one of the few people I know who has changed the world, and most of it is one person at a time.” The Sorensen family’s gift to UC Santa Barbara will not only enrich students but also the global field of Mormon studies and the study of American religions.

Religious studies at UC Santa Barbara spans Christian religions, Native American religions, the philosophy of religion, Buddhist studies, Mediterranean religions and East Asian religions. The program emphasizes a cross-cultural comparative study of religion and an interdisciplinary approach through the lens of history, political science, anthropology, sociology, comparative literature and philosophy.

“The multidisciplinary environment of UC Santa Barbara and the presence of Professor Spencer Fluhman will reinforce this tradition of exploring the richness of all religions, and in particular Mormonism,” said Greg.

“This initiative will enable us to extend the department’s work to support innovative scholars in the field of Mormon studies and American religions, while simultaneously making UC Santa Barbara the programmatic center for an emerging network of scholars in the field,” said David Walker, associate professor of religious studies. “Few people have done more to render Mormon studies a seriously interdisciplinary endeavor in and for the modern academy as Professor Fluhman.”

Fluhman believes that religious studies can help democracy work better by helping us understand how our neighbors engage the world. He studies how a diverse, pluralistic nation functions as a democracy when religion is in the mix. Americans love to fight over the “we” in “we the people,” he said, and that’s as fiercely contested as ever.

“I worry about religious illiteracy: not knowing about the community life of my neighbors,” said Fluhman. “Religious studies is a democratic process that can deepen and broaden that understanding.”