Professor of religion and literature, Terryl Givens, didn’t set out to be the United States’ preeminent Mormon scholar. As an undergrad student and then later in graduate school, he had studied comparative literature, learning Greek, German, Portuguese and Spanish and studying intellectual history, or the history of ideas.

“I was interested in using literary texts as a window into the past, with special interest in how religion and literature intersect,” Givens said. “Literature is often as powerful as theologizing when it comes to developing church doctrine and religious thought.”

Givens began his career as a nineteenth century scholar and quite accidentally, found that the representation of Mormonism was one of the great, unstudied areas of American literature, not to mention American history.

“It’s striking that the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups defines Mormons as an indigenously derived ethnic community. My first book examined how literature helped construct that identity.”

The first book was followed by five more. As Givens was researching, writing and lecturing, Mormon studies programs began taking off at universities around the world.

In 2004, documentary producer Helen Whitney contacted Givens. She was working on an enormous project—a four-hour documentary for PBS called The Mormons, and she wanted Givens to be a consultant on the film. Over the course of the next three years, he contributed 14 hours of interviews to the project. When the film was released in the spring of 2007, Givens’ phone started ringing.

The documentary was widely watched and well timed, considering that a very prominent Mormon, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, had recently put his hat in the ring for the 2008 presidential election. The media had questions about a religion that admittedly no one understands.

“People are quite content to stop with sensationalist stereotypes; in the case of Mormonism, that means polygamy. Polygamy was a nineteenth century practice that has nothing in common with the varieties you see in modern polygamist cults. I call it Mormonism’s horse and buggy problem. Ask 100 Americans about Amish theology and they will all freely admit that they only know the Amish people travel by horse and buggy,” Givens said.

Another central preoccupation among would-be voters, especially Evangelical Christians is whether Mormons are Christians. An affirmative yes would translate to bigger support for Romney among the conservative right.

“It’s not that simple. It depends on how you define a Christian,” Givens said. “If you mean, is a belief in Jesus Christ at the core of their belief system, then yes, Mormons are Christians. If you mean, do they subscribe to the religious creeds accumulated over the last two thousands years, then no.”

In between doing the political talk show circuit, Givens’ is expanding his academic interests. His next book examines pre-existence in literature and religion. He recently finished a 10-day, multi-city speaking tour, New Religious Movements and Orthodoxy, in Australia and New Zealand.

He’ll continue, however, to study how Mormons intersect with American literature and culture. His latest book, People of Paradox, examines some of the contradictions in the faith.

“Mormons are the only religious group to ever be forcibly removed from the United States, yet they’re also the only religion that incorporates doctrine pertaining to the United States Constitution and the founding fathers in their theology. They are admittedly secretive about their faith, yet they share a universal impulse to proselytize,” Givens said. “It makes for fascinating research.”