On John Dehlin and Asking Questions

I’ve watched with interest the conversations happening among Mormon-interested people and media over the last few weeks centering, and now culminating, in the disciplinary action taken by the LDS Church against John Dehlin.  While some good and some new understanding have come from these discussions, it’s also quite clear that these events have deepened schisms and increased contention among many of those who have participated.  So you need not sympathize with any particular position to see it all as very sad, given the polarizing effect Brother Dehlin’s recent travails have had on what is by any measure an uniquely unified faith community.  Anyone interested in the greater success of Mormonism should bear these new fault lines in mind when entering the fray, and seek conciliation over point-scoring.

Keeping that priority in mind, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on one particular issue that has arisen in the discussions of the last month.  I have been genuinely surprised by the persistence of the notion that Dehlin’s disciplinary action proves that Church members are expected not to feel or express doubts or reservations regarding church doctrine, authority, or history.  Although I have seen many mourn the death of free thinking and self-expression in the Mormon faith, I have thought this conclusion was so self-evidently false that it would quickly dissipate on its own.  And yet, it lives on, taking greater strength as the narrative progresses, including in Brother Dehlin’s own words (see, for example, his interview today with Doug Fabrizio).  Corbin Volluz writes at Rational Faiths that “[s]ome will say it wasn’t John Dehlin’s beliefs or opinions that got him into trouble, but in speaking out about them; or in letting other speak out about theirs,” and then produces a fairly strident takedown of this terrifying straw man.  Kate Kelly goes even farther, dramatically declaring the end of the era of intelligent, thoughtful Mormons, timed conspicuously to coincide exactly with her own and John Dehlin’s departures from the faith.  Thus the narrative is set: In the Mormon Church, independent thought is crime, and crime must be punished.

It is no exaggeration to say that this conclusion defies the experience of millions of faithful Latter-day Saints.  In fact, on real reflection, it is simply impossible that an informed person can believe this conclusion to be literally true.  Dehlin seemed to unintentionally admit this today, remarking on the radio that there are scores of people blogging and commenting on social media about questions, doubts, and concerns without any hint of official opprobrium.  This is incontestable, demonstrable fact: Many, many Mormons experience doubts about various tenets of Church teachings or practice, and a huge subset of that number discuss such questions openly, whether in Church settings, private conversation, or publicly on the internet.

To conflate that commonplace behavior with what John Dehlin has been doing for many years now would be like mistaking a skeptical voter for a community activist.  John Dehlin did not become famous because he doubted, nor because he spoke with others about his doubts.  He became famous when he painstakingly and thoughtfully built a wide audience and organized a movement, and used that following to voice and echo serious concerns, frustrations, and disagreements.  To say that he is being punished for asking questions makes it sound like he was caught at his neighbor’s kitchen table having a casual bull session about esoterica.  The blithe language with which Brother Dehlin’s activities have been described is a simple misrepresentation, and all people commenting on it should be more careful.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made this relevant statement just last week:

We have members in the church with a variety of different opinions and beliefs and positions on these issues, but … in our view it doesn’t become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders, trying to get others to follow them, to draw others away, trying to pull people out of the church, or away from its teachings and doctrines.”

Many supporters of Brother Dehlin simply do not believe this.  That is their right.  But evidence should be supplied by those saying that Elder Christofferson has it wrong.  John Dehlin’s story provides no such evidence.  Even his most faithful defenders cannot deny that Brother Dehlin has done far, far more than question, as did Kate Kelly.  They have been agitators and advocates, striking strong, unyielding positions on matters of importance to the Church, and attracting and organizing vocal, well-delineated followings from among members of the Church.  While I am no church historian, I struggle to come up with any other figure in the last forty years of LDS history who has organized an actual movement from within the church as a means of asserting policy or doctrinal views, and who has taken such clear, public-facing and zero-sum positions against church teaching, as have Kate Kelly and John Dehlin.*  Whatever they are, they are not simple questioners.  As Dehlin’s stake president states in the letter announcing the excommunication, the Church will not allow him to remain a member in good standing while “openly and publicly trying to convince others that Church teachings are in error.”  I have not seen anyone denying that that is exactly what Dehlin has done.  To take just one example, he has publicly written and stated, many times, his now unwavering belief– not his question— that the Book of Mormon cannot be true.  While he is correct in pointing out that other members in good standing doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon, there are very few who announce this so assertively and so publicly as Dehlin does.

I do not write the above in condemnation of these fellow travelers.  In processing these two undeniably tragic excommunications, I’ve felt strong pangs of empathy for both, while also feeling a bit of the betrayal that members of in-groups often feel from members of the same tribe who air problems abroad.  It seems clear to me that both feel their agendas sincerely, and each clearly has gifts, not only of organization and advocacy, but of a kind of principled steadfastness.

And yet, each has used those gifts in ways that have proven problematic for the Church.  Both have undeniably stage-managed their exits from the body of the Church, leveraging new and old media with impressive dexterity to assist in their messaging.  Some may say this is simply turnabout, as they are up against a massive organization with ample communications resources.  Fair enough, but again, the point is not to condemn them, but to disabuse all observers of the notion that either Kelly or Dehlin is a babe in the woods discovering questions for the first time and humbly seeking clarification.  You don’t need a movement to do that, nor frequent coverage in mainstream media.

There may someday come a harder case– some public figure who sincerely questions, but does not set up websites, raise funds, organize events, issue press releases, make public presentations, publish letters from local church leaders, seek the attention of national and international media, craft published discussions, host lengthy conversations with vehement enemies of the church, or publicly pressure the president of the church himself, and who still comes in for discipline.  That would be an interesting test case.  Between that scenario and Brother Dehlin’s, there is perhaps somewhere a blurry line, where it becomes hard to distinguish questions from organized agitation.  I don’t claim to know where the Church will draw that line.

But today, that is not the fact pattern before us.  The tragic legacy of John Dehlin is not that of benighted seeker only.  His is a story of argument and advocacy and leading followers and long campaigning.  I mourn his loss with him, as I also mourn the loss of every person who was influenced by him to leave the Church.  But his case has proven nothing about whether thought and questions are welcome in Mormondom.

*Sonia Johnson, a feminist critic of the Church during the ERA debates of the 1970’s is the best analogue.  Johnson was also excommunicated.

10 comments

  1. Hmm. How many of John’s podcasts have you listened to? And since when does the church not use media, funds, organized events, press releases, pressure, lengthy sermons, etc to “influence” people not in their own flock? And is that bad? The church has this fear of being debunked. Why? Why spank people for influencing others? Maybe those “others” have unique experiences, hurts, joys, that have led them to find support from like-minded people.

    People follow John because they found a connection to him and/or to those he interviewed. People are leaving the church because the church demands how we are to connect with them and with God. This is harmful. Do you set the entire tone in all your relationships? Until the church respects my own ability to connect meaningfully with God, then I cannot respect the church. Saying no to callings, not wanting to pay tithing, feeling hurt because loved ones not of the faith are excluded from important life events, feeling scared and worried about missionary work–the answer the church gives to these “doubts” is basically “Well, do it anyways. Have faith. Fake it until you make it.” That doesn’t create a faithful base. That creates a conditioned base. The problem that I see with your argument, is that you are still based in certain church claims and in the idea that authority is necessary for salvation. Many are not buying that anymore.

  2. corjs, the Church definitely does use things like events, media, and press releases to aid in its mission. There’s no argument there. But I also don’t know of an argument I’ve heard that the Church should not do such things. The question is whether members of the Church should do such things, in ways that contradict the teachings of the Church, and then expect to remain a part of the fold. While there are definitely plenty of faith communities where that would be possible, it’s also not illogical for some churches to take a different view.

    I also fail to understand, as I’ve seen several people suggest, how the act of excommunication shows a “fear” or insecurity on the part of the Church. If the point is that the Church believes opposing voices might influence some members to lose their faith, that’s not controversial. The Church readily admits this, indeed, warns members of that danger. There has never been a time when the Church argued that it is just so true and so strong and so perfect that its members are impervious to counter-arguments. Rather, church leaders and well-known scriptures teach that critics and skeptics abound, and are capable of persuading the unwary. Thus, it is completely consistent for the Church to take measures to draw boundaries marking off the area inhabited by critics it views as damaging.

  3. If he doesn’t believe in the doctrine and is questioning and stating that a huge part of it is untrue – then why does he care that he doesn’t belong??? He either believes in the doctrine and remains true to his promises, or he doesn’t and is not part of it. He got what he was really looking for. He just wants to bring as many with him. It is very sad. Go find a religion that supports your idea of true. But why make it public when in reality you don’t believe anyway.

    1. Sterling Cornaby · ·

      Very binary comment, very ‘mormon’ way of thinking. This type of thinking breaks things; think about it.

  4. I appreciate your response. I do agree with you that in order to protect an institution you have to be rid of the those who would weaken the system. What I was trying to point out is that maybe John didn’t persuade so much as he allowed people a space to be. Church can be a painful place when once very active and endowed members have serious doubts. The church has put out all of these essays (the Joseph Smith papers and the Essay on Polygamy)–telling members about Joseph’s use of the hat and seer stone in place of the plates and about him practicing polygamy and polyandry before he received D & C 132. This is not sitting well with a lot of people had been taught otherwise, and it is leading to many questioning the foundation of the very church they have pledged their lives to. Does the church offer direct support for this? Well… some. I just don’t agree with your idea that he has an evil agenda. I think he saw there was a need (one that he connected with himself) and by the success of his podcast I would say he was right.

  5. This is common sense. If someone openly attacks an organization they belong to. The organization does and should expel that person to protect itself and its members. This is common practice for any well lead organization. church, country, corporation, any organization. Why do you think treason is such a highly punishable crime? What do you think would happen if an employee of Apple started a pod of how Apples stores are ripping people off and Apple products are based on lies? Please lets not be naive here.

    And to the last post, yes there are causes for doubt in LDS history. Does this mean we throw away the things we do know for the things that we don’t fully understand. When solving any complex problem or puzzle you start with the peaces that you do know and understand, and then go from there.

  6. From the transcript of John Dehlin’s conversation with his stake president Bryan King:

    Pres. King: No. It’s okay – well … not true. Everybody has doubts.
    John Dehlin: I’m talking about the public expression of doubt.
    Pres. King: you can publicly express that you have a doubt.
    John Dehlin: You can?
    Pres. King: You can.
    John Dehlin: Okay.
    Pres. King: The problem that comes that I have is when people come to you, or align themselves with you – and then they become more comfortable in their doubts because you have doubts.
    John Dehlin: Which I have no control over.
    Pres. King: Well, you do in a sense that you express them publicly.
    John Dehlin: So it is about expressing doubts publicly.
    Pres. King: This is a circular argument.
    John Dehline: Okay. *long pause*

    I think it’s pretty clear that publicly expressing doubt is one of the things that got John Dehlin in trouble.

    On a personal note, my Bishop told me that if I expressed my doubts to others in the ward, it would be a “problem” (with the clear implication being that I would be subject to discipline). So, I was essentially told I could doubt, but I couldn’t express those doubts.

  7. And here I was hoping *my* letter to my dear friend John would garner slings and arrows, resulting in great debate.

    I loved the analogy a commenter made to my post. He said John’s conversation with Dr. King was like a man talking to his wife about the affair he’s been having with a woman named Alice, saying:

    John: So I’m not allowed to ever be sexually attracted to another person.

    Wife: No. It’s okay – well … not true. Everybody has a wandering eye at times.

    John: I’m talking about the public expression of my sexual attraction to Alice.

    Wife: you can publicly express that you like Alice. You can tell her she looks nice in her outfit, that her hair is pretty.

    John: I can?

    Wife: You can.

    John: Okay.

    Wife: The problem I have is when you slide your hand up her back and caress her in front of me, offer to drive her home and stay out for hours, order her gifts and flowers with the credit card I manage, including hotel stays where you were in a room with two people. And then you take our young son with you on these jaunts, teaching him that it is OK for you to cat around with Alice openly, that it is OK for a man, which he will become, to be overtly dismissive of and unfaithful to his wife.

    John: I have no control over my feelings for Alice.

    Wife: Well, you do have control on whether or not you express those feelings publicly.

    John: So it is about showing my adoration for Alice publicly. What if I didn’t do any of these things in a way that you could possibly notice. Though I will miss the together time with our son and Alice – we’ve had some really great outings…

    Wife: This is a circular argument.

    John: Okay. *long pause*

  8. […] knowledge of where his actions would lead is directly at odds with his claim that he was “just asking questions.” The point is, if he saw his excommunication as the likely outcome of starting Mormon […]

  9. Dehlin does not even believe in the existence of the God and Christ of the Old and New Testaments. So why stay a member of a Christian religion when one does not believe anything that religion teaches.
    Ten years ago Dehlin stated that he knew that the podcasts, etc would lead to his excommunication. He definitely had ulterior motives.
    He becomes an ordained minister of another religion, and he does not believe in any type of a God. He would not, and does not, allow dissenting views on anything he does. Anyone crosses him, he bans them. In his interviews he asks very leading questions to controll the narrative, controll the outcome he wants, which is to portray the church in a negative light.

%d bloggers like this: