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.