I’d like to address the notion, given voice originally by Joanna Brooks that “excommunication is a nineteenth-century Mormon solution to 21st-century Mormon problems.” This quote has been adapted lately by John Dehlin, who changed “nineteenth-century” to “fifteenth-century.”
It’s a clever little phrase. It casts Dehlin and Kate Kelly as modern-day Galileos while assigning to the Mormon church the role of a 21st century Torquemada. Unfortunately, as with most clever little phrases, it begins to wilt once the smirks have subsided and one undertakes to examine whether it actually contains any truth.
The more serious idea behind this phrase is that excommunication has no place in this enlightened day and age. It’s an antiquated, barbarous practice that should be read about in history books, not newspapers. This is a narrative that, ironically, our newspapers are more than happy to feed. It sometimes goes unnoticed that no one using this catchphrase ever tries to explain it or articulate an argument elaborating its rationale. Usually branding something as being out of the fifteenth- or nineteenth-century is enough to mar its legitimacy; no further argument required.
I think the best counterargument to this idea is a small thought experiment. Before that, though, a few necessary points:
1. Please, please note that I take no pleasure in the excommunication of John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, or anyone else. I view them as a tragedy. In a very real sense, believing Mormons regard an excommunication as having potentially eternal consequences. No follower of Jesus would exult in such an event. It’s tragic for the individual, for their families and for the Church. The intent of this piece is to argue for the unfortunate necessity of excommunication, not to celebrate individual instances of it.
2. Let me clearly stipulate that I do not believe the below exchange is exactly analogous to the John Dehlin affair or the Kate Kelly one. I don’t have a view into either of those individual’s hearts or minds. This is a thought experiment designed to illustrate why it’s necessary for private organizations to be able to deny or revoke membership in certain instances, not a perfect analogy to Dehlin or Kelly or anyone else.
Having said that, let’s imagine the following exchange:
“Hello. My name is Steve. I would like to join the Waukesha County Democratic Party.”
“Wonderful. Here’s an application. The membership dues are $35. Please fill out the application and make out a check to the party, and I’ll go print off your membership card. Local meetings are every Wednesday at 8 PM.”
“Great! I’m so excited. Just one thing: I believe the platform of the Democratic party is misguided and perhaps even evil. And I believe its leaders, from President Obama down to our local dogcatcher, are corrupt and incompetent.”
“Yep. I’m a huge fan of the GOP platform. Big Reagan guy.”
“My favorite author is Ann Coulter.”
“But then . . ”
“I’m all about gun rights, free markets and limited government. Oh, and I’m as pro-life as they come.”
“I just . . .”
“So here’s my application. And here’s my check. Can I grab that card?”
“Well, hang on a second.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s just that – are you going to, like, talk about that with our party members?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s why I’m doing it. I’m here because I want to use my standing as a member of the Democratic party to tell people about how great the GOP is and hopefully convert a few of them. Is there a problem?”
“Yes, sort of.”
“Really? That surprises me. Are you trying quash dissent?”
“What?! No! We love free speech! It’s just that, the whole reason we have a party is to try to convince people to vote for our candidates. And it seems like you want to convince people to vote against them.”
“So why would we help you do that?”
“I’m not sure, honestly. But you know it’s not the fifteenth-century, right? How do I go about getting on the agenda for the next meeting?”
So. My question for Joanna Brooks – and anyone else who thinks excommunication should go the way of the butter-churning – is: would the Democratic Party be justified in denying or revoking membership in the above case**?
I imagine the response will likely be something along the lines of, “Well, churches are different from political parties. They have a responsibility to care for everyone, even doubters and dissenters. Jesus wouldn’t kick anyone out.” I agree that churches are different from political and other organizations. But in spite of their differences, churches properly have agendas. They have doctrines to teach and people to convert. That’s what they do. I fail to see why the fact that they are churches obligates them to allow the presence of those who actively dispute their doctrines and oppose and disrupt their agenda.
As for the idea that Jesus wouldn’t kick anyone out, that seems pretty debatable to me. And yes, there is the scripture about leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one. The one is precious. But in certain cases, where the one is – knowingly or not – leading the ninety-nine off a cliff, or a leading an insurrection against the shepherd, the shepherd, for the good of the flock, has to leave the one behind. It was Jesus, after all, who warned us about wolves in sheep’s clothing. It was also Jesus who said he would only have one fold, and only one shepherd.
Because Mormons are people, they tend to listen more to other Mormons when it comes to the question of Mormonism. Other Mormons have standing. Other Mormons can be trusted when it comes to Mormonism. Mormons don’t really care what Protestants think of Mormonism, just as Protestants don’t really care what Mormons think of Protestantism. (Just as 49ers fans don’t care what Seahawks fans think of the decisions that 49ers coaches make.) If a Mormon is using his standing as a Mormon for purposes that are contrary to the mission and values of the Mormon Church, it’s entirely appropriate for it to remove that person’s standing as a Mormon.