This article merges and updates two previously published articles by Nathaniel Givens:
“The Real Reason Why One Mormon Is On Trial” (Real Clear Religion on Jan 19, 2015)
“Why John Dehlin Faces Church Discipline” (Difficult Run on Jan 19, 2015)
Excommunication is always evidence of deep spiritual tragedy. For this and many other sound reasons, formal charges of apostasy should never be treated lightly or tried in the court of public opinion. John Dehlin’s decision to make his own disciplinary council public has moved the issue onto a national stage, however. It is still not appropriate for us to speculate or advocate about the outcome of the disciplinary council, but it would be unfair for Dehlin to take the story national—with implications for the Church to which we all belong—and then expect every other Mormon to acquiesce to his version. This is an important issue, and it deserves as full a context as publicly available documents provide to ensure at least a modicum of balance.
For those who may not know, John Dehlin is a blogger, a podcaster, and the founder of Mormon Stories which he operates under the non-profit Open Stories Foundation. (According to publicly available financial statements, the Open Stories Foundation garnered $134,000 in 2013. Dehlin’s compensation was about $90,000.) He has conducted hundreds of interviews over nearly ten years both with faithful Mormon intellectuals (like Dan Peterson, Phil Barlow, Richard Bushman and my parents Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens) and also with hostile critics of the Church (including Grant Palmer, Michael Coe, Denver Snuffer, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner). Dehlin has for several years been a strident critic of the Church, its leaders, and its core tenets while at the same time professing his love for aspects of Mormon culture. All the while his audience has grown substantially: tens of thousands of people now download Mormon Stories podcasts each month.
On January 15, 2015 Dehlin issued a press release announcing that his stake president (Bryan King) had scheduled a disciplinary council for apostasy. In the press release, Dehlin prominently listed his support of same-sex marriage and Ordain Women among the reasons for this charge. He stated that “I would much rather face excommunication than disavow my moral convictions” and included a collection of correspondence with King as evidence.
Dehlin’s account was picked up by the national press almost instantly. Within hours, Laura Goodstein had published an article for the New York Times that followed Dehlin’s lead, claiming that he was charged with apostasy “for publicly supporting same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, and for challenging church teaching.” When the article was pushed out to millions of subscribers of the NYT iPhone App the message was even more pointed: “Prominent Mormon Faces Excommunication for Backing Gay Marriage.”
Dehlin approved of this coverage. He publicly posted the article to Facebook with the comment “Laurie Goodstein is my journalistic hero.” Not all articles satisfied Dehlin, however. When Peggy Fletcher Stack paraphrased a prominent Mormon blogger expressing skepticism that gay marriage or Ordain Women were really central to the announced action in a January 16 article at the Salt Lake Tribune, Dehlin fired back. The next day (January 17) he wrote another post at Mormon Stories to defend his narrative.
In his rebuttal to Stack’s piece, Dehlin cited an August 7, 2014 letter from King. He had already published this letter in his original press release, but this time Dehlin quoted directly from the part of the letter where King stated that a condition for Dehlin’s continued membership was that Dehlin “Stop promoting groups or organizations that espouse doctrines contrary to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
According to Dehlin, King agreed in a subsequent face-to-face meeting that the “groups or organizations” phrase was a reference to supporting same-sex marriage and Ordain Women. Dehlin again provided almost the same set of documents as evidence. Strangely, the new set of documents contained one additional letter that had been omitted from the original set that went out with the press release. The new letter, which was dated August 11, 2014, is important because in it King clarifies his primary concerns:
I fear that in my willingness to engage in a discussion on all of the issues that you chose to address during our lengthy conversations, the direction of my true concerns may have not been clear… I am focused on five core doctrines of the Church: (1) The existence and nature of God; (2) Christ being the literal Savior of the World and his Atonement being absolutely necessary to our salvation; (3) the exclusive priesthood authority restored through the Church; (4) The Book of Mormon as scripture and the revealed word of God; and (5) the governance of the Church by doctrine and revelation through inspired leaders. As you know, and as my letter outlined, in the past you have written and spoken out against these core doctrines on numerous occasions and in numerous public contexts.
In other words, after a long face-to-face conversation covering a very wide range of topics that included same-sex marriage, Ordain Women, and several other issues, King wanted to hone in on his “true concerns.” Among the concerns King felt were most important, gay rights and same sex marriage are not mentioned in any way, and female ordination is at most implied tangentially by point #3 (although that is far from certain).
It’s unclear why Dehlin buried this letter where it would be so hard to find, but his motivation for linking his own cause to that of gay marriage and female ordination may be clearer: broader publicity.
The publicity motive is the conclusion of, among others, liberal Mormon blogger Chris Henrichsen who wrote that “by emphasizing his gay rights stances and his support of Ordain Women, Dehlin elevates his own case to the level of Kate Kelly’s.” Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women, had just been excommunicated when Henrichsen originally published this analysis in June 2014. Her excommunication created, as Henrichsen put it “a media storm.” Henrichsen reposted the piece on January 18, 2015 noting that “it still applies to the developments of this week.”
Importantly, Henrichsen is himself an outspoken proponent of gay marriage. In fact, his motivation for criticizing Dehlin’s narrative is that he believes it is leading to “a chilling effect” that is preventing more Mormons from speaking out about gay rights and women’s rights. Referring to an official statement by the Church defining apostasy around the time of Kate Kelly’s excommunication, he wrote that: “The LDS Church has insisted… that advocating on public issues, even when disagreeing with the Church, is not something that puts one at risk of excommunication,” and concluded that “Gay rights is too important to become a public relations football.”
Dehlin reacted to criticisms like these in a confusing way. On January 19th he edited his rebuttal of Stack’s article, adding a statement that:
Even though the media have chosen to focus on SSM [same-sex marriage] and OW [Ordain Women] in many of their stories, I don’t believe that I have ever claimed that SSM and/or OW were the only causes for the disciplinary council, or even necessarily the main causes (if I have done so, I’m more than willing to apologize/clarify).
Then in a January 22 interview with Jennifer Napier-Pearce of the Salt Lake Tribune he stated that he does, in fact, believe that SSM and OW are main factors:
What’s been really controversial is my belief that my support and public advocacy for Ordain Women and same-sex marriage… I believe are factors, and main factors. [Transcribed from the video at about the 4 minute mark; emphasis added.]
Since the available documents do not support this claim, Dehlin now asserts that King intentionally omitted his real concerns from the letters in order to avoid additional negative publicity for the Church. In doing so, he undermines the credibility of the documents he had initially rested his case upon. As a result, we have no evidence at all to turn to in evaluating Dehlin’s newest assertions. It is now a simple matter of Dehlin alleging that his stake president (who, according to policy, will not comment publicly) wrote one thing but meant another.
The debate over the precise difference between “the main causes” and “main factors” could go on forever, but the point is that the initial press release and the ensuing media coverage (which followed Dehlin’s lead and which he approved of) elevated gay marriage and Ordain Women to be the central, dominant, and in some cases exclusive reasons for the disciplinary council as far as the general public is concerned. Along the way, Dehlin garnered national media attention he would not have received with other narratives. Now that that ship has sailed, debating over technicalities is inconsequential.
The problem with the public narrative is that it is probably not accurate in that it minimizes or outright ignores what may be the two most important considerations. The first is Dehlin’s attacks on fundamental doctrinal claims of Mormonism. His bio on Mormon Stories states:
I consider myself to be an unorthodox, unorthoprax Mormon. I … either have serious doubts about, or no longer believe many of the fundamental LDS church truth claims (e.g., anthropomorphic God, “one true church with exclusive authority,” that the current LDS church prophet receives privileged communications from God, that The Book of Mormon and The Book of Abraham are translations, polygamy, racist teachings in the Book of Mormon, that ordinances are required for salvation, proxy work for the dead).
He has stated on a “post-Mormon” site that not only does he not believe in the Mormon faith, but that he and his wife are “no longer are willing to act or appear as though we believe the fundamental truth claims [of the LDS Church].”
It is one thing to disbelieve privately. It is another thing to disbelieve publicly, and with a very large following. And it is yet another to act openly in accord with this disbelief, and to evangelize others to share that rejection of Church teachings. It is in that last instance in particular that Church leaders may have considered that Dehlin crossed a crucial line.
This brings into prominence a concern different than personal views, and that is the second consideration: the impact of Dehlin’s views on other members of the Church. At one time Dehlin adopted a “stay LDS” focus. He launched StayLDS.com and presented MormonStories as a way for Mormons to find a way to remain within the faith. He even referenced StayLDS.com in his January 22nd interview, saying that it was “going strong” despite the fact that the site doesn’t appear to have been updated in years. (There is an active forum, however.) Meanwhile, in a discussion at ExMormon.org in 2010, he had already repudiated the stay LDS position, writing that:
This was my position for a time while I was trying to figure out my own relationship with the church (I’ve vacillated over the years about my own level of activity just as many of you here have), but the StayLDS position is no longer something that I push… I now believe that people should follow their joy… period. In or out of the church. That said, I would guess that many more people have left the church than have stayed because of my Internet work—and I’m perfectly happy if they’re happy. [emphasis added]
In sum, Dehlin has openly repudiated core teachings of the Mormon faith, condoned the work and opinions of anti-Mormons, and been instrumental (in his own estimation) in leading “many more people” to leave than to stay, and—while he has cannily refused to publicly state his desire to lead Mormons out of the Church—he has been so successful at doing it that he has a positive reputation among many in the post- and ex-Mormon community as an undercover anti-Mormon. One commenter, for example, wrote that that although “he does not make it crystal clear he isn’t a Mormon… everyone knows Dehlin is a mole in the Mormon church.”
These are the issues that are most likely to be at the heart of Dehlin’s upcoming disciplinary council. That conclusion may be warranted from the facts outlined above and from the Church’s public teaching about disciplinary procedures in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Out of three possible reasons for excommunication two are:
- To identify unrepentant predators and hostile apostates and thereby protect innocent persons from harm they might inflict.
- To safeguard the integrity of the Church.
An objective observer would reasonably infer that King is concerned that Dehlin is using his position of prominence in order to undermine the Church and its mission and in so doing has placed his affiliation with the Church in jeopardy. That, at least, seems a plain and reasonable interpretation of the public record. Dehlin has publicly disavowed his faith in LDS fundamentals. He has encouraged his audience of tens of thousands to reject core teachings as well. (In one case among many, he wrote that “The Book of Mormon is fiction. … Joseph (along with whomever) simply made it up. …. Any time spent trying to legitimize the historicity of the Book of Mormon is a fool’s errand. You may as well try to locate Narnia or Mordor.”) He has also enlisted the voices of powerful Church critics (like the Tanners, Michael Coe, Denver Snuffer, etc.) in supporting the attacks that undermine the fundamentals of the Church’s doctrines, and he has done so in a broadcast medium.
There may be personal motives and considerations that further amplify or ameliorate the alleged offenses. They are—and should be—beyond the purview of a treatment like this one. But the details outlined above based on publicly available sources are sufficient to correct media reports that an individual is being sanctioned for following his conscience, or for holding particular personal beliefs.