Real Clear Religion is running a post I wrote about the probable reasons behind John Dehlin’s upcoming disciplinary council: The Real Reason Why One Mormon Is On Trial. Dehlin promulgated a heroic narrative in which he will face down Church discipline because he refuses to abandon his support of same-sex marriage and Ordain Women. The narrative is attractive to a secular audience, which has picked it up and run with it. Examples so far include:
- New York Times
First paragraph: Mormon leaders have moved to excommunicate the prominent founder of an online forum for questioning Mormons, charging him with apostasy for publicly supporting same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, and for challenging church teaching.
- Daily Beast
Headline: The Coming Crackdown on Mormon Liberals
In the first paragraph: Dehlin… said his regional church leader scheduled a hearing for Jan. 25, and that if he didn’t take down podcasts that are critical of the church and disavow his support for the organization Ordain Women as well as gay marriage, he would likely be excommunicated.
The narrative initiated by Dehlin and echoed by these sources is not accurate. My article at RCR explains why by relying on two of Dehlin’s fellow liberal Mormons: Steve Evans and Chris Henrichsen. Both openly support same-sex marriage and sympathize with Ordain Women. Neither have (as far as we know) faced discipline. And both doubt that gay marriage and Ordain Women are central to Dehlin’s disciplinary council.
You should read the article, of course, but there are a couple of points that got left out of my RCR piece (mostly for length constraints). I want to point those out here, and then make a final observation that wasn’t in the original RCR piece.
Letter from Stake President Bryan King
First and most importantly, Byran King (Dehlin’s stake president) sent Dehlin a letter dated August 11th, 2014 in which he specifically said that gay marriage and Ordain Women were not the 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.
When Dehlin provided a document dump with his initial press release about the disciplinary council on January 17 he left that letter out. In a January 19th follow-up in which he repudiated Steve Evans’ assertion that gay marriage and Ordain Women were probably not central issues, he provided a different version of the document dump that included the August 11th letter. But he only quoted from an August 7th letter that seemed to bolster his case. (Hat tip to Angels in the Architecture for alerting me to the Aug 11th letter and the two different document dumps.)
The letter shows that Dehlin’s Stake President clarified his real concerns to Dehlin back in August of 2014, and that same-sex marriage and Ordain Women were not on the list.1
Even though the media have chosen to focus on SSM and OW 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).
Logically, this makes no sense. Steve Evans said SSM and OW were not the “main causes.” If Dehlin didn’t feel differently, why would he have written a response solely to contradict Steve Evans?3
Pragmatically, however, it makes all the sense in the world. Dehlin fed a dishonest narrative to the media on January 15th. Now that they have taken the ball and run with it (see articles above) he can disavow the narrative and still reap the benefits.
I read a lot of comments, Facebook posts, and other quotes from John Dehlin as I researched my piece this weekend. Through it all there was one unexpected feeling: empathy.
Dehlin is a man who has spent the last 10 years straddling two diametrically opposed worlds. He has ardent fans within the Mormon and post/ex-Mormon communities, and both sets of fans are sure that he is really one of them. One of the quote that RCR trimmed from my piece came from a post-Mormon commenter who wrote of Dehlin4 that “he does not make it crystal clear he isn’t a Mormon… [but] everyone knows Dehlin is a mole in the Mormon church.” Within the post/ex-Mormon community, there is a belief that if Dehlin is excommunicated they will lose their best undercover agent.
It’s easy for someone who is a Mormon to be angry about that. The first thing to point out, however, is that as far as I could learn the post/ex-Mormon community is just as much in the dark as the Mormon community. Just as some Mormons are convinced Dehlin isn’t a “real” Mormon, some of them are convinced that he isn’t a “real” post/ex-Mormon. So my point is not that we should just take the word of an anonymous post-Mormon commenter as final.
I sort of recognized some of what Dehlin has been trying to navigate from my own similar (but not identical) experiences. I’ve never made any effort to hide the fact that if you’re going to put me in a bucket, I pick the conservative bucket over the liberal bucket. But I have also worked pretty hard to keep minds and channels of communication open. And this means that some of the conservatives I tend to admire the most for their forthright and bold positions view me as a kind of untrustworthy, counterfeit conservative. Meanwhile, some of the liberals who might actually have a lot in common with me in terms of values even if not policies view me as a kind of dangerous alien who wraps sinister right-wing dogma in moderate-sounding rhetoric. Building bridges can be thankless work.5
And so when I say that I have no desire to judge or demean Dehlin I mean it sincerely. I don’t think he started out a decade ago with an aspiration to become an undercover anti-Mormon. That’s not because I’m unwilling to believe that anyone could be so evil. People are capable of great evil. They just aren’t, in my experience, capable of great long-run planning. Who has a plan that works out like clockwork over a 10-year period? So I think it’s much more likely that Dehlin’s roller-coaster ride in and out and in and out of the Church reflected a lot of genuine turmoil on his part.
But, as important as bridge-building can be, so is being honest. Trying to relate to widely different viewpoints shouldn’t ultimately come down to masking your own intentions and beliefs. It’s one thing to refuse to choose sides because you’re sitting this one out. It’s another to be actively involved in the game, but playing for both teams.
And so my analysis stands. His initial post did plant the SSM / OW seed in the media. It is a false narrative. The most probable reasons for the disciplinary council are his public repudiation of core Mormon beliefs and his work–in consequence even if not in intent–to drive Mormons in faith crisis out of the Church. We can’t know how the disciplinary council will go, and it’s not really our business. But as long as Dehlin chooses to make this part of his story public we should at least have the facts.