Mormon Facing Excommunication Speaks Out
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was among the first in the world to use online forums to discuss Mormon culture and doctrine has learned in recent days that he faces a disciplinary council for his ongoing discussions about doubts he and many of his supporters share about the faith.
John Dehlin is the founder of the popular blog and podcast Mormon Stories. He spoke with Utah Public Radio on Friday about being notified by church leaders that he faced a pending disciplinary action - the outcome of which could ultimately lead to his dismissal from the LDS faith and ostracize him from his community.
Listen to our full interview with Dehlin here:
Read the full transcript below:
UPR: So, you found out on Monday, of this week, that you had received this letter from your Stake President.
John: That's right, June 9th I believe.
UPR: OK. And it just came in the mail to your home?
John: Yeah, it was actually certified where I had to sign for it.
UPR: Wow, interesting. And it came from your Stake Presidency, is that right?
John: That's right.
UPR: Do you mind if I just start at the beginning? What happened when you opened that envelope? What did you see?
John: Well my wife brought it to me, and you know, I started Mormon Stories podcast here in Cache Valley in 2005, and you know, it was a real powerful moment the day I released my first episode of the podcast, because I knew then that this was always a possibility. You know, I had read sunstone magazine and dialogue, I was at BYU in 1993, when the September 6 ex-communications came down, in Sept. of 1993, and so I knew the church had a history of silencing or excommunicating people that ask hard questions before. You know, the internet has been around for a while, but what was different in 2004/ 2005 was web 2.0 was emerging.
With web 1.0 it was just static webpages. But with web 2.0 was things like blogs and podcasts. And I was among the very first to blog and podcast within Mormonism, and so I knew that it was a new time and was going to be a new experiment. And so I've been living, to be honest, with the fear of excommunication or some other type of harm that could come to me or my family for ten years. And so it's a day we had anticipated, but it's a day we had hoped would never come.
So you can imagine, I'm sitting in my office desk, and my wife is handing me the letter, and telling me to open it in front of her, and she kind of has this scared, sad, but resigned look on her face, and we read the letter together, you know? And for me, it always takes a couple days for the emotions to sink in. So I was just kind of... not numb, but just kind of, 'Oh, interesting.' You know? But a couple days later, the sick feelings in my stomach started emerging, and you know, that's the best way to describe it. You just feel sick to your stomach, kind of nauseous and sad. Really sad.
UPR: Yeah. John, you mention in your blog that you and some of your listeners openly question some of the doctrine of the church including the idea that its prophet and president have a direct link to God. You also dispute doctrines that are found in the Book of Mormon and a couple of things.
I've been wondering, and I think listeners might wonder-- with all of the questions that you have about the church, what has kept you in it all these years?
John: Um... You know, two years ago at Sunstone, the Sunstone Conference, I gave a presentation for why I stay. I gave a presentation entitled, Why I Stay. And it's on Mormon Stories.org if anyone wants to listen to it, but basically, I love this Church. And I love the members of the church. And I love being a member of this church, and I love going to church. I'm a 5th or 6th generation Mormon, it's in my bones, it's in my culture, it's in my blood, it's my spiritual language, it's my spiritual home. And, I didn't ask... You know, here's what happened.
I'm called to be a seminary teacher in Issaquah, Washington, while I'm working for Microsoft, and I want to be the best seminary teacher that I can be. And so I start studying church history, because I want to teach the Doctrine and Covenants, and Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) is church history. And as I'm studying church history, I learning, for example, that Joseph Smith was married to over 30 women. Now, I was 31 or so at the time. And I had been through seminary, and BYU and married in the temple, and you know, however many years of primary and Sunday School, and no one had ever taught me that.
No one had ever told me Joseph had married other people's wives. Living men. Men would come home from work, and Joseph would be at the table with their wife, and the man would say to the wife, 'What was Joseph doing here?' and the wife would say, 'He was asking me to be his wife.' You know, I didn't ask to learn that. That's just what the historical record shows. And we could talk about the book of Abraham, and how it's not actually a translation of the papyri, or the Book of Mormon, that has no DNA evidence. Like, it's not like I'm sitting around going, 'Hmm. Let me find an excuse to no longer believe Mormonism.' It's more like, 'Oh my goodness, I love this church with all my heart, and yet, now for the first time, when I'm 30, or 35, I'm learning these deeply troubling things that challenge the heart of Mormonism.'
And for me, the past 10 years, you know, it hasn't been so much trying to figure out how to leave the church, the past 10 years for me, even in Cache Valley, have been trying to find a way to stay in the church. Because, obviously I started learning this stuff 1999, 2000. I could have left the church 14, 15 years ago. But I didn't. Why didn't I? Because I love the church.
And so, another way to answer your questions is to look at other traditions. Look at Catholicism, look at Judaism. You know, the largest branch in Judaism is Reformed Judaism. Reformed Judaism, you don't even have to believe in god. But why does Reformed Judaism exist? Because religion is so important.
Catholicism. We all know the Catholic Church doesn't allow abortions, it doesn't allow birth control, and yet, as I understand it, the vast majority of American Catholics support, you know, use birth control, and many of them support abortion. And so I guess what I'm saying is, this a young church. And older churches have learned to accommodate people of various shades of belief. That's just what Catholicism is. You can doubt, you can question. Judaism is the same way. They welcome doubting and questioning in many ways. But Mormonism is so young, it's just not there yet.
So the September 6ths, and Fawn Brodie, you know, Juanita Brooks and the September 6ths, and now me and Kate Kelly, you know we're in some ways, we're all just casualties of a young church. But I can promise you that in 100 years, just like Polygamy is no longer practiced, just like blacks are allowed the Priesthood; you know, in 100 years, gays and lesbians will be accepted in the church. It may even be that the church acknowledges, maybe it renounces polygamy or acknowledges that the Book of Mormon is not a historical document. But many of us are just early in recognizing this, and so we're going to be punished for it, for coming to conclusions that in 100 years will be mainstream. I think.
UPR: John, how do you square this notion that your Stake President is a man who has been called by God, and he has sent you this document? Is he less enlightened than you are? Are you at a level of understanding that lets you see these aspects of the church in a broader way?
John: You know, that would be an arrogant position to take. The best I can say... I've never met him, personally. He's never spoken to me. I'm still waiting for him to return ... I've sent him two emails saying, 'Hey can we meet?' and I'm still waiting to hear back. So... I guess I don't know him at all. But what I can say is, if he's anything like my other church leaders, he's an intelligent, bright, compassionate, loving man. Because that's usually what LDS leaders are.
All I can say is this: if you oppose polygamy pre-1890, you'd likely be excommunicated from the church. But in 2014, if you oppose polygamy, you're actually right there in the mainstream of the church. And in the 1950s and 60s, and you said blacks should have the priesthood, again you could be threatened with a disciplinary court. And in 2014, the church is now saying that its past leaders were wrong about the statements they made. And these are prophets, seers, and revelators. There's a first presidency statement in the 1950s, where the first presidency says, that the prohibition of blacks in the priesthood is doctrine, and that it will not be overturned. And yet, 20 years later, it did just that.
You know, I could be wrong. And I'm not going to sit here and say, 'He's wrong and I'm right; he's less enlightened and I'm more enlightened.' I can just say that as I listen to what I feel as the Spirit and as I read history and as I try to listen to the divine or to God, as best as I can, I feel like I'm following the Spirit and God. And so, of course the majority of active members are going to side with my Stake President, I don't fault them for that. I would just say I'm standing where I stand out of conviction, and out of a sense of, this is what I feel to be true and right. And I guess we'll see in 30 or 40 years who's right, you know?
UPR: John, there's a growing movement in the church that suggests the church is changing. And quite rapidly so. It has changed its position on homosexuality. It has backed off on its fight against gay marriage, to some degree. So... what we have seen in the last couple years almost seems like the church softening its stance on a few things, and then this. So what has changed? Why now?
John: Well, so first of all, I don't know for sure, but I would bet to argue that it's initiatives like you know, Mormon Stories, like Ordain Women, like Sunstone, like Dialogue, like the Bloggernacle, like all these podcasts, like the news coverage that comes with all of them, I believe it is these things that have precipitated the change. The church did not allow women to pray in general conference, in a vacuum. They did not allow women to sit in the center chairs at general conference in a vacuum, or allow the priesthood session to be broadcast in a vacuum. And I know for a fact that the church did not decide to issue these web statements in a vacuum. In fact, I spent two or three years of my life gathering survey data for the church. I met with Elder Holland twice, I met with Marlin Jenson once, I had a former general authority come to me and say he'd lost his faith, I teamed up with several people to administer a survey, and the survey was to find out why people are leaving the church. That survey, the results of the survey were presented not only to Elder Jenson but the church headquarters multiple times. And I am told by those inside the church, that this work both directly led to Elder Uchtdorf's talk in the fall, and also to the essays that have been released by the church.
Now, of course, thousands of people over decades are... have all participated in this change. I guess the first point I'm trying to make, is that we are being punished. But what's ironic, is I believe very strongly that we were some of the main reasons for the positive progress of which you speak. And if we hadn't spoken out, and all the rest with us, we'd be back farther behind than we are now.
The second point, I guess I'm saying, yes. I applaud the church for their progress, I'm happy to see the Joseph Smith Papers project, the essays, the books the church has published, their progress on LGBT issues, on women. That all makes me happy.
But, I think that it's easy to over interpret the change that the church has made and to think that the church is on the fast track to progress. I think the church will always be on the slow track to progress. I think they will take two steps forward and one step back along the way. There's this notion of retention where they'll open up, but then they'll get a little bit uncomfortable, and then they'll clamp down. And I think we'll see the church have good cops and bad cops. Elder Packer has been the bad cop for many in the past. It seems like Elder Oaks is now playing the bad cop for many now. And President Uchtdorf is being the good cop.
And I think we'll see...it's like a dance. They come out with the Mormons and Gays website, and we think, oh the church is being more open. They do proposition 8, they back away. But now Elder Oaks is becoming more strident in his language against LGBT individuals and doubling down his efforts to fight same sex marriage. So... I think it's going to be a slow process of a tiny step forward and a tiny step back, and it will be decades before we see real change in progress. But that's not to deny we've made some small steps forward.
UPR: So it sounds like, if I had to sum up some of your comments there, I think you would argue that the church reacts to outside pressures more than its faithful members might think it does.
John: The primary motivator for church activity, going all the way back to Joseph Smith's founding, is outside pressure. If you look at the D&C section 89, with Emma, Joseph didn't just receive a revelation in a vacuum. Emma was complaining about the spittoons in the temple. She hated cleaning them up. There was a temperance movement, where people were picketing against alcohol, because so many people were getting hurt because of alcoholism. The Word of Wisdom makes perfect sense if you just study the history that surrounded it. And do we think for a moment that the renunciation of polygamy in 1890 wasn't a direct result of the federal government threatening to close down the church and imprison all its leaders? The church, if anything, responds to external pressure. Sometimes it's a decade, two decades late. But that is, in truth, the main cause of any significant change in the church.
Are we to think that the civil rights movement, and all the protests against BYU didn't lead to the church eventually allow blacks to have the priesthood? I would say that social, public relations, media pressure, and member pressure is the only real cause of change in the church that I have seen.
UPR: I want to ask a question about Kate Kelly now, so you received your letter from church leaders within days of Kate Kelly receiving hers. You two of course are not related, you're not associated personally are you?
John: No, we're friends. She's been on my Mormon Stories podcast a few times. She called me, she posted a very sweet message this week that I was the first person she called when she decided to do something about women's ordination. So yeah, we go back as friends, we've only actually met face-to-face two or three times. Ok.
UPR: And so some people are speculating there must have been some higher-up planning to execute both of these disciplinary council orders so closely together. How do you take that?
John: Because the church doesn't talk to people, the leaders don't talk in interviews, we are all speculating, but I have a friend, I have an associate who is the grandson or the son of an Apostle who told me that I was on a list that the Apostle had named me on a list. I've had other people tell me that Apostles had been visiting stake... they've been having stake training meetings, wherein Mormon Stories and Ordain Women have been explicitly mentioned as threats to the church over the past six months. There have been many, many people who have had their temple recommends taken away for supporting ordain women, or for supporting same-sex marriage, based on direction from the higher levels. And so, I think it would be foolish to think that this was isn't an explicitly organized effort from the very top echelons of the church.
We shouldn't forget that another public blogger received his letter, again about the same day Kate and I did. His name is Rock Waterman. He has a blog called Pure Mormonism, and he also received a letter. You know, what are the chances that three very public figures on the internet would all receive letters within a day of each other? You know, all three. I think it bears credulity.
I'll just add that when the September 6ths happened, the church claimed the position it was a local effort, but Ezra Taft Benson's own grandson had talks with Elder Oaks and Elder Maxwell and others, and it turned out very much that President Packer had been behind those excommunications. And Elder Oaks, I believe, had even acknowledged that he had not been honest about that. And that, in fact, apostles were behind it. So all the evidence points that this was an orchestrated effort from the top, as far as I know.
UPR: John, I want to ask you this question. In my opinion, in interacting with members of the church and in reading what I do, I think it's getting harder and harder to find a member of the church that does not have a single question or doubt about the faith. So now, in this world that we live in, where people blog and they tweet and use public forums to communicate, if an everyday member of the church goes onto a blog and starts discussing the concerns they have about their own faith, is it open season now on doubters? Is the church on a hunt to find members that are speaking out?
John: Well, in short the answer is yes. And here's exactly how it works. Kate and I are excommunicated, okay? We'll start there. Now, I hope that doesn't happen, my hope is that this all goes away, but if I had to guess, as a non-betting man, I would guess that we're excommunicated.
Immediately Mormon Stories and Ordain Women are labeled officially as apostate groups, right? And from that point forward, any member of the church that expresses their support for feminism, for the female ordination, for Mormon Stories, or for the types of things that Mormon Stories supports, immediately church leaders, Bishops, Stake Presidents around the world, then feel like they have cause, when they ask that question, do you support or affiliate with any apostate groups, they have, now cause to deny temple recommends to members who not only support these groups, but who step out of line in any way. Who tweet, who Facebook, who blog, who do podcasts, who express any personal opinions that in any way might start to deviate from the brethren.
So this sends a chilling effect, this labels certain groups as apostates, once these temple recommends get withheld, and let's be clear, they're already being withheld, then what happens is these members of the church, say they have a son who wants to get baptized, or a daughter who wants to get married, or a nephew or a niece that has a baby blessing, that these good members of the church who just have sincere questions, are now going to be publicly shamed because they're not going to be able to participate in these very public ordinances. They're going to be shamed publicly and that's the way that the church is going to try and clamp down on the control the message and control thought, and control feeling, and control the expression. And my guess is that it's going to be at least somewhat effective in that effort. Because for many people it's terrifying to be publicly shamed in not being able to attend the temple, in not being able to baptize a child, or so forth.
But, the only thing I'd say is that this is, as someone said, a 15th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. This isn't the Spanish Inquisition, this isn't the 1800s, this is the internet age. And the youth of today are more progressive, they don't respond well to coercive tactics, to authoritarian tactics. People tend to recoil and reject that. And the era of controlling speech and information is really dead. And so already I've seen thousands and thousands of new people start listening to Mormon Stories. It's not like the church has killed Mormon Stories. The church has dramatically increased the audience for Mormon Stories. And I am only guessing that they're doing the same thing with Ordain Women, and people in support of same-sex marriage, and LGBT people. They are accelerating the things they feel most. I think.
UPR: John, I want to ask again, about the specifics of this letter. When do they ask you to appear at this council?
John: No council for me has been scheduled yet. All the letter says is... it says, 'Hi, I love you, we've never met, I would like to give you the chance to resign, and if you don't resign, by Jun 18, we're going to have a court. Contact me if you want to talk.' So I've contacted President... I believe its President King. I've contacted him. I'm waiting to hear back, but that's the only date that's been set. It's sort of a 'resign, or I'm setting a court date.'
By the way, that's another indication to me that this is orchestrated from above. Because when in the world does the stake president not first do what the church claims that it does. The church's own statements about how it handles apostates and dissenters, is it's only after we've worked with them on a local, personal level to try and reason and work with them. And again, I've never met my stake president. So that again is another indication that this is orchestrated from above, the fact that he's never even attempted to contact me until now.
UPR: John, I'm curious, how active in the church are you? Were you in church last Sunday, and do you plan to be in church this weekend?
John: So... I have regularly attended church for most of my life. I can't say we attend it every Sunday now, partly because this is so distressing on my family. Back in... you know I've been investigated three times by the church over the past 10 years, and my same North Logan 4th Ward, and every time I've been exonerated. And when the bishop pulled me aside in February, and told me he was going to start yet another investigation, it's really disheartening to me and my family. We feel judged, we don't feel loved, we feel... it's more like the KGB or the FBI or the CIA. So it's not that we don't attend every week because we've been offended, it's just really emotionally difficult to feel unloved and so unwanted. So you know my daughter was just made Beehive President in our ward, my daughters have spoken in church over the past six months if my memory is correct, and we've attended in the past month, and we'll attend again. But I can't promise it will be every week because frankly, sometimes it just makes us sad to go to church. So we still try and go, but we can't go every week sometimes, and we're made emotionally healthy. At least not right now. But we're still going to keep going. We're not going away.
Even if I'm excommunicated, I will still attend church.
UPR: Interesting. Okay. How would you manage that? What kind of relationship would you have with the church if you were excommunicated?
John: You know, it won't be any different than it is now... because I’ve felt the church doesn't like me... you know, the way I do things, you know the truth is I haven't been able to find a calling with the Bishop where we've both felt good about it. You know I'm not comfortable teaching everything in the manual, or he's not comfortable giving me exposure to certain people in the church. So I haven't had a calling in a while, not because I don't want one, but because we haven't been able to find one.
You know, they have asked me to pray recently, I don't know if they'll do that again. But I haven't had a temple recommend lately, because I no longer feel comfortable answering all those questions in an honest way. So, the truth is, it won't be very different than it is now. Um, I understand it that if you're excommunicated you can still take the Sacrament even. You know, this is really funny, Elder Christofferson, he's an Apostle for the church, and he has a gay brother who's been excommunicated. His gay brother Tom Christofferson, he actually sometimes, as I understand it, prays in church, takes the sacrament, attends weekly, I think he may even play the organ, and I think he's even taught high priest group sometimes.
And so you know, I'm learning, actually, that with the right bishop and the right ward, you can do all sort of things and be an excommunicated member. And so, to be honest, I don't think it will be much different than that. If my son decides he wants to get the Priesthood, which he would have been inclined to before this court, because we've encouraged our kids to follow their spiritual path, and to do what feels right to them. My daughter just got home this week from girl's camp. You know, we're still very Mormon, and we're still going to encourage our kids to follow Mormonism, you know, to the extent that they feel comfortable.
But if my son decides to go ahead and get the priesthood, I won't be able to ordain him like I was able to baptize him. So I guess in that way, it will be different. I won't be able to perform the ordinances.
UPR: I want to ask...
John: But that's really the only main change I can see.
UPR: Yeah. But you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that it's in your bones, you still see yourself taking part in the cultural and even religious aspects of Mormonism.
John: I do. I love the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I love Music and the Spoken Word, I love the hymns, I even love the scriptures, and I....there are parts of General Conference that I love. And I'm not going anywhere. You know? I am Mormon, they can't take that away from me. It doesn't wash off, it can't be retracted, and... Here’s what I'd say. I'd say any God that I would feel comfortable believing in, and the Savior as I understand it, would never do what's being done to me and Kate. You know, the Savior would be patient, the Savior would be loving, the Savior would be forgiving, the Savior would say 'Judge Not,' the Savior would say 'The eye cannot say to the foot we have no use of thee, the hand cannot say to the knee we have no need of thee,' you know, that's the Savior that I know, and that's the God that I could believe in. And so I don't believe that the heavens recognize that these actions if they go forth. And so I guess that's extra reinforcement that I wouldn't change my behavior. You know?
UPR: Well, John, I think in the interest of time, I don't want to keep you for too much longer, so I'll let you go. Is there anything else that you want to mention or clarify or bring up that we haven't talked about yet?
John: Uh... I can just summarize. And I would say, number one, I love this church, and its members and its leaders and many of its teachings. I still retain belief in what I think the core teachings of Mormonism are. You know, the church released a statement on Mormon Doctrine that said Christ is at the center of our doctrine, and if Christ is anything, Christ is love and charity and humility and repentance and forgiveness, and I... morality, you know, sexual chastity, word of wisdom, I still believe in pretty much all I consider to be the central tenants to Christianity and of the modern church.
I also want to focus on what I do believe not what I don't believe. I love the church, I don't want this to go through, I hope they call it off. I'd love nothing more to have this go away. My biggest fear, from a private perspective, is that my wife and kids won't be treated well by neighbors, by church members. That they'll be ostracized. So I'm pleading to Utah citizens, especially Cache Valley citizens, that they'll treat my kids and my wife with love.
And then my bigger fear for the broader membership, you know, I've had thousands and thousands just go look on Mormon Stories.org. Thousands of people have said, "Mormon Stories Podcasts has helped me stay in the church, it's been a lifeline.' I've had probably over 100,000 listeners to Mormon stories. That's probably two or three or four or five people in every ward. And my biggest worry, one of my biggest worries from this action, is that the message that the church sends to others, is that they're not wanted in the church, if they have serious doubts, if they have problems with church history, if they support LGBT people, or are allies. Or if they support same-sex marriage or are feminists, or intellectuals, or scientists. I feel like the church will send the message to all those people that they are not wanted.
I don't believe that, you know, I'm not calling for mass resignations, I don't want anyone to do that, but I just fear it's going to harm the church in very significant ways. And I just say please talk to me, please let's meet, let's reason together, and let's avoid this train wreck if we can.
Because I love the church, I love Mormonism, I want to see us become better. We can become a 21st century religion that's stronger, that's more mature, that is more tolerant and accepting, and in my view, more Christ-like. I would just call on all of us to try and grow in that direction instead of trying to fall back to the 19th-century or the 15th century and use more barbaric tactics in what should be a more enlightened age. So that's my summary.
UPR: Well said. Well John, I want to say thank you for taking all this time today, we've spoken for a good half hour here, so thank you for taking the time out of your busy day, and I know this is not personally, and emotionally, an easy time for you as well. So I wish you the best.
I want to ask you before I let you go, do you think that a neighborhood campaign could reverse course on this, or is the church, are they putting their foot down?
John: You know, there is precedent for public action halting disciplinary council. There's a man named Buckley Jepson in [Washington,] DC who married his gay partner in Canada, he was an active member of the church, and when the media caught hold of it, and certain people got involved, the council was called off, and he was never pursued. There was another anthropologist in Washington, his name was Thomas Murphy. He started writing about how there's no DNA evidence to support the Book of Mormon, a bunch of press showed up at his disciplinary council and lo and behold, the disciplinary council was called off and he was never tried.
So yeah, I certainly believe that if enough people in North Logan rose up and expressed their concerns, if people wrote letters to Brian King, I believe is his name, if people wrote to their bishops and stake presidents, and reached out to influentials in the church, I think this could be stopped. So yeah, I think... in fact, that's one of two reasons why I went to the media in the first place. Reason number one is because my stake president said in the letter that he was going to tell everyone in the stake if I was found to be an apostate or resigned, he was going to tell everybody anyway. So there was no point in keeping it secret. But those close to me said the only way to stop this is to go public with it. So some people will say I did this to get media attention, I did this to stop these efforts. So if there are any listeners that want to do their part in trying to stop this, I don't want anybody to put themselves in harm's way, but if someone feels strongly enough, absolutely the church listens to its members. I would love to see this stopped. So yeah.
UPR: Ok well John, we will have to be in touch here again in the next maybe week or so to see how this pans out, because I know a lot of people around the country and probably the world are interested in seeing how this pans out, and the outcome of yours and Kate's cases. So, do you mind if I reach out to you again?
John: I'd love it.
UPR: Alright John, I wish you and your family all the best. Thanks for your time.
John: Oh, thank you so much.