A Publication of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College

Tough Times for Mormon Orthodoxy

   February 13, 2015

angelby Jan Shipps and Sarah Barringer Gordon

Watching the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints struggle to control its public image has been a study in the difficulty of maintaining orthodoxy in the age of instant communication. When podcaster John Dehlin was excommunicated earlier this week for apostasy – his offenses included “spreading” his dissenting views “widely via the Internet” despite orders to stop – he announced the decision on a radio show, and posted the letter explaining the reasoning behind his ouster on his Mormon Stories website. Dehlin, who supports same-sex marriage and equal treatment for women (including ordination), claims that he is an “unorthodox, unorthoprax” Mormon.  His podcasts attract as many as 25,000 downloads, and his full disclosure of the entire process of his turbulent relationship with LDS church authorities has drawn attention around the world. Such controversies highlight the many ways that freedom of expression poses new troubles for religious groups in America as well as around the world.  Mormon church leaders, long accustomed to controlling the LDS message, have been challenged by Saints and non-Mormons alike. Stories about suppressed aspects of the Mormon past and current actions to discipline rebellious church members are everywhere. The church has begun to enter the fray. It has, for example, commissioned and posted substantive accounts of some of those suppressed aspects of its past. Now, when Mormons google “polygamy,” there is a church-authorized discussion of plural marriage – “The Principle” – for them to read. The church’s efforts to address the challenges of the digital age have not been notably successful. LDS leaders learned a hard lesson in 2008 when an activist outed their deep involvement in California’s Prop 8 anti-gay marriage campaign and the story went viral. The church has stayed out of the marriage fight in the past several years. Indeed, on LGBTQ issues church leaders recently tried to walk a middle path, supporting anti-discrimination legislation while at the same time arguing that religious freedom should be equally protected – a position welcomed by some liberal Mormons but dismissed by a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention as “naïve;” the Daily Beast called it a “charade.” In part, this is because church members are deeply divided over fundamental questions of doctrine and policy. In addition to Dehlin’s troublesome and very public challenge, the web-based group known as Ordain Women, which “seeks to create a space for Mormons to articulate issues of gender inequality that they may be hesitant to raise alone,” has a considerable following. Controversially, the group claims that church leaders have misinterpreted the teachings of the faith, and that “women must be ordained in order for our faith to reflect the equity and expansiveness of these teachings.” At the same time, local church leaders seem not to have read the memo about conciliation on hot-button political divides. Within Mormonism, local stakes (groups of congregations, comparable to Catholic dioceses) are in charge of church discipline. Most cases deal with personal moral failings like adultery and dishonesty. But Mormons also have a history of disciplining free-thinking intellectuals – most famously, a controversial group who were excommunicated in 1993. In the new era, the disciplining of those who publicly advocate reform of the church quickly and painfully becomes a matter of public notice. Last August, Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly was excommunicated by her Virginia stake. She appealed her excommunication, and (of course) posted the appeal on the Ordain Women website. A second member of the group was told to sever her ties with the organization or forfeit her temple recommend, meaning that she could not attend her brother’s forthcoming wedding. She caved, but also blogged about the heavy-handed tactics of her stake president. The post drew so many hits that it crashed the site. As with all heretics, these Mormon dissenters threaten to destabilize the community of believers even as they attract a wider audience. This is a central challenge for what we now call “strong religions,” which make belief and strict observance of doctrinal commands cornerstones of membership. Mormons often call themselves a “peculiar people,” by which they mean their faith has generated a distinctive and cohesive community. No longer. Indeed, their experience points to tough times for religious orthodoxy generally. Instant publicity and uncontrollable access to information, even if it undermines faith, means that dissenters have new tools, and those who seek to punish them cannot isolate outcasts in the ways they could even a generation ago. As one former Hasidic Jew put it about her own decision to leave the Brooklyn community in which she had grown up: “Now you can’t keep people from accessing information. It’s weakening the community’s hold over their own.” The frustration of traditional venues for discipline means that orthodoxies of all kinds face new and potentially insuperable obstacles, whether they are located in Brooklyn or Salt Lake City.

11 Responses to Tough Times for Mormon Orthodoxy

  1. Jesus Christ taught that if a member of the body gives occasion to fall, it should be cut from the body. His Church has every right to severe the communion of those who publicly advocate positions against the teachings and direction from Church authorities. Members are not excommunicated for having doubts or questions. They are excommunicated for working against the Church. Membership in the Church requires faith that the leadership and the teachings are inspired of God. As for the numbers and influence of the dissenters, they are exaggerated.

  2. You are wrong about a lot in the article. In the first place, LDS Mormon leadership could care less about stuff happening on the web, other than missionary work. The “faithful” will not go looking for doubts. The doubters will always find reason to doubt. That is life and they know they can’t fix it. What they can to is lie to us, the faithful, and that’s the real reason for the posts on polygamy, in my opinion. Yes, I am one of the faithful, but I am also realistic and understand that our leaders are not gods. They are now fearful that, thanks to shows like Sister Wives, polygamy will make us look “strange” again as once legal we will have no choice but to return to the practice. So, they have begun lying about or doctrine so they won’t have to bring it back.


  3. Poorly written. Statements like “…..church members are deeply divided over fundamental issues of doctrine and policy” lead the reader to think this is a widespread phenomenon throughout the Church. This reveals the sophomoric level of the article. Just the opposite is true. As a fairly typical member of the Church, curious and inquisitive, an independent thinker, and very active in my faith, I see the foundations of the faith stronger than ever. Are there dissenters, malcontents, protesters? Sure. So what’s new? Remember Carthage? Remember Haun’s Mill? Remember Liberty Jail? Current protesters; more current issues such as LGTB, are simply “old wine” put into new wine skins. The authors provide nothing new and indeed misled – much as earlier authors did in the mid-19th century. Notwithstanding, the Church thrives on every front and moves forward. Troubles? Distractions? Certainly. But nowhere even in the same ballpark as the authors would like the reader to believe. I am in the middle of it. I speak with validity.

  4. No one forces anyone to adhere to any religious creed or standard. It is based on individual choice. If someone wants to change an entire religion for their own reasons, then it is really about themselves and not about whatever church or orthodoxy they may be questioning. All of the examples cited are about individuals that sought change for themselves and for their own interests. Unfortunately shallow article.

  5. Exposure to dissenting views on the internet will peel off some members, mostly in highly developed countries. But my impression is that the Church is going to be left with an extremely committed group of members that will continue to be orthodox and reject societal norms in favor of Church teachings. It will also continue its progress in areas and groups where LGBT issues and women’s ordination are viewed differently by the public at large. This analysis focuses too much on a few extreme cases and doesn’t take into account the global nature of the Church.

  6. There are more errors of fact and abuses of rhetoric in this piece than I can readily catalog. I’ll limit myself to 10.

    1. The Church’s involvement in Proposition 8 was not “outed”, it was trumpeted. They made no effort whatever to hide that involvement and approached members from the pulpit with open letters requesting they support it. They got involved at the request of the Archbishop of Los Angeles (who made a personal appeal to Pres. Monson) and proceeded to take the lion’s share of the media backlash. The Catholic church, curiously enough, was never the target of much ire for their leading role in that fight, mostly because it is much less politically risky to marginalize and persecute Mormons than Catholics. The Church has indeed stayed out of further fights, but that could be A. Because they were not invited as they were in California or… B. Because they did not feel they were likely to win, as they did in California, or… C. Because they did not see an opening for the kind of support and involvement they brought to Proposition 8… or D. Some combination of these. The church has not backed off their stance on legal recognition of same sex marriage one iota.
    2. None of the so-called “September Six” were at the time—or appear to be now—Freethinkers, who hold that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena. Furthermore, they were excommunicated for various differing reasons and did not constitute any kind of cohesive group. Avraham Gileadi, who later had his disciplinary action overturned and expunged, would likely be particularly appalled at being lumped in with some others from this group.
    3. Church leaders have not “recently” tried to “walk a middle path” on “LGBT” issues. On the contrary, they have been pursuing longstanding Church policy and doctrine. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” has been a guiding principle for this and other Christian faiths since time immemorial. The most that could be said is that the Church has been taking greater pains to apply more fairly and consistently the longstanding policy that homosexual feelings are not sinful, but actions are. Additional clarifying statements on this point do not constitute a change in doctrine or practice, but do represent growth in the area of sensitivity to the needs of those concerned. Likewise, it has long been the position of the Church that those with same gender attraction should be treated with love, respect, and acceptance rather than being ostracized, shunned, and marginalized. That the Church is supporting modern efforts to add legal protections to ensure non-discrimination is in keeping with this position, not a departure from it. As for homosexual behavior, there has been no pursuit of any middle way whatsoever. Sexual relations (with either gender) outside of heterosexual marriage will land you in a disciplinary council as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, and the treatment ideally will be no different for homosexual than heterosexual transgression. If you’re waiting for that to change, don’t hold your breath. While the Church has changed policies and will again, the Church has yet to ever change a ratified doctrine. The Proclamation on the Family was an intentional stake in the ground and will prove an immovable tether.
    3. *Stories* of “suppressed aspects of the Mormon past” may be increasing of late, but you’d be hard pressed to stumble onto them if you’re not an interested party so I don’t think “everywhere” an appropriate description. Worse, though, is that pointing this out is rhetorically abusive as it leaves unanswered and presupposed the question of whether any aspects of “the Mormon past” were, in fact, suppressed to begin with. This is akin to saying “Stories of Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth are everywhere”, without addressing the factual basis for those stories. Unless you redefine suppression to mean “failure to widely publish or publicly acknowledge”, then no suppression has taken place. The Church has made the source materials for many of these supposedly uncomfortable facts available to scholars for some time and has tacitly allowed their propagation without threat of repercussion, even by members in good standing. What they have not allowed, are not allowing, and will not ever allow is for members in good standing to publish doctrinal views that interpret these facts in a way that undermines basic Church doctrines. Put differently, if you want to argue that the fact that Joseph Smith had multiple wives (a fact acknowledged and published by the Church long before the recently released statement) means that he was a fallen or false prophet, then you are welcome to do so as a former member but not a current one. If you just want to publish a scholarly work detailing the known history of his polygamy, his history with treasure seeking, and other aspects of his biography that would be uncomfortable for a contemporary audience and aren’t commonly found in published Church lesson materials, you will have no problem with the Church. Just ask Richard Lyman Bushman.
    4. The fact that a theological antagonist (Southern Baptist Convention) and a philosophical foil (Daily Beast) are skeptical of a position taken by Mormon hierarchy is hardly worth printing and makes no point worth considering.
    5. Who, other than the organization itself, should have control over that organization’s message? Can you cite a single example of an organization that allows any casual or disaffected member to speak for it? What organization could survive such a paradigm?
    6. You say that in “the new era” (Pun intended? No? What a shame…) disciplining dissenters “quickly and painfully” becomes public, but even you cite the earlier excommunications in 1993, which were just as “painfully” public, if not more so. It’s hard to see how things have changed recently. People loudly dissent, they get disciplined, the media have a cow, things return to normal. Rinse, repeat.
    7. April Bennett was asked to resign from her position in an apostate organization as a condition of repentance, not as collateral for temple admission. It is true that one of many consequences of disciplinary action would have been loss of her temple recommend, but hardly the worst of them. One of the other conditions was that she delete previous postings in the very same forum where she announced the action (Irony intended, maybe?). I seriously doubt that she expressed herself to her stake president in this manner at the time. No Church leader I know would be comfortable with grudging compliance for the sake of making a wedding ceremony. Such false repentance is pointless, dishonest, and a mockery of the process.
    8. “The church’s efforts to address the challenges of the digital age have not been notably successful.” Actually, the Church is the envy of most other denominations for its savvy use of internet media to get their message across. Ask a returned missionary from 20 years ago how many media referrals they got. Now ask a recently returned missionary. Ask them how many got baptized.
    9. “In part, this is because church members are deeply divided over fundamental questions of doctrine and policy.” This is absurd and the result of the myopic perspective of the authors. Because they find themselves surrounded by those engaged in the secular study of the Church they more often will encounter those disaffected with the faith and—I surmise—imagine this small, skewed sample to be representative of Church membership. The truth is that I hear less of dissension in the my ward and stake today than I did when I was in my twenties or even teens. We’re talking about a 15 million member church. The most conservative estimates say that at least 7 million of which are active enough to put their children on the records of the Church. In the past year, you can cite three notable examples of Church discipline for apostasy. Three. Whatever private struggles some members have with their faith or faithfullness, I’ve heard nary a whisper of it in my own congregation. I expect some day I will and I would expect that in this kind of a church. It’s not a church for the casual social member. It’s a call to discipleship. Hence the discipline. We see our “strong faith” as positive aspect in that way and we expect at least some, if not many, to leave it. In the IT world we say “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.”
    10. “Cohesion… no longer”. This is the most laughable assertion in this entire piece. Ms. Gordon, how’s that moderation working out for the cohesion of your own Episcopalian faith? If those who dissent from basic foundational principles of an organization are allowed to remain active voices within it, that organization will lose its cohesion and either splinter or fail entirely. These disciplinary actions are the only thing that can possibly maintain that cohesion. I’m sure you’d love the Church to walk the path of accommodation and assimilation, perhaps because you’d like to see it splinter in that manner. I don’t blame you for that. You don’t believe in the Church’s basic claims and therefore I don’t expect you to apply your intellectual powers to generating cohesion in my faith. I just wish you’d be intellectually honest about it and not claim to be providing concerned advice to a “troubled” institution.

    To be clear, I welcome those of the scholarly community who want to study and write about my faith. I appreciate their spectator’s view as we chart our course through waters troubled or calm. However, if you don’t share my faith, please keep your hand off the tiller.

    • Excellent comment! I’m sure it took quite some time to write this up (it took me quite a while just to read it) but I enjoyed all of it. A fair, respectful, deconstruction of a shabby (being kind) article authored by people who seem to have little grasp on the topic on which they write. Keep up the good work Common Sense.

    • Thanks you, Common Sense, for your most excellent response to this absurd, shallow, stupid article!

      My respect for both the writers just went down a notch — a BIG notch!

  7. Indeed, the LDS church should never have got involved with Prop. 8 or indeed any worldly affairs as such. Their “flock” can care for themselves, they are (still) growing and their “Lord” is the ultimate arbiter now and esp. in their “hereafter”. So I think it would be more in line with e.g. Smith’s teachings if they kept to themselves. Equally the gay marriage “unorthoprax” man should either stay and fight from within or, if he chose not to, not claim to speak for (even a fraction of) Mormonism. Unless he wanted to, and he is surely free to do so, proclaim himself a “Smith II”. But then say so. Unlike in a constitutional democracy, theology is not a thing open to popular vote. Lest the devil had his had in it … 😉 …

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