Monday, February 20, 2017

Belief and Behavior: The Ontological Non-Existence of Persecuted Mormons

John Dehlin, Mormon Stories Podcast host, and Patrick Q. Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, have re-started their joint blog on Patheos after a hiatus, which can be found here. This time their discussion centered around if someone could stay in the Church if they did not believe central LDS doctrinal tenets, and also whether there was unfair persecution of those who had discovered things about the Church and posted them online, and if they had been treated unfairly. Mason commented that in Europe and other places, people do not care about doctrine as much, so the Church could emphasize other things, although he did recognize that most members of the LDS Church were in the Church because they affirmed the doctrine taught.

After he had his say, Dehlin said:
Patrick — Your thoughtful response fills me with many mixed and strong emotions.
On the one hand, it also seems true to me that the importance of religious doctrine is in decline in many regions worldwide — including within Mormonism.  Personally, I remember how important and/or exciting many Mormon teachings were to me when I was a believer, including:
That my friends and ancestors who died without a Mormon baptism could be baptized after their death in a Mormon temple,
That my family would persist into the next life, and
That I could become a God some day.
Those teachings were thrilling to me (at the time).
But I also remember feeling deeply conflicted by other Mormon doctrines:
That the Mormon church was the only legitimate church on earth (D&C 1:30),
That Native and African-Americans were cursed by God with dark skin (2 Nephi, 5:21),
That God did not want women to lead the church,
That I would be required to be a polygamist in heaven (D&C 132:61), and
That same-sex marriage is an act of apostasy, and that the children of same-sex married couples are not welcome in the Mormon church.
These latter doctrines seem(ed) actually harmful to me, and became untenable over time. Consequently, it has brought me a small amount of comfort over the past decade to see the Mormon church backpedal away from some of these doctrines, likely due to the influence of the Internet. (For a great read on how many Mormon doctrines have changed over the years, I highly recommend Charles Harrell’s book, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology.)
And while this doctrinal backpedaling seems to be positive in some respects, I believe you are correct that within Mormonism, many distinctive Mormon doctrines continue to matter — a lot.
That was my own experience when I became public about my doubts regarding an anthropomorphic God, the literal resurrection of Jesus, or the historicity of the Book of Mormon — or when I became publicly supportive of same-sex marriage and of female ordination. Within a very short time of sharing these views publicly, I was hauled into my bishop and stake president’s offices, grilled about my unorthodox position on each of these teachings — and ultimately was told, very explicitly, that I could not remain a member in good standing with these doubts and doctrinal positions. I was told that I either had to stay silent about them, or I would be excommunicated (which was my fate in 2015).
In addition to my own experience, I have many friends who have received similarly harsh and punitive treatment by Mormon leaders for expressing doubts or disbelief about the very issues you claim are acceptable under the Mormon “Big Tent,” including Jake and Amy Malouf who were harassed and disciplined for supporting same-sex marriage, Kirk and Lindsay Van Allen who were harassed and disciplined for openly expressing disbelief regarding the doctrine of Mormon polygamy (yes, many active Mormons still believe in polygamy, and it remains doctrinal), and Marisa and Carson Calderwood were excommunicated for doubting that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record, and that the Mormon church is God’s “one true church.”
And these cases are not isolated. I have personally spoken over the years with hundreds of Mormons who have been threatened with excommunication or officially disciplined for posting doubts and concerns regarding central Mormon doctrine on Facebook, or on other social media.
How do we square these experiences of coercion, control, and rejection with your experience of tolerance and acceptance?
Perhaps the most troubling part of what you wrote (for me) was this excerpt, “Generally the issue is less what you think than what you say.” To this point, I would say that this is an incredibly sad reality for many to face. Yes, modern Mormons are “allowed” to have doubts or alternative views, but for the most part they are forced to remain silent about these views or face the risk of punishment, public shaming, and possibly excommunication from the church.
To me, a Christian church that silences people with fear and intimidation does not exhibit the virtues of Christ.
You are correct that occasionally a local liberal leader will emerge who shows flexibility on these points, and is willing to turn their head at unorthodoxy (so to speak), but the inconsistency of enforcement is also deeply troubling for many….and is unjust at a fundamental level.
As I close this part of the discussion, I also cannot help but wonder what the purpose of Joseph Smith’s ministry and martyrdom was — if so many of his distinctive teachings are to be slowly whittled away from the church’s modern doctrinal canon. Whether it be the central narrative of the Book of Mormon (that Native Americans descend from a cursed people), or Joseph’s canonized teachings regarding the “new and everlasting covenant” of plural marriage (a doctrine for which he ultimately died), or the doctrine that men and women ultimately become Gods — my formerly-orthodox-brain can’t help but wonder what Joseph Smith lived and died for — if so much of his central doctrines are to be whittled away from the church he founded.  Would Joseph Smith even recognize the church that he founded (in a doctrinal sense)?
As you can see, your response struck me in very personal way. I apologize for the heat. I hope we can explore these matters more in depth over the coming weeks and months, and I sincerely appreciate you providing a place for us to acknowledge and work through these issues.
Close quote. Several things need clarification here. First of all, while religion is in decline in many areas in the west (religion is growing in Africa, and many parts of Asia), the religions that emphasize doctrine tend to hold steady while those who embrace the Bishop Shelby Spong idea of moving away from doctrine tend to decline even more rapidly. Simply put, doctrine is why religion matters to begin with. If a person does not believe in the Book of Mormon as a historical, inspired text, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the keys of the priesthood reside in the LDS Church, why would you want to stay? You would be giving hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to an organization in which you do not believe. The Church is not a social group, and staying for social reasons will end in leaving anyway, because relations change while truth does not.

Second, John is infamous for being the poster boy of the so-called "Persecuted Mormons", those who are disfellowshipped or excommunicated due to their beliefs. There is just one little problem with Persecuted Mormons: They do not ontologically exist; they are fictional.

All members know that openly attacking priesthood leaders or attempting to make the Church look bad in print or online constitutes apostasy; it is not a secret of which these people are unaware. You can be true to history and not be attacking the Church as Leonard Arrington, Richard L. Bushman, and W. Paul Reeve have shown in their books.

Third, no one is brought to a trial because of their beliefs because that is simply impossible. Beliefs reside within a person's brain and are inaccessible to others because they are subjective. The only way I know about your beliefs is if you tell me about them. John knows as much because as he said, he was only talked to by priesthood leaders after making the beliefs public. See the difference? John talked about his beliefs in a public forum and tried to convince others that he was right and the Church was in error, and then claimed he was persecuted. There is a difference between belief and action. Except when interviewed for a specific purpose (temple recommend, calling, etc), you are free to believe what you want. Most, if not all members have questions and or doubts at some point in their life; that is part of being a primate that has not evolved to understanding all things (the author includes himself in that category.) The Church gets involved when person's beliefs become behaviors that include trying to convince others that Church teachings are in error, as John and those he mentioned all did. The Church has the privilege to sever people from the organization when they are becoming toxic to it, just as in any other healthy relationship. There are no "Persecuted Mormons".


  1. God bless John Dehlin. I think that he has persecuted himself, more than anything. I wonder if he thinks himself persecuted like Jews in Nazi Germany.

  2. I can easily imagine a Pharisee saying the same about the ontological impossibility of the existence of persecuted Jews who believed Jesus. Yet Jesus called the treatment his disciples would receive at the hands of those in control of the synagogues "persecution."

    1. Log,

      Considering that John Dehlin is neither a Jew nor a believer in Christ (he seems open to the idea that Jesus was not a historical person), your example is irrelevant.

      It is true that religious and non-religious people are persecuted; that is not the point of the article. The point is that Mr. Dehlin openly attacks the Church, then plays the victim card when they wisely got rid of him. And then he invented this persona of being persecuted and gets others to buy into it. Others may buy into his nonsense, but I will not.

  3. What crossed my mind was define persecution. I mean was John burned at the stake? Drawn and quartered? Refused admittance to any church meeting outside the temple? I think he's dramatizing the word persecuted and in doing so minimizing its true depth of meaning.