To anyone keeping abreast of Mormon issues, John Dehlin’s excommunication wasn’t a surprise. John is someone who actively questions LDS faith and culture (including hot-button issues like the priesthood ordination of women and same-sex marriage). However, in doing so he has helped provide a voice for many individuals who feel disenfranchised and disenchanted within the Mormon church. I don’t know if his excommunication was the “right” decision; in the end, I think that question is irrelevant. John’s leaders had the option to excommunicate him and they did so. In the end, if an ecclesiastical leader wants a vocal member to be excommunicated, they can almost always find grounds to do so.
There is no doubt the popularity of his controversial Mormon Stories podcast made Church leaders uncomfortable. In the end, it is because John found a large and sympathetic audience for these controversial views that Church leaders decided to charge him with “[leading] others away from the Church,” and thereby excommunicate him. Interestingly, the February 9 letter detailing John’s excommunication did not list (as grounds for the action) John’s support for same-sex marriage and women’s ordination; but John has alleged these were the impetus for his disciplinary proceedings.
I don’t like this recent round of excommunications. Even if Kate Kelly and John Dehlin were misguided, their goal wasn’t to lead people astray from the Mormon church. Just the opposite. They were trying to make the Church a more welcoming place for its members—all of its members. The gays. The feminists. The non-apologist historians. The people struggling with addiction and depression and so many other issues. In truth, the typical LDS member is no longer the Republican, white, heterosexual prototype (from a nuclear family) that I pictured growing up; and we don’t always fall in line when a Church leader answers a question with “because I said so”. A substantial portion of the Church membership is now forcefully telling the Church it wants change; and they are motivated, well-read and tech-savvy individuals who can easily spread their ideas/beliefs/knowledge to the public. Will the Church listen to these groups and allow open discussion of its beliefs and practices? Or will its refuse to examine the correctness of its policies, procedures and doctrinal beliefs, or allow its members to do likewise?
The Church has never been the forerunner of change. It generally follows cultural trends; it does not create them. However, Elder Cristofferson (an Apostle) recently stated that members may speak out about opposing beliefs and even support groups like Ordain Women. They would only be disciplined if “someone is out attacking the church and its leaders. If that’s a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow…trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines.”
Elder Cristofferson’s statement is a small concession towards freer speech and discussion among the members; but its a concession nonetheless. And let’s not forget, that two Apostles even agreed to speak on Trib Talk and take questions from its audience is already a huge step for these men, who traditionally communicate with the public in a much more scripted, controlled manner (like General Conference).
Time will only tell if the Church will continue to silence dissenting voices, like John Dehlin, or move towards a more conciliatory approach. I take comfort in knowing that, for every John Dehlin, there are probably a hundred others who are not excommunicated for their public discussions. And that number is growing every day.