Given the subjects of a lot of my posts, some people are surprised to find that I am not technically a former Mormon. Yep, I’m still on the records of the LDS church, I’m still a high priest, and, at least according to the church, the terms of my covenants remain in effect.
I have noticed in the last two days a number of people are saying that the situation with John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and Rock Waterman has them upset enough to formally resign from the LDS church. Here’s a sample of what’s been said:
A mother: “I’m thinking it’s about time I resign this narrow-minded church that has taken so much from me.”
A returned missionary: “I’ve just been too lazy to do it, but this has motivated me. I have also had contact with a couple families that were on the fence (friends/roommates from BYU) but have decided it may be best to just resign and get their families out. This might be an interesting catalyst.”
A high priest: “If I am going to resign, and I am definitely considering it seriously, I would like it to be something where it is directly linked with this latest action taken by the Church of Jesus Christ of North Korea.”
A non-Mormon married to a Mormon: “I may have my children’s names removed from the records of the church over this. They were unlikely to ever choose to be baptized LDS as it is, but if the church wants to treat feminists this way, then it can stop counting my children as part of that membership tally that it’s so fond of.”
As I’ve said before, I understand how these people feel. A lot of people I know held out hope that the church was becoming more inclusive and tolerant, and more open about its past, but really, nothing has changed. The church is the same today as it was last week before any of us knew about the pending disciplinary action. As Kate Kelly was reminded, disagreement with official policies and teachings is tolerated only if it is never expressed publicly. I remember being told multiple times that I was free to believe whatever I wanted to believe, as long as I kept it to myself. Even when I had checked out of the LDS church almost entirely, I was told I shouldn’t tell anyone about my beliefs or about the things I had learned about the church. I was even told that I should not share my thoughts and beliefs about the church with my own children, as if leaving the church had nullified my rights and responsibilities as a parent.
Make no mistake about it: the LDS church is an authoritarian institution that tolerates no dissent. I have long believed that the institutional culture–the personality of the church, if you will–is a direct reflection of Joseph Smith’s personality. If you have read anything about Joseph Smith (well, outside official publications), you know he could not accept challenges to his authority, direct or indirect. He was at the top of the structure, and he expected those subordinate to him to do what they were told. When anyone stood up to him, Joseph Smith became angry and sometimes violent. There are numerous accounts of him physically attacking people who stood up to him. Benjamin Johnson wrote:
Criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable. Contradictions would arouse in him the lion at once. By no one of his fellows would he be superceded. In the early days at Kirtland, and elsewhere, one or another of his associates were more than once, for their impudence, helped from the congregation by his foot.
And there’s an account from my own family history describing his completely losing his temper and shouting at my ancestor, who physically ejected Smith from his home when Smith became violent.
It’s hard to think of any incident in the life of Joseph Smith in which he accepted correction from a subordinate or ever acknowledged being in the wrong, let alone needing forgiveness. I’m reminded of the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon translation, but what you see there is that he acknowledges wrongdoing only in the sense that he gave in to the cajoling of a subordinate, in this case Martin Harris. Even when caught quite literally with his pants down in a barn with Fanny Alger, Joseph said he would not confess to adultery or anything else. When men became upset at his advances on their wives and daughters, he denied everything and publicly denounced the women as liars and whores. In his speeches and writings, including scripture, Joseph reserved the harshest denunciations for dissenters and apostates, and those attitudes have persisted to this day, as members are still taught that “dissenters [are] base traitors and sycophants.”
I’m convinced that this inability to take correction or instruction from anyone beneath Joseph Smith is what shaped the office of President of the Church after his death. Brigham Young, aptly called “Old Boss” by his subordinates, assumed nearly absolute authority over the church and Utah Territory, even to the point that, when he ordered that someone be “used up,” that person was sure not to be alive for very long. I’m pretty sure that Brigham’s forceful personality explains a lot of this, and the autocratic rule seems to have diminished after his death. But what remains is still a belief that dissent from the ranks is not to be tolerated at all.
Most Mormons are familiar with recent teachings about dissent. Dallin Oaks, for example, has taught that “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” Russell Ballard has said:
In the Lord’s Church there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition.” One is either for the kingdom of God and stands in defense of God’s prophets and apostles, or one stands opposed.
None of this is new. The church has never tolerated dissent, even polite and respectful dissent, so no one should be surprised by the events of the last week.
What I think is happening is that people who supported John and the Ordain Women movement allowed themselves to believe that things were different, that things had changed. If nothing else, we’ve been given a reminder that institutions do not change in an instant, or even in the 21 years since the last coordinated purging of dissent.
Is it possible for the church to change? Perhaps, but it’s a big ship, and it takes time and effort to turn a ship, especially one essentially chained to its past by an inability to question its own authority. As Eddie Vedder put it, “Everything has chains” holding it back from growth, and too often you find that “absolutely nothing’s changed.”
In the meantime, the big danger to the church is that they are likely to alienate a lot of people who love the gospel but recognize that the church is an extremely conservative institution run by fallible men. As long as people like Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were in the church, those who didn’t necessarily accept the “official” version of the church’s history, origins, and practices could believe they weren’t alone. The three of them seemed to show kindred spirits that it was OK to be different and still participate in the church. Many times I’ve had conversations with Mormons in which they sort of nervously give the party line, but once they know it’s “safe” to speak openly with me, they relax and talk about what they really think and believe. Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were symbols that there were such people still in the church, that it was safe to talk about your beliefs and hopes and dreams, even if they didn’t exactly coincide with the church’s program for your life. With the recent moves, the church has made it abundantly clear that it’s not OK to think differently, unless you keep your thoughts to yourself, and there are likely to be far fewer people with whom it is safe to share your thoughts.
And that is the problem. Any institution that requires you to swallow who you are and what you think on penalty of expulsion is not a healthy organization. What I hear from people considering leaving is that they don’t believe the church is capable of becoming healthy again, and they wonder if staying in an unhealthy organization is healthy for them as individuals. I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself. And beats the hell out of me what I’m going to do.