Everything Has Chains

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.

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11 Responses to Everything Has Chains

  1. Doctor Steuss says:

    Thank you John for your thoughts on this. I can definitely relate to this:

    “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.”

  2. Donna says:

    I had my name removed from the records around 14 years ago. Back then it was important to me that I not be excommunicated. Today that wouldn’t be an issue for me. In fact, I might be inclined to opt for the ultimate excommunication because then it’s them doing the work instead of me, also because the trial might be an interesting experience. Also great material for writers like you and me.

    But, bottom line, it’s your call, John. And you’re right, shunning people like John, Kate and Rock will only hurt their numbers. Not sure what the logic is here.

    • runtu says:

      I think the obvious conclusion is that the kind of people who are alienated by this are the kind of people they don’t want in the church.

  3. Wow. I’ve never studied Joseph Smith in any great detail (all I know about him I learned from PBS) but your quotes definitely imply a man who set up an unhealthy institution from the start.

    This definitely makes me sympathize a lot more with people who choose to leave. It’s one thing to fix an organization that has become unhealthy, it’s another thing entirely to fix an organization that may never have been healthy to begin with.

    I’m Catholic, so I’m not even going to try to tell you what you should do. I really don’t know. But whatever you choose, I hope it is the best decision for you and I hope you find peace in that decision.

  4. One last thought: your post reminded me of something I read in a history textbook.

    “Revolutions do not come when a country is at its nadir. They come when a country has begun to make improvements, but then the country threaten to return to its previous troubled state.”

  5. Ray Agostini says:

    “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.”

    Anyone threaten you with excommunication lately, John? You’ve voiced numerous criticisms of Mormonism and the Church here for years now. Have you received a “court of love” (to put it sarcastically) summons?

    You’re a very valuable voice for the Mormon community, and I don’t view you as “anti”. You have a way of making people think, without being offensive. I’ll tell you what you should do. You should continue to be Runtu, and not let the latest happenings with John Dehlin sway you negatively against the Church.

    if you go off the deep end, and turn against the Church, then it’s goodbye to Runtu, no more a much needed voice of reason in “matters Mormon”. By doing that, your influence (and mostly balanced views) among Mormons is gone forever.

    • runtu says:

      I’m not letting this sway me, Ray. What you quoted above is exactly what the church told Kate Kelly she would have to do: keep her opinions to herself, or be excommunicated. I don’t think what I said exaggerates that at all, and I don’t think an organization that requires members to do that is a healthy organization.

      I know for a fact that my blog has been discussed in meetings at the church office building, and I was deemed not enough of a threat to worry about. I don’t care about gaining readers and making a name for myself, which is probably why I have been left alone.

      • Ray Agostini says:

        Most of those in the public eye, chose to be there. In essence, they were “asking for it”, and maybe even take some pleasure in it. The media attention is phenomenal, and that’s what promotes their cause, because they’re “activists” who feed on the media.

        I’m quite okay reading your blog, and the criticisms you voice, even when I don’t agree with all of them. I don’t believe you’re trying to lead members out of the Church. You’ve been very balanced in that regard.

        I can only imagine how difficult it must be for you, I guess sort of “torn between two worlds” at times.

        The Church needs authentic voices in regard to criticism, not “agendas” to change the Church by force. Instead of writing “Heaven Up Here”, I suppose you could have written “Exposing Mormon Mission Fraud”, or something like that. Instead, “Heaven Up Here” provided all of us some very deep reflections of the sorrows and joys of serving a Mormon Mission, and what it really meant to all of us “RMs”, in all honesty.

        That’s the sort of honesty we need more, and I think you can continue to provide it on your blog. Just my opinion.

  6. vikingz2000 says:

    I think too many people are over-thinking with regard to what the LDS top leadership (the ‘brethren’) are supposedly thinking. I am coming from a point of view of having known, on a personal basis, Tom Monson. This is back in the 60’s and granted I was just a ‘caboose’ (my father being the leadership protagonist for interaction), nonetheless I observed, was privy to, and participated in a fair amount of ‘stuff’. My opinion (and it is only my opinion) is that ‘the brethren’ aren’t at all worried about the church being able to survive John Dehlin et al. They *know* the church will stand until the the Lord comes again onto the earth (the Millennium) no matter what happens. They most firmly, irrefutably *know* the church (gospel) “will never again be taken from the earth”. Sure, they realize that they have to deal with people like JD and the ‘September Six’, and issues such as Prop 8, etc., but they are not shivering in their boots about the possibility of the church ‘falling’ (whatever that implies), or about the fallout over the excommunication of some of its more vocal, public, dissenting members. This is what *I know*: that they are very, very, smug about their callings and about the fact that there will always be millions of members who will support them no matter what. Sure they want to grow the church and are always ‘thinking’ (as opposed to ‘worrying’) about how to accomplish this, but at the end of the day they *know* they will always have their tenured, secure ‘jobs’, and that the “caravan will march on”, and they don’t give a rat’s rump about how certain rabble rousing members perceive them or the church to be. They are expendable; they are the tares, so the church needs to live with or tolerate them for awhile, but eventually “you (they) will be removed from your (their) place”.

    • robinobishop says:

      It might be important to listen to viking2000 on this matter. But labeling the leadership as “smug” speaks of excessive pride. “Exhibiting offensive satisfaction with oneself or with one’s situation; being self-righteously complacent ” seems an unlikely attribute for any LDS leadership. Confidence, yes. Overconfidence, only from the perspective of those in a crisis of faith.

  7. skepticalalways says:

    Your comments are spot on. I am beginning to think that with the internet and the information age, the LDS Church faces its greatest threat to its long-term existence than it has experienced since Nauvoo. Smith had the requisite charismatic flair and narcissist drive to create a new religious movement and help the infant church survive its difficult childbirth.

    Brigham Young stepped in at the right moment to keep the church alive following Smith’s murder and the church’s threatened extinction. With an iron fist he moved its members and set up a kingdom allowing the church to stabilize then expand.

    Following the demise of polygamy, a series of failed leaders gave way to David O. McKay, the church’s international prophet whose softer approach allowed the church to grow beyond its Utah borders.

    Now the church seems without the necessary leader to guide it into an era where its troubled historical narrative is not only being scrutinized but is being made available to its members in such a way that the once useful storyline is being smitten to pieces, driving members to the exit doors. And for the first time, the LDS Church seems inapt to respond to a crisis that will not end with excommunications of Dehlin, Kelly et al. Because even if these people are ejected from the church, the church’s troubled history still remains available to discovery, and the issue of gender equality and transparency isn’t about Kelly at all, she is just a symptom of it.

    The church’s perceived decision-making process and leader selection seems ill equipped for the necessary changes that must be made to survive it newest, and perhaps, greatest challenge.

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