Kate Kelly and John Dehlin

June 12, 2014

I’ve debated weighing in on yesterday’s article in the New York Times about the possible disciplinary councils for Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, but it has given me an opportunity to reflect on some things. I should note that the church has also sent a similar letter to Rock Waterman, a blogger with whom I am not very familiar, so I won’t comment on his situation.

I’ve known John for many years, and I like him and know him to be a good and kind man, even though I have to admit I’ve never quite understood what he is trying to accomplish. I will just say that he has helped a lot of people I know with their decisions about Mormonism (perhaps I’ve just answered my own question). When I was still trying to hold on to my faith, he encouraged me to find my own place in the church, a place that worked for me. That I wasn’t able to do so is no reflection on John or any of the other people who supported me. I don’t know what he has done that his leaders consider apostasy, but I suppose he’ll find out when he gets to the disciplinary council.

I do not know Kate Kelly personally, though obviously I am aware of her efforts with the Ordain Women movement. Generally speaking, I support people in all walks of life who try to effect positive change in their communities, governments, and religions. Mormonism has a long history of prophets receiving revelation in response to conditions in the world and in the church, from the Word of Wisdom being received after Emma Smith complained about having to clean up tobacco juice and the extension of priesthood rights to all worthy males in response to the construction of a temple in Brazil, a nation where relatively few people would have been eligible to attend. Although Ordain Women’s tactics have been more vocal and public than many Mormons believe they should have been, I take Ms. Kelly and her colleagues at their word that they were simply asking for consideration of new ideas in response to a growing feeling that women are marginalized in the church.

John’s work has been quite different from Ordain Women’s approach, as he has sought to stake out a place in the church for people like him who recognize that the foundational claims of the church may not add up, but they stay because they love the church and find in it a spiritual home and a context in which they can serve God. The change that John has advocated is a more tolerant and open Mormonism, but he hasn’t overtly challenged the leadership as Ms. Kelly and her colleagues have. What I have found amusing over the years is that John seems to be hated as much by a lot of ex-Mormons as he is by a lot of believing Mormons. I think that speaks to his middle-ground approach. Ex-Mormons hate him because he doesn’t pull people out of the church, and Mormons hate him because he won’t leave.

In the past, I would have thought that John’s position was the safer approach, as I’ve known a lot of liberal Mormons who have been welcomed in the church despite their unorthodox views, provided that they aren’t openly opposing the church or its leaders. I don’t see John as having opposed the church at all, and for that matter, I don’t believe Ordain Women has done that, either. That said, I have long felt that Ordain Women has been fighting a hopeless cause. The reality is that the LDS church does not change in response to overt agitation from the membership. Having a prophet and apostles who receive revelation from God means that change comes from above, and as Boyd K. Packer put it, the church functions only when members “face the right way” and take direction from their leaders. Trouble arises when members lacking authority turn around and face the wrong way.

When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates — sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected. (Address to the All-Church Coordinating Council, May 18, 1993.)

I do not know if the Ordain Women leaders believed they might find an advocate among the leadership, but it seems pretty clear they thought they would at least get a sympathetic hearing. However, the leaders of the church rejected their aims and expressed repeated disapproval of the movement and its members. What I think led to the disciplinary council is that Kate Kelly kept going, anyway.

A lot of people seem to be shocked that Kelly and Dehlin have been summoned for church discipline, but I’m not surprised. The church’s foundational claims and institutional practices are coming under much greater scrutiny than in the past, and more people are walking away. It seems to me that the church has to decide whether it wants to become more open both in terms of its history but also in terms of who is welcome in the church. The alternative is to circle the wagons, double-down on orthodoxy, and push out those whose approach to the gospel doesn’t match correlated homogeneity. President Uchtdorf’s statements and the recent essays about doctrinal and historical issues, flawed as they are, gave me a little hope that the church was cautiously moving toward the more open path, but this action at the very least shows that the wagons are still circled.

The danger for the church is that the shock so many feel at the moment will become disappointment and a recognition that the church isn’t as open and inclusive as they hoped it was. After all the “I’m a Mormon” profiles full of free-thinking, nonconformist Mormons, the reality is that this is a church in which “you are not required to change your way of thinking” but are required to silently make your beliefs “a private matter.”  It is still the same church Gordon B. Hinckley described:

People think in a very critical way before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform. And they find happiness in that conformity.

I can’t imagine the hurt and pain the three of them are feeling, and I wish them well. The church will go on without them, but in my view, it is a lesser institution without them and people like them.