WASHINGTON, January 15, 2015 – John P. Dehlin, host of a website dedicated to “exploring, celebrating, and challenging Mormon culture in constructive ways,” has been threatened with excommunication by his church leaders.
The Mormon Stories website has attracted a large and diverse following of Mormons, some of them orthodox and active members, others who, while skeptical about church doctrines and policies, wish to remain connected to their Mormon culture. In the process, it has raised serious concerns among church leaders who find some podcasts on the site highly critical of the church.
Dehlin was informed by LDS Stake President Bryan King that a disciplinary council would be held on January 25. The stake president – a church leader who oversees several local congregations – would in principle have called the disciplinary council on his own authority. LDS (or Latter-day Saint, from “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the official name of the Mormon church) disciplinary councils are called and conducted by local church leaders, not by church President Thomas S. Monson or the church’s governing councils.
According to Dehlin, the specific items mentioned by his file leaders as contributing to his apostasy include his work with Mormon Stories, his public support of same-sex marriage, his public support of the Ordain Women movement, his criticism of the church’s treatment of LGBT and feminist members, his expressed doubts about key elements of LDS theology, and his criticism of the church’s lack of financial transparency.
Dehlin received letters from his church leader in August and this month detailing the charges against him, and he has released them. They make no mention of same-sex marriage, focusing instead on his questioning of key LDS doctrines.
Dehlin says that he was told that the disciplinary council would be held and would probably lead to disfellowshipment (censure) or excommunication if he did not remove podcasts critical of the church from his website and drop his support of same-sex marriage and ordination of women.
Dehlen wrote on his website, “While my family and I would prefer to be left alone by LDS church leadership at this time, I would much rather face excommunication than disavow my moral convictions. In the coming weeks, months, and years ahead, it is my intent to provide increased support to Mormons who are transitioning away from orthodoxy.”
Kate Kelly, the human rights lawyer who founded Ordain Women, was excommunicated from the church in June. Ordain Women actively promotes the ordination of women into the LDS priesthood, and Kelly was accused of attempting to undermine church leaders. Dehlin was warned then that he might face church discipline, but the action against Kelly generated a great deal of media attention and the threat was temporarily set aside.
Support of same-sex marriage is not grounds for church discipline, hence it is not surprising that Dehlin’s support of it isn’t mentioned in the letters. Church leaders do not claim that same-sex attraction is itself a sin or changeable by medical treatment, and they have recently emphasized that gay and lesbian members should feel welcome and accepted by members of the church.
At the same time, they have remained adamant that sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin, and firm in their opposition to same-sex marriage. Gay Mormons who are sexually active outside of traditional marriage are subject to censure or excommunication.
The church does not encourage that disciplinary councils be held for members on the basis of their political beliefs. Nevada Senator Harry Reid, for instance, remains a member of the LDS church in good standing despite his support for same-sex marriage.
Local leaders are much more likely to sanction members who use political platforms to attack the church, its leaders, and core doctrines. Likewise, while Mormons are free to believe whatever they like and discuss it with friends and family, they are likely to face sanctions if they present their personal beliefs as doctrine, attempt to convert other Mormons to those beliefs, and challenge the authority of church leaders.
That gets to the heart of the charges against Dehlen. His critics within the church argue that he is in opposition to church teachings and advocates nonbelief.
Yet Dehlin’s position is not that simple. In addition to Mormon Stories, he founded staylds.org, a website devoted to helping Mormons experiencing doubts and crises of faith to remain in the church. If his LDS critics believe that Mormon Stories is designed to help members leave the church, some ex-Mormons worry that it does the opposite; it encourages them to stay.
Some observers – both within and outside of the church – believe that given the furor that erupted over Kelly’s excommunication, a disciplinary council would not have been called without the tacit approval of someone higher in the church hierarchy. Stake presidents have considerable latitude to act or not when dealing with someone like Dehlin, but if the situation is likely to draw widespread press attention, they will be sensitive to signals coming out of church headquarters.
This is the third time that Dehlin has been investigated by church leaders for possible discipline, but it is the first time that an actual disciplinary council has been called. LDS leaders have refused to comment, saying that this is a matter between Dehlin and his stake president.