Dehlin’s Case is Not About Gay Rights (From The Archives)

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran on June 29, 2014. It still applies to the developments of this week. — Chris H.

An Associated Press article about John Dehlin titled “Mormon gay-rights advocate faces excommunication meeting with area church leader in Utah” has popped up in newspapers all over the country today. Here is the AP’s follow-up. The Associated Press originally reported the following about John Dehlin’s meeting with his local LDS leaders:

A Mormon man who is well-known for advocating for gay rights and questioning some church policies was set to meet Sunday with a regional church leader in northern Utah to discuss whether he still faces excommunication. John Dehlin, of Logan, Utah, enters the meeting fearful that church leaders have already made their decision to oust him. He expects to find out if he’ll face a disciplinary hearing or be exonerated.

While this is partially accurate, it is highly unlikely that gay rights is why Dehlin is in hot water with LDS officials. While Dehlin’s graduate research is on the experiences of gay Mormons and he did deliver a recent TEDx talk about being a Mormon gay ally, he is far from the most prominent Mormon gay rights advocate. While Dehlin is a well known figure because of his podcast, Mormon Stories support groups, and his regular appearances in print and broadcast media on LDS Church issues, I do not think “gay rights advocate” is the first label most would use for John. This is not to say that Dehlin is not a gay rights advocate or that he has not worked to make Mormonism more friendly toward LGBT individuals, especially LBGT Mormons. However, the portrayal of John as primarily a gay rights voice is a very new and odd phenomena. Maybe it is just sensational headline writing, but it does seem that this is the narrative that Dehlin himself is advancing. More from the Associated Press:

Dehlin’s letter informed him that he needed to resign as a church member or face a disciplinary committee. It said church leaders were deeply concerned about Dehlin’s recent comments about no longer believing fundamental teachings of the faith.

And further down the article:

Dehlin’s believes he’s being targeted not only for the website he started nine years ago,, but also for his outspoken support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community and his support of Kelly’s group, Ordain Women. That group is pushing for gender equality with the goal of women being allowed into the faith’s lay clergy.

This is one the most Mormon aspects of John Dehlin. Like the LDS Church, he likes to be active in controlling his own narrative. Oddly enough, I say this at a time when the LDS Church struggles to manage their own image in the social media age. But I think that Dehlin believes he is being targeted for “his outspoken support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community” not because that is the case but because it makes for a much better story. By emphasizing his gay rights stances and his support of Ordain Women, Dehlin elevates his own case to the level of Kate Kelly’s, one that resonates more outside of Mormon circles. Given the attention given to the LDS Church efforts against gay-marriage, gay rights seems to be an easy way to connect with the national narrative about Mormonism and social issues. It is more likely that Dehlin is in trouble with Church officials because of his recent gushing interview with Sandra Tanner, an anti-Mormon Evangelical preacher who has spent decades advocating and preaching that the LDS Church is fraudulent and that Mormonism is not Christian. While this podcast episode itself is not why he is facing possible church discipline, it is symbolic of his move toward an even more antagonistic portrayal of the LDS Church as a sinister organization. The recent excommunication of Kate Kelly of Ordain Women created a media storm which is still on-going. While claims made by the Church should be scrutinized, so should the claims made by others. These events are creating a chilling effect amongst Mormon liberals and Mormon feminists, but I do not think Mormons should hesitate to advocate for gay rights. Doing so will make one a minority with the LDS Church, but that is not why anyone advocates for gay rights. The LDS Church has insisted in recent statements that advocating on public issues, even when disagreeing with the Church, is not something that puts one at risk of excommunication. For many of us liberal Mormons, we are now more nervous to discuss those thoughts in public. As a candidate for the United States House of Representatives, I proudly proclaimed my Mormonism and my support for gay-marriage. Many Mormons did not vote for me because of my stance of gay marriage. Many liberals refused to support me because I was Mormon. There are Mormons who think Mormons like me should be excommunicated, but I see no evidence of the Church taking steps against Mormon advocates of gay rights, even advocates of gay marriage. I hope this does not change. Now this does not mean that liberals and other gay rights advocates do not feel lonely within the LDS Church. Many feel a significant amount of cognitive dissonance. Many leave because of cognitive dissonance over gay rights, feminism, and gender. Gay rights is too important to become a public relations football. I oppose the efforts of anti-gay marriage advocates who seek to malign the loving and productive relationships of my gay friends in their attempts to advance their agenda. In the past, I have also called out gay right advocates when they have used shady methods. While Dehlin’s case raises some very interesting issues about Mormonism and the boundaries of LDS Church community, gay rights and LBGT issues are separate (though very important) issues.

32 replies »

  1. There’s a lot here, Chris. I agree that gay rights is not likely even close to the center of the concerns raised by Dehlin’s local priesthood leader (stake president). Dehlin took the step of making the letter to him public, and I wish more people inside and outside the Church would read the letter and consider taking it at face value before throwing stones. I didn’t hear the “gushing interview,” but I have read the page on the Mormon Stories website at which Dehlin says that he does not believe in even a single one of the core doctrines of the Restorations (which he enumerates for clarity). He seems to be a sincere and well meaning guy, and has obviously struggled to accommodate his agnosticism with his family’s faith and the value that he finds there. But it is hard to blame a stake president for wanting to conduct an interview.

    It is important to remember that an interview was all that was requested. Formal church discipline was only mentioned as an alternative should Dehlin refuse. While I am prepared to think kind thoughts toward him, it does not reflect well on Dehlin (and I think that you are suggesting this same idea) that he promptly makes the whole matter public and portrays himself as a victim. The hopeful sign is that both sides seemed to want to step back from the precipice and … just talk, which should have been the focus from the start.

    • “I have read the page on the Mormon Stories website at which Dehlin says that he does not believe in even a single one of the core doctrines of the Restorations (which he enumerates for clarity).”

      The consequences of his statement is not leaving The Pearl of Great Price and the BOM not to be translated texts pours scorn and insult on all latter-day prophets. He once believed all of it was true and now believes none of it to be true. The man is a chameleon depending upon his audience. Like Kelly, he enjoys the attentions of the crowd beyond personal integrity, in my view. If he confirms this sentiment to the stake president, it should be over for him.

      • I would prefer that we not attack people as “chameleons” or challenge their personal integrity based on things which they are rather open about. I think one can disagree or agree with Kate Kelly or John Dehlin and still view them as sincere.

        • You presume that to describe someone as a chameleon is a personal attack. Mine was not. How shall I aptly and succinctly, describe a person who so regularly changes their behavior according to the situation?

          Certainly his opinion hasn’t changed authentically with his varied portrayal. Or do you think it does? It whispers of deception, does it not? After all we truly know what he doesn’t believe about the doctrines of the church, how self indicting will it be should he play that game with the stake president?
          what I’m getting to hear, is to have authentic doubts about the doctrines of the church might earn him sympathy from the faithful. However, deception within disguise is the mark of the particularly destructive apostate.

        • Chris, I appreciate this comment. I would like to believe that John Dehlin is sincere and honestly introspective. But my assessment of that is changing, triggered in part by discussion here. When I read your blog yesterday, it led me back to the Mormon Stories page, where I sampled some of the Q&A links Dehlin defensively provides, I then referred to that in my comment. (I wish I could edit out the stray “s” at the end of the word, “Restoration.”) I well recall listening to Dehlin try to think out loud as he would interview faithful Latter-day Saints on his podcast – the interviews with the Givenses stand out in my mind, along with Richard Bushman, Brian Hales and others. (Even your own bete noire, Dan Peterson!) I recall being pleased for him and for his family as he engaged in what he called faith reconstruction and wrote about that on the Mormon Stories page. He gave credit to a faithful stake president for taking many hours of discussion with him about specific challenges to Mormon faith. (As a sometime listener to Mormon Stories, I did wish we could get through just one entire episode without hearing the words “polyandry” and “anachronisms,” but maybe that’s just me.) I expressed hope that Dehlin would take the opportunity of the letter from his stake president (apparently sent after Dehlin refused home and even visiting teachers in his home – really?) as an opportunity again to heal rifts.

          So it was disappointing when Dehlin instead appealed to the media and blogosphere. It was really very disappointing when he appealed to his audience to write to his family (in comments moderated by him, so only approved messages would get through) and tell his family … just how great and wonderful a guy John Dehlin is. Did you find that a bit odd? “Please write in with words of praise and gratitude so I can show my kids how much you love me.” It was really very disappointing then to read on in those Q&A pages the extent to which John Dehlin is certain that he knows better than any darn faithful Mormon who God is, and who He isn’t, and what He wants and what sin is and … and… and …. Clearly John Dehlin doesn’t think that the Church is the only true Church, because Dehlin thinks that his own New Age-y ideas are the only true doctrines on the earth today. Don;t believe me? Go back and read what he writes. You don’t know what God wants, I don’t know what God wants, but John Dehlin sure thinks that he does.

          So, anyway, I start to have these concerns for where his focus is. Is it on his family? (Apparently, they just HATE this.) Or is it all about John Dehlin?

          And then I read a comment on this page from Jacob M, who, in the course of disagreeing with me about some of this – that’s cool – mentions that Dehlin doesn’t want to meet with the stake president on account of he has done that before and now it is getting to be harassment. I guess Dehlin said something like that on an interview show. And I’m thinking, harassment? Really? Is that what he thinks is happening? Boy, he must really think that this IS all about John Dehlin!

          So, with all respect to you, Chris – and I say that with genuine respect – I think it does get to the place where maybe we are entitled to question Dehlin’s sincerity and motives. I said as much to Jacob M in reply. I bet if you could dig into the numbers, you would find that his audience and donations declined when he seemed to be turning back to the faith. And I bet those things are all going like gangbusters now. You are yourself in the blogging business – do you think that bloggers are immune to that kind of effect? You are a politician – do you think that politicians care about their “base” and how “the base” responds to changes in a politician’s position? Do you think that Dehlin is somehow immune to that kind of thing? How else do you explain Dehlin’s decision to turn a private disciplinary matter into a cause celebre?

      • there are a great many thoughtful questions concerning Dehlin that have been avoided by his “base” here. Should he be disciplined at some point, shall you all imagine this action unjustified while previously ignoring the obvious here?

  2. Careful reading of the articles should have made it clear that John Dehlin was facing church discipline because of his public expressions of no longer believing Mormon true claims. His gay right advocacy was used to create a narrative of there being a widespread purge (of two people?) in the Mormon church, as this narrative is more attractive to reporters. Reporters are generally hostile to any religion, let alone one as socially conservative as Mormons are.

    Kate Kelly was excommunicated not because she was a feminist, but because she publicly lobbied and tried to create public pressure to reverse church practices regarding priesthood ordination. She directly and publicly challenged the authority of the Twelve Apostles. Her confrontational behavior makes her claims of being merely a humble penitent unbelievable.

    The boundary lines are pretty clear. Advocate for gay rights, or feminist policies? You won’t face church disciple. Privately express disagreement with church policy, or privately petition for a change? You won’t face church discipline. Publicly reject the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, or deny the prophetic calling of the Prophets and Apostles? Yes, you will face church discipline. Publicly lobby for a change in church policy using confrontational tactics and direct action? Yes, you will face church discipline.

    If someone tried to lobby the church for temple marriages for gay couples, and led a group of gay couples to the Salt Lake Temple, so they would be turned away in front of media cameras as a way of trying to bring public pressure on the church? Continuing to do so despite requests and warnings to cease his actions? He’d probably get excommunicated too.

    Same as polygamists are excommunicated.

    This does not seem like an extreme position for the church to take. In fact it appears to me as very reasonable, and as gentle an affirmation of Apostolic authority over the church that the church can give.

  3. I’m not sure how you can call a group of women asking for an audience for their concerns and peacefully standing outside the GP session as “confrontational behavior”. (no pitchforks, no torches) It’s highly visible behavior, but if that is the standard for confrontational behavior, then it makes the Church look paranoid and reactionary to ex people who publicly ask questions. And you can say, “well the Church warned ’em and they ignored the warnings” all you want, but only certain people inside the church see excommunication of faithful members as a necessary thing. The outside world sees a reactionary, top-down, misogynistic organization. But, hey. Who cares if the church is true and never wrong and never changing, right?

    • I’ll try to respond to this the best I can. When someone gets baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they are making covenants of God. They continue to make covenants as they attend the temple. When they break these covenants, there are consequences. More often than not, they do not include a bishop or stake president. However, when one opening breaks these covenants and does over and over and speaks against the doctrine of the church, it will likely lead to an interview with a bishop or stake president.

    • Dawn,

      Your post seems to be a lot more about you and your conflicts than about the church… though you intermingle them a lot. The Church is a private organization… and it has a set of principles that are well explained (better and in more detail than almost any other organization) up front. If you don’t like, don’t wish to be associated with, don’t wish to support or publicly attack those principles, then the organization is not for you… that seems pretty simple.

      What I read in your post is that there is some sort of entitlement for people that requires the others around them to set aside prior agreements and bow to their wishes… In the context of the church, Ms. Kelly was lobbying God… not the ‘Church’ and she was in no way doing it in a way that was part of the agreements and covenants and teachings she agreed to when she joined the organization.

      Freedom of association means that you are free to associate with whomever you choose… and that also means that you are free to NOT associate with whomever you choose. What it does not mean except to extremely emotionally damaged people is that those with whom you associate must change their beliefs and behavior to map to your wishes, on demand.

      Your article comes across as snarky and vindictive… was that your intention? Whatever the motivations for the two people cited in this conversation, Ms. Kelly was not being true to her agreements when she acted against the church and its members. She was coercing.. which is not the way of Christ or those that try to emulate Him.

      Mr. Dehlin was at least honest enough to state that he no longer held those core beliefs in common with the church and its members and I very much respect him for his honesty and forthrightness. I would delight in discussing his views with him and would probably come away learning something.

      Ms. Kelly would probably not converse with me and I fear that after reviewing her statements, positions and actions, I doubt I would learn anything except more about her emotional makeup and fundamental honesty… and I can watch D.C. politics to get all of that I can stomach. I wold delight in being wrong, but that is what can be gleaned by reading their words.

      What should we take away from your words?

  4. I agree with the overall point of this article, that John is not being brought in due to his gay rights advocacy. However, in at least one of the comments it was mentioned that the Stake President just wanted to talk to him. That is an oversimplification. As I’ve understood it – listening and reading to what John has said both past and present about possible church discipline that he has faced – that this is the third or forth time he’s been encouraged by a bishop to declare his beliefs so that the bishop and/or stake president would know what to do with him. The previous times this has happened were arduous, according to John, and that after consulting with his wife he decided that he didn’t want to go through it again, so he wrote a strongly worded letter saying, in essence, don’t consider me a member even though I will still attend. He hoped that would keep him from having weekly meetings, which was something he had already gone through with a previous bishop.

    Sorry that my response here is so long, but to try and sum it up quickly, John had already been investigated and cleared at least twice before this most recent round, so at a certain point it stops being an investigation and turns into harassment, at least from his point of view. However, I do agree that to link it to gay rights advocacy seems inaccurate. And with one more however, I will say that my wife and I were recently called into our bishop’s office for a Facebook photo advocating gay rights.

    • I think it was my comment that leads you to write this. Thank you. The claim of harassment (your word) is entirely new, and places an interpretation on the concerns expressed in the stake president’s letter (have you read it I wonder?) that I don’t think Dehlin would even endorse. The letter cited the triggering events. It is not harassment if new developments undercut Dehlin’s own prior assurances, is it? Nor can an invitation to a church member to attend a meeting with a church leader to discuss those developments be considered harassment. You mention that Dehlin consulted with his wife. He has written about the pain that his course of action causes to his family – I’m willing to bet that his wife wishes he would just stop trying to be a thorn in the Church’s side. It was certainly his choice – no one else’s – to take the letter and turn it into a public event.

      Here’s my own theory. Dehlin has said that he began a process of faith reconstruction after a series of meetings with a stake president that Dehlin himself found to be highly constructive. Far from considering it harassment, he was complimentary of, and expressed gratitude toward, that stake president. And (here’s the key) when he wrote about that and was interviewed about that on Mormon Stories, the response from his audience was almost uniformly negative. They hated it! They come to his site and subscribe to his podcast because here’s a Mormon guy (not even ex-Mormon) crying from week to week about how awful Joseph Smith was and how bad the Book of Mormon is and how mean the leaders are and yadda yadda yadda. And he get’s a following. Who, you know, send money! And who heap praise on his head. And all of a sudden, they’re turning on him because he is starting to turn back toward the Church for the sake of his family.

      So if you’re a guy like Dehlin, what’re ya gonna do? You love the adulation you get. You even like the subscriptions. But most of all, the adulation … which is now going by the wayside. So, what you do is, you tell everyone you didn’t mean it, and you’ve been on their side all along. That’s what you do.

      • Ok, harrasment is the word I used, because to me, having to declare your belief to a priesthood authority more than just once or twice becomes a kind of harrasment to the person it is happening to. I’m not saying it’s purposeful, and I’m also not saying that John said it was harassment, but to me, that is what the effect looks like to me. Granted, some of this is brought on by John, but I wouldn’t want to blame him for not wanting to go through that whole process again.

        • Thanks for clarifying that. I still don’t understand how taking a meeting could be considered burdensome but maybe he was worried that he might have to talk about his beliefs in a setting where he would be accountable for them. He certainly doesn’t seem to mind discussing them at any other time or place.

  5. Also, I wanted to comment on your thoughts, Chris. I’m not convinced that Dehlin, himself, promoted the issue of LGBT as a cause for excommunication (although, in recent years, he has stepped up visible advocacy of this cause). I think the media seized on that as an element of relatable public interest. Non Mormons could care less that Dehlin interviewed the Tanners because non-Mormon audiences, which is whom the general media is writing for, don’t know/give a flip who the Tanners are or that Dehlin has given rise to a blog-based following for doubters.

    It’s entirely possible that the interview with Sandra Tanner was the last straw for the Church, but it’s also possible they miscalculated how the media would interpret threats of excommunication. Or maybe they knew exactly what they are doing, which kind of begs the question: What are they doing???

  6. To be sure, I’m not a Mormon and, in fact, though I am a Christ follower, I don’t believe a single fundamental claim of the “restoration.” Okay, my LDS friends, before you hyperventilate, let me continue. Since I cannot affirm the LDS leadership or doctrines, nor do I believe any fundamental claim of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, I wouldn’t try joining. That would be dishonest, at best. Let me also say that, I side with the local LDS leaders: Dehlin ought to be honest and resign. As an organization, the CoJCoLDS is perfectly within its rights to define requirements for membership. I agree with another poster above: I think Dehlin likes the “adulation.” Same goes for Kate Kelly.

  7. Jim,
    Since you ask, my point is merely this: however Church members/authorities justify the excommunication of Dehlin (pending) and Kelly (done), the culture at large will perceive it differently, regardless of the groups’ internal “rules” and policies. No snark intended. I know Mormons pride themselves on being “in the world but not of the world” but the world is watching and the harsh treatment of its members has brought a largely negative media blitz down upon the LDS Church. What’s more, the OW public pressure has instigated small changes, like women praying in Conference. In addition, the Church has softened its stance on LGBT issues greatly from its position just five short years ago. That was not the result of a revelation. It was the result of cultural influences and people like Kate peacefully advocating for change. The Church has succumbed to public pressure before and it will continue to do so or it will not survive. All religions do this and the Mormon church is no different.

    There are many smart, young women growing up in the church today who will not be satisfied with the standard second fiddle position that their mothers and grandmothers settled for. They want educations. They want careers. They want power. The LDS Church is set up with a patriarchal structure that does not suite the ambitions of today’s youth, which is why the Church is losing young people in droves. If they are to retain these members, they will need to change policy. It’s as simple as that.

    • My mother (not grandmother) was NEVER “second fiddle.” That being said, a faithful LDS member should never seek for power….that’s Satan’s tool. I work full time outside the hom. I am a wife and a mother. I serve in my ward. The church isn’t going to change to appease the world. I believe this is Christ’s church not the world’s. Changes will come from revelation, not from worldly pressures. I believe that those that have questions should seek for their own personal revelation. They can do this through study and prayer.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chris. You make an excellent point about decoupling, rather than conflating issues — even when both are important and may have some relation.

    “Gay rights is too important to become a public relations football.”

    I think that pretty much sums it up.

  9. Last week ISIS reportedly executed 2 Gay men by throwing them off of the top of a very tall building.

    In terms of religion and politics, I find your discussion of whether Dehlin is being tried primarily for his LGBT positions, tried secondarily for his LGBT positions, or not at all tried for his LGBT positions absolutely trivial.

    Thanks for recycling.

      • I thought maybe you’d respond with something about the Gay men executed by ISIS. Bound and thrown off of a building is a nasty way to go.

        Do you think there is a connection between Abrahamic religions and homophobia? Some say even Islam wasn’t that bad until Christian European colonization. What do you think?

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