Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are cracking down on members who openly dispute the doctrine of the faith. Earlier this week, a Mormon feminist was excommunicated for pursing membership in the all-male priesthood of the church. Now another member, John Dehlin, is facing the same fate — for questioning scripture and speaking out on behalf of gay Mormons.
Dehlin records a new episode of his podcast, Mormon Stories, every week from his home office in North Logan, Utah. In the podcast, Dehlin has been asking hard questions about the doctrine of the faith and standing up for gay Mormons.
"I realized that the [suicidal tendencies] of LGBT individuals in Utah and within Mormonism was really an epidemic," Dehlin says. "I've also had very close members of my family and many friends come out as LGBT, and so that was my initial impetus."
Dehlin says modern Mormonism doesn't allow church members to ask tough questions about the faith. He wants his podcast to be that kind of forum.
"I do have kind of a 21st-century view of Mormonism," Dehlin says. "Many other more mature religious traditions like Catholicism, like many in the Jewish faith, have realized that when science and religion conflict, science usually wins."
But Dehlin's public dissent of Mormon teachings has caught the attention of his local church leader, who sent him a letter demanding he stop producing his podcast.
"I was deeply saddened when I read the letter," Dehlin says. "It's highly unusual for someone to receive a letter that says, 'Please resign, and if you don't resign we're going to excommunicate you.' "
The letter was from Dehlin's stake president, a lay leader who oversees a geographic region similar to a Catholic diocese. When he received the letter, Dehlin reached out to the stake president asking for a face-to-face meeting, which will take place on Sunday. The stake president, and possibly a disciplinary council, will decide Dehlin's fate.
Dehlin may ultimately be excommunicated from the church. That's what happened to Mormon feminist Kate Kelly on Monday, as a result of her questioning the church's teaching that the Mormon priesthood be open only to men. Kelly vows to continue working with her group, Ordain Women, and says she will not comply with conditions that could result in her being readmitted into the LDS church.
"This movement cannot be suppressed by punishing, arbitrarily and unfairly, one person," Kelly says. "We are strong, and we are unafraid."
Church officials appear to be more upset with the way members are raising issues than with the issues themselves. "There is room to ask questions, but how we ask those questions is just as important as what we ask," says Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for the church's public relations department. "We should not try to dictate to God what is right for his church."
Teaching against the faith is called apostasy, which is grounds for excommunication. Jan Shipps, a professor of religion at Indiana University who has studied the LDS faith for several decades, says the church doesn't punish people for the way they feel. It punishes how they may act on those feelings.
"You cannot be charged with doubt," Shipps says, "but you can be charged with convincing others to doubt with you."
Back in North Logan, Utah, John Dehlin ponders the possibility of excommunication. He says he isn't afraid of any action the church might take.
"I'm not making up the fact that so many people within Mormonism suffer and struggle in silence because they can't talk about difficult issues," Dehlin says. "So if I am punished for standing up for that principle, I guess there is part of me that will feel proud about that."