It’s Not About Questions—and it is

In piecing together the sobering events over the last week, one of the most common interpretations I’ve seen is one offered by Dehlin and Kelly themselves and echoed over much of social media: that these disciplinary actions are intended to repress or punish questions and conversations.

In the recent Trib interview with John Dehlin and Kate Kelly, Dehlin argued that the situation signals the Church is “trying to stem the tide of Mormons asking hard questions and struggling”; in Kelly’s interpretation, she stated that “at this point, it’s [about] the interpretation of what apostasy is, and to me, having a question and asking it publicly is not apostasy.”

I disagree with this assessment; not only do I disagree, but I think that casting their situations in this light— that they are being punished for having and vocalizing questions— may perpetuate a harmful and erroneous interpretation that could make members with questions feel needlessly at risk, and could give members or leaders uncomfortable with questions a trump card to draw on (see last paragraph in link]. That result— the reversal of the more welcoming and open Mormon culture of recent years— is one that gives many people a legitimate feeling of anxiety or deep discouragement. I hope Kelly and Dehlin, and others who echo their interpretation, can consider how an alternative reading might be more accurate as well as more helpful in promoting the open and compassionate culture we are all seeking to create.

Here are a few reasons that persuade me Kelly and Dehlin’s local leaders (let alone the Church) were not intending to repress or punish questions:

1) People have been asking hard questions for a long time

And quite vocally and visibly, thanks to the Internet. To be succinct on this point, I’ll quote the sociologist Armand Mauss’s reading: “I think the latest disciplinary councils (if they actually result in excommunication) simply represent [an effort] to draw the line more emphatically between dissent (even public dissent), on the one hand, and organized movements seeking to bring pressure for change upon the church leaders, on the other hand…Certainly there have been a lot of feminist blogging, writing and conferences for years promoting feminist objectives, some of it pretty strident, but not until OW have disciplinary actions been threatened, as far as I know. … Official toleration for such dissent in 2014 seems to me much greater than it was two decades ago.”

2) The Church says it’s not:

On June 11th, the Church opened their official statement with these words: “The Church is a family made up of millions of individuals with diverse backgrounds and opinions. There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations. We hope those seeking answers will find them and happiness through the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

I’m not sure why the Church would misrepresent their feelings on this subject, and I think their statement is born out by a broader trend of over a decade of lively blogging communities; efforts from the Church to disseminate more accurate information that acknowledge and address many of those questions (like the recent LDS.org essays, Church-commissioned books on sticky topics like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, etc.); a flood of firesides in the last couple years that promote honest conversations about difficult questions (like the TOG series) and which were facilitated by local leaders across the U.S. and Europe; increasing talks in General Conference promoting inclusiveness , acknowledging leadership mistakes, and respecting candid questions and sincere doubts; and the ongoing efforts by the Public Affairs department to “specifically seek out opinions from members,” including recent focus group interviews with active Latter-day Saint feminists–to name a few examples.

If local leaders do feel differently, I hope we can help reaffirm the Church’s words and actions rather than substantiate inaccurate interpretations.

3) Dehlin and Kelly’s local leaders say it’s not:

Dehlin and Kelly’s stake presidents seem fairly explicit about the reasons behind their decision, and according to their letters (made public by Dehlin and Kelly), it doesn’t seem to have to do with asking questions, if we are to give them the benefit of the doubt and take them at their word— a difficult thing to do when the media conversation is largely one-sided, given Church policies on confidentiality with disciplinary measures.

The probationary letter issued to Kate Kelly on May 22nd, recapping a meeting held weeks prior, explains that “….you [Kate Kelly] were placed on informal probation as a matter of Church discipline for your activities relating to Ordain Women, for openly, repeatedly, and deliberately acting in public opposition to the Church and its leaders after having been counseled not do so, for continuing to teach as doctrine information that is not doctrine after having been counseled regarding the doctrine of the priesthood, and for leading others to do the same.”

To end her “probation,” Kelly was to “demonstrate over a period of time that you have stopped and refrained from teachings and actions that undermine the doctrine of the priesthood, the Church itself, and its leaders, that you take down or done all you can to take down www.ordainwomen.org and disassociated yourself from Ordain Women. You must be truthful in your communications with others regarding matters that involve your priesthood leaders, including the administration of Church discipline, and you must stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and lead others away from the Church.”

The stake president’s interpretation of Kate Kelly’s initiatives and actions with Ordain Women is a separate conversation (and I defer to Neylan McBaine’s excellent thoughts on O.W.), but I think it’s fair to argue that expressing, let alone having, questions wasn’t a central concern of her local leaders. They mention particular actions and strategies, and I think it’s really, really important to separate (borrowing Neylan’s words), her “specific case” from “the conversation in which she was participating”—to clarify that it was the “tactics that drove this tragic situation, not the conversation.”

The interpretation Kelly gives of their exchange is quite different: in the Trib interview, she summarizes: “They are accusing me of having a website and…of being associated with Ordain Women… This is true, and… I can’t contradict that…. When they are accusing you of having ideas and opinions, and voicing those opinions publicly, there is really nothing you can do to counter that.” More than confusing, it’s a distinctly different gloss on the letter, shifting the disciplinary motives from relating to particular actions to a broad “offense” of “voicing opinions publicly.” Whatever her reasons for giving this gloss, the effect is, I think, detrimental to everyone—particularly the people that I think she is earnestly trying to protect—i.e. members with questions, doubts, and disagreements. Members with questions will feel at risk unnecessarily, and members or leaders who disapprove of questions may feel more comfortable taking their cue from this particular interpretation of the local leaders’ actions.

As for John Dehlin, his stake president wrote: “Because of the love I have for you, I have become concerned about some of your recent statements and actions regarding the Church and your place in it. That includes your recent public posting earlier this month that you ‘no longer believe many of the fundamental LDS church truth claims.” Those public claims of disbelief, in combination with an email from Dehlin to his bishop requesting to have his name removed from the ward rolls, prompted his regional leader to “inquire whether, by your earlier email to Bishop X and your recent public statements, you desire to have your name removed from the records of the Church.” How Church leaders decide to handle assertions of disbelief in very public forums could be a different conversation—but disbelief and questions are not the same thing.

4) Kate Kelly isn’t asking questions

Another reason I don’t think these events are aimed against asking questions is because I don’t think questions are being asked. Instead, I think Kelly and O.W. have been more engaged in making assertions and requests, at the very least. I’m not saying assertions or requests are categorically wrong— but I think they are different than conversations and questions, and I think imprecise terminology muddies the issue. And the confidence with which Kelly has phrased some of her assertions (i.e. “the ordination of women would put us on equal spiritual footing with our brethren, and nothing less will suffice”) not only dampens conversation and countering points of view—including those of other feminists—but is, rather, the opposite of a question.

Michael Otterson’s recent open letter explains the Church’s reticence to meet with “individuals or groups who make non-negotiable demands for doctrinal changes that the Church can’t possibly accept. No matter what the intent, such demands come across as divisive and suggestive of apostasy rather than encouraging conversation through love and inclusion.” Again, we can have a conversation about whether this description applies to O.W. — but clearly, some local leaders understood it that way (whether as a direct result of Otterson’s letter or not). In any case, the letter is clear that asking questions wasn’t the problem— it was, rather, the absence of questions or self-questioning (i.e. epistemic humility) necessary for conversations to happen. I can only hope and assume that leaders who believe in continuing revelation feel the same way.

As for Dehlin, I think he has asked plenty of questions. But I don’t see any hard evidence that his questions are related to the disciplinary action taken by his local leaders. So when Dehlin proclaims himself and Kate Kelly to be a “litmus test…for the thousands of Mormons who are struggling, who are wondering ‘Does the Church want me? Will the Church accept me? Can I openly discuss difficult issues?’” I can only disagree, and hope that no one else agrees with his reading. For if people were to take Kelly and Dehlin as a litmus test for members who may participate in the same conversations and ask the same questions in very different ways, and were to accept the interpretation that “the Church does not want individuals who have doubts and questions”— we would indeed have a much bigger problem on our hands. And it wouldn’t be because of the Church leadership initiating a chilling effect—we would be doing that ourselves.

In closing, however, I think it’s likely that at one point it was about questions. I think it’s probable that at some point, Kate Kelly— like myself and many others—posed questions to herself, to God, to her local leaders, about why the institutional leadership and administration of the Church is correlated with priesthood (ok, that’s my question—not so much Kate Kelly’s) and why women do not have the priesthood. And I do believe that dealing with questions or doubts privately or with local leaders is insufficient when it comes to hefty doctrinal issues or structural concerns that have real and painful consequences for people’s understanding of their relationship to God and the Church. I’ve been there, too.

My most salient takeaway right now from these recent events is that we need to open up more channels of communication between lay members and the leadership that is in charge of doctrinal and structural decisions. It could be an email address where people can direct their concerns and questions, to be read by rotating leaders; or cutting out the protocol surrounding interactions with the leadership and carving out spaces in their travels and schedules for far more informal, far more frequent interactions with lay members. I’m sure we could think of dozens of ways we could try to overcome the distance that unsurprisingly grows between the members and the upper leadership in a church far larger and more global than the one Joseph Smith founded. It is my sincere hope that leaders and members are contemplating ways to address this problem. If we open up more communication channels and continue the trend of familiarizing each other with questions and doubts in gentle, non-antagonistic ways, I think we will have healthier and more effective ways of framing and responding to questions and doubts.

As unproductive as having a conversation with Kate Kelly might have seemed to Church leaders, given her stance, I think real fruits— a mutual sense of compassion, understanding, and respect— could be achieved by face-to-face dialogue. That is a very important, if different, kind of “productive” conversation, and I hope we can all find ways to listen, leader and lay member alike. There is something so loving, so liberating, and so healing about being understood.


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