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01.19.15 10:57 AM ET

The Coming Crackdown on Mormon Liberals

Feminists, gays and liberals are finding no welcome in the Mormon Church.

A difficult year for progressive members of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS) got harder this week. On Jan. 15, two Mormon dissidents, John Dehlin and April Young Bennett, both members of a critical minority that challenges the church’s positions on issues like women’s ordination or LGBT marriage, announced that they had come under the threat of church discipline.

Bennett, a board member of the feminist Mormon group Ordain Women, announced that her local LDS stake leadership (a stake is a group of smaller church wards) had given her an ultimatum: to resign from Ordain Women and delete her writings on women’s ordination or lose her temple recommendation, which allows her to attend temple. As her brother was about to get married in a temple wedding, she resigned.

Dehlin, who founded and hosts the popular podcast series “Mormon Stories,” featuring dissident Mormons and supporters of women’s ordination and same-sex marriage, announced that his stake president was calling him to a disciplinary council meeting on Jan. 25 to face excommunication for apostasy.

Both moves followed the excommunication last June of Kate Kelly, a 33-year-old human rights lawyer who founded Ordain Women in 2013 and who was seen as the head of a growing movement of Mormon feminists that includes groups like WAVE (Women Advocating for Voice & Equality) and blogs like Feminist Mormon Housewives.

Within the world of Mormon progressives, this week’s news seems like a confirmation of the worst fears they entertained last June: that the church is actively purging its membership of dissenters.

The world of Mormon critics—including progressives, feminists and gay rights advocates, as well as those who publicly voice doubts about Mormon theology, history and financial transparency—is small. Dehlin estimates that there are maybe three to five people sympathetic to dissenters in every congregation. But that they have a public presence at all is notable, he says, given the insularity and conservatism of Mormon culture.

“A lot of Mormons will just internalize it and suffer in silence,” Dehlin says. He attributes high rates of depression, substance abuse and LGBT suicides in Utah to Mormon pressures to conform.

Dehlin began his podcast after his own growing doubts about LDS theology and history—its claims about Joseph Smith’s revelations as well as historical facts about polygamy and church history on race—led him to question his faith, and he fell into a deep depression. When he began talking openly to colleagues, he realized he wasn’t alone. In time he became a vocal advocate to modernize the church in other ways, giving a TEDx talk supporting same-sex marriage, researching the experiences of LGBT Mormons, and supporting Ordain Women. In 2011, Dehlin, who is also finishing a PhD in psychology, conducted a 3,000-person survey to understand the reasons why Mormons are leaving the church—often, he says, because of intellectual or social justice concerns—and says his website has attracted tens of thousands of followers.

But his visibility also attracted the attention of a Mormon hierarchy concerned with suppressing dissent.

For centuries, says Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl, Mormon leaders have tightly controlled all messaging about Mormonism. In 1993, the church excommunicated a number of critical intellectuals who became known as the “September Six.” However, the hierarchy’s monopoly on church image began to change with the advent of the Internet, as progressive Mormons were able to connect with one another in unprecedented ways.

It led to a “decentralization of perspectives about the church, and far broader public engagement among the laity about difficult aspects of Mormon life,” said Brooks. Many progressive Mormons have “been waiting to see how the church would respond and when.” 

Last June, when Kate Kelly and Dehlin were informed in the same week that they were called to disciplinary hearings, the answer seemed to come. Dehlin was told to remove podcasts critical of church teachings and cease his advocacy. Kelly was told she must shut down the Ordain Women website and repent.

Rumors began to fly that a more concerted purge of unorthodox members was underway. Brooks says she was contacted by a number of lay Mormons who were called in by local church leaders to explain things as trivial as Facebook comments supportive of women’s ordination or gay rights. Dehlin says he’s heard from hundreds of people in the past year who were questioned or disciplined by local leaders about their perceived unorthodoxy.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, told the Daily beast that, "We respect the privacy of individuals, and don't publicly discuss the reasons why a member faces Church discipline. Those reasons are provided to a member by their local Church leaders. It's my understanding that in this case the reasons have been clearly spelled out in letters to John Dehlin."

Given that Mormon church discipline happens at the local level, at the discretion of local leadership, many progressive Mormons say that the possible repercussions for dissent amount to a game of “bishop roulette”: those who live in liberal areas like Boston or Oakland might go unpunished for participating in gay pride marches while Mormons in Utah or Idaho are called to account for social media activity.

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While there wasn’t evidence of a coordinated campaign, said Brooks, there was “a radiating of fear and concern” that local church leaders felt either “obliged or empowered to take action.”

“The culture does tend to view these ideas like a virus,” says Tresa Edmunds, a member of Ordain Women and a writer at Feminist Mormon Housewives. “People stay away for fear of being infected by the ideas.” Edmunds’ feminist writing online cost her her church position working with teenage girls and she says one of her friends, who ran a preschool in Utah, was forced to close her business after local Mormons objected to her Facebook comments about gender and church history.

But Kate Kelly’s excommunication in June seemed a step too far. “It felt violent,” says Edmunds. “It can’t be overstated.” In the face of public scrutiny, the LDS hierarchy seemed to back down slightly, not pursuing official discipline of Dehlin for months. Many progressive Mormons hoped their fears of a broader crackdown had been unfounded.

But the news about Dehlin and April Young Bennett this week shook the community again. Bennett’s public statement about her coerced resignation drew so much traffic that it crashed the website where it was published for two days.

To Dehlin, it seems clear that the church sees progressive Mormons as a movement, and it hopes to cut off the movement’s head—excommunicating its leadership—so that the movement will die.

He says he isn’t optimistic that his likely excommunication will lead the broader Mormon community to rally to his side. The church, in his mind, is still “very much in its adolescence,” and only time will bring it around.

“In 30 years, they may let married gay couples actively participate in church and women will eventually get the priesthood, but it’s just going to be after every other single religion does that, including the Catholics,” he said.

Hawkins pointed the Daily Beast to a statement made by the Church's highest leadership council last June that clarifies the definition of apostasy within the church: "Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine."

Edmunds, however, says the threat of excommunication backfires in today’s Internet age. Attempting to stifle dissent by silencing visible critics, she says, only creates “a hydra.”

“There’s still this mindset that [critics] can be corralled and the membership can be ‘uncontaminated’ somehow. And I think that’s been proven over and over again to not work.” Instead, she’s seeing people who had never before considered critics’ arguments say that the church’s response is making them pay attention. 

Indeed, as one follower wrote on Dehlin’s website last June, “I don’t know if you’re a 21st Century Martin Luther or a heretic, but I do listen to your podcasts religiously.”

In her resignation letter, Edmunds noted, Bennett wrote that she had ultimately chosen to resign so she could attend her brother’s wedding, concluding that, “while others may take my place as an author or an advocate, no one can replace me in my role as my brother’s sister.”

To many Mormon feminists, Edmunds said, that line has felt like a call to action. “We said OK, April said there will be other voices. We have to be those other voices.”