Keeping the Faith

Mormon Reformers Behind the ‘Zion Curtain’ Refuse to Be Silenced

Despite threatened—and real—excommunications, reform Mormons are openly questioning church doctrine. But why do they stay in the first place?

Rick Bowmer/AP

On the left, a highly motivated and distinguished panel of Mormon feminist leaders has finished their opening comments to laughter and a standing ovation. At the Q&A microphone stands possibly the lone voice of Mormon orthodoxy here, “I was promised that I wouldn’t be excommunicated from Sunstone or tarred and feathered,” says 81 year-old David Richardson of Salt Lake City, who speaks of respect and patience in tones more condescending than educational. Hoping to defend his faith from these bossy firebrands, he unwittingly provides a textbook example of the sort of thing all six women had been talking about. The response from the panel is just short of running Richardson out on a rail.

“Hashtag mansplaining!” is the first retort, greeted with laughter and thunderous applause. It’s David vs. Goliath in more ways than one, but of course it’s really the old white men like David Richardson in the Goliath role, and the loyal opposition here at the Sunstone Symposium is standing before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The question is, how much longer before the real stone flies?

The Sunstone Foundation was established in 1974 to sponsor open forums of Mormon thought and experience, their magazine has become the premier mouthpiece for reasoned dissent within the LDS faith, and their annual symposium is considered by some to be the gathering point around which all thoughtful Mormon wagons can circle once a year. The symposium is open to all, but a beverage table devoid of coffee or tea bears witness to the fact that the lion’s share of the 600-plus attendees are practicing Mormons.

The faithful and post-faithful hash out their issues in sessions with titles like “Moderating Mormons in Cyberspace,” “Bridging Marital Divides Caused by a Pornography Crisis,” “Using Genealogy to Bridge my Jewish-Mormon Angst,” and “Challenging Patriarchy in the Digital Age.” One hears phrases like, “I’m Sophie and I’m a fifteen year old anarchist,” “Play Patriarchy Bingo,” “Grandma got sealed to a Nazi,” and “Apostasy is first and foremost not knowing your place within the priesthood hierarchy.” There are babes in arms, a mohawk haircut or two, polygamists and homosexuals, scholars and students. A grandmother and Relief Society president from Nevada who asked to remain anonymous said, “It’s a place for intense curiosity and people who aren’t satisfied with easy answers. You won’t get branded a ‘weirdo’ or ‘unfaithful’ here.”

The faithful opposition is galvanized this year by the excommunication of Kate Kelly on June 23 for, “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church,” or as some have put it, “bad manners.” As leader of Ordain Women, the Mormon Feminist organization, Kelly had been organizing respectful “actions” by faithful LDS women, most notably this April’s polite but relatively massive request by Mormon women to attend the Priesthood Meeting at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. The excommunication came as a surprise to many in the community, including Kelly herself, and some here at Sunstone would say the resulting uproar has just begun to spread.

“We added five sessions on church discipline this year,” says Mary Ellen Robertson, the symposium’s director. “Kate Kelly’s excommunication reopened wounds that had healed since the excommunication of the September Six in 1993.”

What Kelly and her loyal colleagues are asking for is something conferred upon the majority of devout Mormon boys at age twelve, yet denied to even the most faithful matriarch: the right to participate in Mormon priesthood. With priesthood (and there are several degrees of LDS priesthood) comes specific powers, or “keys,” which include the power to confer certain blessings, to lead or participate in certain prayers, to heal the sick, to conduct baptisms and to lead in the sacrament ceremony. (That means currently the average teenage practicing Mormon boy could have more spiritual authority than his own grandmother, should push come to shove.)

No one here thinks that sort of policy change is going to come down from above anytime soon, but Kate Kelly is optimistic. “I honestly think the change will come along much quicker than people are anticipating,” she says, “But I don’t think that right now most women are prepared to accept the priesthood. For a lot of Mormon women, asking ‘Do you want the priesthood?’ is like asking them ‘Do you want to be a man?’ They can’t separate priesthood from gender in their mind. So part of the task of Ordain Women is decoupling those things and allowing even our imaginations to go there.”

What cleaves these bright people to a church that responds so brutally to their earnest questionings? Many will tell you it’s family and cultural ties. But there is something more that escapes the average Gentile (non-Mormon) perspective, and that is direct spiritual experience. To the outsider, LDS doctrine and practice is more akin to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings than a protestant religion barely two hundred years old. But this is also a religion with a living prophet in Salt Lake City; a religion which encourages every single member to pray for guidance, to listen with the heart, and heed the call of the heavenly father. At Friday’s plenary session, John Gustav-Wrathall, a professor of American religious history at United Theological Seminary, spoke of his personal encounters in the spiritual realm, among them a revelation from God as he crossed the Mississippi on the footbridge at his campus and another that included beatific visions of his ancestors worshiping God in a white ethereal light. These and other personal encounters reassure him that he is right in keeping his Mormon faith, despite the fact that as an openly gay man in a same-sex marriage he is forbidden to speak before the congregation at his local LDS ward meetings.

All that spirituality notwithstanding, the church administration is clearly committed to silencing any and all dissent within the flock, spiritually inspired or no. Local leaders have the authority to excommunicate their black sheep and many here speak of the mighty hand of the central authority intervening in cases like Kate Kelly’s. Many think there is much more dissent than might be evident because there is so much to be lost by even asking the “wrong question.” “They’ll look for anything you say on your Facebook page, or on social media,” one attendee said. “We shouldn’t worry about the government, we should worry about the church.”

The problem is, a church hierarchy that is more adamant than the Vatican about authority seems to view the internet as primarily a source of dissent and pornography. Rock Waterman, 62, a lifetime Mormon who lives in the Sacramento area and writes the Pure Mormonism blog says he was asked to pull his blog or resign from the church.

“That’s really unusual, because if you go to your bishop and tell him you’re thinking of resigning, he’ll move heaven and earth to try and talk you out of it.” But Waterson, who wrote and self-published the book What to Expect when You’re Excommunicated, says that the day where the church could threaten the faithful with excommunication and frighten them into obeisance is gone.

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“The minute this stuff started, the media picked it up and my monthly readership went from 50,000 to 173,000. So if their intent is to silence dissidents like me, they’re going to have to come up with a different strategy because we live in a time now where they can’t control the message and the message is what Peter said, ‘We ought to obey God, rather than men.’”