WASHINGTON — When Mormon leaders excommunicated women’s ordination activist Kate Kelly last month, church officials said her liberal views and criticism of the church weren’t the issues: It was her “aggressive” style. Now, a small movement of dissenters is pushing the question of how modern Mormonism will deal with growing public debate.
The newly formed Strangers in Zion urges members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who disagree with or question church teachings on women’s roles, gay equality and the faith’s founding narrative — among other things — to express their beliefs explicitly in writing to local leaders and ask for disciplinary hearings.
The movement is “in solidarity for other wrongfully excommunicated and otherwise disciplined Latter-day Saints,” says its website, which includes templates for letters people can send their bishops and regional leaders (called stake presidents).
“Despite statements from central Church leadership and the Church’s marketing efforts … the Church is not the diverse, inclusive religious community that it presents itself to be,” the website says. “We hope that our requests for disciplinary hearings will demonstrate the disparity and inconsistency of the LDS disciplinary process, as well as that the efforts to silence discourse is not healthy for the LDS community and institutions.”
Though little, the movement for more hearings is another ripple in the building wave facing Mormonism as it grows from a small, insular group in the American West to a global faith. In the past decade or so, as Mormons and Mormonism have become more mainstream, leaders have faced unprecedented skepticism and advocacy for change among its members.
Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, was excommunicated after a disciplinary hearing June 23 in Northern Virginia. John Dehlin, a podcaster in Utah who is well known among dissenting and questioning Mormons, is facing a hearing for his public advocacy, although it appears to be on hold at the moment.
“I know Kate personally, and she is more of a worthy believer and member of the Church than I am,” wrote Brian Johnston, 45, an accountant and father of six who lives in Frederick, Maryland. “So if she is an apostate, and I continue to support her cause, and publicly advocate for discussing the same kinds of questions, where does that leave me?” Johnston wrote in a June 30 letter to Jeff Cook, his stake president.
In bullet points, Johnston described the areas in which he disagrees with the church and chronicled his public advocacy. He wrote of his support for Dehlin and for Dehlin’s “promotion of a wider acceptance and tolerance for those in our religion that have honest questions, and those who experience periods of doubt about their faith.”
“I continue to find great spiritual value in many of the unique religious views found in the Mormon faith,” Johnston wrote. “It has played a large part in my life, especially in my formative years. My faith in the broad ideas found in our scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus Christ, informs my current desire to advocate for those who are downtrodden and marginalized.”
The form and extent of acceptable public dissent is still taking shape in Mormonism, whose members can sometimes feel embattled. Publicly challenging the faith’s exclusive truths is often not considered acceptable.
After Kelly’s excommunication, church leaders issued a statement trying to distinguish between openly discussing one’s doubts and promoting views that oppose church teachings.
“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,” said their statement.
Founders of Strangers in Zion say at least 60 U.S. Mormons say they have reached out to their local leaders and six have had, or will soon have, meetings. At least two ended with leaders saying they didn’t object to dissent but tried to draw certain lines.
Johnston said Cook told him that dissenters may be in trouble if they urge others to leave the church or if they say, “I have the new correct answer” when it comes to some doctrinal issue.
Johnston seemed encouraged by the meeting, but his wife — who resigned from the church years ago — was in tears at what she perceived as a sexist slap in the face. “She felt: ‘Kate gets excommunicated, and I can start right in and declare my problems and have a good ol’ boy conversation because we’re manly men and we can agree to disagree,’” Johnston said.
Also requesting a hearing is Jake Abhau, a founder of Strangers in Zion. He was active in Mormonism until his 13-year-old son came out last year as gay, sending him into a faith crisis.
Abhau said that the situation and his dissent — including marching in a gay pride parade — made him an outcast in North Carolina and that his family moved to Gilbert, Arizona, where he works in real estate. His family no longer attends church, and he said his focus is to “keep gay kids from killing themselves.”
Abhau says he doesn’t believe Mormonism’s scriptural narrative and feels “lied to” by church leaders, but his letter to his local leader shows his ambivalence.
“While I don’t necessarily have any desire to resign my Church membership … I feel very strongly that, in the church, when you do something wrong, you are expected to come forward and confess. But since we cannot sin in ignorance, I can’t ignore the message that the church has sent to me,” he wrote to his bishop and stake president.
“People should be able to ask questions,” Abhau said. “Mormons will say you can, but culturally you really can’t.”
His bishop said he would get back to Abhau next week.
Micah Nickolaisen’s Mormonism goes back generations on both sides, but he is now facing a disciplinary hearing Aug. 10 after writing his beliefs to his leaders in Chandler, Arizona. He also helped start Strangers in Zion.
Nickolaisen’s beliefs weren’t a secret; he has worked with Dehlin on the site Athoughtfulfaith.org — which says it aims to help “intelligent, thoughtful believers” maintain their faith — and he has met with his stake president a half-dozen times in recent years about such topics as church finances and Mormon teachings on sex.
Asked what was motivating him, Nickolaisen said that excommunicating people because they have doubts “is an archaic and really subversive and despicable process.”
Mormonism is built around families being together after death, and excommunication excludes Mormons from the sacraments that connect them to loved ones — weddings, baptisms. It means unless you return to the church, you will be separated from your family forever.
“The church spends money and time presenting itself as diverse and modern, yet it does stuff like this all the time,” Nickolaisen said. “I think the church is hoping through the Kelly and Dehlin cases: ‘Hey, we’ll get rid of these people, and we can go on our merry way.’ I don’t want them to have that option. If you’re going to get rid of these people, you have to get rid of us one by one.”