Why are Mormon leaders so afraid of dissent?

A mature faith should be able to tolerate disagreements about homosexuality and the role of women.

June 18, 2014
Lorie Winder Stromberg is a life-long Mormon feminist activist and a member of the Executive Board of OrdainWomen.org. She was formerly managing editor of the Journal of Modern History.


Not vulnerable: The Mormon Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Bloomberg)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed poised to come to terms with its past. In the Internet era, the Mitt Romney era, it appeared to have embraced an openness and transparency you’d expect from a confident community that had finally come of age. It endured dissent within its ranks—particularly about its policies on homosexuality and the role of women—with a certain equanimity.

Then last week it cracked down on two of its most visible activists, Kate Kelly of OrdainWomen.org, a human rights attorney and advocate for women’s ordination, and John Dehlin, a well-known LGBT ally and voice for progressive Mormonism with “Mormon Stories.”  It summoned them to church disciplinary courts—one to be held in absentia—and threatened them with excommunication. Fearing a loss of control in this freewheeling moment, it seems to be retreating into the defensiveness of an earlier era, striking out even at its own. Why is the LDS Church so afraid of dissent?

Some of this defensiveness is understandable. In the 19th century, Mormons were driven by mobs from state to state. Lest they be exterminated, they finally fled west, establishing a society in Utah isolated enough—at least for a while—that they could defer accommodation to outside forces. On the cusp of the 20th century, Mormonism retained some of its distinctive doctrines but abandoned its communitarian roots and peculiar marriage practices and entered the mainstream. By the time Romney ran for president in 2012, Mormonism was almost just another thread in the fabric of American society. Romney’s defeat wasn’t about his religion.  It was about his politics.

Nudged by the exposure of Romney’s campaign as well as a robust discussion of all things Mormon on LDS blogs, the Church seemed to be opening up—grappling with its troublesome history in official research papers on its Web site, asking for patience when its leaders err, attempting to address women’s concerns with a series of initiatives aimed at giving women more visibility and institutional authority—but shy of ordaining them—and, most thought, accommodating faithful dissent. (Of the kind many other religions have learned to tolerate and even incorporate.)

But can Mormonism and its top leaders—most of whom are old enough to have heard family members tell stories of trials and tribulation—finally release the memory of persecutions long past? Can they abandon once and for all the institutional paranoia that sees apostasy in dissent and brands those who disagree with church leaders as anti-Mormon? If not, the church will continue to make the same mistake it did when it failed to understand the backlash to its campaign for Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage initiative. All institutions have their critics. Healthy institutions listen to them and make adjustments.

Fortunately for Mormons, such adjustments are a fundamental part of the religion’s theology and could very well account for some of its success. Mormons believe in continuing revelation. The heavens and their canon are yet open. Two of the most important revelatory documents added to Mormon scripture since the era of Joseph Smith are Official Declaration I and 2. The first, known as the “Manifesto,” ostensibly ended the practice of polygamy. The second ended the ban on the ordination of black men.

Part of the present tension in Mormonism is over how revelation comes about. All recognize that only the top Mormon leadership has the authority to receive revelation for the Church and make significant, institution-wide changes. Many are content to leave these aspects of the decision-making process solely in the hands of the all-male hierarchy. But others believe that members can play an essential part in the process by asking questions and articulating their needs. A member of the faith’s First Presidency, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, said as much in a 2012 world-wide LDS leadership training:

If we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph [Smith] asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. … How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know, but couldn’t get past the massive, iron gate of what we thought we already knew?

It’s a good question for all believers.

Yet if its doctrine appears so hospitable to change, why does the church often seem hostile to it? Part of it is the problem of maintaining the integrity of the prophetic voice. If what a past LDS Church leader said can be overturned by subsequent leaders, as has happened numerous  times, Mormonism must grapple with the tension between continuity and its relevance for  today’s members.  Between responding to attitudes that could mean greater inclusiveness—particularly for women and LGBT members—and the appearance of bending to social pressure. Some believe the church was shamefully slow in overturning the ban on the ordination of black men in 1978 because it didn’t want to be seen as caving to outside pressure. It would be tragic, for what many hope is a dynamic faith, if the need to keep up appearances silenced some of its most needed voices.

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Stephen Lurie · June 18, 2014