When Mormon leaders excommunicated women’s ordination activist Kate Kelly last month, church officials said Kelly’s liberal views and criticism of the church weren’t the issue — it was her “aggressive” style. Now a small movement of dissenters is pushing the question of how modern Mormonism will deal with increasing 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 write their beliefs explicitly to local leaders and ask for disciplinary hearings.
The movement is “in solidarity for other wrongfully excommunicated and otherwise disciplined Latter-day Saints,” says the site, 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. 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.”
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 to dissenting and questioning Mormons, is facing a hearing for his public advocacy, though 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. 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?” Brian Johnston, a 45-year-old accountant and father of six who lives in Frederick, Md., 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. This has deeply impacted my life, as almost all the people I know and love have gone through this type of experience to some degree or another.
“I continue to find great spiritual value in many of the unique religious views found in the Mormon faith. 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 public dissent is still taking modern shape in Mormonism, a relatively small and new faith. Communities have tended to be very tight-knit, and publicly challenging the truth of a faith that can often feel embattled is not considered acceptable.
“In the church, we want everyone to feel welcome, safe and valued, and, of course, there is room to ask questions,” church spokeswoman Ally Isom said after Kelly’s excommunication. “But how we ask is just as important as what we ask. We should not try to dictate to God what is right for his church.”
Strangers in Zion founders 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 dissenters may be in trouble if they purposely urge others to leave Mormonism 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 as a member of the church — 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, one of the founders of Strangers in Zion. He was very active in his Mormonism until his 13-year-old son came out last year as gay, sending him into what he calls a faith crisis. Abhau said the situation and his dissent — including marching in a gay pride parade — made him an outcast in North Carolina and his family relocated to Gilbert, Ariz., where he works in real estate. His family no longer attends church, and he says 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 as I still feel I am a member in good standing — 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. “I hope you will read this with the same sincerity that I put into writing it.”
Abhau said church leaders aren't applying their own rules -- on excommunication -- fairly and evenly. Regardless, he opposes all excommunications.
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, Ariz. He also helped start Strangers in Zion.
Nickolaisen’s beliefs weren’t a secret; he has worked with Dehlin on a site called 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 topics such as Mormon teachings on sex and how church finances are handled.
Asked what was motivating him, Nickolaisen said excommunicating people because they have doubts “is an archaic and really subversive and despicable process.”
Mormonism is built around families being able to be together after death, and excommunicating someone invalidates 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.”