I’ve read recently many responses to the recent news of John Dehlin, popular Mormon podcaster, facing church discipline and likely excommunication. Attitudes are predictably drawn for the most part, with the typical saint feeling he disrupts faith and ought to face discipline, and others feeling Dehlin is being unjustly censored.
In some cases, though, there are particularly deep running feelings. Especially among those who have felt to return to faith while still struggling with doubts. For these people, Dehlin facing excommunication is scary in and of itself, but more than that, the sometimes vitriolic reaction of the faithful saints – a group to which they long to feel belonging – is shocking and repulsive.
Imagine, if you can, trying to return to a group that never knew it had lost you, only to find that group seeming to turn, as a unit, and rip apart another just like you.
I don’t know how you would react, but I know my response would not be positive in any way. It would take more willpower than I have to continue to contribute to such a group, feeling like I was empowering it to do more of the same.
So let’s talk for just a minute about John Dehlin. Let’s get some facts. Then let’s talk about how bad we are at judging people, and why, whatever we conclude about Brother Dehlin, we’re probably wrong.
Let’s warm up with some inoffensive facts
- Brother Dehlin began Mormon Stories Podcast in 2005. From the beginning it seems clear that the tone of the podcast was meant to talk about problems with the church. Episode 1 was about efforts to inflate baptisms and numbers and speculation about why the church keeps activity statistics secret.
- Mormon Stories has included interviews of both pro and anti lds personalities, but Dehlin tries to take no *overt* stance either way.
- Brother Dehlin has considered himself faithful and active, but wavered occasionally in his self-evaluation.
- Dehlin’s podcast and associated properties evolved into a non-profit, Mormon Stories, which pays him about 40,000 us dollars per year.
- Dehlin has been criticized by members and non-members alike for his inconsistent approach to what he does. Some saying he goes too far, some saying he doesn’t go far enough.
- Some report that Dehlin’s work has encouraged them to stay in the church. Others report that he was instrumental in helping them escape.
- John Dehlin has chosen to publicize his church discipline experience.
Those are some facts that I think we can all agree on without getting too judgy. Where things get difficult is when we try to examine Dehlin as a person. It becomes particularly difficult because there are so many who struggle with feelings of doubt, and they *resonate* with his message. They feel they have found a kindred spirit, and begin to identify with him. That’s just normal human reaction, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it certainly makes a critical examination of behaviors difficult when those behaviors are used to imply conclusions about the character of the person.
After all, as with Mormonism, adherents only see the best. Those who doubt tend to see the worst.
And John Dehlin becomes a reverse microcosm of Mormonism. Believers in Dehlin hear the accusations and strongly feel they are attacked personally. Those who “doubt” Dehlin can only see flaws, feel they know the truth, and wonder how people can believe.
Now some potentially offensive facts and talk about villians
Let’s be fair. Dehlin has done a lot of good and a lot of bad. Yes, people have left the church directly because of his actions. Yes, other people have remained in the church thanks to his work. But each of us is responsible for tremendous hurt and tremendous help in the lives of others. None of us, if we’re honest, want everything about us to be revealed. We are all flawed, and all of us fail at our goals from time to time. None of us ever would want our character to be judged solely by the results of our actions – because we all screw up. Even with the best intentions, the worst outcomes are possible.
None of us think of ourselves as villains.
Yes, there have been some behaviors of Dehlin that raise red flags for the believers – things that make the believer suspect ulterior motives are at play. I’ll talk about them here, but then I’ll talk about why most of us are probably wrong in our conclusions about those behaviors:
- One recent post on a somewhat disturbing “fan site” called DearJohnDehlin pointed out, accurately, that John Dehlin censors responses on his facebook pages, and on comments on his site. Faithful perspectives which disagree with his chosen perspective on the podcast are removed or never approved. Some faithful LDS posters are banned.
- Dehlin has set himself up in such a way that he strongly gives emphasis to doubting perspectives, and leaves plenty of room for Dehlin to rhetorically support those views without research, evidence, or sources.
- Multiple guests and analysts have pointed out how weak his research and knowledge is in important areas of Mormonism – even failing to recognize basic doctrines of the church in certain episodes.
- Dehlin has repeatedly cited notorious antagonists of Mormonism as “top rate historians” and also actively encouraged listeners to visit specific anti-mormon websites for credible information.
In these facts, the anti-Dehlin sees malice – a villain at work. The Dehlinite probably has the instinct to dismiss these claims as altogether false. Again – echoes of Mormonism.
I suggest that the reality is neither. These facts are all true, as best I can tell from available resources, but I suggest that they don’t tell the story you think they do. Just as a slew of facts compiled into a single document fails to tell the story, or even a portion of the “truth” about Mormonism, (you know what I’m talking about) a single document, no matter how well cited, cannot adequately encapsulate the spiritual and emotional journey of a human being over the past 10 years. Indeed, by choosing the facts we want, we can tell whatever story we want to; about Mormonism, about John Dehlin, about ourselves.
Mental framing and Lawrence of Arabia
When I look over the vitriolic discourse around the person and behaviors of John Dehlin I wonder if maybe we’re missing out on the real story: The story of a man who entered a mental frame of doubt, and decided to share.
I suggest that John Dehlin is a man who was persuaded, probably long before he began the podcast, that the so-called anti-mormon “facts” about the church were all true, and never really escaped that belief. In coming to terms with those doubts and concerns, he also found himself on top of a vibrant and profitable enterprise, and behaved simply as most of us would. When challenged, he reacted to appease and placate. When attacked, he reacted by defending himself. When given the opportunity to make money, he took it. When he thought he was helping, he felt good. If a behavior would preserve or improve his audience, he would be more likely to do it. I’m in no way suggesting that any of this was a conscious decision. Like all of us, Brother Dehlin is subject to psychological framing which determines how we make decisions. Without the framing of “the church is true, obviously.” Dehlin made completely rational decisions which fit the circumstances of the moment and which didn’t need to consider the truthfulness of the church at all.
In my opinion, the evidence for my theory is all there in the documents provided by those obsessed with him. The authors’ mistake was in searching through 10 years’ worth of data, and looking for a single motive or theory to explain him. These researchers have their biases before they begin researching and simply look for data to support it. They are no different than a Brodie researching Mormonism and choosing to take the worst possible data and interpretations. Their findings are not given in the context of time or circumstance, merely offered as evidence of Dehlin’s inconsistency, which they obliquely suggest is the result of malice towards the church.
But we’re all inconsistent, aren’t we?
For me, the realization came as I watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. At one point, Lawrence’s guide attempts to draw a pistol that Lawrence gave him the previous night. A stranger guns down the guide. This stranger approaches and picks up the gun – which belonged to Lawrence just a few hours ago – and asks “Is it yours?” Lawrence replies with “no, it was his.” The stranger then takes it for himself.
This shook me. It shook me because I realized I’m the kind of man who would probably have said “Yes, it’s mine. Give it to me.” or at least “I just gave it to him,” in an effort to try and get it. But Lawrence doesn’t. He tells the simple truth, unaltered by the mental frame of being in the presence of an apparently murderous stranger asking if you want your gun back. I don’t have that kind of consistency – that kind of mental framing. Indeed, few do.
Dehlin’s mental frame.
In reality, I think that John Dehlin likely has very little feeling towards the church, positive or negative. It seems pretty clear that he was checked out, spiritually, quite some time ago. The evidence for this idea includes statements like when he would say he felt he was “temple worthy” but in the same sentence report that he was not paying tithing – a requirement for temple worthiness. This kind of attitude, repeated in various comments over the past several years, indicates an increasing detachment from the doctrines and principles of belief – the mental framework of faith – while his interviews and other commentary reveal an ongoing interest in the church only in terms of analysis, culture and, more centrally, his ability to define his place in it, and his audience’s place in it, regardless of specific beliefs. His perspective is not spiritual. It is merely practical. Or “uncorrelated” to borrow a term.
And with that practicality comes a simple explanation for all of the behaviors which so many faithful find repugnant: He was simply reacting in the moment according to his operating framework, just as we all do. For example, when he found his podcast growing, it would only be natural to cut out voices which criticize it, no matter the belief of the attacker. Just as Apple would delete comments from those who claim Android is the best phone operating system, Dehlin would protect his brand. You would not call Apple malicious. Nor should you judge Dehlin to be so.
Similarly, he would feel no need to research the facts presented on his show, since he already accepted them. In his framework, there was no problem with the data, and, because of the format of the show, there was no need to prepare beforehand. Others would likely later arrive on social media or on the website and point out inconsistencies, however, such voices were easily silenced by Dehlin’s own certainty in his perhaps unconscious conclusions about the church, and the desire to maintain his image as an intellectual. Again, not in a malicious or prideful way, but simply in a matter-of-fact, practical way.
Anti-Mormon intellectuals, as potential guests on his show, must be complimented and respected so that they keep coming. Criticize them, and you risk your business. Naturally, when asked about those people or their websites, he would say glowing things. They were his friends and collaborators, after all. This isn’t malice against the church. It’s just business.
Let’s be better than this.
I bring all this up because I want each of us to ask if we’d really like to be treated the way some are treating Brother Dehlin – to have your character judged by a handful of actions. Would it be fair for somebody to write a paper in which they drag up every inconsistent statement we’ve ever made in the past 10 years? I know I’d have plenty. Would it be decent to have others pointing out our blind-spots in public forums?
Certainly, one might argue that Dehlin brought this critical examination on himself by both being a public figure and by being the one who is actively publicizing his own church discipline experience. To such a thought process I would say that perhaps in modern society such an idea is acceptable, that if somebody is willing and actively being public, we’re free to scrutinize and publicize all we find along with all our judgments. But I would quickly follow such a statement with the idea that as Mormons we ought to be better than just what’s expected in the world at large. Gossip, backbiting, and judging are certainly not in harmony with our efforts to seek after the praiseworthy, virtuous, and lovely. And if we’re to acknowledge the “truth” about somebody, we should make our best efforts and making it the “whole truth,” and not just the part that tells the story we want it to. Let’s leave the judgment calls to those who have the right to make them.
Finally, for the sake of those who are John Dehlin, but in different forms, let us be kind. Remember that the person sitting next to you may have faith that is hanging by a thread. What they don’t need is for their friends to publicly criticize others whose only mistake was to be more public about their struggles.
Featured Image by Alice