In my last post I talked about the inherent imbalance in negative and positive posts on Mormon Matters. Even if there were equal numbers of them, the types of negative posts had a lot more emotional punch than the positive ones because negatives always have more inherent punch than positives.
In this post, I want to expand on this idea a bit by asking the question “whose side are you on?”. What do we even mean by “sides”?
And since this is a long post, I should let you know that I issues challenges to John Dehlin and Sunstone at the end, once I’ve laid the foundation for my case.
There Are No Sides. Let’s Build Bridges Instead.
One of the cultural tenets of Mormon Matters (and often even the Bloggernacle as a whole) is that we do not have sides. We are all Mormons whether culturally or by belief. I have already expressed my concerns with this aspect of Bloggernacle culture, at least in some cases. Further, it’s only true when it’s true. John Dehlin would regularly talk openly about “believers and unbelievers alike”, though the preferred language is to speak of “spectrums” of belief (a term I find misleading at best, as many factors of belief are literally off or on). 
Still, the idea of not having sides or at least explicitly “bridging sides” was ever-present on Mormon Matters, even when people were forced to draw distinctions to be able to converse intelligently.
DougG, the Book of Abraham, and Both “Sides”
The issue of “sides” or “not sides” was driven home to me by a conversation I had with DougG right after I quit.
We were conversing about the good times on Mormon Matters and he brought up a new permablogger there named AndrewS (who often comments on M* here.) I get a lot of my better, rambling posts out of responding to things AndrewS has said on Wheat and Tares where he is still actively blogging (or at least was when I wrote this).
AndrewS is a very thoughtful person and probably one of very few ‘bridgers’ between the DAMU community and the Believing Mormon community. He self-identifies as an atheist, but really and sincerely seems to want to understand where believing Mormons are coming from, and to that end is willing to extend himself outside ‘his community’ and interact with Believing Mormons.
Because AndrewS is so thoughtful in his approach, DougG didn’t realize, at first, that he wasn’t a Believing Mormon himself.
Interestingly, my conversation with DougG started out as a discussion about the Book of Abraham. As discussed in this post, Richard Bushman explains that the Book of Abraham was originally believed to be a literal translation from various Egyptian Papyri. It is now generally considered to be a revelation inspired by the papyri. The post-Mormon community holds this issue up as a primary ‘smoking gun’ that Mormon beliefs are fiction. I have seen John Dehlin, in particular, making this his top reason for disbelief.
Well, DougG also thought it was ‘close to’ a smoking gun. So, he was curious how I looked at it, wondering how an otherwise intelligent person could deal with what he saw as such an obvious problem. I pointed him to Richard Bushman’s explanation (as captured in this post) and said that explanation worked for me. I also added that I believed that the original symbols were, indeed, Abrahamic and that they had since devolved into something else – as often happens in language. So the papyri were, in a certain sense, actually about Abraham. Doug admitted this was a decent explanation precisely because it didn’t fall into the trap of claiming the rest of the world was wrong. (His fundamentalist father did just that.)
But then I countered. I pointed to the fact that part of Richard Bushman’s explanation points out that the Book of Abraham actually does include in it stories about Abraham that have since been found. (See post.) Doug, without missing a beat, responded something to the effect of:
This isn’t a problem for me because I believe the Book of Abraham does contain authentic information about Abraham because Joseph Smith was praying about Abraham (because he thought the Papyri was Abraham’s personal writings) and God revealed truths about Abraham to him because he was praying about Abraham.
DougG and Me. DougG and AndrewS.
So, there is essentially no difference between my position and Doug’s position on the Book of Abraham!
We both thought of it as having authentic information about Abraham that came from revelation from God. We both thought of it as not being the penmanship of Abraham nor of being a literal translation.
But we both accepted it as being an authentic revelation from God!
The fact was that the only difference between our positions was that to me, the glass was half full. To him it was half empty. In my mind, if it’s a real, authentic revelation from God, then it’s scripture and I’m not going to sweat the rest. To him, it was a fraudulent document that proved Mormonism was not true and accidentally happened to contain a real revelation about Abraham. Despite how we chose to frame it, we were in agreement on all factual points.
As I continued talking with Doug, I realized just how “Mormon” he still was. He still believed in God as a personal God. He still, essentially, accepted the Mormon doctrine of deity in comparison to the more traditional creedal Christian views of God. (Though I think he didn’t accept the idea of God having a body.)  Doug also continued to believe in the Mormon concept of personal revelation, as shown by his views on the Book of Abraham.
Though Doug had stopped believing in core Mormon doctrines such as priesthood authority (his own personal revelations were as, or more, valid than the Church leaders), or even in the value of organized religion (“God barely tolerates organized religion” he prophetically claimed). The fact was that he and I just weren’t that far off in terms of our actual doctrinal beliefs.
So I was surprised when he suddenly said.
You know, I thought AndrewS was a Believing Mormon at first because of how subtle he is. But he’s actually on my side.
Side #1 VS Side #2
Click! And there it was! For the first time I finally had it put into an example that made it all make sense!
Mormon Matters, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, did indeed have two intermingling and somewhat fuzzy sides. But here was the thing about the two sides that I finally understood:
- DougG was nearly identical to me in beliefs and was an unabashed Theist with strongly and uniquely Mormon beliefs.
- AndrewS was an atheist.
But the two of them were on the same side and I was on the other.
Forget the rhetoric about “no sides” and “building bridges”. Forget the ideal of “dialogue.” All of that might be, to some degree, true. But it was not the deepest truth about Mormon Matters.
The fact was that there were two sides of sorts on Mormon Matters and no amount of rhetoric would change that.
But what were the two sides? DougG had finally made it clear to me:
Side #1: Anyone willing to defend True Believing Mormons (TBMs) and their “Traditional Beliefs”
Side #2: Anyone that wanted to criticize or tear down TBMs and their beliefs.
Sometimes what side you were on wasn’t always so clear. I might, for example, do a post talking about some very real issue in the Church and how to improve it. For that post, I might be on side #2. And Clay might do a post on Theosis and might be on side #1 for that particular post. But nevertheless, we did have two sides.
DougG – a very Mormon-esque theist – was literally on the same side as an outright atheist, and someone he believed almost identical to was the other side.
Now here is the key point: DougG and AndrewS. If you think of them in terms of positive beliefs, they have nothing in common at all. What they actually do have in common is what they jointly reject, specifically LDS truth claims, and especially LDS claims to authority. Or put another way, they reject Mormonism as the best explanation of reality, for religions are explanations of reality.
DougG and AndrewS have no agreement at all on what is the best explanation to replace it. They are literally defined as “a side” purely by what they are not.
Now many of you know I call this Rejectionism, i.e. ‘being defined by what you are not’. And indeed, this incident was the beginning of my understanding of this phenomenon.
TBMs: True Believing Mormons
Now, if you’ve been around the Bloggernacle for a while you know what a TBM is (“True Believing Mormon,” or sometimes “True Blue Mormon,” or occasionally “Traditional Believing Mormon”). The term was once in wide use on the Bloggernacle. At one time, people would openly talk about “what TBMs believe” (usually to offer criticism next). Or they’d speak of this “TBM in my ward” (usually to explain how his/her beliefs caused him/her to do something uncompassionate). Further, a blogger that actually believed in the defining truth claims of the LDS Church would often say things like “I’m pretty TBM about this issue” or “I’m pretty close to a TBM.” And likewise unbelievers might say “I’m not a TBM.”
The term “TBM” fell out of use when Joanna Brooks ruined it. She made the mistake of calling Mitt Romney a TBM. No Mormon outside the Bloggernacle had the foggiest idea what she was talking about. And suddenly we Mormon Bloggers collectively realized, with horror, just how alien we had become to the LDS Church. Posts were written criticizing Joanna Brooks and threatening to pull out the Sneeches book. And the term “TBM” started to lose its luster, though I still see it in use.
“TBM” is Simply a Pejorative
I think the reason “TBM” was in such strong use at one time is because it was “safe” to use. It had no connection whatsoever to real Mormon Culture so no one grew up attached to the term via self-identification. It allowed a sort of “straw man” that a non-believer could attack without hurting the feelings of any Believing Mormons on the site. That’s because the term had taken on such a negative connotation that no one on the Bloggernacle was ever a full TBM. So when we talked about the havoc that “those TBMs” would wreak, we certainly never meant anyone on the site. (Or if someone on the site was intended, they were at least not fingered directly.)
TBMs therefore became a sort of fill-in for a hypothetical person that went to Church, believed all the doctrines blindly, had no awareness of the issues, didn’t think for his or her self, paid, prayed, and obeyed. They were the Mormon-Borg. They were John Dehlin’s “Unthinking Mormons.” They were the collective that wanted to assimilate the world. We on the blog were the enlightened ones, whether for or against the LDS Church.
The whole blog was therefore setup for us not to criticize and critique “Mormon Beliefs” per se (after all a “Mormon” was anyone that wanted to feel at least culturally connected) but “TBM Beliefs” and “TBMs.”
I recently had a friend, relatively new to the Bloggernacle, explain to me what she understood a TBM to be. She immediately used it as a pejorative. It was an unthinking Mormon. Certainly I wasn’t a TBM and she wasn’t either.
And yet, “TBM” actually has a dual meaning as it also happens to be a word that refers to anyone that honestly believes in the truth claims of the church. In that sense, I was a TBM.
So, the term itself is loaded. It simultaneously refers to any one that believes in Mormonism but with a negative connotation always attached. This allowed me to not feel like a TBM while also having to pretty much defend every single TBM belief and practice imaginable. It was exhausting.
When we were having our “dialogues” we would take an issue – a TBM issue of course – and we’d break up into “sides” of who wanted to defend that TBM belief and who wanted to attack it. Who was on the TBM side might change from issue to issue.
I believe that all Mormons are cafeteria Mormons – some are just more open about it, or aware of it, than are others. – John Dehlin
As the above quote shows, John Dehlin insists that all Mormons are really Menu Mormons of one size or another. No one really accepts all the various beliefs of Mormonism, right? Indeed, many on the site claimed that it’s impossible to even define the various beliefs of Mormonism.
John’s claim, unfortunately, gets three Pinocchios and is rated as “vacuously true, but seriously misleading.”
The truth is that there are a set of core beliefs of Mormonism that are well-defined and have not substantially changed since Mormonism’s birth. In fact, Mormonism exists for the sake of those beliefs. Mormonism is defined by those beliefs. Minus those beliefs, you have no Mormonism at all. Even cultural Mormonism would cease to exist if the believing side of Mormonism decided to, en masse, give up their beliefs.
By ignoring that fact, yes, you can point out the giant body of other (non-core) beliefs that does and has existed and say “you don’t believe that, do you?” And by doing so, you can make the case that everyone is (in this limited sense) a Menu Mormon just like John Dehlin claimed.
None of which changes that many Mormons – probably most sitting in the pews on Sunday — have made a choice to believe in all the following:
- Jesus Christ was literal and uniquely the Son of God and was Divine and Atoned for our Sins.
- Jesus Christ was literally and bodily resurrected and lives again. All will be resurrected because of this.
- Joseph Smith was a prophet to the whole world called by God to restore lost truths – namely the ‘plan of salvation’ – known in times past (in varying degrees) but lost.
- Joseph Smith received direct revelations from God, including being given the power to translate an ancient book of scripture called The Book of Mormon.
- Joseph Smith was given unique authority from God to perform necessary saving ordinances.
- Joseph Smith’s successors in the Presidency are the unique holders of the directing ‘keys’ of this ‘priesthood’ authority today. No one else has it as it had to be restored bodily by angels (namely John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John.)
- The living apostles and prophets today are guided by God through revelation.
I personally choose to believe all of those. John Dehlin (and Clay, John Hamer, and AndrewS, etc.) believes none of them. This is a fact and careful misdirection will not change it.
We’re Balanced! We’re Going to Attack You, You Get to Defend Yourself!
And herein lies the biggest problem with the Mormon Matters approach to dialogue. When someone puts up a post challenging the truthfulness of the LDS Church, because I am a believing Mormon it is my nearest and dearest beliefs that are coming under fire. In fact, let’s look at the list from the last post of the types of posts that appeared on Mormon Matters:
1. I or someone I know or heard of was personally hurt (or even killed) by LDS doctrines and practices.
2. Here are reasons why the LDS Church’s beliefs are all fiction.
3. Look at how happy I am now that I no longer believe.
A. I enjoy how I feel in Church and I like it
B. Here is this way you can look at this known (and thus admittedly real) issue such that you don’t have to see the LDS Church’s beliefs as fiction.
C. Here is this early and still tenuous connection between LDS beliefs and something that was found in real life, thus suggesting that the LDS beliefs are not fiction.
The real gap between those two lists isn’t, as I suggested in the previous post, actually a gap between mere negative vs. positive material.
No, the real gap is that #1, #2, and #3 are all various types of direct or indirect attacks on my nearest and dearest personal beliefs because all advance the claim that my personal meaning-memes are factually false, hurtful, or in some way morally wrong.
But A through C are not attacks on the nearest and dearest personal beliefs of John Dehlin, Clay Whipkey, John Hamer, DougG, or AndrewS, etc. Indeed there was no expectation at all that John, Clay, John, Doug, or Andrew even needed to talk about their nearest and dearest personal beliefs at all. And if someone like me probed them for it so that a full and fair dialogue could ensue, the ire of the whole community was raised and condemnations of side-taking and bridge burning would slam down upon such a person.
So when we are on Mormon Matters and someone puts up a post about how much they like church, John Dehlin, DougG, Clay Whipkey, John Hamer, and AndrewS can pretty much shrug it off, safe in their knowledge that frankly nothing on Mormon Matters is ever going to really attack their personal beliefs or meaning-memes.
But it seems to me that herein lies the problem. “Side 1” is a well-developed religion and a well-developed and far-reaching (whether true or false) explanation or theory of reality. It is that well-developed “TBM” theory of reality that we were having a critical discussion about! And there is a considerable body of knowledge publicly available that defines this religion just waiting for anyone to criticize, as we’d expect of any sincere attempt to explain the nature of something, religious or otherwise.
The other ‘side’ (“Side 2”) was merely anyone or anything wanting to advance an issue with the beliefs of Side #1.
We might correctly describe this model of dialogue as the “We Get to Attack You While You are Solely Held to Defending Yourself and are Never Allowed to Counter Attack” model of dialogue.
The “Other Focused” Nature of “John Dehlinism”
Post-Belief-Mormonism is what we might call “Wholly Other Focused.” It isn’t a bunch of people getting together to celebrate a shared faith. Post-Belief-Mormonism doesn’t exist as a single, coherent alternative explanation to Mormonism. In fact, it doesn’t exist as a single, coherent anything other than rejection of Mormon beliefs and Mormon leaders.
“Dehlinism”, in particular, is overwhelmingly focused on, and sometimes even obsessive about, how “TBMs” (or any believers) behave and how they need to be corrected. It is not self-critical (ok, who is?) and it only looks at a broad range of Mormon culture and beliefs as a way to bring TBM problems into focus. In this sense, despite many a Mormon Stories podcast about various “forms of Mormonism,” Dehlinism is solely about TBMism, or rather it’s solely about the believing LDS community.
And is it really that surprising? The LDS Church is a massive super-majority of the “Mormon” community no matter how many offshoots you choose to include in that supposed “community.” The idea that the LDS church is merely one part of an overall cultural movement is mostly a fiction John advances to avoid the otherwise obviously “other focused” nature of his approach to Mormonism. 
So it is perfectly natural that an ideal environment for Belief-wise-Post-Mormonism to advance itself is a forum where we are only allowed to talk about the pros and cons of Mormon beliefs (i.e. TBM beliefs of course!) but never the pros and cons of Post Belief Mormonism itself as an alternative to Mormonism.
It is easy to see why this is a desirable situation for the non-believers on the site. Imagine, for example, if one of the political parties — let’s say Republicans — somehow pulled off getting the Democrats into a forum where the Republicans got to unload on the Democrats about everything the Democrats ever did wrong but the Democrats felt duty bound by the culture to never bring up problems the Republicans have caused and indeed felt wrong even asking the Republican’s what they suggested as an alternative because they were afraid of ‘burning bridges’ and bringing down public scorn on themselves. It doesn’t sound very pleasant to me either.
The Sunstone Secret Revealed
This is, I suspect, the secret of the “Sunstone approach” to Mormonism. John Dehlin is expert at replicating it with Mormon Matters. So long as a forum for “dialogue” is “other focused” it’s “Side 2” never has to be subjected to painful or concerning attacks about its own nearest and dearest personal beliefs.
My hat goes off to the Hawkgrrls, Stephens, and Jeffs of the world that can handle forums like this long-term. I admire them. And I’m glad they are willing to stick around long-term and not let a place like Mormon Matters spiral down to yet another DAMU (Disaffected Mormon Underground) forum. But we are kidding ourselves if we don’t admit that a forum like Mormon Matters is anything but a hostile forum when it comes to Mormon beliefs and believing Mormons.
But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Dialogue does have to start somewhere, does it not? And wanting to keep a dialogue as one-sided as possible is — to be blunt — a natural human tendency. So I’m not ready to condemn these forums. But I do wish the John’s and Andrew’s of the world realized the degree to which these forum are energizing to a non-believer that wants to criticize the Church and demoralizing to someone who believes in it. It wears you down and is not something I, for one, was capable of doing for more than a year.
Not So Fair, Not So Open, But it Is Dialogue
I know that these forums wish to be seen as a place for fair and open dialogue. And based on my discussions with AndrewS, it’s pretty clear that even pointing out that this isn’t the case is considered offensive. And I know AndrewS wants to position my lack of desire to be flogged in public as a sign of weakness compared to ‘his position.’
But honestly none of that is the case. AndrewS simply does not understand the real nature of what he is asking Believers in such forums to do and his own sometimes anger when he comes to a site like M* is the real equal and opposite to the “anti-faith” position above.
If you want real Dialogue that is fair and balanced, the Believers need guns as big as the non-Believers and that means allowing the Believers to make points more like this:
1. I or someone I know or heard of was personally hurt (or even killed) by anti-LDS doctrines and practices.
2. Here are reasons why the John Dehlin / Sunstone and other Post-Belief-Mormon beliefs are fiction.
3. Here’s a real life example of how following John Dehlin (or Sunstone, etc.) wreaked havoc in the lives of this family.
A true dialogue must allow for both sides to criticize the beliefs of the other side. This requires a set of LDS Critics willing to actually ante up their beliefs for criticism rather than hiding them. For a true rational discussion to occur, there must be a comparison of the two alternatives, not simply picking at problems of the LDS church alone.
Real Dialogue Hurts
Only on M* does Andrew get to find out what it’s actually like to be a believing Mormon at Sunstone or Mormon Matters. Take a look at the post and comment I keep linking to. What is it that Andrew is “holding his tongue” over in this post? Honestly, what is it? It’s that I state that sites like his Wheat and Tares (the successor to Mormon Matters) are unbalanced, though still important to the dialogue. I state that “one stop shops” (i.e. sites that try to show all sides) are always inherently unbalanced in favor of the non-believing side. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good and important sites in their own right and an important part of the overall dialogue.
This is what Andrew is “holding his tongue” over?
Honestly, if we reverse all of this and instead hold up some non-Mormon post that says “Mormonism portrays itself in unbalanced ways, but it’s still an important religion” or “Mormonism has its problems, but it’s still an important religion” Mormons would be dancing in the streets ecstatic about the “positive coverage” compared to what they usually get. But Andrew literally can’t handle it without getting upset?
I suspect the difference here is that Mormons (as a public religion, and not a well-liked one at that) are used to negative coverage. Anything that even smacks of positive is reason to celebrate. But Andrew has very little experience with his own personal nearest and dearest beliefs coming under attack, and it’s a new and painful experience for him.
Andrew has battered my beliefs, and even me, directly (though always in a gentle, kind, and acceptable way) over and over again. But true dialogue is built not on the we-attack/you-defend model. Instead, it is built on a full comparison model of dialogue. Even though my attack is quite gentle, it goes to the heart of many things Andrew strongly believes in. It is literally attacking a part of his inner self-image and his meaning memes. That’s a particularly harsh thing to have happen to you. But that is exactly what makes this a rare example of real dialogue.
Why Did I Decline Sunstone?
So you want to know the full reason I didn’t want to attend Sunstone on a panel? Because I believe Sunstone seriously lacks balance and fair dialogue in the same way that Mormon Matters does. If I were to go there, I would also need to accept that it wouldn’t be a true dialogue nor a debate. I would be there solely to defend my nearest and dearest beliefs and would not be allowed to do a true and full comparison of, say, which actually makes you happier and healthier or nicer – Regular Mormonism, or The Sunstone/John Dehlin approach to Mormonism?
Greg Rockwell (who was or is on the Sunstone board) has invited me, more than once, to participate. It was difficult to fully explain myself on why I really don’t want to attend and what circumstances would have to be instituted before I actually would. This post is, in part, a way of trying to help him understand my truest reasonings for not wanting to take part at this time.
Let’s, for a moment, discuss the type of panel at Sunstone that I would actually be energized by and would not find to be merely an invitation for a public flogging.
- Though John Dehlin is well intentioned, does he actually reduce pain the church causes or does he introduce more of it?
- Is the Sunstone approach to Mormonism a realistic option for the Church as a whole, or is it really more of a niche audience for people that have issues and need to air them with each other?
- Could John Dehlin be far more effective if he just stopped trying to deconvert the LDS church to his cultural Mormon beliefs and instead just taught his followers how to not approach their spouses and families in a way that threatens their beliefs?
- Does John Dehlin really have no issues with believing in the church? Or is he really secretly hoping people will deconvert from it?
- If Kate Kelly won’t state if she believes the LDS church’s truth claims about priesthood, is this something that might affect people’s desires to join the OW movement and does she have a moral responsibility for transparency? Or is her message independent of beliefs?
- Is the true purpose of the Mormon Expressions Podcast really to discuss issues within the Mormon community? Or is it really more to reinforce and encourage bigotry or hatred towards believing Mormons? What evidence do we have that it is more one than the other?
I suspect that Sunstone could occasionally host these sorts of panels. But that’s only half of the problem. The simple truth is that Sunstone/Dehlin/Bloggernacle culture has grown up with the above types of questions being considered off-limits because they are deemed hurtful. Even if we did set up such a panel and I (and J Max) were on it, it isn’t hard to see that we’d simply get “Bloggernacled” (short for “Bloggernacle Dog Piled”) with anger and charges of inhumanity and immorality until we were again demoralized and had little reason to want to ever do it again (assuming Sunstone even cared to do it more than once just to prove they could).
Culture, and setting safe zones/boundaries, is the primary means of controlling the conversation. This is what I mean when I saw boundaries on the Bloggernacle are culturally enforced. You quickly get the hint you aren’t wanted there. Those that doubt are within the safe zone and those that believe aren’t.
I think there are various reasons offered for why this culture is justified. For example, the argument is made that when we discuss issues with the Church, it’s just a faceless organization, not an individual. But if we discussion issues surrounding Kate Kelly or John Dehlin it is now getting personal. But I don’t buy this argument. I think attacking “the LDS church” is quite personal for those that believe in it in pretty much exactly the same way criticizing Dehlin or Kelly is for them. And I think they hate it with a passion precisely because it hurts so bad (just as it conversely does for LDS Believers).
There simply is no reason for me to take Sunstone seriously as a fair fight right now. The kinds of changes that would have to be made are massive, structural, and cultural changes that no longer favor a single viewpoint. Could this be done? Perhaps. I am honestly not sure if natural human bias can be overcome enough to create a true forum for balanced dialogue or not. I simply know that we’ve never really even tried because we’re so biased we can’t even conceive of the problem well enough to solve it.
I suspect that even me just saying all the above is enough to create disturbingly angry and personal attacks for the very fact that I even hold this opinion.
Standing Naked and Standing Clothed
Why does the full comparison model energize me while the we-attack/you-defend model demoralize me? Think of it this way. Say you are a True Believing Mormon of the type that Mormon Matters is “other focused” on critically discussing. So you decide to sign up to participate there. This could be a very good thing, I think. I have great respect for the Hawkgrrls, Stephens, and Jeffs of the world that really enjoy putting their personal beliefs on trial like this. Without their presence, Mormon Matters would quickly devolve into just another DAMU (Disaffected Mormon Underground) website. 
But here is the truth. People like Hawkgrrl who do this are really sticking their necks out when they go to Mormon Matters. They are allowing near and dear personal beliefs of theirs to get openly criticized and attacked, sometimes in some fairly brutal ways. They are, if you will, allowing these personal beliefs to be “naked in public” so to speak.
But Side #2’s beliefs never have to be equally naked in public. That isn’t the purpose of Mormon Matters, after all. Their beliefs (whatever they are, and if they have them at all) are not up for critical discussion.
People do not come to Mormon Matters to discuss AndrewS’ atheism or the real beliefs of John Dehlin, now that he no longer believes in Mormonism, and how those beliefs might be factually or scientifically wrong or even hurtful to others in some cases. If someone did write such a post it would quickly be denounced as a ‘hit piece’ no matter how factually stated or what tone was used. And why should they expect such a discussion? If you’re on Mormon Matters, you’re there to discuss Mormon beliefs, not John Dehlin’s beliefs? In essence, group #2 is not putting themselves at risk at all and it’s engineered that way.
So here is the crux of my objection to the Mormon Matters approach to dialogue. It is based on a “We Attack / You Defend” model which I find to be an unfair and unbalanced approach to sincere dialogue. I think it works well for some Believing Mormons due to their own beliefs and/or personality. But I do not see how or why the average Believing Mormon should want to stick their neck out like this and get attacked over and over while everyone else isn’t required to do that same.
This, then, is also my real objection to participation with Sunstone. I’m not against believing Mormons participating there, but they are forums and venues inherently hostile to Mormon beliefs and I do not see why anything is owed to them in the slightest. It’s a personal choice and nothing more. Participate because you want to, or you enjoy it, or that you feel specially called to, but not because you think it balances the dialogue or discussion. In fact, it does not balance the dialogue and arguably may even further unbalance the dialogue though an illusion of balance.
A Final Challenge
I gave several examples of Sunstone panels that I’d be glad to be on if we could also solve the inherent cultural problems.
I have one more challenge I’d like to make to John Dehlin himself based on something he said. And I quote:
[Referring to the book “Letter to a CES Director”] Probably the most thorough (and fair) treatment of difficult Mormon issues in existence (in book form). Definitely worth the read if you value being well-informed about the LDS Church.
In my opinion, you can’t really have an authentic LDS testimony until after coming to grips with the issues covered in this book.
If you retain your testimony after reading this… then: 1) hats off to you, 2) I would love to bring you on Mormon Stories Podcast to discuss how you do it.
John, if you want someone on your podcast that has looked at all these issues and can address them intelligently and straightforwardly — I am your man!
But I will only do it if we use the full comparison model of dialogue instead of the we-attack/you-defend model. So here are my totally fair (because I’m not asking you to do anything I’m not willing to do) stipulations:
- We take turns asking each other questions. Just as you get to ask me difficult questions about my personal beliefs and the beliefs of my religion, I get to ask you any difficult question about yourself, your movement, what good or ill you are doing, etc. In short, I get to ask the equivalent to what you are asking me.
- You will agree to be totally and completely transparent in your answers. For example, if I ask you “Do you believe in God? And, if so, what do you believe about God?”, the answer will be straightforward, without a dodge. My history with you, John, is that you’ll not want to get into it because any answer you give is potentially damaging. So you tend to say things like “Yes, I believe in God” but wont want to really get too detailed about the nature of that “God.” But if we are to be fair with one another, you’d need to be ready to really talk about your honest beliefs or opinions about God in detail. Is there really a literal God? Is this God an actual Godlike being or really just a sort of label for morality? Can this God answer prayers? And an answer of “yes, I’m open” won’t do either. What’s your honest opinion? There is no possible way you don’t have honest opinions on this subject. Your opinions and beliefs are as important to a full dialogue as discussing mine are.
- I am allowed to ask you pointed follow-up questions about your beliefs if I have any doubt about what you actually meant.
- If you give me a dodgy answer (i.e. “I’m open to it”) you’ll quickly discover that I can use such answers myself to your questions and the interview with be a bust.
- We will both record the podcast so that there is no possibility of later editing causing imbalances. (Not that I believe you’d do something like that, but this way we know it’s fair.)
Interviews like this would be incredible! It would be a model for full dialogue like the Mormon and Post-Mormon world has never seen nor conceived before. It could even be quite friendly and amiable. I, for one, have a pretty good understanding of why many of the various doubts are legitimate concerns and – if I feel I’m not being given dodgy answers in return – have no problem at all confirming this and discussing how a person can choose or not choose to go about handling issues with beliefs. I have no negative judgment of people who choose not to believe. Hey, I’ve been there.
My ongoing frustration with John’s approach has never been that he raises issues, or encourages dialogue, or shows multiple sides. In and of itself those are good things. And while I feel I have strong reason to believe John does not believe in any of the truth claims of the LDS Church, [update: confirmed here] I have no issue with that at all. That’s completely non-offensive to me and I don’t mind talking to “TBMs” about why that is and why they need to not get overly concerned about that. No, to me the issue is that John entirely guards all possible counter criticisms for a fair comparison between Mormonism as taught by the LDS Leaders and John’s own views of how he’d like to see it improved.
Indeed, despite the incredibly obvious fact that John does want to change the LDS church, he publicly denies this. This effectively closes down the full comparison model of dialogue and ends all true discussion on the subject. Mormonism does have its problems, I admit. But so does John Dehlin’s views of how things should be instead. Give me a full transparent view of both and my honest opinion is that John’s views will not compare well once all the facts are known and true dialogue begins. If I didn’t believe this, I’d “be on John’s side.” [Update: While getting ready to publish this post, apparently John Dehlin announced he is considering leaving the Church. I suppose that makes a number of questions about John’s beliefs academic now.]
 believers and unbelievers alike – My own experience with this is – to be frank – that someone who is perceived as challenging the LDS Church is given greater protections in this regard than someone who is perceived as not challenging the LDS Church. If you take someone who doesn’t believe in the core beliefs and challenge them on this you’ll get wacked fast and Bloggernacled until you comply. But people regularly claim that J Max Wilson is out of step with the LDS Church’s teachings and challenge him (often quite rudely) to get in line with “the Church’s teachings”. I suppose this makes sense. No one really believes J Max is disloyal to the LDS Church, so challenging him in that way is always going to be pure rhetoric and he’ll not feel the slightest bit worried about the charge. So maybe there is something to affording greater protections to some than others. I make no judgments here, but merely observe.
 …he didn’t accept the idea of God having a body. For some reason this seems to be the first doctrine to go once you consider yourself no longer a believer – this despite the fact that this was actually what I call Mormonism’s most obviously correct hit since there is simply is no such thing as disembodied intelligence as per our own best current scientific theories. This is actually an important example of how those that scream the Church is being unscientific are almost always themselves also being unscientific but simply don’t understand science well enough to know what is or isn’t scientific outside of current fads. Having said that, maybe they are right and God has no body and it’s actually science itself that isn’t worth worrying about in the grand scheme of things. Yet somehow, I suspect this isn’t what they intended either.
 The “other focused” nature of Post Mormonism: I know many will charge me here saying “but John Dehlin does all sorts of podcasts about non-TBM forms of Mormonism.” In a post that may already be too long, it is difficult to express what I’m really getting at here. But let me try to summarize in this footnote.
First, “Mormonism” as John Dehlin and other post-believe-Mormons define it is a broader cultural movement that started with Joseph Smith and then ‘branched’ into many forms. The LDS church is merely one of those forms. So to ‘celebrate’ Mormonism in all forms, it would make sense to, say, interview someone from the Community of Christ or maybe a polygamist down the road from a fundamentalist church, etc. Fair enough.
There is a hidden motive in this regard, however. First, it’s more than just a little obvious that “Mormonism” so defined is overwhelmingly really just the LDS church plus a lot of not very successful offshoots. The LDS church is the super majority of “Mormonism” so defined to the point of falling just shy of being the whole of it. It is not hard to see that one obvious advantage to Dehlinism in advancing the “just one of many “ worldview is also to legitimize their own movement as a legitimate form of Mormonism. The more legitimate they make themselves seem, the less “TBMism” seems like the only real option. But doesn’t that realization also make it clear that an emphasis on “wider Mormonism” is also a TBM focused point?
Furthermore, post-belief-Mormon can guarantee that the vast majority of potential listeners will be from the LDS background (and usually currently in the LDS church) just by virtue of their massive super majority. So if there is a podcast episode about the Community of Christ, it is – just by virtue of the way reality is – also a story about how the Community of Christ’s approach to “Mormonism” is as legitimate as the LDS Church’s approach, knowing full well this is at odds with the teachings of the LDS church as the sole Church started by Jesus Christ. It’s also an opportunity to talk about how the Community of Christ is handling his top concerns and issues better (in his mind) than the LDS Church, etc. Therefore, TBMism is still an ever-present part of the episode.
The same goes for the polygamist. But there you also get to hope that you’ll get your primarily LDS audience thinking about the problems of polygamy. But what is wrong with this? I am not claiming it is wrong. It seems subtle and smart to me and I have no issue with it at all. But that doesn’t change that John Dehlin is always wholly focused on believing members of the LDS Church, i.e. TBMs.
Perhaps a real life example might also be helpful here. Take a look at this post from John Dehlin himself about why he’s looking forward to the Book of Mormon Musical, entitled “Top 10 Reasons Why This Mormon is Excited About the South Park “Book of Mormon” Broadway Musical”
First thing to notice is the use of “this Mormon” even though John (as we’ll see throughout this very post) does not in fact believe in the truth claims of Mormonism. There is a strong desire here to get the main intended audience – TBMs – interested via self-identification.
Here now are the reasons John gives:
- It will be funny
- Though it won’t pull punches, “fair minds will be somewhat surprised at the level of respect that they ultimately show to us Mormons”
- It means “Mormons have arrived!”
- Mitt Romney
- The Scientologists got it worse
- “…it’s time for Mormons to become less insecure and less defensive”: “Thanks to the Internet… our… history can no longer be swept under the rug or denied.” “We are a clean cut, lovable, somewhat defensive, and always “30 years behind the times” group of non-traditional Christians…with a somewhat wacky historical past.” “But instead of running from all this….instead of whining about it….instead of acting like the wimpy kid at school who keeps getting picked on….isn’t it time for us to stand up, with our chests out, and actually OWN who we are?”
- It will contain accurate Mormon history: “I think it’s high time for us run-of-the-mill Mormons to actually study and publicly own our history. I certainly never heard a peep about peep stones, Fanny Alger, polyandry or Mountain Meadows in my 40 years of Primary/Sunday School. And personally, I’m kinda tired of learning accurate Mormon history from Larry King Live, 60 minutes, and the Daily Show (vs. the whitewashed stuff we usually get at church).” “Maybe it’s time for us to do [our homework]. Even if it requires coming to grips with messy Book of Mormon issues like DNA, unsettling anthropological evidence, and anachronisms.”
- Once all the difficult stuff from history is out there, it will become old news
- “Let’s be honest. Didn’t we kind of earn some of this public scrutiny w/ our own series of [Prop 8] shenanegans in California? As they say…if you can’ stand the heat….”
- “It Could be MUCH Worse!!! At least they didn’t title the musical, “Joseph Smith and His 33 wives: The musical!” Then again…that might have been even funnier. :)”
It just isn’t hard to see that John has immediately turned this list of reasons why Mormons should look forward to the musical into a series of referendums on TBMism. Now maybe this is all fair and maybe he’s even right. No one is arguing that “TBMism” is not problematic. But its obvious the focus is wholly on “the other” here even while claiming to identify with it.
This all becomes particularly frustrating when you realize that John left off the single most important reason he’s looking forward to the musical, even though we all know it’s true.
Real Reason John is looking forward to the Book of Mormon Musical: John knows plain well that he’s not a believing Mormon and that there will be nothing in this then upcoming musical that will in any way attack his personal beliefs or moral worldview. In fact, it will almost certainly advance his personal beliefs and moral worldview, which is not Mormonism.
John simply was never at risk here, unlike his posts intended “TBM” audience. And in fact, when the musical came out that was exactly the case. The underlying theme of the play was that religious beliefs are silly and entirely false, yet they help us live good lives anyhow. This is pretty much exactly what John Dehlin believes. So of course he was ecstatic about it and reported how wonderful the musical was in the news.
In reality, this is about as newsworthy as someone asking President Monson how much he enjoyed the Palmyra pageant. Yet because John has positioned himself as a Mormon insider, it came across more like asking the Pope how he feels about the Palmyra pageant and having him say “Oh my gosh, I found it awe-inspiring!” And, of course, both John and the media that interviewed him probably knew all this. Such is the ethics of the news media.
And if you need any proof of John not being neutral beyond the above, bear in mind that, honestly, the Book of Mormon musical did mock things most believing Mormons hold sacred. Now maybe that personally bothers you and maybe it doesn’t. But an even close to neutral person would have at least said “Well, a warning to some Mormons. Yes, it’s funny, and yes I love it, but it does mock things many Mormons hold sacred and might not be everyone’s cup of tea.” But John instead just gave the play an outright endorsement. The actual news article does give one sentence that explains just that (i.e. this play mocks Mormon beliefs and won’t be for many Mormons), but it’s a quote that doesn’t come from John Dehlin, of course.
To be perfectly honest, you’d have to be an ideologue to not see that a great many members of the LDS Church probably won’t like this play for very good reasons. Indeed, I have a Catholic friend whose Catholic wife took him to see it and she was so appalled at its treatment of Mormons and their beliefs that she did not enjoy the play.
In other words, at pretty much every level, this post has been positioned to advance a religious view that is mutually exclusive from (and in competition with) the LDS church’s view, and not as a fair and balanced approach to the play. (Which we probably should never have expected in the first place, human beings being as they are.)
 I will here acknowledge J Max Wilson’s argument that if all believing Mormons just packed up from such sites and went home that such sites would devolve into really obvious DAMU sites and the result is that they’d be thoroughly non-tempting places for questioning but still believing Mormons to go. J Max therefore believes that any Believing Mormon participation on such sites is actually a negative to the Church.
J Max is, perhaps, theoretically correct. But I don’t think this is a realistic solution to the problem. Someone on the site is going to play that role, and frankly I’d rather have it be Hawkgrrl than… several others I can think of.