February 28, 2020

John Dehlin: A Mormon Jew for Jesus?

Last night, as on most nights, I fulfilled a vow that I made when I was a bachelor who wanted to be a father more than anything in the world: I put my arms around my daughter and sang Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” to her as part of our bedtime ritual. The song reminds parents to spend time with their children, to focus on the essential things in life and set aside the daily distractions (“planes to catch, bills to pay”) that cause us to neglect the things that matter most.

Part of me wants to send a YouTube link of the song to John Dehlin, the subject of at least a dozen emails from Jewish readers this month. He’s a well-known Mormon blogger and podcaster who is facing possible excommunication next month for apostasy. Since contemporary Jews apply the same penalty for similar reasons, it should be easy for them to understand why Mr. Dehlin finds himself in this unenviable position.

Judaism is a religion that welcomes debate, doubt, and inquiry. Moreover, it does not insist that its adherents profess certain doctrines or beliefs in order to be Jewish: one can be a fervent believer in God or an atheist and still be a Jew. In all my years of interacting with the Jewish community, I have found only one exception to this policy of inclusion: Messianic Jews. Jews are free to believe anything they choose, including that Jesus was the Messiah. However, when they start publicly expressing this belief and trying to convert other Jews to Christianity, almost all Jews no longer consider Messianic Jews to be Jews. They may not conduct formal excommunication proceedings, but for all intents and purposes Jews for Jesus are no longer regarded as members of the tribe.

In many Mormons’ eyes Dehlin is guilty of similar transgressions. In our church, apostasy is defined as “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.” It’s a hierarchical church, so this verbiage will probably be unfamiliar to my Jewish readers. Basically, members are free to think whatever they like about the church, its leaders and doctrines. They are also free to express their opinions in private forums. However, when they start publicly criticizing the church and/or encouraging others to question or leave the church, they will be counseled by their local leaders. If they persist in publicly denouncing the church, its doctrines, etc., then they run the risk of becoming the subject of a formal church disciplinary council. The most extreme punishment for apostasy is excommunication.

For years Dehlin, whose brother used to be the LDS Church’s CIO, has operated a website and podcast for “transitioning” or “questioning” Mormons. He has often been criticized for attacking the church’s core beliefs, and it will be up to a group of 15 men next month to determine whether his online activities amount to apostasy. I have no idea what decision they will make, and I have no opinion on whether he is in fact an apostate. I do, however, have an opinion on his priorities.

In recent interviews Dehlin has stated that he can’t violate his moral conscience by ending his controversial online activity, even if it means that he will be excommunicated. This is inconceivable to me, and shows more than anything else could that he no longer believes in the church’s most fundamental doctrines (indeed, my conclusion was confirmed after I read his online statement of belief). If he is excommunicated, he will no longer have the priesthood, which Mormons believe is the power of God given to men on earth. Since he and his wife were married in an LDS temple, his “sealing” to her and to his four beautiful children will be broken (though he and his wife will obviously continue to be legally married). It’s this last part that gets to me a little bit.

I waited for over four decades to find a wonderful woman to be sealed to, my wife traveled to several European countries in order to attend conferences for single young Mormons in pursuit of the same goal, and I know many single Mormons who would give anything for the opportunity to be sealed to someone special in an LDS temple. I have also known couples living abroad who have saved money for most of their adult lives in order to make a one-time trip to a temple so that they can be sealed to their families.

Not surprisingly, it’s very hard for me, the sole active member of the church in my family, to feel sorry for a highly-educated 5th-generation Mormon who is willing to leave his church and break his eternal ties to his family because gays can’t marry in our temples and women are not ordained to the priesthood, inter alia. There are faithful Mormons everywhere who struggle with certain doctrines, yet they find a way to reconcile their faith with their doubts. If Dehlin is excommunicated, it’s because he is trying to sow the seeds of doubt in others.

Instead of excommunicating him, Dehlin’s disciplinary council should ask him to return to Guatemala, the land where he served as a young missionary, and give presentations to the members there – many of whom walk many hours to and from church every Sunday — on why he is willing to leave the church over his online activities. I’d pay a great deal to be there during the Q&A sessions afterwards.

I don’t know what will happen during the disciplinary council in Logan, Utah, next month, and part of me always roots for the person in the hot seat. In the meantime, I’d be much obliged if someone could send me Dehlin’s email so that I can send him a link to my daughter’s favorite song.