The real Mormon moment is now.
The facts are now established: at least a dozen Mormons in the U.S. have faced or are facing discipline for expressing criticisms of the Church or support for same-sex marriage or women’s ordination on-line, on Facebook, on Twitter, even in anonymous chat rooms.
The implications of the facts are even more troubling. They suggest that the LDS Church supports what must be a substantial enterprise monitoring the on-line activity of its members in the United States, if not worldwide.
Of course, this is not a surprise to progressive Mormons who have populated those Facbook groups and web forums.
We have in fact been waiting for this moment—waiting to see whether our religion could survive the insularity, militancy, and suspiciousness engendered by its nineteenth-century persecutions, and outgrow as well the highly centralized and controlling corporate-bureaucratic style of the twentieth-century LDS Church, to adapt to the new realities of the internet era, including greater openness among Mormons with doubts or concerns about controversial aspects of our history and doctrine.
We hoped this day would not come. Because we know that excommunication courts are a nineteenth-century Mormon solution to twenty-first century Mormon problems. Exiling and shaming a dozen, two dozen, one hundred, one thousand heterdox Mormons won’t close the book on women’s issues, or LGBT issues, or historical controversies in Mormonism. You could rid the church of an entire generation of querulous bloggers and grassroots organizers and another will rise and take its place. Because these controversies are not private and individual. They are not personal problems. They are the product of Mormon history, Mormon doctrine, and Mormon culture. We didn’t invent them. We inherited them, as will the generations to follow, each taking its turn in the search for truth. Because that is what Mormonism means.
We had hoped it wouldn’t turn out this way. Maybe it still won’t. Maybe the highest profile excommunication court—that scheduled this Sunday in Virginia for Kate Kelly, a believing Mormon woman and one of the founders of the web-based Ordain Women campaign—will end without Sister Kelly having her baptism and marriage nullified, her membership in a Church she served as a full-time missionary expunged.
Over the last decade of on-line blogging and organizing, Mormon progressives have found many reasons to hope for more openness in our Church. We noted every year we put between us and the high-profile excommunications of Mormon feminists and historians in the 1990s. We noted that the hunger for excommunication on doctrinal controversy seemed to have ceased. We used the internet to regroup and grow in numbers. The Church even developed its own web-based resources to acknowledge and address its own controversies—historic and contemporary.
This, we thought, was a good sign. A sign that we might not need to fear losing our membership, our place, in a cherished tradition, just for having and voicing questions, doubts, and differences, even sharing them with others, even organizing on-line forums where other Mormons who could not speak their questions at church could find support, answers, resolution, a reason to keep trying, and a way to express their continuing fidelity to a religion that asks so much of them.
We told ourselves to not to be afraid. Even when we were. We just kept on writing. Even when we knew we were being monitored.
But already knowing that we were being monitored makes it no less shameful to see the facts in print.
Nor does it diminish the pain of seeing a religion characterized by beautiful audacity in its doctrines and daring in its difference manifest such a want of courage, a smallness of spirit, and fearful rigidity when it comes to its own heterodox members.
Nor does it diminish the fear and despair this new wave of disciplinary actions is inciting among progressive Mormons who have anxiously wondered over this past week whether a letter or a meeting request might be on the way for them too.
Over the past few days, I have been getting Facebook messages and phone calls from rank-and-file Mormons not interviewed by the New York Times relaying that they too have been accosted or called in by their bishops for voicing support for greater equality for women in the church, or same-sex civil marriage rights.
“I’m really a nobody,” wrote one woman. “Just a stay at home mom who doesn’t particularly go out of her way to take up too much space on the internet.”
Church officials deny high-level coordination of the pushback against progressive and heterodox Mormons. But it is also being reported that at least one high-ranking leader has instructed local LDS clergy that support for women’s ordination should be viewed as apostasy—a serious charge in Mormonism. Without question, that instruction and the national news of Kate Kelly’s court has created a climate wherein local Church leaders now feel obliged or empowered to call in and even take disciplinary action against less orthodox members of their own congregations.
It is Friday. Kate Kelly’s court is scheduled for Sunday, as are many more informal disciplinary conversations between local leaders and heterodox Mormons. There is still time for a different kind of signal to go out, from Salt Lake City—a signal that could empower a different kind of action, a standing down on all sides, a putting away of defensiveness and fearfulness, a putting to rest of Mormonism’s nineteenth-century ghosts and twentieth-century control issues.
It is Friday and we hear nothing from our religious leaders in Salt Lake City. We hear only from the Public Relations department, which seems to be doing the best it can to get grips on a situation that has outgrown its control, a situation that makes Mormons appear once again in the public eye as the insular, suspicious, dogmatic, simple-minded, intolerant, and spiritually violent Mormon caricatures that once populated nineteenth-century magazines.
It is Friday. We talk amongst ourselves: the men tasked with the heavy burden of convening an excommunication court this Sunday in Virginia, and the Mormon men and women who will convene simultaneously at candlelight vigils scheduled nationwide.
I dream that a voice from Salt Lake City (if not somewhere even more exalted) will say, in the words of a cherished Mormon hymn, “All is well. All is well”—not because it is right now, but because faith means holding to the hope that it will be. A signal of peace for every one of us who agonizes—while the outside world watches mutely or wonders aloud why we even bother—over how our beloved faith will respond to the pressures of the twenty-first century.
Forget Mitt Romney. Forget the Book of Mormon musical. Forget—yes, forget—the LDS Church’s multi-million dollar “I’m a Mormon” campaign designed to rebrand contemporary Mormonism as diverse and welcoming.
This painful, pivotal time is the real Mormon moment.