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The founder of a Mormon podcast with tens of thousands of followers expects to be excommunicated Sunday in a case that has stirred debate about the line between church doctrine and individual dissent.
If he is removed from the membership rolls after a disciplinary hearing, John Dehlin will become the second prominent progressive drummed out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in nine months.
Mormon officials won’t comment, saying it’s a private matter between Dehlin and the president of his stake, or church district, in Logan, Utah.
But Dehlin, a fifth-generation LDS member, said he was told he’s in trouble for support of same-sex marriage and women’s ordination, criticism of the church on his “Mormon Stories” podcast, and doubt about key tenets of the religion.
“They want to silence me and ‘Mormon Stories’ and hope maybe I’ll quit or people will stop listening to me,” the father of four said.
At the hearing, he will have a chance to present his case and witnesses, but only if he signs a contract agreeing not to record the proceedings. Either way, he believes the outcome has already been decided.
“I feel like the process is a kangaroo court,” Dehlin said.
The hearing comes nine months after another headline-grabbing excommunication: the ouster of Kate Kelly, leader of Ordain Women, a Mormon feminists' movement.
But one expert said that doesn’t mean there is a widespread crackdown afoot.
“If there were a crackdown, we would be seeing dozens or scores of these,” said Patrick Mason, professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
“You could say they [Dehlin and Kelly] are symbolic in some way, that it’s the church drawing a line in the sand, but it’s not an inquisition.”
Instead, he said, Dehlin, 45, and Kelly, 34, are targets because they have encouraged others to trumpet views that clash with church teachings.
“There are thousands and thousands of Mormons who support same-sex marriage and women’s ordination. They might get the cold shoulder or have an awkward conversation with their stake president, but they’re not being excommunicated,” Mason said.
"I believe it is a barbaric practice."
The church does not publish statistics on excommunication, but a group that analyzes membership believes the number could be as high as 20,000 a year — out of a worldwide total of 15 million Mormons. The vast majority of those, Mason said, are for adultery or violation of chastity.
He noted that in addition to Dehlin’s activism on the issues of gay marriage and women, he has also “renounced or backed away from” fundamental beliefs of the religion, which traces its origins to the visions of founder Joseph Smith in the 1830s.
Dehlin does not deny he’s questioned core beliefs. In a statement last week, he said that while he has voiced doubt about God’s existence and the literal resurrection of Jesus, he has focused more on Smith’s polygamy, scientific evidence the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text, and the book’s teaching that dark skin is “loathsome.”
If Dehlin disagrees with so much of church teaching and policy, why hasn’t he left Mormonism of his own accord? He says the church is all-encompassing, a hub for his family and social life and that excommunication amounts to a "form of exile."
"I believe it is a barbaric practice,” he said.
Rachael Givens Johnson, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia who has written about the dispute, said Dehlin’s case has some wondering how much dissent will be tolerated and whether excommunication is an acceptable practice.
To her mind, every religion should be allowed to set boundaries. She also pointed out that when the latest investigation of Dehlin began, he asked that his name be taken off the rolls at his ward and he and his wife eventually stopped attending services.
“He’s already made moves to disassociate himself,” she said. “He clearly has more of a cultural affinity.”
Online commenters have branded Dehlin a heretic and self-promoter — criticism that he says stings.
“I’m haunted by the accusation every day. I’ve been called a narcissist, a media whore and all I can say is, it’s silence that’s the problem.”
He said he left a lucrative job at Microsoft to become a psychologist for gay Mormons and launch the podcast as a forum for those troubled by some aspects of Mormon theology or history.
“There are other ways I could have received a lot of money and a lot more fame,” he said. “This has been an extremely painful experience.”