Cody and Leah Young were excommunicated from the LDS Church last week. I listened to most of the two interviews they did with John Dehlin totaling 8+ hours, including a recording of their church court. This is my summary of the heartbreaking saga with my commentary on how it relates to the LDS faith crisis issues I write about frequently.
Cody and Leah Young are good people. You can’t help but fall in love with them through these interviews and relate to the heartache they experienced and the wrestle and purity they had with trying to do the right thing through this entire ordeal. They were active, faithful LDS, raising a beautiful Mormon family in Columbus, Ohio when Leah stumbled upon some “anti-Mormon material”. She read the CES Letter, as an attempt to minister to a family member who left the church over loss of faith due to church historical issues. Like many others, including myself, she started her research with full expectation that she would find the right answers, because, well, we all know “the Church is true.” And like many others, including myself, the research turned into a never-ending rabbit hole, where the questions mounted and the answers never came. Book of Abraham. Polygamy. Book of Mormon historicity, multiple First Vision accounts, etc.
Long story, short. Cody and Leah lost their belief in the truth claims of the LDS Church and felt compelled to leave the church. The pain and trauma they experienced led them to start a support group for other people going through the same experiences. They shared their experience with John Dehlin in a Mormon Stories episode. And shortly after, they were called into a church court and excommunicated.
I differ from the Youngs on a couple points, but most of what they did and said I think is exemplary and nearly exactly how I might have done and said things.
Where I have agreement or sympathy:
- In the court, one of the stake leaders was critical of their decision to not resign, “If you don’t believe, why don’t you just resign?” I think that was a bit of a flippant question. Their answer was perfect. Paraphrasing, they said, “We don’t believe anymore, and we’ve disassociated ourselves with the church, but we were raised this way, we still want to associate in some ways with our kids going to some activities, and we still have family and loved ones that would be deeply hurt if we resigned or were excommunicated.”
- Some Ex-Mormons are highly critical, even venomous, towards the Church. I did not feel that tone from the Youngs. At all. They occasionally were mildly critical. More critical than I would be. But compared to many, many others I’ve read online or heard in podcasts (including many who are still on the rolls of the Church officially as members), they weren’t harshly critical at all.
- They do not appear to be evangelizing to gain recruits to leave the Church. Their group was private and small and they didn’t appear to be encouraging anyone to leave. Nor did the stake leaders accuse them of such.
Black and White thinking
The biggest difference between me and the Youngs is that I see the potential for nuance and gray when it comes to these historical issues. Where the Youngs appear to only see black and white. It’s either ALL true historically, factually, religiously, and spiritually. Or it’s completely false. At one point, Leah said, referring to another person’s faith loss, that they tried their best to make it work but “the information is such that it just can’t work”. I understand that mentality, because I used to see it that way. And the Church seems to reinforce this binary thinking a lot of the time. But I disagree completely. Every religion’s origination stories are sketchy, historically. Every single one. But that doesn’t invalidate the goodness and value and truth and beauty a religion can have in the lived experience of its adherents.
The Youngs never once in the 8+ hours mentioned any attempt at a nuanced way of thinking. They never mentioned nuanced Mormon thinkers like Patrick Mason, Adam Miller, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Dan Wotherspoon, churchistrue blog, etc. I’m very curious to know if they tried that and why it didn’t work for them. I know it may not work for everyone, but it’s sad to me it didn’t even come up in the conversation. This tells me the Middle Wayers are not doing a very good job making these perspectives more widely known. I’m motivated to work harder on this. Who’s with me?
Honesty was a big theme in the interviews, for the Youngs. They seem to equate staying with dishonesty and leaving with integrity. They felt if they didn’t leave the Church, they were being dishonest with their children and others. This comes out of the black and white thinking. I feel very sad that someone would think it’s dishonest to stay in a Church if they didn’t see everything the same as other members. There are challenges with staying in the Church after losing belief in many of the foundational claims, and how to handle things with children is one of them. But there are many who are doing that with integrity and honesty.
Promotion of known critics of the Church
I have a habit of going too far in criticizing Church critics in the ProgMo-ExMo world. I love my church. And I sometimes get overly defensive. I will try to be careful here.
The Youngs mention the CES Letter as a source that they apparently view as accurate and helpful for Mormons to understand difficult Church historical and scriptural issues. In my view, the CES Letter is slanted unfairly against the Church. It’s a long list of all the difficult issues without any counter balances showing the positive sides of any of the issues. It’s manipulative. In it Joseph Smith is accused of being a pedophile. I don’t disagree with all the facts in the CES Letter, but it’s not a document that should be shared among LDS Church members or lauded as a good source. Regardless of whether its creator or the people who promote it should be considered “Anti-Mormon”, the document is used as an “Anti-Mormon” document, specifically meant to persuade people against the Church.
The Youngs did the interviews with John Dehlin and frequently mention his helpfulness to them in their faith crisis. They promote him as a valuable source for those in faith crisis. This appears to be the primary reason they were excommunicated. The Stake President focused on this in their court. During the portion of the court where the Stake President listed the apostasy allegations, he focused on the relationship with John Dehlin.
You have linked yourself with John Dehlin, a former member who was excommunicated for apostasy, whose beliefs are clearly contrary to the Church. He openly promotes and markets those beliefs and seeks donations to continue his work, which constitutes priestcraft…You hosted a dinner for your facebook support group and introduced John at that dinner to your group. You allowed John to record a seven hour interview with you in which you provided further details of your faith crisis and your transition from the church. With your consent this interview has been posted on his website which serves to further his work of destroying faith…Throughout the interview, John Dehlin continues to promote his work. He stated that his objective is to reach new people who don’t know the truth about the Church. He mentions they have a billboard along 1-15 which asks “Was Joseph Smith a treasure digger?” He states that it drives people to his truth claims content and references his Mormon Stories podcast. John also suggests that his listeners create a facebook group like the Youngs did and that he will help them market it.
Many of us remember Greg Smith’s hit piece article on John prior to his church court. I thought it was unethical and disgusting. I don’t do include this next quote to pile on John. I do it to answer the question “what’s so bad about promoting John Dehlin?” I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the Church would be very concerned about its members promoting John as a resource to help those in faith crisis.
When John Dehlin announced the Youngs excommunication, he included the following rant in this youtube video:
The Mormon Church is scared. Mormon Church leaders are terrified. The Mormon Church is hemorrhaging members…The Mormon Church is collapsing, it’s in free fall…The Church is only growing in Africa and the Philippines where people are the most vulnerable…Pres. Nelson changed the name of the church because the names Mormon and LDS have become so soiled. It’s running from its own reputation…Women are waking up to the church’s oppressive patriarchy…The Church is being more open about its history, not because it has a desire to be honest, but because of Google, the internet [etc], and with a heavy dose of contextualizing, gaslighting, and continued deception through the Gospel Topics Essays. The Church is reversing its homophobic LGBT policies…but it’s not doing this out of love for LGBT people. LGBT people have simply been downgraded from worse than murderers, worse than rapists, worse than pedophiles to equal with murders and rapists and pedophiles…[due to backlash from millennials and Progressives] the Church is backtracking some of its most cherished, homophobic, anti-LGBT doctrines and policies (yes John actually implied the Nov 2015 policy was among the Church’s most cherished policies)…The Mormon church excommunicates its real prophets out of fear and out of some delusion that by excommunicating some of its best and brightest it will somehow slow the decline…The Mormon Church is trying to do what all unhealthy organizations do. They try to control their members through fear, through coercion and intimidation…By using fear, they control behavior, so ultimately they can control the thoughts of its members.
I invite John to try harder to see the good the Church does, try harder to see how Church leaders could be good, honorable, loving men doing the best they can to follow Jesus Christ, and to include balance–especially including nuanced and Middle Way views–when he reports on these stories. I think if you position yourself as a mental health professional who can help heal trauma and relationships during an LDS faith crisis, that you need to approach things more balanced.
I track these apostasy excommunications somewhat closely. I have often defended the Church by claiming that these sorts of excommunications have decreased significantly in recent years, and only done in rare cases where the member has repeatedly and vocally been very extreme and harsh in their criticism of the Church. This has been really hard for me, because I just don’t see that at all in the Youngs. I hope this is not a trend.
In the spirit of Elder Christofferson stating that it’s OK to disagree with the brethren, it’s just not OK to harshly criticize and oppose them, I will say I generally am against excommunication in these cases. Dehlin stated a few good reasons why he disagreed with the excommunication, which I happen to agree with wholeheartedly.
- Strategically, it backfires because through these high profile excommunications, more people become aware of the critical things the person is saying about the Church.
- Strategically, it backfires because many members have sympathy for people like the Youngs and it causes bad feelings for the Church that people have to struggle with.
- It feels aggressive and violent and doesn’t feel Christlike to harm members this way.
That said, I don’t know all the reasons, and I support and sustain the brethren, though I disagree generally on this point.
The Youngs plan to appeal their excommunication to the First Presidency. I hope they get the decision reversed. Our Church needs good people like the Youngs in it.