This past week Sam Young announced that he had been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for his aggressive advocacy to change the youth interview process. In Sam Young’s excommunication letter, he was informed by his Stake Presidency that:
The issue is not that you have concerns–or even that you disagree with the Church’s guidelines, rather it is your persistent, aggressive effort to persuade others to your point of view by repeatedly and deliberately attacking and publicly opposing the Church and its leaders. You are entitled to your opinion or position, but you cannot remain a member in good standing while attacking the Church and its leaders and trying to get others to follow you.
Over at By Common Consent, Steve Evans shared his reactions to this line of reasoning:
In my opinion, what we fear in this church is not necessarily truth-telling, or change, or even public expressions or protests. What we fear is ceding control and authority, destabilizing our structure. This organization depends on a few cultural elements for its ongoing survival, and hierarchy is part of that culture. Sam Young was able, quite safely, to decry the practice of bishops’ interviews. What was the line he crossed that brought him into church discipline and excommunication? Quite simply, it was his refusal to stop when his local leaders asked him to stop. It has little to do with his activities and everything to do with his disregard (perceived or real) for the order of the church. …
This is the cardinal sin within Mormonism, for activists: failing to recognize the authority of leaders. You can say whatever you want, act as you please. But when your leaders call you to heel, you best step in line. This is because our church depends on this authority from top to bottom. It is infused in our culture and our discourse. Presiding authority is commemorated in our church programs. Authority and “keys” are invoked in almost every meeting, every week. Even the act Young decried, bishops’ interviews, are an exercise in authority. So, Young’s refusal to comply with leadership goes right to the heart of the contemporary church. The public spectacle engineered around his discipline is only further evidence of the central offense. Young demonstrated that his movement was more important to him than perceived loyalty to the institution.
At the Flunking Sainthood blog for Religion News Service, Jana Riess writes:
In recent years, the driving factor that distinguishes excommunicants from those of us who merely voice our disagreements seems to be whether we have started a movement around our ideas. Sam Young, for example, founded the website Protect LDS Children, organized a hunger strike for three weeks, and called news conferences to publicize his position.
If there’s a change between the LDS excommunications of a quarter century ago and the ones we’ve seen more recently, it’s that the people singled out now have all started organizations and active protests, rather than simply writing about controversial or inconvenient facts of history, like D. Michael Quinn did in 1993.
Last fall I attended a political science conference where Dr. Gary King shared his research about how the Chinese Communist Party exercises control over the social media activity of its citizens. When people share posts that are critical of the regime in power, they often find that their posts are deleted by government censors:
We found that the government does not engage on controversial issues (they do not censor criticism or fabricate posts that argue with those who disagree with the government), but they respond on an emergency basis to stop collective action (with censorship, fabricating posts with giant bursts of cheerleading-type distractions, responding to citizen grievances, etc.). They don’t care what you think of them or say about them; they only care what you can do. [LINK]
In other words, “the Chinese government doesn’t regularly respond if someone says on the internet that the government is full of scoundrels, but if someone says ‘the government is full of scoundrels so let’s meet up next Saturday to do a public demonstration in favor of clean government’ the Chinese internet monitors will quickly remove the social media post.”
I can’t help but be struck by the parallels. When we in Western liberal democracies see political governments treating outspoken critics the same way that the LDS Church treats its outspoken critics, we call it “authoritarianism” and we don’t usually applaud it. Indeed, we often condemn these governments for violating human rights. We don’t (until recently) hold them up as model citizens of the world community.
To be sure, private religious institutions are not liberal democratic governments and are in no way obligated or expected to provide their members the same freedom of speech, expression, and assembly as liberal democratic governments. In free liberal democracies, private organizations are free to structure themselves undemocratically if they like. One of the blessings of the Enlightenment and secularism, however, is that religious organizations are no longer empowered to deprive someone of life, liberty, or property on account of their opinions or public speech. Usually, the most they can formally do is kick them out.
And yet… it still makes me uncomfortable that the modern LDS method of dealing with internal dissent has such strong parallels with global authoritarian regimes. At the very least, I would think that this should give us pause and prompt some deep self-reflection. Do we really want the Chinese Communist Party and the North Korean regime to be our neighbors in organizational behavior when it comes to dealing with internal rabble-rousers and critics? When it happens in China and North Korea, we in liberal democracies say it’s because its leaders fear losing control and so they respond by cracking down on dissent among its citizens. How likely is it that LDS policies on dealing with public dissidents is not similarly motivated to some extent by fear and anxiety of losing control, given that imperfect humans are at the helm and basic human social psychology is at work in all humans and human organizations? Do we ordinarily consider fear and anxiety to be praiseworthy motivations for decision-making? Does that represent our best selves?
This is all the more troubling when one considers the doctrinal implications of excommunication in the LDS Church. For orthodox Latter-day Saints, excommunication literally means eternal banishment from the presence of God, one’s eternal companion, and forever family, if one does not repent and submit to the institutional hierarchy. Is that really the type of God we believe in? One who would forever banish from Their presence someone who is sincerely, yet imperfectly, advocating for justice and progress in communities that they deeply care about? Is that really the type of God that we want to believe in?
As the largest institutional expression of the Joseph Smith Restorationist tradition in the world, I want the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be the very best version of itself that it can be. I want it to embrace and model the expansive vision of truth and the cosmos that Joseph Smith so compellingly articulated to his followers. This is a theology that embraces “further light and knowledge” and “continuing revelation” and preaches that “we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same” [emphasis added]. This theology can handle a bit of well-meaning disagreement among its members. It can handle sincere attempts by those who are doing the best they can with the light and knowledge they have to advocate for positive change (as they see it) in the Church.
After all, does the Jesus of the Gospels teach his followers to submit to unjust institutional religious authority? That’s not my read of the Gospels. The Jesus of the Gospels routinely challenges institutional religious authority.
Can we not have more of a space in our religious communities for those who do likewise?
[Photo credit: Jason Wilson, Wikimedia Commons]
“I want it to embrace and model the expansive vision of truth and the cosmos that Joseph Smith so compellingly articulated to his followers.”
This. I would love to see the church embrace an expansive vision of truth instead of prioritizing only those truths the general authorities find comfortable.
That is a sad result for refusing to cave in to authority. I thought excommunication was sins against God.
Steve Evans has it exactly wrong – the action against Young has everything to do with his activities. It is just as the letter states. It is not the disagreement, “rather it is your persistent, aggressive effort to persuade others to your point of view by repeatedly and deliberately attacking and publicly opposing the Church and its leaders.” Young’s strategy is to publicly shame the Church. My cause is righteous! The Church is out of the way! He turned his excommunication into a media event, all grist for the cause. Everyone focus on me! Yes, demonstrating that his movement trumps loyalty to the Church crosses the line.
So that’s a cause for excommunication. As the letter states: “You are entitled to your opinion or position, but you cannot remain a member in good standing while attacking the Church and its leaders and trying to get others to follow you.” Young’s commission, as is every member’s, is to bring others into the Church, not influence them to stay away, or influence members to leave. The excommunication letter is a model of clarity; it states exactly what the offense is.
The comparison of the Church to the Chinese Communist Party and North Korea is odious and ridiculous. The Chinese Communists and North Korea can and do imprison, exile, torture and kill people. People can freely move into – or out of – the Church. The Church censors no one and deletes no posts on the myriad websites attacking or questioning the Church. Critics can shout as loud as they want, print what they want, blog what they want, get in front of as many cameras as they can, and attract as many adherents as they are able. After excommunication, if that is what comes, those same critics can continue those all those activities or expand them. They aren’t silenced at any point, let alone imprisoned, tortured or killed. The idea that the “LDS method of dealing with internal dissent has such strong parallels with global authoritarian regimes” or that the LDS Church is “treating outspoken critics the same way” as those regimes, is utter baloney and an insult to any victim of Chinese or North Korean oppression. I invite anyone to pick up a few books on North Korea and see if, perhaps, they can detect a difference between being a member of the Church and life in North Korea.
The Church is not “the largest institutional expression of the Joseph Smith Restorationist tradition” (whatever that is); it is the only valid institution founded by the Restoration.
Knoll is pretty clear that he thinks Young is doing the work of Jesus in all this. Both Evans and Knoll want to locate the motivation of Church leaders in “fear and anxiety” (because that’s what propels Kim Jong-un, don’t you see). That these Church leaders feel neither and are acting out of principle and receiving spiritual confirmation is evidently not a credible option worth considering. This is where the divide is really located.
Hi Tim: thank you for your constructive feedback and for sharing your perspective. I appreciate your frequent willingness to engage and offer responses to us as authors over the years, even when those perspectives differ substantially. I am grateful that the Body of Christ is wide enough for both people like you and people like me, as well as our good faith efforts to do the best we can with the knowledge that we have. Please continue to contribute to the conversation. 🙂
While I can understand this perspective from a secular view, it makes me sad how common this view point is among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t know you, and I’ll acknowledge that limits my understanding of your perspective. However, this article is laced with language implying that you do not believe this is God’s church. While I doubt you would ever say that, I would encourage you to consider who you think guides the church. Who are we submitting to when a leader who is adhering to protocol that is revealed by God tells someone to stop their current behavior? Is it a religious institution or God we are being asked to submit to?
I, for one, would welcome some of the changes Sam Young proposes, and I hope the Apostles and Prophets are praying about and discussing it. That being said, if they don’t change it, then I will trust that at the very least God did not give the revelation to change it.
Also, I wish people would stop throwing the phrase “Freedom of speech” around with out understanding what it means. How is the concept of free speech relevant to this case? There are plenty of things I could say and get arrested. If I join an large organization, there will likely be language I could use that could get me fired. In most cases I’d have agreed to monitor my language in a contract. Sam Young attempted to publicly oppose and shame his leaders and the church. As established by revelation, those who oppose God’s church from within will be removed, then they can continue to oppose from without. He knew the rules.
I believe that God guides this church. If I OPPOSE (not the same as questioning) the church, I oppose God. I will still at times question things, and know that God hears my questions. Where applicable, my leaders will hear my questions and thoughts. If my questions address a real imperfection, such as earlier Saints who questioned about the availability of the Priesthood, then I am confident that in God’s time the church as a whole will increase in light and knowledge and my questions will be resolved. So, stop asking President Nelson to change the church. He will never change something without God’s approval, because I’m sure he understands that under his (President Nelson’s) guidance, the church is doomed, but under God’s guidance through him, we will flourish.
Honest question, since I’ve never been to this site before. Are all the authors (and specifically the author of this article) members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? I was going to state some opposing opinions, but then I realized that from a secular perspective this article would appear like a pretty accurate analysis of what happened. So, I’m gonna post my opinions, but I just want to say that if you aren’t a part of the church… yeah, I totally get what your saying and seeing, I’d probably think it too from the outside.
From my perspective specifically, as someone in the church, it just comes down to whether God is in charge, or if President Nelson is in charge of the church. If God is in charge, then opposing (not the same as questioning, since we are encouraged to ask questions) the church, would be akin to opposing God. Opposing God is bound to have pretty dire consequences. You might say “he didn’t oppose God, he opposed the imperfect men within the church.” Well, within the church we have had policies for a long time about what it means to not sustain your leaders, or belonging to or organizing any group that is in opposition to the church, Sam Young knew this. He willingly went against/disregarded these policies that the church preaches as the word of God and fought against it in an attempt to shame the church into doing what he believed was right.
I should say, I don’t disagree with a lot of what Sam Young was trying to say, but his behavior doesn’t strike me as someone who believes that God is actually in charge of this church. He seemed to be operating from the belief that President Nelson and the other leaders of the church are guiding the church based on their own opinions. As a member, it is my belief that God is in charge, and I know I can trust Him.
Questions lead to revelation, so, I’m glad people are asking these questions! It opens us up as his people, to receive more light and knowledge. This wasn’t simple questioning though, it was defiance and opposition. So, the question is, was he just opposing another religious institution, or was he opposing God’s church. If it’s God’s church then it’s not guided by fear, it’s guided by revelation.
If Sam Young does still believe that this church is guided by God, I hope he can learn more about the process of revelation, repent, and return to full fellowship… the types of questions and concerns he has are needed here. They are the type of questions that lead to us growing closer to God. Even the right questions, however, lose their power when used to try and tear down the institution he professes to be trying to build up. This is especially true when/if that institution belongs to and is guided by God himself.