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Thoughts about excommunication and resignation

September 10, 2009

So, the big deal (well, I don’t know how big) throughout a part of the Bloggernacle/Outer Blogness (or maybe borderlands?) has been John Remy’s excommunication over apostasy. It’s been precipitating for a while (apostasy doesn’t just happen overnight, after all), from what I can see, but it came to a boil here, here, and here. And this has brought other posts remarking about it, a brief write-up about it, and even a post questioning how well various bloggers value their membership, as opposed to their blogging.

There are plenty of points to address. Maybe the rude people commenting on his site. Maybe the whole situation (John has been disaffiliated with the church functionally for a while, but things seemed to escalate only when the temple got mentioned and got around the wrong people — that says something about what the church finds formally actionable). But, I most liked Faithful Dissident’s question about dealing with blog liability (in the last link I posted), so I want to explore that.

FD’s question is simple. If your blog were “outed” and the church wanted to take disciplinary action against you for it, which would give: the blog or membership in the church?

This assumes that a blog even has actionable material. People seem afraid that anything one blogs that expresses doubt or talks about tough history will lead to a church court. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t necessarily want to marginalize people who have had action taken against them for what they blogged, but I think the church doesn’t care until one of a few lines are crossed: namely, when one is attempting to destroy others’ faith, destroy the credibility of the church, or reveal “secret” (err, sorry, SACRED) aspects of the church, these are probably actions that will lead to the church getting involved.

These have a lot of leeway. What is faith destroying? Is it discussion about any controversial issue in a noncorrelated way (trust me: the church has a lot)? Some people’s testimonies are particularly fragile…Plus, everything’s biased in favor of the church. The church calls it “destroying faith.” A non- or ex-member might call it, “giving the facts.” (or whatever similarly charged, biased expression.)

I don’t think the church is out to get bloggers. I really think “they” (whoever they are) don’t care. For anyone’s blog to register as a blip is like winning a lottery.

That being said, let’s accept that your blog is picked and you get the fateful letter. What do you do?

I think the various responses are telling of the goals a person has. For example, bringing the blog down (option 1 for FD) is an attempt at repentance. It acknowledges guilt and attempts to provide restitution. I think that people who do this, even if they get disfellowshipped or excommunicated, could use this in a case to be reinstated later on.

But that answer isn’t satisfying. If I blog and get “caught” (although, again, I don’t feel like I have anything worth being caught for…), I stand by my words. I don’t apologize for this. I don’t take it back (or if I do in the future, it won’t be because of an invitation to church court).

So for me, I have to decide between FD’s option 2a and 2b or 3.

I don’t like 3. I don’t like the idea of resigning to counter an excommunication. It seems like saying, “You can’t fire me; I quit!” Who would I be kidding? If I wanted to resign, I’d need no church accusation to begin.

So, between 2a and 2b…even though I don’t like how 2b sounds, I have to admit that that’s what I’d be doing. What I like about how FD describes 2b is that she acknowledges that internal Mormon identity remains. Regardless of standing in the church, or activity level, or whatever, by virtue of our upbringing, we are Mormons. So, we keep up with our heritage and culture in different ways than from going to church meetings. Perhaps through blogs or message boards (which is one reason why shutting down a blog doesn’t make sense).

And this gets to a core point with excommunication. In excommunication, the church is doing damage control. They are trying to decrease the legitimacy of the member in question by sticking a huge administrative mark on them. So now, as John goes on and blogs, he will be officially ex-Mormon…and the most conservative of members will call him worse than that as a result.

The reason this works (but why it should not) is because many people believe that administrative status in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is tied to Mormon identity. And I think that’s why many nonbelieving Mormons don’t resign. Not necessarily because they buy into this administrivia, but because they have to maintain credibility with family and friends who might.

I dislike this confusion and believe the cultural aspect of Mormonism should be separate from the administrative. It shouldn’t matter if John is excommunicated, resigned, or on the rolls. Everyone who knows him should know that his culture has been indelibly affected by Mormonism. And I think that because of this, they should hold him with a level of credibility because of this, despite his position with administration.

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17 Comments
  1. Well put! If someone is going to judge you solely by your affiliation with a specific organization, I think it says more about them, than it does about you.

  2. Molly permalink

    I don’t think it’s possible to separate church culture from church government. The two are inextricably linked. Just as hostilities toward non-Mormons were whipped up by the Oath of Vengeance in the temple during the Brigham Young years, and just as homophobia has been whipped up by the church’s overt political activity, it’s impossible for a person not to be treated as a complete pariah when they’ve been excommunicated. The very terms spelled out by the church leadership can’t be interpreted any other way. Sure, a Mormon could be civil to someone who’s been kicked out, but by default they must be treated with second class status.

  3. re Molly:

    I see what you’re saying, and I think that functionally that’s the way things work in *many* wards, but I ALSO think that many people — who remain active believing (although heterodox) members of the church — would disagree.

    See, because there are still members in the church who are progressive, who did not support Prop 8 for example (and there was no action taken in most cases…), there is always this kind of “cushion” with these kinds of members. Quite simply, regardless of what the leaders are saying and how a person thinks it “can’t be interpreted any other way,” people will find a way to interpret it some other way. That’s really what’s astounded me. People interpret things in some pretty crazy (I mean that in a good way) ways.

    I don’t know how to quantify that though. I would be more likely to say that people who make those kinds of accommodating interpretations are not equally distributed in every ward, and aren’t a commanding presence in every ward. But I mean, even if my physical area doesn’t have cool cats, there’s *always* the bloggernacle blogs, Sunstone, etc., I think these are all examples that church culture can be taken out of church administration.

  4. I disagree with the policy of excommunicating people for apostacy. I define apostacy as speaking of personal disagreement with various theological doctrines.

    (I suppose this makes me a whiner!)

    I think it’s not a worthwhile practice, and even, from my personal interpretation of Christ’s doctrine, not even very Christian.

    So, as no longer an official member of record myself, does that give me the right to that opinion, and to express that opinion? I think so.

    So I don’t have the blog vs. my membership dilemma (I wasn’t a member when I started blogging). But I don’t think it’s a fair position for LDS leadership to put its members in. I think it does a disservice to them, and to the open airing of ideas.

  5. I think I would want to make a distinction. I can’t fully address the comments, but I can say this.

    on any given particular issue, I think one is allowed to disagree with it. So, let’s say you disagree on excommunication for apostasy (as you have said). You are fine to do so. Just recognize that regardless of your disagreement, the LDS church is the one that defines *who* gets excommunicated and for what reason. So, despite your disagreement (and you have the right to both that opinion and the right to express that opinion — and you would STILL have the right to both if you were still a member) — you would *not* necessarily change what actions would befall you. So if you were excommunicated for apostasy, it wouldn’t be whiny (IMO) to say you disagreed with it. Rather, the whininess would be in supposing that your opinion on the issue held any weight in the church administration. Really, they are the ones with the cards and the keys.

  6. Hey, if anyone in the church office building is listening, I still have that temple ceremony video available.

    It’s funny that I was so afraid of being exed when I was a faithful member. Now that I’m not a faithful member, it actually seems pretty hard. What’s a guy got to do? 😉

    For various personal reasons, resignation isn’t an option for me until they invite me to a disciplinary court. Otherwise I would have done it a couple years ago now.

  7. “The reason this works (but why it should not) is because many people believe that administrative status in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is tied to Mormon identity. And I think that’s why many nonbelieving Mormons don’t resign. Not necessarily because they buy into this administrivia, but because they have to maintain credibility with family and friends who might.”

    That hits the nail on the head for us in our situation!

  8. I think that if I were a unpracticing, unbelieving Mormon, I’d want an excommunication to seal the deal, too.

    I don’t normally read John Remy or keep up with his blog, but I’m dying to hear his excommunication account in full.

  9. It’s funny that I was so afraid of being exed when I was a faithful member. Now that I’m not a faithful member, it actually seems pretty hard. What’s a guy got to do? 😉

    Yeah, I’ve wondered (and written) about this question as well. I know “they” know about my blog, because I can see COB IP addresses in my logs (and I’m not exactly anonymous, even though my handle isn’t my real name). And I’ve openly posted that I had sex in the BYU library while I was a student at BYU, but apparently that’s a less serious crime than posting about the temple ceremony.

    That, or my theory is correct: that they only ex people who actually care about their membership. If they were to hold a “Court of Love” for me, I’d happily attend with tape recorder in hand — no angst about it, just journalistic curiosity and free material for my blog. But I think that’s why they won’t bother with me. OTOH, now that I’ve said that, maybe they’ll call me in just to mess with my theory… grr.

    😉

    • chanson ~ I think it’s the sex-in-the-BYU-library thing that’s keeping you in the church. I can’t imagine that any self-respecting, austere, stake-president-type man who’s supposed to be doling out church discipline would ever want to look a woman in the eye and ask about that.

  10. I think excommunication should clearly be used as a tool when it is protecting the community in some tangible way.

    A guy abusing his wife or molesting children is an obvious one. The lady who went through one of my past stakes and had a history of filing sexual harassment lawsuits against any man who she managed to get in a one-on-one conversation was another (last I heard, she was suing the city council, the fire department, the police department, the stake president, and about three different bishopric members in different wards).

    A teenager who’s basically out to have sex with as many of the young women as possible is another one.

    But there is also a point where excommunication can be offered as healing tool to the person involved. Some people personally need that path of exile and return. For them, it can be a symbolic journey toward fixing things in their own lives. As such, it can be a part of the repentance process.

    This one is really tricky though and has a lot of potential for being misapplied. Hard tightrope for a stake president to walk, I imagine.

    • “But there is also a point where excommunication can be offered as healing tool to the person involved. Some people personally need that path of exile and return. For them, it can be a symbolic journey toward fixing things in their own lives. As such, it can be a part of the repentance process.”

      Seth
      Statistically how often in all honesty does it really work in this way? It seems just about every person that I have known to be Ex’d just ended up fading away over time. I have seen a few that were “humble” and wanting to go through the process to get BACK on track, but have not in my experience seen too many successful “healing” stories. Sure when it is a success story we hear about it in testimony meetings but the non success stories just fade and are not talked about, what would your guess be at successful healing in this situation I would say less than 10%. Is it really worth it? It seems if the offender is humble and on the” I want to get back on track” mindset there is no value in causing him/her the public shame it just seems so counter productive.

  11. Depends on what population you’re looking at, I guess.

    If you’re looking at the online ex-Mormon population, you’re already looking at a group of people who left and feel more or less OK with that choice.

    So yeah, not much “redemption” going on there obviously.

    Your point that the average active Mormon in the pews isn’t going to have an accurate picture either is probably true (and for the same reasons).

    I’m pretty agnostic on the point actually. I think using excommunication this way is pretty tricky. I’d be very shy about using it myself if I were in a position to decide.

  12. Yeah, I’d also have to take Seth’s position regarding looking at populations.

    Quite simply, I don’t know the numbers of people who are actually freaked out by excommunication and who use it as part of the repentance process…but I know that I’m biased because of the people I hang out with — so to ME, it seems natural that MORE people, once excommunicated, stay out.

    However, then you get stories like, “I was on the committee where an excommunicated priesthood member came back,” or you read blogs saying, “I’d do anything to avoid excommunication or if I were excommunicated, I’d do anything to get back.”

    I think that regardless of these two scenarios, excommunication serves a great different role that I’ve already discussed: it’s damage control. It illegitimizes the excommunicated person (who obviously was doing *something* the church frowns upon). So, if they stay out, member see them as apostates (who should be distrusted, as sxark points out). But if the person tries to come back in, they’ll come back in much more cautious, having seen the whip of the Lord. The church will have one (more docile than before) member.

    So I think the statistics don’t matter. As an administration that has the right to protect its flock (the 99), it certainly has the right to quarantine, punish, or even eliminate the 1. If the 1 learns to corral back with the flock, great. If not, it is neutralized.

  13. I was basing it on my experience while I was TBM before blogging and the internet, when I left the Church AOL had just come out and you were paying by the minute… 🙂

  14. Thanks for continuing this conversation, Andrew.

    I’ve thought a lot about this topic since FD did her post on this, and actually decided to restart my blog, under an anonymous name. Its actually fairly easy for someone who wants to know who I am to figure it out, but it does keep me from having to deal with my fellow ward members from getting on my case.

    I did this b/c I realized… I’m not really so much concerned with my church membership per se. Getting ex-ed tomorrow for apostacy would be a little sad, but not for any religious reasons. Instead, its like you said in your post – I like the connection with family and friends. I like not being seen as a pariah. I like lying low at church, flying under the radar, and exercising my mental muscles online.

    Its not my intention to hurt anyone else’s faith, but if I have serious issues with the church’s stance, I feel I should have a right to express those concerns. The internet is a pretty great place to do so and to get feedback and, to some extent, validation for my issues.

    I don’t find the concept of ex-ing for apostacy terribly Christ-like. It seems that the better choice would be to “leave the 90 and 9” for the 1. But then, I suppose Christ didn’t really discuss the “for good of the church” in His sermons, either.

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