Excommunication and Intellectual Freedom: Some Thoughts

It has recently been announced that Kate Kelly, the leader of the Ordain Women movement, and John Dehlin, a long-time member-in-name-only who has been publicly criticizing the Church for years, have recently been called in for disciplinary councils, along with Alan Rock Waterman, a blogger who has a essentially stated that the Church has been in a collective state of apostasy since the days of Brigham Young. The announcement has evoked the predictable reaction within the bloggeratti, with assistance from the mainstream media, of how the Church is “punishing” these “intellectuals” for not conforming to expected modes of thought.

Among other reactions, I couldn’t help but sense just how timely this made Rick Anderson’s recent essay published in Interpreter just last Friday, entitled, “Mormonism and Intellectual Freedom.” Included in that paper is a response to the very charge being made with regard to Kelly and Dehlin:
First of all, it is essential to understand that members of the Church are given tremendous latitude in what they may think or believe as members. The Church teaches very specific things about, for example, the nature and character of God, what constitutes proper order in meetings, and how and to whom one should pray. However, members are almost never officially queried about what they believe. Some may believe that God is noncorporeal, others that it would be right and proper to open a sacrament meeting with prayer to our Heavenly Mother, others that the Church should never have renounced plural marriage. These members may harbor such heterodox beliefs indefinitely without sanction or any formal consequence, even if their beliefs are known to others. It is important to understand that while the Church espouses articles of faith, it imposes no creed. The only time a Mormon is asked by a Church authority to account for his or her beliefs is in the interview for a temple recommend—and even in that context, the questions are mostly about behavior; those that deal with belief are strictly limited to the most fundamental truth claims of Mormonism, and address them only in very broad terms. The reality is that Mormons are free to believe all kinds of things, and many of us sitting in sacrament meeting might be surprised (and perhaps shocked) to know what private beliefs are harbored by the brothers or sisters sitting next to them. 
Again, this is expected and fully tolerated in the Church. Only when heterodox beliefs are expressed as heterodox teaching does the person who holds those beliefs begin to run the risk of sanction—and even then, the risk only becomes serious if the person refuses to submit to correction by those the Church has designated to maintain doctrinal boundaries. Disagreeing with the Church is not cause for Church discipline; persisting, despite attempts at correction, in publicly teaching principles at odds with Church doctrine may be. This is not to say that what one believes does not matter; it matters very much, which is why the Church expends so much effort in teaching what it holds to be correct doctrine. It is only to point out that while the Church works hard to create belief in saving principles, it does virtually nothing either to root out or to punish incorrect beliefs that are privately held. 
While disfellowshipment and excommunication may be experienced as harsh punishment by some Church members (and perhaps as a relief by others), it is important to recognize that such measures are not infringements of one’s right to think or speak what one wishes; that right remains fully in place regardless of one’s affiliation with the Church. It is, rather, an expression of the Church’s right to decide what it will teach and who may speak on its behalf. All of us have the right to speak according to our conscience, but none of us has the right to insist on continued association with an organization whose expressed tenets and principles are at odds with the ones we publicly teach. I can no more expect the Church to let me teach what it considers false doctrine in Sunday School than I could expect People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to let me hand out free bacon in its meetings. Correlation is, ultimately, not a restriction on intellectual freedom at all; it leaves no one less free to believe or teach whatever he or she wishes. Instead, it is a way for the Church to maintain the integrity of its teachings. Those who wish to espouse contrary teachings are completely free to do so—but the Church is also free to disassociate itself from them.
Anderson’s essay is extremely interesting and insightful. I jotted some of my own thoughts on the issue of “intellectual freedom” and the Church after reading it, and have been debating whether to share them on here or not. Given recent events, I decided it might be a good idea to go ahead with it.

My Thoughts on the Gospel and Intellectual Freedom

My first thought is that I remain committed to Gospel teachings and beliefs by choice. As I engage a wide variety of different intellectual positions, I make the conscious choice to align my views with the teachings of the Gospel. This is hard sometimes, but the Lord has asked for not only our hearts, might, and strength, but also our minds. To me, giving our minds to the Lord means we must be intellectually committed to the Lord, his Gospel, and his Church. If I ever felt that such a position was intellectually impossible, I would not have to be called in for a hearing to be excommunicated: I would stop choosing those beliefs, and disassociate myself from the Church.

For now (and the foreseeable future), however, I persist in that choice. I will fully admit that this mental commitment does, at times, require what some pejoratively call “mental gymnastics.” And, these are exhausting at times. But have you ever seen an actual gymnast? They are some of the most physically fit people in the world. My “mental gymnastics” require that I engage in long, difficult, challenging and rigorous thought exercises as I strive to understand how new information can fit within the framework of Gospel doctrines and principles. Such exercises improve and sharpen my critical thinking skills. And, this mental commitment to the Gospel does not require that I ignore the evidence. The very process of “mental gymnastics” is something one goes through as an effort to grapple with the evidence. I conclude from all this, that my mental commitment to the Gospel does not actually restrict my intellectual horizions. Rather, it expands them.

Just as those most physically fit are people, like gymnasts and other athletes, who exercise and work out, I suspect people who endure “mental gymnastics” also tend to be more mentally fit—and intellectually strong—then those who don’t. And this is not unique to the Gospel paradigm. Everyone, whether consciously or not, has an ideology (or framework, or worldview, or paradigm—pick whichever word you like) by which they interpret the world. That worldview creates mental commitments—again, whether consciously or not—that will either be held to or abandoned in the face of data that does not, at least initially, appear to fit.  There are no doubt those who quickly abandon such commitments, but those are they who are “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine” to quote the apostle Paul. Most of us probably offer at least a little resistance to new ideas, and engage in some “mental gymnastics” to do so. And I think this is a good thing. It keeps us mentally fit.

None of this is to suggest that one cannot or should not change their mental commitments (and accompanying ideologies). In fact, if you are not currently a Mormon, I hope that someday you will make such a change. What I am saying is that it is intellectually healthy to resist such changes and be committed to our ideals. It makes our brains work and keeps us on a generally solid foundation. If you are never doing to mental gymnastics, it does not mean that you are intellectually free or superior. Rather, it means that you are intellectually lazy, and mentally unfit. 


  1. I find it interesting, as a liberal myself, that many "liberals" wish to take the Church to task for their handling of the Ordain Women stance. Recently there was an actor who stood up with his beliefs about homosexuality (something I don't feel negatively about) and he was suspended from the show he was on. Many liberals took to the airwaves, insisting that he had his freedom of speech but the company that employed him who's platform he used to get in the public eye had the right to suspend/terminate him. If it was true then, how is it not true then that the Church had the right to hold accountable those teaching against it's beliefs?

    1. I mean I don't feel negatively towards homosexuality that is. I disagreed with his words.

  2. The term "mental gymnastics" does not imply you are exercising your mind. It means you are twisting and contorting your thoughts in ways that are illogical while attempting to rationalize an incorrect idea. If you need to make a conscious choice to force the available evidence fit your personal views, that's not an intellectual exercise, that's cognitive dissonance, that's confirmation bias, that's trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Clearly not everyone has the same views, and yet the church demands conformance. And I disagree, cognitive dissonance is not mentally healthy. It is not healthy to come to a logical conclusion based on actual facts, then change that conclusion because it does not align with your presupposed ideals. Not healthy and intellectually empty. I wonder what kind of mental gymnastics are required to love and worship a god who refused the blessings of the priesthood for an entire race of people based on skin color.

    1. Jake:

      I understand what is meant by most people when they use of the term "mental gymnastics." My point is that I do not feel like that is what I (or anybody other "apologist") am doing. Hence, I reinterpreted the term to reflect what I think is really going on.

      "Cognitive dissonance" is not the term I used, nor it is necessarily what I had in mind, but in any event everyone experiences it periodically in life, and there are a variety of ways of dealing with, some healthy, and others not so healthy. Carefully analyzing the issues and looking for ways to reconcile information (as I described above), rather than just give in to the dissonance, is among the healthier ways of dealing with it.

      And, for what it is worth, contra your own assertion, I had a (non-Mormon) professor of a logic and critical thinking class who insisted that it is good for you commit to and defend a proposition even as new data challenges that position. Indeed, he believed it developed good critical thinking skills to take an argument to its absolute limits, to maintain a position until it was absolutely impossible. Which is what I am advocating in the OP.


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