Whistleblowers often suffer consequences for speaking out, and our guest Dr. John Dehlin knows that first-hand. A 6th generation member, he was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) for speaking up about gay rights and the suicide problem within the LDS church and for hosting a podcast that discussed problems with LDS Church history, truth claims, etc. They didn’t like him raising those issues, but he persevered and is now helping provide support for Mormons experiencing religious faith crises.
Dr. Dehlin holds a master’s degree in Instructional Technology and a Ph.D. in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. His interests revolve around the nexus of religion and mental health, emphasizing navigating religious faith crises and LGBTQ religious identity conflict. He is CEO of the Open Stories Foundation, and his TEDx talk, The Ally Within, discussed his transformation from a truly believing and homophobic member to an LGBT ally. His research on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Mormon experience is from a sample of over 1,600 LGBT Mormons. He recently passed the 113,000-subscriber mark on YouTube for his Mormon Stories podcast.
Familial Ties to the Mormon Church
Dr. Dehlin discusses with us his journey out of the Mormon religion. He is a sixth-generation Mormon. His ancestors go back to the founding of the Mormon church in Ohio and Illinois in the 1830s. His great-grandparents practiced polygamy. A relative was Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th President of the LDS Church. In our interview, John discusses his geographic roots; his mother was from Idaho, and his dad was from Utah, but John grew up in Katy, Texas. He talks about being a devout orthodox Mormon doing a two-year mission in Guatemala and attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he met his wife, Margi. They married in a Mormon temple in Washington, D.C. John and Margi have four children. Before starting his podcast, he worked for 15 years in the tech industry for companies like Microsoft, Bain & Company, and Arthur Andersen, as well as for MIT.
Falsehoods and Historical Truths
Dr. Dehlin began studying the factual, historical truths about the Mormon church when he was in his 30s, and this caused him a major crisis of faith. He talks about losing his faith but being inspired by secular and progressive Jewish authors, thinking that the entire Mormon movement didn’t need to be destroyed. Instead, he could help influence a progressive movement within the church.
Uncomfortable Mormon Stories
In 2004, he left Microsoft and, the following year, started his Mormon Stories podcast with the idea of interviewing Mormons “about all the things the Mormon church is uncomfortable talking about.” He wanted a place for progressive Mormons to talk about their beliefs and criticisms of the church while coexisting under the “big tent of broad Mormonism.” This effort lasted around ten years until the Mormon church reprimanded him for giving his TEDx Talk on supporting LGBTQ Mormons and same-sex marriage. They asked him to take his podcast down, and he refused. In 2015, ten years into his podcast, Dr. Dehlin was excommunicated from the Mormon church.
That same year, Dr. Dehlin graduated with his Ph.D. in Clinical and Counseling Psychology and has since been running his nonprofit, the podcast, doing workshops and retreats for Mormons in transition and supporting Mormons in need of mental health assistance for anxiety, depression, and suicide prevention. His goal is to “help people build healthy and happy lives.”
Dr. Dehlin talks about how so much of the teaching of the Mormon church is detrimental to others, including the LGBTQ population. He talks about the belief within the Mormon church that if you are gay, you are taught to either stay celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex, and you endure your life.
These ideas changed for Dr. Dehlin when some of his cousins came out as gay and ended up moving across the country from Utah, effectively disappearing from the family. Following that, his wife’s cousin came out as gay and told them he contemplated suicide. Learning about his cousin, he said, was “another chink in my homophobic Mormon armor.” He later heard the story of Stuart Matis, a young Mormon who returned from a mission and, on February 25, 2000, shot himself on the steps of a local California Mormon chapel. All of these things coalesced into Dr. Dehlin’s thinking about the disapproval of the Mormon church being a matter of life and death for many LGBTQ individuals. He began developing more empathy for women, feminism, and against racism. At this time, he realized that if Mormonism was going to continue, it had to become less sexist, less misogynistic, less racist, and less homophobic. He strongly felt that it needed to come clean about its history.
The Façade of Happy Families
We talk about the face of the Mormon church as one of “happy families,” but that the church is also instrumental in destroying some families. If one spouse in a Mormon marriage loses faith, they are sometimes told that their spouse will divorce them if they leave the church. They sometimes face being alienated from their children and cut off from family and friends.
Dr. Dehlin discusses how the Mormon church meets the criteria of my BITE Model and, therefore, could be called a cult. He also discusses how using the word cult within an LDS context can be off-putting and create a backfire effect.
The Mormon church has a long history of teaching inaccurate, incomplete, and/ or whitewashed history to its members and to church investigators.
No Man Knows My History
We talk about Fawn McKay Brodie, the niece of a former Mormon prophet, David O. McKay. Brodie got a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and was a historian. She wrote a biography of Joseph Smith called No Man Knows My History in 1945 and updated it in the 1970s. Additionally, there is a short book called CES Letter by Jeremy Runnels, which Dr. Dehlin recommends highly as a shorter summary of critical points.
We talk about the role the Internet is playing in young Mormons being able to find information and realize the church is not what it claims to be. In July 2013, Laurie Goodstein wrote Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt in the New York Times and told the experiences of Mormons in Sweden who were looking at documents of the church on the Internet and coming to revelations about the falsehoods they were fed throughout their lives.
Billion Dollar Tithing
We discuss the LDS missionary program, as they have missionaries being sent to convert others in various parts of the world. Mormons across the world, including in developing countries, are asked to tithe 10 percent of their income before even paying for necessities like food and shoes. This policy leaves some in financial peril and extreme poverty to support a church with a $100 billion+ investment fund. Roger Clarke, head of Ensign Peak Advisors, which manages the investing holdings, told The Wall Street Journal (as reported in The Salt Lake Tribune) tithing “is more of a sense of commitment than it is the church needing the money.” Dr. Dehlin has a video on tithing on his channel, Understanding Mormonism.
Making Constructive Change
Despite the difficulties inherent in the Mormon church, there is hope. John sees himself as a secular Mormon. Dehlin talks about the church being forced to make changes partly because of the Internet, where the troubled history of the church is being broadcast for all to see. This includes the LGBTQ suicide epidemic, the massive wealth of the church, and the deception of its members. Talking openly and honestly about these things, telling the truth about the church and its history, is part and parcel of effecting positive change. Everyone can be a part of it by educating themselves and speaking up. We both hope that as the older generation of leadership passes away, more progressive leadership will make substantive changes.
Dr. Dehlin and I will be presenting a workshop, “Recovery After Mormonism,” on Sunday, March 19th, in Alpine, Utah.