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Did John Dehlin Bring Down the Mormon Studies Review: (Hint: the answer has two letters…)

By Ralph Hancock

Much as I lament the gathering storms, there will be some usefulness in them. Events will help to draw fresh attention to God’s higher ways and His kingdom, which is to ‘become fair as the sun, and clear as the moon’ (D&C 105:31). Therefore, in this hastened ripening process, let us not be surprised that the tares are looking more like tares all the time. During this time when nations are in distress, with perplexity, there will actually be some redemptive turbulence…”

Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Recent “turbulence” surrounding BYU’s Maxwell Institute provides the occasion for some preliminary reflections on “apologetics” and, more broadly, on the purposes and responsibilities of the intellectual life for those committed to the Restored Gospel.

I am a longtime consumer of (and sometimes minor contributor to) the astute apologetics provided by F.A.R.M.S., later absorbed by BYU as the Maxwell Institute. I am also a friend of Dan Peterson’s (who is on the Board of Advisors of this John Adams Center), and a former student and friend of Dan’s associate at the Mormon Studies Review, Louis Midgley — make that former associate at the former MSR. And I should mention that I am a friendly acquaintance of Gerald Bradford’s and, I trust, of John Dehlin, who was once a teaching assistant of mine, not to mention an intramural basketball teammate at BYU. (I’m about twenty years older and 9 inches shorter, so I appreciated being included on his team.)

Regarding the turbulence, then, let us first be clear on some basics.

Dan Peterson, a prolific, faithful, learned and reasonable LDS apologist (=defender) has been dismissed, along with his whole team (Louis Midgley, George Mitton and others) rather abruptly by Director Gerald Bradford as editor of the Mormon Studies Review (formerly F.A.R.M.S. Review), published by the Maxwell Institute. It seems clear that Peterson and Bradford have long had different visions of the basic mission and direction of the Review. (See this excellent discussion of these differences by William Hamblin.) What brought these differences to a critical head seems to have been the question of the publication of a long article by Greg Smith assessing the activities of John Dehlin, founder of “Mormon Stories.” Dehlin and his friends have repeatedly described the article as a “hit piece” against Dehlin. The definition of a “hit piece,” it is fair to suppose, is quite subjective, and in Dehlin’s case it seems to designate an article critical of and damaging to Dehlin’s project. (See this pertinent commentary). Dehlin has claimed that a General Authority of the Church agreed with him that the article was unfair and unhelpful, and that this was the source of the decision to suppress its publication at MSR.

What are we to make of this conjunction of events? John Dehlin would have us take it as a validation of his efforts to address LDS who doubt core beliefs or who otherwise feel marginalized from the LDS community. (What it means to “address” is a key question, of course. See below.) And so he and his friends would have us interpret the sacking of the MSR crew as evidence of support in high places (at Church headquarters and at BYU) for John Dehlin and his activities.

But the existence of such support is implausible on its face and is by no means proven by the known facts, namely, that an article critical of Dehlin’s activities was suppressed, and that, shortly thereafter, the MSR crew was sacked.

There are many possible reasons, reasons having nothing to do with any sympathy for John Dehlin’s project, for which one or more general authorities might find it advisable not to have an official organ of BYU publish information at the present time that is true (it should be said) and very damaging to John Dehlin. I invite the reader to consider for himself/herself what some such reasons might be.

The re-founding of the MSR (and, arguably of the Maxwell Institute) is obviously another question. The suppression of the Dehlin exposé seems to have become the occasion for Gerry Bradford to move the Institute decisively in a direction that he desired and Dan Peterson did not. But it should be known that Peterson and his staff expressed full willingness to comply with the instruction from above, even though they would have welcomed a further explanation. So Dan Peterson was not fired for irreconcilable differences on the specific issue of the Dehlin article.

What must be frustrating for the former editors of MSR is that Gerald Bradford has not, at least to anyone’s knowledge, read the Greg Smith piece on Dehlin. It does not seem, in fact, that the General Authority in question had read the piece when he gave the instruction to have it suppressed. (It is amusing, moreover, to contemplate the fact that none of those reveling on the internet about the suppression of the “hit piece” have actually read it.) This would suggest, not that there was something specifically objectionable in the article, but rather that someone judged best for BYU not to be publicly associated at this time with any strong criticism of John Dehlin, however reasonable or justified by the facts. So the suppression of the article does not by any means exclude the possibility that the article’s criticism of Dehlin was well-founded, or that the General Authority and his colleagues would agree with it. For all we know, Gerry Bradford himself might well endorse Smith’s argument, were he familiar with it.

The main point to be clear on, then, is that nothing in the unhappy story of the demise of Dan Peterson’s leadership at the Maxwell Institute justifies the claim that John Dehlin has found favor in high places, either at BYU or in SLC.

Let it be said, then, despite the free characterizations that have been offered on the internet by so many who have never read the article, that Greg Smith’s portrayal of John Dehlin’s project simply gathers and organizes facts, facts that any attentive person would be able to find by spending a few hours on the internet, in order to clarify the nature of that project and to refute misleading characterizations that make Dehlin appear more benign from an LDS point of view than he really is. Any attentive person interested in the truth would be able to find clear evidence that Dehlin himself is at best skeptical of LDS truth claims and that he clearly endorses a skeptical position on such claims, that Dehlin takes positions on questions of sexuality and sexual morality that are plainly incompatible with Church teachings, and that Dehlin is seeking to help organize alternative communities of “uncorrelated” “Mormons” based upon an understanding and practice of “Mormonism” different from and opposed to the authoritative understanding. (Of course, if you, reader, believe there is no “authoritative understanding,” then you have already adopted the heart of Dehlin’s position on this question.) Thus, in a podcast (#245) Dehlin once described on Facebook as a personal favorite, he dismisses the “bias” of the law of chastity and promotes the recommendation that the use of masturbation and of erotica be used to enhance marital intimacy and considered normal for teens. To a young woman who announced she had decided not to bother with the law of chastity, Dehlin responded pithily on his public Facebook page, “Love it.” No wonder that on a list of “Worst Talks Ever” by Church leaders that Dehlin recommends firm counsel on chastity by President Kimball and Elder Packer figures prominently.

The crux of the matter is that John Dehlin presents himself as a caring person with no axe to grind who simply wants to help people “transition” to wherever they’re going to transition to. I have no reason or inclination to contest John’s self-presentation as a person who sincerely wants to help. But of course the way one cares for another person is inevitably shaped by what one believes is good for that person, and therefore by what one believes is good. Since I believe in the truth of the Restored Gospel, and believe that the best way to care for people is to help them to obey the commandments and accept the authority of scriptures and prophets as they (as we) come to a fuller understanding of the Truth, I am skeptical of John Dehlin’s approach to supporting people in their “transitions.” Dehlin has said that he finds it very improbable that basic church teachings are true, and so he is clearly unqualified to lead people who feel marginalized by their doubts and/or by their behaviors back into full fellowship in and full commitment to the Restored Gospel. He can only lead people in the direction he himself has taken, whether they remain nominally or cultural “Mormon” or not, and Greg Smith’s alleged “hit piece” would have served simply to clarify what that direction is. (In his interview with the Larsens, ex-Mormons and atheists, Dehlin in fact acknowledges that, unlike their candid approach, his strategy exploits a certain “confusion” in order to create a place where struggling Mormons feel “safe” and then can learn the “facts” and “information” to make “an informed decision.” And we already know that for Dehlin being “informed” is not consistent with accepting basic Church teachings.)

John Dehlin would like to enjoy the advantages of being considered a true “Mormon” (thus for some time — but no longer — he advertised his possession of a temple recommend and the support of his local church leaders) at the same time as the support (including financial) and adulation of those attracted by his confirmed skepticism, his unabashed undermining of Church authorities, and his contradiction of the Church’s moral standards. Dehlin is free to doubt whatever to him seems doubtful: the historicity of the Book of Mormon and even the efficacy of the atonement or the very existence of Jesus Christ. He is free, indeed, to announce (as he did in May 2011) that he no longer attends church or accepts the Church’s fundamental truth claims. But to claim at the same time to be a supportive, listening ear for struggling LDS, a “transition” facilitator with no particular agenda, simply does not pass the straight face test. Greg Smith’s article, which Lou Midgley and Dan Peterson had proposed to publish, would have attacked nothing but this contradiction.

The quality of John Dehlin’s “facts” or “information,” which in fact reflect a quite remarkable faith in the writings of a certain Grant Palmer, and a curiously uncritical appreciation of Fawn Brodie’s much-critiqued work, is a question for another day. (“I’m not a reader by nature,” Dehlin averred in the interview with the Larsens, and there is in fact much evidence in support of this self-description.)

Let this suffice for now on the question of John Dehlin. Perhaps Greg Smith’s more detailed examination of his activities will come to light in another venue and another season when it will be more likely to reach those who need it without troubling or distracting those unlikely to understand it. The deep contradiction inherent in his rhetorical position do not bode well, in any case, for the stability and longevity of his enterprise, and so perhaps it is just as well to let this contradiction work itself to the surface without the help of the former editors of MSR – though one does worry about the unsteady souls who may be drawn into Dehlin’s spiritual dead-end in the meantime.

John Dehlin aside, then, we are left with the question of the mission of the Maxwell Institute and, more generally, of the respective roles of “apologetics” as opposed to something called “mainstream scholarship” at BYU and for faithful LDS scholars and thinkers more generally. [To be continued]

Comments (19)

  1. BHodges

    June 25, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    “Perhaps Greg Smith’s more detailed examination of his activities will come to light in another venue and another season when it will be more likely to reach those who need it without troubling or distracting those unlikely to understand it.”

    This statement presents a completely false dichotomy. Either you can read Smith’s review happily, or you are “unlikely to understand it.” Is it possible, in your view, to disagree with much of the work of John Dehlin while simultaneously not relishing the idea of a lengthy review of Dehlin, instead looking toward other ways to deal with said disagreement?

    The Elder Maxwell quote you use is interesting. Later in the same address he adds:

    Real hope inspires quiet Christian service, not flashy public fanaticism. Finley Peter Dunne impishly observed, “A fanatic is a man who does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts.”.

  2. TT

    June 25, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Have you read it?

  3. Ralph Hancock

    June 25, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    BHodges: Please note that I did not take a position on the publication by MSR of the Greg Smith examination of John Dehlin’s activities. Indeed I find it perfectly reasonable to disagree with Dehlin while having reservations about the publication in MSR. And if you take a deep breath and ponder the possible audiences, direct and indirect, of such a publication in the present moment, then maybe you will have some sense of audiences who might have been “unlikely to understand it.” It does seem to me, in any case, that you fling the charge of fanaticism rather cavalierly.

  4. [...] (Edit: Ralph Hancock has some additional important thoughts on this subject, here.) [...]

  5. Steveg

    June 26, 2012 at 12:47 am

    Full disclosure: I am an apostate of some thirty five years and am an evangelical. For me the jury is out on Mr. Dehlin. I have met him and found him likeable and personable. I have seen him write that he leans toward atheism so he and I are not in agreement in our personal beliefs.

    I have been blown away by some of his interviews, not by Dehlin himself but by the sincerity and openness of certain intierviewees. I don’t believe that at least of late John has tried to hide his disbelief in the hisoricity of the BOM and other very basic beliefs and/or teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

    I SPECULATE there may have evolved within the first presidency an attitude that some apologetics offered by Daniel C. Peterson and others just have not been generally convincing and and that they could one day sooner or later become an embarrassment to the church and harm it. I speculate that the first presidency through the chain of authority and Mr. Barkley may have admonished Mr. Peterson to back off from apologetics and that Mr. Peterson may not have taken the admonishments with their intended severity or that he perhaps stubbornly carried on accoding to his own personal preference and judgement.

    I SPECULATE then that when the first presidency got wind of the pending publication of the review of John Dehlin they saw it as evidence once and for all that Dan Peterson had no intention of coming into compliance with what his employers were requiring of him and the bottom line being that the first presidency concluded that Mr.. Peterson must go without delay because they were so inspired seeing him as having become harmful to the church. personally doubt that his dismissal would have taken place without being sanctioned by the first presidency.

    As an added speculation, I speculate that since the absorption of FARMS by BYU would have been to in effect bring that organization under authority and control of the first presidency. As Mr. peterson was bucking his boss he may have actually been bucking the first presidency and the living prophet.

  6. Blake

    June 26, 2012 at 1:20 am

    TT: I know that your question is addressed to Ralph, but the answer is “no,” I didn’t get a chance to read it and judge for myself. More importantly, Bradford didn’t read it either. That is the most stunning fact — at least if Hamblin has reported it correctly.

    Why would you object to a review of the stance of a particular purveyor or information? It is standard stock for assessing the work of philosophers. It is standard stock for assessing the work of biblical scholars. It is standard stock for assessing the work of a historian. Why would it be verbotten for someone who purports to be a neutral facilitator of those who have a choice to stay or leave?

  7. TT

    June 26, 2012 at 7:15 am

    “Bradford didn’t read it either.”

    I saw Hamblin assert this. I never saw Peterson assert this. It is not clear to me how either of these gentlemen would be able to know that fact. I want to know not only how Hancock claims to know that, but also whether he has actually read the piece which he defends as unequivocally “true” and “unobjectionable.” FWIW, I have not read it either. I know people who have read significant portions. Their reports about the article are not pretty. These people also tell me that Bradford did read it.
    I don’t think that Dehlin is unworthy of rigorous scrutiny. And I don’t think that Peterson is without some just claims in this situation. But it seems that Hancock should also be careful about picking clear sides when he does not seem to be fully aware of the facts about who read it, why they objected to it, and whether or not the article in the form in which it was set to be published was objectionable or not. Hancock rightly chides people for uncritically objecting to the article without having read it. Should we also not chide people who uncritically defend it without having read it?

  8. European Saint

    June 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    To a very considerable extent in this issue, Hancock knows precisely what he is talking about. Indeed, I am unclear as to what makes you (TT) believe that “[Hancock] does not seem to be fully aware of the facts.” Do have have evidence to the contrary? The opinions you listed are, interestingly enough, not from people who have seen the full text but only “significant portions” thereof. I have more faith in those who have read the full text to make a judgment call thereon (it would seem that such people are more than likely “closer to the facts”/”in the know”, would it not?).
    “Their reports about the article are not pretty.” In what way? Did they criticize the substance or merely the style of the article? Would they have advocated a revision or a complete rejection, and if so, why? Every writer has a different approach, writing style, tone, etc., of course, but either the overall spirit of the text accurately described Dehlin and his project, or it did not. Your rather vague comment sheds next no light on that question.
    I should add that Hancock knows personally almost all of the key players (I’ll leave it up to him to reveal–or not–the extensive list of specific names) in this matter and has spoken to them at length about the issues involved. His musings above have more weight in my view than just about anything else I have seen or read on this issue, both because of his close professional and personal relationships and, quite frankly, because of his reputation for lucid thinking (subjective judgment, I concede). While it is true that there is always the possibility that Bradford *has* actually read the piece (sadly, leaks seem not uncommon within the MI), based on Hancock’s discussions with the authors this appears unlikely (but again, not impossible, as anyone who read the full text could have secretly forwarded it along, I imagine). In any case, Bradford’s actions cannot be pinned to his specific feelings about this one paper. As I understand it, he was repeatedly contacted and requested by his team members to engage in face-to-face discussions regarding not just this piece but his vision for the MSR, and he repeatedly ignored such invitations only to dismiss his–let’s be honest–key players via an impersonal email while they were away. Classy? I think not. I sense that many more donors will be lost than gained as a result of this (unfortunately public) display of weak leadership. This type of drama was definitely avoidable and, in any case, should have remained private, in my opinion.
    You are welcome to chide people who defend the article without reading it, but I don’t see how this applies in Hancock’s (informed) case.

  9. SotMo

    June 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Maybe it doesn’t matter who did or didn’t read it. It seems that the very existence of the article was seen as problematic. I think Hancock is right that there is no great love or sympathy for Dehlin among the authorities of the Church, but they seem to feel that in the current political and social climate (and perhaps the climate that is likely to prevail for the foreseeable future, whether or not Romney wins) articles that are critical (even if they are accurate) of specific members are just not a good idea. There are a lot of people whose faith is fragile right now, and the effect of an institutional (or quasi institutional) rebuke of one prominent questioner might be detrimental to many who identify with his uncertain or agnostic status. I can only guess at the motives for the request that it not appear, but this seems plausible.

    The larger question becomes whether such personal reviews of someone’s faith or lack thereof belong at the academy. I think not. That is not to say that all apologetics are out of place—particularly at an institution like BYU with an avowed commitment to a certain faith. It is just to say that even at a place like BYU, certain tones, certain decibel levels, and certain approaches are still outside what is professionally appropriate for the academy—though they might not be off campus. If Bradford is trying to say that some of the tone in the past was wrong and needs to change, then I believe he is right. I’ve felt uneasy more times than I can count regarding the tone of the Review. If that is about to change, I’m very, very glad. Whether apologetics is jettisoned altogether, as Hamblin seems to be saying they will be, remains to be seen. I doubt it. I don’t see any evidence in what the Institute says in its brief statement, nor in what I am reading other scholars say about it that such necessarily should or will be the case.

  10. Princeton

    June 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    BHodges did not fling the charge of fanaticism. He provided further context for your quote of Elder Maxwell. His further quotation is equally apropos of the present situation.

  11. Gregory Taggart

    June 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    I found the Review engaging. Though they occasionally hit a sour note, those claiming ad hominem attacks have way overplayed their hand. As for Steveg’s speculations about Dan Peterson and the Brethren, I humbly submit, balderdash!

  12. TT

    June 26, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    European Saint,
    “I have more faith in those who have read the full text to make a judgment call thereon (it would seem that such people are more than likely “closer to the facts”/”in the know”, would it not?”

    Sure, it might give them a bit more persecutive for evaluating the article, but one doesn’t need to read Playboy cover to cover to make an informed judgment about what is in it. Is Hancock one of those people whose read it cover to cover? So far, he has declined to say.

    It is by no means clear that those who both approve of the article and who have read it are necessarily wise in their evaluations of what is “true” and “unobjectionable” (Hamblin, Peterson, and Hancock are all routinely criticized for their lack of attention to what is and what is not an appropriate form of discourse). At the same time, I am curious if Hancock’s evaluations that the article is true and unobjectionable come from those whose views were overruled, or his own personal inspection of the document.

  13. Friend of Those Involved (on both "sides," if that concept is appropriate)...

    June 26, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Princeton, if the quotation is equally apropos of the present situation, then you must either mean that BHodges was in fact implicitly leveling a charge of fanaticism at Prof. Hancock, or that it was a charge intended for Prof. Peterson. Or others on his team. (Or, do you mean that it is Dehlin or his supporters are the fanatics? — which seems dubious given the limited context I have for your your comment.) In all events, it seems a charge of fanaticism or quasi-fanaticism was intended, if the providing of that bit of context from Elder Maxwell’s address was, to your mind, “apropos of the present situation.” Honestly, it does seem that in three brief sentences you have contradicted the first with the third.

    Truly, in whichever direction the context was meant to be apropros, it does seem a bit cavalier. Prof. Hancock has presented a position about what Dehlin’s project is, what commitments or contradictions may underlie it. Given that Dehlin very much holds himself out to the public as a voice on a particular way of describing oneself as LDS, it seems fair to question the positions from which it proceeds and the ends to which it seems directed.

  14. Ralph Hancock

    June 26, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Steveg: That’s a lot of SPECULATION — but at least you call it that — and you often overshoot the truth by a good distance. (And no, that’s not just speculation on my part.)

    European Saint: Thanks — and my regards to the Europeans!

    SotMo: Thanks for some pertinent reflections. But let us not that John Dehlin’s “faith or lack thereof” would not be an issue if he did not lead a large, well-funded operation that proposes to “transition” people… somewhere. Accurately reporting on that operation seems clearly to be a valid service, though we can certainly reasonable debate whether BYU should be involved in such reporting, especially during this “Mormon Moment.”

    Princeton: You make a good point. So fair enough, I’ll take it in that context.

  15. William Schryver

    June 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Both my wife and I have read Greg Smith’s timely article. It is a well-written and exhaustively foot-noted treatise that shines a revealing light upon Dehlin and the numerous “contradictions” to which Ralph alludes above. Whether in the Mormon Studies Review at this time or in another venue at a later date, Smith’s article constitutes a much needed analysis of the growing “ministry” of the most successful example, to date, of a species of Latter-day Saint I have lovingly dubbed the “Evangelizing Apostates of Mormonism.”

    Whether this article ought to have been, or not, published at this particular point in time is a valid question, many of the implications of which are entirely unrelated to the future direction of the Maxwell Institute. Therefore I concur with Ralph’s caveat concerning the causal relationships between Dehlin, the apparent suppression of Smiths’ paper, and the recent radical excision from the Maxwell Institute of the last remnant of F.A.R.M.S.

    That said, it has been quite apparent to me, as I have observed matters over the course of the past several days since this story broke on a notoriously hostile ex-Mormon-dominated message board, that the Evangelizing Apostates of Mormonism have already established their own narrative that has defined the chain of causality in this affair. From their perspective, LDS Church leadership has hopped on John Dehlin’s bandwagon, moved to formally promote a secularist-dominated Mormon Studies program at Brigham Young University, and, to punctuate the abrupt change of direction, ruthlessly (and ever so publicly) repudiated Dan Peterson and F.A.R.M.S. and everything they stood for.

  16. BHodges

    June 26, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    It does seem to me, in any case, that you fling the charge of fanaticism rather cavalierly.

    Really? You’re the one bring wheat and tare imagery into the mix, Prof. Hancock. How is my included quote substantively different than your usage of Elder Maxwell?

  17. Dr. Shades

    June 27, 2012 at 2:37 am

    [quote]There are many possible reasons, reasons having nothing to do with any sympathy for John Dehlin’s project, for which one or more general authorities might find it advisable not to have an official organ of BYU publish information at the present time that is true (it should be said) and very damaging to John Dehlin. I invite the reader to consider for himself/herself what some such reasons might be.[/quote]

    I considered it, and I can’t think of any. What are the reasons? Don’t be coy.

    [quote]Let it be said, then, despite the free characterizations that have been offered on the internet by so many who have never read the article, that Greg Smith’s portrayal of John Dehlin’s project simply gathers and organizes facts, facts that any attentive person would be able to find by spending a few hours on the internet, in order to clarify the nature of that project and to refute misleading characterizations that make Dehlin appear more benign from an LDS point of view than he really is.[/quote]

    Have you read the article? If not, then you have no grounds on which to make that assertion.

    [quote]Greg Smith’s article, which Lou Midgley and Dan Peterson had proposed to publish, would have attacked nothing but this contradiction.[/quote]

    If you haven’t read the article, then you have no idea whatsoever if that’s true or not.

    [quote]Let this suffice for now on the question of John Dehlin. Perhaps Greg Smith’s more detailed examination of his activities will come to light in another venue and another season when it will be more likely to reach those who need it without troubling or distracting those unlikely to understand it.[/quote]

    ??? Who is unlikely to understand it? As long as Smith wrote it in English, then no literate native speaker of English will have any trouble understanding it–unless Smith is an extremely poor writer.

  18. Dr. Pepper

    June 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

    “[H]is strategy exploits a certain “confusion” in order to create a place where struggling Mormons feel “safe” and then can learn the “facts” and “information” to make “an informed decision.” — [Ironically?] this is the best description of LDS apologetics I have ever come across.

  19. Ralph Hancock

    June 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Dr. Pepper: I was candid about the nature of the “confusion” in question (and, incidentally, about my real name). So please return the favor: what “confusion” do you believe is inherent in all LDS apologetics? Do you mean to say, simply, that one must be confused, for example, to believe that God could reveal an ancient book to a 19th-century American?

The comments are now closed.