The recent actions against John Dehlin and Kate Kelly have been unsettling for many of us who are familiar with them and their work.  Others feel that the church’s action against them is long overdue, and that they are undermining (or attempting to) the very foundations of our doctrines.  There are people like me who see that the only real similarity between the two cases is the timing and the fact that they are both liberals.

Just to give you my own background, I’m a political independent.  I have voted for both Bush (over Gore) and Obama (over McCain).  The ward I was raised in included many prominent local leaders who were very vocal democrats, although my parents are staunchly Republican.  I was not aware that so many Mormons were Republican until I went to BYU in the mid ’80s, my first exposure to the fact that most Utah Mormons were strongly aligned with the GOP.  That actually came as quite a shock to me since I was used to seeing my vocally liberal leaders working side by side with members of different economic classes and backgrounds, serving in our communities, teaching lessons, and basically doing everything Mormons everywhere do.  My parents were the ones who were on the down-low about their minority political views.

John is a psychologist who advocates for LGBT Mormons.  He is also famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for creating online communities for those who are disaffected, undergoing a faith crisis, or otherwise finding themselves on the fringe.  He himself has undergone a faith crisis and has reported at times his lack of belief in some of the core claims of the church yet his desire to remain involved in Mormonism.  He loves the church although he expresses many doubts about different aspects of Mormon doctrine and history.

Kate is a human rights activist and a lawyer.  She champions women’s rights globally.  She is a faithful, returned missionary who recently bore her testimony in church.  She states she has never had a faith crisis.  She believes in and supports the role of prophets, and has asked that church leaders pray for revelation on the ordination of women.  Her requests for church leaders to meet with the Ordain Women group have been ignored.  Members who object to the actions of Ordain Women primarily do so on the basis of the group’s activism (more on that in a moment), not necessarily disagreeing with them on the merit of their questions about the role of women.

Other things they have in common:  both kept their local leaders abreast of their actions.  Kate informed her bishop of the actions of OW in advance of every event.  John met with his bishop on a weekly basis for the last year until a new one was called.  In both cases, they felt blindsided by the call to a church court because their local bishops had given them no indication that this was imminent.

Who Hates Liberal Tactics?

There have been theories about whether these actions are purely local leadership driven or are driven by top leadership in the church. As the facts emerge, it seems that John’s action was entirely local and perhaps driven by a misunderstanding as local leadership recently changed.  In Kate’s case, a recent leadership meeting in her Virginia stake included an injunction from E. Whitney Clayton of the 70 against Ordain Women.  He is reported to have said that public advocacy of ordination is apostate.  In the immediate wake of this meeting, actions were taken by Kate’s local leaders against her.  Is this turnabout due to E. Clayton’s disdain for liberal tactics like advocacy and publicity?  E. Ballard of the Q12 was present in the meeting; does that mean that these disciplinary actions are being instigated at the highest levels?  If so, why has the church so carefully side-stepped ownership, pointing toward local leaders as the ones who are responsible for disciplinary matters.  Combined with the subsequent message from the LDS Newsroom that having and even expressing questions is acceptable, it’s hard to see just where the line is crossed.  Is this an attack on liberalism?  If so, is it a wide-spread attack with high level support or is it an act of local fealty to what they believe higher ups desire?  Should card carrying Democrats turn in their temple recommends if they want to keep their ACLU cards?

Those who feel John and Kate should be disciplined generally object to their tactics, which are straight out of the liberal playbook:

  • Activism.  Garden variety activism often includes things like petitions, fund raising, protests, letter writing campaigns, or attempting to meet with decision makers.  Activists believe in a cause and they create a strategy to bring their agenda to fruition.  Finding and working with like-minded individuals on the internet is one effective way to harness support toward goals.
  • Press.    The press is a fast way to disseminate information and to bring minority viewpoints to light.  While those who appreciate the status quo consider it wrong to air dirty laundry or to take actions that put church leaders in a bad light, those seeking change would say that leaders’ reactions are what put them in a bad light, and that without scrutiny, those in power have little motivation to self-correct.
  • Advocacy.  Church statements, particularly Bro. Otterson’s recent open letter, seem to indicate that it’s OK to be a victim, but not to advocate for victims.  It’s OK to have a minority viewpoint and to ask questions, but not to advocate solutions or on behalf of groups of people.  Advocacy for minority groups is a bastion of liberal politics.
  • Audience.  Although many in the church agree with John and Kate’s pro-feminism and pro-gay rights stances, when those people come together en masse, they pose a threat.  The bigger the audience, the bigger the fear.  When a group has influence and momentum, a conservative tactic is to take down the leader and hope their supposed “followers” scatter.  However, liberal groups aren’t usually “groupies” under an authority; they are collectives of like-minded individuals with a common cause.  Kate doesn’t have followers; she has colleagues.

Of course, conservatives have their own playbook.  Their causes and tactics simply differ.  Cracking down on dissidents is one.  It’s an action you can take when you are in power.  Other tactics are:  minimizing the threat (implying their numbers are few and their cause is fringe or not mainstream), tone argument (ignoring the content while objecting to the way complaints are voiced), and invigorating the base (creating a defensive patriotic response from within an organization).  The key difference here is that in fighting to preserve the status quo, conservatives are usually on their own turf.  By contrast, the tactics of the left are the tactics of the underdog.

Conflicting Political Ideologies

Those who complain about tone or tactics are usually describing differences in political ideologies.  Likewise those who paint the OW movement as trying to destroy or running counter to doctrine are defending the status quo.  To boil it down in terms of politics, liberals seek what they see as progress, while conservatives see those proposed changes as a loss or regress, a disruption and a risk.  And psychologically, that often coincides with conservatives having a sweeter deal under the status quo, or as a book title I saw once put it:  “If Democrats ran the country, they’d be Republicans.”[1]

So why do conservatives feel liberals are whiny or strident or loud?  And on the flip side, why do liberals feel that conservatives want to “silence” them or ignore their salient points?  Studies done by Jerome Kagan indicate that babies who are bothered by noise, clutter and disruptions (aka “high reactives”) are more likely to vote Republican in later life.  And babies who are curious about the world around them, who don’t mind a messy environment, and who have no negative reaction to noise, (aka “low reactives”) disproportionately vote Democrat later.  It’s possible that to a conservative, with less tolerance for disruption, “tone” is psychologically a more valid argument than it is for a liberal.  And yet, tone arguments are also a way to shut down an opposing view while disregarding its content.

Jonathan Haidt also explored the ways personality drives political affiliation.  He described core differences in personal values between conservatives and liberals. Two values differences were purity and authority.  While conservatives believe in being deferential to authority and established structures, liberals are often suspicious of authority or of the corruption of power; liberals have a heightened sense of fairness, being more mindful of those disenfranchised by existing social structures.  Likewise, liberals are less sensitive to claims of impurity or disorder, things they see as often too rigid and stifling to be sustainable or ideal.[2]  Liberals prize compassion above consequences, whether it’s letting people fail or applying consequences to others; conservatives prefer to believe punishments are often deserved or that those who are punished deserve what happens to them.  As an independent, I tend to think the truth lies in the middle.  Sometimes people are lazy or dishonest.  Sometimes they have bad luck or bad circumstances.

To survive, we all must believe we are good people.  We must justify our actions to ourselves.  This is why it’s important, yet usually overlooked, that both liberals and conservatives are doing what they believe is just, what aligns with their values, and in cases where they believe in and love the Church, they are doing what they think is in the church’s best interests.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

The KDT (Karpman Drama Triangle) describes how individuals see relationships in conflict.  Individuals view a conflict, and define some participants as victims, others as persecutors, and still others as rescuers.  When these roles have been assigned by someone, those cast as persecutors must defend themselves or they may go on the offense and attack those they believe were erroneously cast as rescuers or victims.  Of course, the drama triangle can be psychologically invoked when no intention of harm existed, but the triangle itself creates drama and adversity.  No one, except power mad dictators or serial killers, wants to be cast in the role of persecutor.  Once someone is labelled such, the cycle begins.

In the current situation, women from the MWS (Mormon Women Stand) movement may cast OW women in the role of persecutor, criticizing their beloved church leaders and threatening their way of life or the perceived purpose of their existence.  They may see themselves as rescuing both church leaders and women who like themselves benefit from the current system that idealizes a certain role for women, one that they enjoy.  OW sympathizers may cast church leaders in the role of persecutor, hounding faithful women who feel ignored and dismissed and bullying them into silence; they may see themselves rescuing the disenfranchised and advocating for those who don’t match the church’s ideal.

The only way out of the KDT is to let go of these harmful labels and to listen to people to understand their viewpoint while being willing to let go of the roles we’ve assigned to others.  It’s much harder than it looks.  Usually the first role that has to go is “rescuer” because those who see themselves as rescuing or protecting others need a victim to save and a persecutor to blame.  Their self-image as rescuer is founded on these roles, and feeling like a rescuer is a powerful motive; it’s a boost to the ego and creates a sense of purpose.

We hear the language of the KDT in the following phrases:  “leaving the 99 to rescue the 1,” “women whose views are dismissed,” “support our leaders,” “making angry demands,” “leading people astray,” “setting up a false version of the real thing,” “protecting our religious freedoms,” “the world thinks . . .,” and “they had it coming.”

Power Struggles

Systems in which one party has all the power and the other party is powerless are very controlled environments.  They operate smoothly because the individuals with no control essentially act like zombies, doing what they are told, never criticizing or speaking up, and not being engaged in how things are run.  They come, in time, to rely on the system to provide for their needs in exchange for their freedom of thought, will, and in exchange for not being abused.  Such a system was described in Zimbardo’s prison experiment in which individuals who had been tested to ensure they had no abusive or aggressive tendencies were placed in a simulated environment.  Half the participants were given the role of guard, only given the mandate to keep order.  The other half were given the role of prisoner, completely under the control of the guards.  The experiment was to run two weeks.

After only six days, though, the SPE had to be ended, so quickly did the guards turn sadistic, so extreme was their cruel, degrading, and dehumanizing treatment of their prisoners, and so intense was the prisoners’ emotional distress.  Some prisoners were so psychologically broken that they became like zombies, obeying every whim of their captors without question.

Not all of Zimbardo’s guards were actively engaged in brutalizing the prisoners, but even those who didn’t personally dish out the brutality were complicit in the abuse, if only by looking the other way. (George A. Dunn, Breaking Bad in Neptune: How “Cool Guys” Become Psychopaths)

There are many versions of power differentiation:  wealth, advocacy, connectedness, status, education, access to information, and so forth.  It doesn’t really matter which type of imbalance exists; when it exists, one party has the lion’s share of power, and it is that power that corrupts.

Does power always corrupt?  We all think we are above it, but psychological experiments show that when there is a power imbalance, the powerful mistreat those without power.  One reason for this is a distrust of those without power.  Those with power, like all of us, need to feel that they are good people.  To believe that, the fundamental belief they create is that their power is deserved or on the flip side, that the lack of power of the other people is deserved.  This is one reason that power generally listens to power, not to the powerless.  It’s human nature.

So why do the powerful ever cooperate with the powerless?  Only when they find that there is a strong incentive to do so, such as when their power base or the people over whom they have power will not support them if they mistreat the powerless.  In the Hunger Games trilogy, the threat posed by the tributes is that the citizens revere them and don’t want harm to come to them.  When they see President Snow’s willingness to kill the victors (tributes who won in previous games) there is outrage because it is seen as a great injustice.  Support for Snow begins to crumble from within his own government.  The only way this happens is by creating likable tributes who act selflessly and courageously, martyrs.  And the powerful hate martyrs because it threatens their narrative that they are good people while simultaneously threatening the support group over whom they have power.  They begin to see how fragile their power really is.

Because conservatives view loyalty, patriotism and deference to authority as inherent virtues, they see those who criticize power structures as disloyal or traitorous, apostate.  Liberals view too much deference to authority as a recipe for oppression of minority viewpoints.  Existing structures are simply more oppressive to some individuals within any group.  Conservatives favor a hierarchical structure with elites; liberals favor equality and fairness over privilege and rank.  Again, these are different core values. [3]

The only way to avoid the corruption of power is to create checks and balances.  In the church today, there are checks and balances in the disciplinary process and in our routine church experience.  Local leaders who are rogue may be reined in by higher-ups.  While a court may be convened at the request of higher level leaders, the local leaders generally have discretion to judge the outcome. [4]  It is an unfortunate truth that lower level leaders who aspire to power may let that cloud their judgment.  Hopefully that’s the exception, not the rule.  People have to create the narratives about their own behavior that they can live with.

Versions of Truth

We’ve seen how a liberal bias and a conservative bias can paint a completely different picture of the same events.  How do we get past these political lenses to see the real facts of the case?  Hopefully, meetings between individuals and local leaders will reveal the truth of the situation, resulting in common ground and an outcome in which everyone feels understood.

A gal can dream.


[1] Or as Celeste Kane on the TV show Veronica Mars put it to her billionaire husband:  “Jake, when did we become Republicans?”

[2] In the old Maxwell Smart show, the two warring spy groups were KAOS and CONTROL.  Same basic argument.  We viewers are rooting for CONTROL, but in the case of the Mel Brooks show, CONTROL is also full of bumblers who pratfall their way through capers each week, barely keeping the upper hand on KAOS.

[3] Jesus can be painted into either narrative.  He didn’t love the existing structures he lived in; he found leaders to be hypocritical, corrupt, and frozen in their restrictive rules.  However, he also expected a lot of his followers.  He asked them to give up everything, but he told the parable of the workers who were paid the same wage for one hour as those who had worked the whole day.  That kind of practice can get you a union walkout in the US.  So Jesus isn’t the slam dunk politically that people like to imagine.  Would he have voted for Obama or Bush or Clinton or Reagan?  Trick question.  He wasn’t a Roman citizen so he didn’t have the right to vote.  He had bigger fish to fry, perhaps why he rounded up a bunch of fisherman.

[4] Or so we are told.