I’ve got the biggest fish in Mormon podcasting! In this first episode, we’re going to talk to Dr. John Dehlin about his dating an Oscar-winning actress, Renee Zellweger.
Oscar Winning Girlfriend
GT: I’ve never met anybody that dated an Oscar-winning actress. So, we’ve got to go there first. Who is this person that I’m talking about, and tell that story.
John: Okay. Well, when I was a freshman in high school at Katy High School in Katy, Texas, which is a suburb of Houston, I met Renee Zellweger at a Speech and Drama tournament. She was into speech and drama and still is, I think. She was just this bubbly blonde, vivacious, talented human. We became friends from that moment on my freshman year and we were friends all through high school. We were in the same graduating class. We did date. We used to sing Beatle songs together. We went to Galveston Beach together. We did kiss. I will kiss and tell. But that’s as far as it went. But I consider her one of my closest friends. We were so close that she made my girlfriends kind of jealous.
GT: I can imagine why.
John: She was cute and a cheerleader, and she was a basketball player. She was on track. But she wasn’t the most desired girl in the whole high school, but she was up there. But she was different from maybe some of the other more popular girls. She was just, she was really classy. She was smart, but she wasn’t like an honor student, but she was smart. But again, she wasn’t the most popular of the girls. But she was–so I’m repeating myself. Anyway, I wanted her, of course, as a good Mormon boy, I wanted her to be Mormon more than anything. So, I did the big story that you probably want me to tell is that, because my junior year, I decided to invite her to a stake dance. So, I invited her to what I remember to be the New Year’s Eve stake dance.
John: I brought her. I just wore like, as I remember, like khakis and a blazer and a white shirt and tie. That was my standard outfit back then, as I recall. She wore this lovely velvet black dress that just kind of went off the shoulder, and she’s petite. She wasn’t buxom or anything. So, I didn’t think anything of it. It was certainly modest by my standards, but even back then. As soon as we entered the chapel, some of the female leaders just immediately kind of swooped in, pulled me aside and said, “Whoever this is, her dress isn’t modest. She’s either going to need to wear your jacket or go home and change.” And I’m huge. I’m six [feet tall] by this point, she’s like, five, whatever, five and change. I was just shocked. I was just like, “Oh, no, wait a minute, you don’t understand. She’s not a member. Like we don’t want to create this first impression.” I just thought for sure, they would just like buckle and say, “Oh, okay, it’s a nonmember. No problem.” But when I said that the leaders said, “No, the other girls will be frustrated that someone has–we have a double standard here.”
John: So, I pulled her aside, and I explained the situation and offered to let her wear my jacket. But she’s started crying and she asked me to take her home. So, I took her home and dropped her off. She didn’t want to do anything. She just kind of cried and went home. I remember going back to the–weirdly, I went back to the dance. I remember just going into the chapel and lying down on one of the pews and just staring up at the ceiling just like wondering what had just happened and why she was treated this way.
That wasn’t his last date. They knew each other in college, and John describes his other interactions with Renee, and how he felt when Renee told him she wanted to be an actress. Check out our conversation….
 Renee Zellweger is 5’ 4”. John is 6’ 6”.
Unethical Baptisms in Guatemala
Dr. John Dehlin served a mission in Guatemala back in about 1990. He was distressed to discover that missionaries often baptized young children without parent’s consent, people with mental disabilities, and other unscrupulous baptisms. He details his experiences with unethical baptisms, including notifying the mission president about this and being punished for pointing it out.
John: [I went to] Guatemala City, North mission, and long story short, I went to Guatemala and immediately noticed that we were baptizing people that probably didn’t have any business getting baptized. [We were baptizing] drunk people, people with Down syndrome, people who didn’t have all the discussions, people who hadn’t been to church. There were some companionships that were starting to baptize 10, 20, 30 a month. There was one zone in particular, the La Laguna zone, where the zone leaders had over 40 baptisms in a month. The zone had like over 100 baptisms in a month, with like four or five companionships. So, several of the companionships had like 20-30 baptisms in a month. I’m like, there are only 30 days in a month. How do you have 40 baptisms in a month? And the whole zone’s doing it? So, I talked to a friend who was in that zone, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, dude, it’s crazy. Like, we’ll goof off. All week long. We’ll swim, we’ll go to movies. It’s a party. But then on Saturdays, we’ll go to a soccer field and gather as many young, poor children as we can. We’ll go to the poorest area of town, play a soccer match with as many young kids as we can. Then, we’ll invite them all back to the chapel to cool off, and we’ll have the baptismal font filled, and we’ll baptize eight or 10 at a time, because these are just kids.” These are all like just little kids, barefoot, poor, in the worst slums of Guatemala City, zone 15, La Lagune.
John: He even told me that, like, kids were doing cannonballs in the baptismal font because there’d be no leadership at the baptism. The missionaries had the key to the chapel, and they would just baptized like 10 at a time.
GT: There was no service. There was no talk about baptism, the Holy Ghost.
John: I mean, they may have done all that, but there was certainly no ward mission leader there, no Bishop, no primary president, no parents. There were no discussions.
GT: No signed consent form.
John: No consents.
GT: These are just kids that are eight to…
John: Seven. They actually baptized seven year olds.
GT: Oh, wow.
John: From what I remember. But, then, the mission president loved it. Gordon Romney was my mission president, and he loved it. He made those zone leaders APs. Then, they would travel around the mission and teach these techniques to other missionaries. So, early in my mission, I talked to President Romney about it, because I was a Flecha, an arrow. I was an obedient missionary, and it seemed like a perversion of God’s holy ordinances. So, I talked to Gordon Romney about it. He’s like, “Elder, don’t worry.” He said that even if we just give them a Book of Mormon, that then there’ll be a Book of Mormon in their home. But once they’re baptized and have the gift of the Holy Ghost, even if they fall inactive, it will give them a spiritual leg up for the rest of their lives. If they have the gift of the Holy Ghost, that may awaken later. I’ll never forget this, he ended by saying, “And even if they are never active again, we want them to do their work for them when they’re dead.”
Was your mission like this? We’ll also talk about how he lost his faith, and how and why he started Mormon Stories.
In Part 2 of our conversation with John Dehlin of the Mormon Stories podcast, we’ll get into his criticism of the LDS Church.
What does he think of apologetics?
GT: So, after you got excommunicated, you became more harsh towards apologists. Is that a fair word? I know you use the term neo-apologists. What’s the difference between an apologist and a neo-apologist?
John 41:00 So, I think of classic Mormon apologetics as Hugh Nibley, Daniel C. Peterson, Louis Midgley style, where your number one tool is ad hominem smearing the reputation of the critic, or of the honest question or calling them gay, accusing them of adultery, calling them a wolf in sheep’s clothing and an apostate. Ever since Hugh Nibley published, No, Ma’am, That’s Not History, without ever really dealing with any of the merits of Fawn Brodie’s concerns in her book, he set the tone. Daniel C. Peterson has been super happy to pick up that baton. FAIR Mormon continued with it all the way to Kwaku and Cardon Ellis and the This is the Show videos that were taken down. [There’s] this whole rich, multi-decade tradition of smearing critics or smearing on us questioners and then offering disingenuous science, specious, invalid science and ridiculous, illogical knowingly dishonest answers to the problems with the Church’s truth claims. And that’s what Hugh Nibley did. That’s what FARMS did. That’s what FAIR Mormon does and did.
John 42:26 It’s an embarrassing blight on the Church, in my opinion. I think those people have done way more harm than good, not just to the Church, but to people doubting. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve interacted with over the past two decades who say it was FAIR Mormon, or the Maxwell Institute or FARMS that caused their faith crisis, because their answers were so horrible, or they misbehaved so badly in their apologetic ad hominem, that the Church lost additional credibility, knowing that the Church was bankrolling all of these efforts, right? So that’s classic apologists.
John 44:01 Then, once the internet really got up to speed starting in the 2000s, we started calling out Daniel Peterson and Louis Midgley and others. In fact, there was a point where I learned from an employee of the Maxwell Institute, that Daniel Peterson and Louis Midgley, and–who is the Canadian apologist doctor guy who wrote the two hit pieces on me? Greg Smith was his name.
John 44:46 Anyway, I caught wind from within the Maxwell Institute, that another part of the Maxwell Institute, that another member of the Maxwell Institute or group of them, were writing two hit pieces on me back in in 2012, while I was working with Marlin Jensen directly, to help solve the Church’s problem with its faith crisis stuff. So, here I am. I conduct a study with my friend Travis Stratford and Greg Prince, in response to Hans Mattsson, Swedish Mormon area authority, who had lost his faith. We collaborate on doing a study of why people are leaving the Church. We get like 3000 people to fill out the survey. We compile the results with a dozen Ph.D.’s, compile that into a study and then literally share that with Church headquarters, share with Marlin Jensen. Travis Stratford goes to Church headquarters to present the findings of the study, to the missionary committee, to Church PR, to the correlation committee, to the priesthood committee, curriculum, CES, all of them. [We] say, “Hey, Mormon Church. There’s a problem. People are losing their faith. And this is why. You need to start being honest with your history and stop deceiving people.” I, along with Greg Prince and Travis Stratford, we were the creators of that study, and this is the history. This has been covered a bit in Matthew Harris’s book on the Gospel Topics.
GT 45:22 Yeah, it’s the introduction.
John 45:23 Yeah. But there are other places where we’ve talked about this. But I met with Elder Holland twice, personally, to try and counsel him on how to deal with people in faith crisis. The Church is doing nothing, and with Mormon Stories, StayLDS, that’s literally how I’m spending all my time, is trying to keep people in the Church. So, that’s what I was doing. Then, you’ve got the Maxwell Institute writing a hit piece against me, a 100-page hit piece trying to smear me and call me a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while I’m helping the Church for free. It was ridiculous. So, as soon as I found out about that hit piece from a Maxwell Institute employee, I notified Marlin Jensen, and Elder Holland, and everyone that I knew. [I’m] like, “Can you help me understand why I’m helping you and you’re funding hit pieces being written about me.”
John 46:23 That was when Daniel Peterson was removed from the Maxwell Institute. He was removed from his position as the leader of the Maxwell Institute. I have it on good authority that Marlin Jensen and Elder Holland were both involved in the removal of Daniel Peterson, from the Maxwell Institute, directly for his unwillingness to back down. So, that’s my side of the story. Other people may have their sides of the story, but I was, again, I had a source from within the Maxwell Institute that was telling me what was going on behind the scenes. That was a classic instance of classic ad hominem Mormon apologetics. Once Daniel Peterson was dethroned from the Maxwell Institute, and Gerry Bradford dethroned him from direction from the BYU president and Elder Holland. Eventually, Spencer Fluhman was put in. A lot of people contributed to this. But the decision was, that was not an effective way to deal with doubters, to deal with critics, to deal with people who question.
John 48:32 So they migrated their apologetic approach was Spencer Fluhman of the Maxwell Institute towards what’s called pastoral apologetics, which is not to engage in ad hominem anymore, not to engage in specious ridiculous pseudoscience, non-peer reviewed pseudoscience with ridiculous answers like, maybe when Joseph Smith wrote horse in the Book of Mormon, he meant tapir. Maybe there’s two Hill Cumorah’s instead of one. Instead of all that garbage, we’re going to show support to people who are doubting. We’re going to love people who question and we’re going to just try and provide a more nuanced and progressive path for staying in the Church ala Terryl and Fiona Givens, ala, Patrick Mason, in his book, Planted. We’re going to show a more loving pastoral approach. [We’re going to] stop trying to address the scientific criticisms of the Church’s truth claims, because we know we have nothing there. We know that science wins, every time we try and argue with science on any of the problems with the Church’s truth claims. So, we’re going to stop trying to provide those types of answers. [We’re going to] love people and stop with the ad hominem.
John 49:49 So, I named that neo-apologetics. They hate it. None of them like that term. I don’t even know how well it’s known, but that’s what I mean when I say a neo-apologist. And that’s Richard Bushman. That’s Terryl and Fiona Givens. That’s Patrick Mason. That Spencer Fluhman. That’s Adam Miller. [These are] good people, smart people, lovely people trying to do, institutionally, within the Church, frankly, what I was trying to do with Mormon Matters with Dan Witherspoon, with StayLDS, try to create a progressive, faithful Mormonism that’s more liberal and non-literal, within Mormonism.
GT 50:33 Okay, so, apologetics are ad hominems, and neo-apologetics are nicer, but still lacking. Is that what I’m hearing?John 50:44 Well, okay. I think it’s un-Christ like to engage in ad hominem attacks. So, that’s definitely improvement. Mormon neo-apologetics, for me, is an improvement on pretty much every level. I’m not aware of any way where it’s not an improvement. So, getting rid of ad hominem: improvement.
Is his podcast neutral towards the Church?
GT 2:11:48 Do you think, especially since 2015, that Mormon Stories is a fair representation of Mormonism? Is it neutral?
John 2:12:04 No, no, not neutral. I think you and Steve Pynakker do a better job at neutrality than I do. I worked really hard to be neutral for a long time. I’ve already told you that I think the skewing of Mormon Stories is more at the hands of the Church excommunicating me and the Church with Proposition 8, harming and spiking, tripling the suicide rates of LGBT youth in Utah. And punishing the Ordain Women movement and excommunicating me and others. And, you know, refusing to be honest and open. Then excommunicating me, which then made more faithful people afraid, or unwilling to come on the podcast.
John: I lay the skewing of Mormon Stories primarily to that, and to the uncourageous neo-apologists, who stopped being willing to be courageous and stopped being willing to come on Mormon Stories out of fear, out of a desire to manage their capital or out of a fear of what might happen if they do come on Mormon Stories. I lay the skewing of Mormon Stories primarily on those two groups of people. But yeah, when you see so much divorce, so much destroyed families, so much LGBT suicide, so many people’s lives be controlled with undue influence under false pretenses, you get angry after a while and it’s hard to bite your tongue forever, unless you’re just truly unempathetic. Like, if you lack empathy, then you could just be calloused and never get angry and upset. Or if you have extraordinary character and discipline, and maybe that’s you. Or maybe you just haven’t been doing this long enough, or maybe you just haven’t talked to enough [people.] Maybe you just haven’t seen enough suffering. Maybe you, Rick Bennett, have cocooned yourself from the suffering that I’ve seen, or people don’t reach out to you like they did to me. But I don’t know how anybody can face the carnage that the Mormon Church has wreaked in the lives of its members, in addition to the good stuff, how they can face that for 10 or 20 years and not get angry. I think angry is the healthy, mature, rational response.
John: I appreciate how academics has to remain neutral and that that’s an important part of the discipline. So, I respect you and the Bushmans and Thomas Murphy, and all the academics who are able to remain neutral. I have deep respect for the discipline and the character that sometimes is required to do that. But, even them, I don’t know how they can see the deception and see the carnage and remain neutral, emotionally. So, no Mormon Stories–well, Mormon Stories, pre-2015, I think has been one of the most neutral outlets ever.
Does he want people to Stay LDS?
GT 26:44 Yeah. So, my question is, do you really want people to stay LDS anymore?
John 26:49 Oh, okay. So one thing about StayLDS that’s really important is, even though I was able to stay with the nuanced progressive testimony, I would have person after person tell me that they couldn’t do it. They would tell me, “I tried. I followed what you said. It wasn’t good for my mental health. It wasn’t good for my well-being. It became a matter of conscience.” I realized that I was propping up a set of recommendations that were only viable for a subset of people. But by putting the website up, it would allow other people to say, “Hey husband, all these other people are staying Mormon. Why can’t you?” You know, what I’m saying; a believing wife to a non-believing husband or believing husband and unbelieving wife. “Look, stay LDS.” Even bishops were starting to use it. Bishops were using my ebook, from StayLDS, to help members stay in the Church. I was excited about that. I was proud of that.
John 28:03 But, then there would be the people that said it was literally damaging their health and well-being to stay. I started to feel this conflict of like, am I setting people up for false expectations? Am I setting up a standard that people could be judged by or pushed towards that wasn’t actually healthy or sustainable for many, many people? Because I found that many, many, many people could stay for a while. But, then they couldn’t do it anymore. At some point, I lost my confidence in being able to really say [that] this is a path that I recommend. It wasn’t a path that I, even to this day, have denounced. But it’s a path I could no longer recommend as being viable for most people. So, you can go read the most recent versions of that e-doc that I created with Brian, where I had to put a disclaimer on there: John no longer advocates for this way, because it’s not sustainable for many. But I kept the website up, and I let other people manage it. I still wanted it to be there as a resource for those who found it useful. I still feel that way to this day, which is why I’ve never taken it down and why I still refer people to it, occasionally.
GT 29:28 You still do refer people to it?
John 29:30 Oh yeah for sure. I’ve had, when I used to coach, I don’t coach much these days. I’ve kind of mothballed my coaching practice for now, because Mormon Stories is way busy. But all the time when I was a coach, and people would say, “My wife or husband believe, I don’t believe anymore, but it’s going to wreck our family if I if I leave. My spouse isn’t ready for me to leave. Or my job, I’m a Church employee. I’m a seminary and institute teacher. I’m a CES director. I’m a bishop. How can I stay?” To this day, I’ll point them to StayLDS, that manual. Absolutely.
We’ll get into his tussels with both apologists and neo-apologists, and of course we can’t miss his role in the Swedish Rescue. What are your thoughts? Where do you agree or disagree with John?