Coercion within a Church that Values Agency
Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him…I caused that he should be cast down.
Yet, several institutional policies and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon) authorize or require local leaders to coerce members of their congregations. To coerce is “to make someone do something by using force or threats.” Reference A
Temple Recommends as Leverage
Article of Faith 11
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
A local, lay priesthood leader may threaten to confiscate temple recommends from their parishioners, which prevents them from attending any ordinance, including weddings, in any Mormon temple anywhere in the world. Essentially, local lay clergy have the authority to tell a member of their congregation, “Do what I say or I will not allow you to attend your son’s/daughter’s/sibling’s/best friend’s wedding.”
Local priesthood leaders may confiscate temple recommends from members at a disciplinary council or as “informal discipline.” Short of excommunication, punishments just as harsh as those administered through formal discipline may be administered informally, but informal discipline is performed unilaterally by a local lay leader; not even the leader’s own counselors need be informed and no records are taken. Informal discipline is conviction without a trial. It saves the accused from a potentially traumatizing disciplinary council but offers no form of appeal and none of the few protections granted to formally disciplined members.
Stripping me of my temple recommend because of my perceptions and opinions has been the worst form of rejection I have ever experienced. …When my temple recommend is used as leverage to coerce me into changing my views and opinions, it is no longer a safe environment for discussion. -Anonymous
I recently lost my temple recommend for my actions surrounding my support for marriage equality, with the threat of further discipline if I continue or talk about it publicly (which I am doing here, I realize). It’s been devastating to me personally. I don’t even know how to talk about it because if I push back, I am seen as disobedient and if I submit to something I don’t believe to be true, I lose my authenticity, which makes me dishonest. –Jerilyn Reference B
I lost my recommend today for my public support of Ordain Women. The only way to get it back is to pray until I receive what my Stake President believes is the right answer. And that answer is that I should publicly denounce Ordain Women. …I definitely feel like he has taken my recommend (which represents my spirituality and my worthiness) hostage. It feels abusive. -Leah Reference C
A priesthood leader may feel justified in coercing members of his congregation by threatening their temple recommends because “sustain[ing] local authorities of the church” is included among the temple recommend criteria—some Mormons equate “sustaining” with “agreeing” or even “obeying.” However, a priesthood leader does not need to justify his decision to revoke a temple recommend; he may do so at any time at his own discretion, regardless of how a member answers temple interview questions.
Punishing Loved Ones of the Accused
Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-46
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge…and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
A particularly disturbing way to coerce accused transgressors is to confiscate temple recommends of their family and friends:
I had passed the first half of the temple recommend interview, so my husband and I thought it was the second half of interviews. He asked both of us to come in, said that Ordain Women was apostate and that we are in personal apostasy and we’re not going to be issued recommends. No interview. We were just told we were apostates. My husband isn’t even involved, but because he personally, privately agrees, the counselor said no renewal. I objected and the counselor said he felt we would want to be together. Apparently being married to an apostate makes you one by default. -Anonymous
The bishop took away our temple privileges. He said we could still love our daughter and pray for her, but we must be careful about associating with her and not associate with Ordain Women in any way. -Anonymous
Someone just basically got denied a temple recommend for associating with me. My bishop called this student’s bishop telling her home bishop that she was on the road to apostasy for associating with me…so she cannot go through the temple until her bishop works it out. -Anonymous
It is hard to speculate the motives for punishing family and friends of the accused person: Does the local leader want them to shun their loved one as a bad influence? Does he want them to pressure the accused to be more compliant? Does he hope that the accused will comply to save his/her loved ones from punishment?
On the other hand, the policy justification for such action is not difficult to ascertain at all. One of the temple recommend questions is as follows:
Do you support, affiliate with or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
I am an active, faithful Mormon woman whose temple recommend was taken away for having the wrong opinion about women’s issues. My husband has not publicly voiced his opinion, but his was also taken away for associating with me. …He went with me to my meeting with the bishop and apparently showed too much solidarity. The bishop felt that he “agreed with a group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” -Anonymous Reference D
Counsel as Commandment
Know this, that every soul is free to choose his life and what he’ll be; for this eternal truth is giv’n: that God will force no man to heav’n.
In a recent radio interview, an LDS Church Public Affairs representative attempted to frame church discipline as a process in which the accused has choices:
The individual chooses how this process progresses. There is in no way that a letter [of discipline] is a complete surprise to an individual. They have been in months-long conversations with their local leader. They know that this process takes time. It is never hurried. It is never rushed. It is intentional and it is done in a loving way. It is never an ambush. It’s not vindictive and to assert otherwise is misleading. These people in any of these processes – disciplinary process – they have choices. It is their choice to remain in the congregation. It is their choice to remain in the body of Christ. It is there choice whether or not the listen to the promptings of the spirit and align their behavior with the Savior’s will. –Ally Isom Reference E
In normal circumstances, a conversation is not coercive. In fact, a common outcome of conversations is agreeing to disagree, with both parties continuing to act according to their own agency. But the “intentional” nature of conversations related to church discipline is different. In Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 1 (CHI), “private counsel” is listed as a low level of discipline. By its dictionary definition, counsel cannot be obeyed because it is not a command. Counsel can be listened to, considered, even followed, but obedience does not factor into counsel because by definition, counsel is advice, not commandment. Reference F However, the kind of counsel listed in the CHI is enforceable, giving local leaders the God-like power of making up their own commandments.
Since all female members of the LDS Church are banned from staffing Church disciplinary processes and nearly all are banned from reading CHI Volume 1, which explains the concept of counsel as discipline, a woman might reasonably conclude that she is free to disagree with her leaders after hearing their counsel, as Kate Kelly, who was recently excommunicated for apostasy, assumed after meeting with her stake president in December 2013. Reference G
In her written defense for Kelly, Nadine R. Hansen asked:
Is it “apostasy” to speak words local leaders have forbidden? Is it even within the right of a local leader to forbid a member from saying something out loud? –Nadine R. Hansen Reference H
Hansen responded to her own question, concluding that members may choose whether to “obey counsel” of local leaders:
In order for a disobedient act to constitute “apostasy,” the act must surely be more than insubordination. If, for instance, a local leader threatened a Disciplinary Council for failure to attend Sacrament Meeting, or failure to do home teaching, or for being a Democrat instead of a Republican, and the member defied that order, that would not be “apostasy.” Instead, it would easily be recognized as unrighteous dominion on the part of the local leader. –Nadine R. Hansen Reference H
After the Church representative explained the so-called choices that an accused transgressor enjoys during the disciplinary process, a radio host followed up with a question similar to Hansen’s question:
But the choice is then to keep your mouth shut about this particular thing or stop being so public about this particular thing? That is something they have to do? They have to make the choice? –Doug Fabrizio Reference E
The church representative’s answer was very different from Hansen’s response:
I can’t say that that’s the criteria. That’s between them and their bishop and God. …You know, I’m not going to speculate where the line was. You seem to ask me repeated questions about, where is this line? … It is not for me to say. It is between Kate and her bishop and Heavenly Father to determine where that line is. Because I don’t know her heart and her bishop knows better than anyone else. And that is his stewardship. Isn’t that the beauty of all of this? …That it can’t be some general, broad brush, here – that it is individually applied. –Ally Isom Reference E
No Sister Isom, allowing local lay leaders to punish parishioners based on undefined criteria is not beautiful; it facilitates coercion. When punishments accompany established, written rules, it may be possible for people to choose whether to transgress and accept the consequence. But when punishments are applied to cases where not even an institutional representative can say “that’s the criteria” or “speculate where the line” is, what is to stop a local lay leader from using punishment to coerce compliance with unreasonable demands?
In spite of reassurances from Church Public Affairs, the accused does not get a vote in the matter. The will of God is interpreted by the local leader. If the accused interprets God’s will differently, her leader’s interpretation trumps. Likewise, punishments executed by a local lay leader apply not only within his own, local congregation but follow the accused to every LDS congregation within the entire world and to Heaven itself, according to Mormon doctrine, giving the local leader power to enforce his demands well beyond his stewardship.
Shunning Through Church Discipline
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
Many of the so-called “privileges of membership” that are restricted from disciplined members are not actually limited to church members at all. LDS church meetings are highly interactive and anyone who attends one, regardless of their religious affiliation, is encouraged to answer discussion questions, read scripture and other texts aloud, and pray on behalf of the group. Like wearing a scarlet letter, a disciplined or excommunicated person’s mandated abstinence from these activities alerts church-goers that this person is a sinner, a bad influence, and a potential threat with whom they should exercise caution if not avoid altogether. The confidentiality of the disciplinary proceedings, when followed by this conspicuous public punishment, opens the disciplined person to speculation about which grievous sins he or she may have committed. Still, the Church Public Affairs insists that church discipline, even excommunication, is not shunning:
First of all, discipline processes are not necessarily expulsion, it’s not exclusion. It’s, rather, an inclusion – it’s meant to be a loving invitation to return to the savior. …There are restrictions around participation but participation remains essential and we fully expect and hope that person to be in the pew next Sunday. …It is the desire of every church leader and member – our most heartfelt desire is for anyone who’s working through personal challenges with their faith or questions through a disciplinary process – that they turn to our savior for answers and fully participate with us. We fully expect them to be part of the congregation and to remain in the body of Christ. That is our ultimate desire.” –Ally Isom Reference E
The use of hyperbolic claims like, “It is the desire of every church leader and member” that disciplined members “fully participate with us” shows a willful determination on the part of the Church to close its eyes to the actual consequences of its policies. It is almost too easy to rebut such statements with examples of church members who do not share sentiments of inclusion:
Here’s the thing. I have no problem loving people. I have lots of friends of different backgrounds, heritage, culture, etc. I have many friends of different faiths. I have friends who are strong in the Church and some who are not. This does not bother me one bit. I could have any one of them over to my house to “sup.” No problem. I am not threatened by differences. But I draw the line at apostasy. –Ana Reference I
The Church leadership is not frightened of anyone. They have a divine responsibility to protect the flock from ravening wolves. If they have to shoot a few wolves to save the flock, especially those like the Ordain Women’ers dressed in sheep’s clothing, it is their duty. –Akennas Reference J
When Policies and Values Conflict
Doctrine and Covenants 121:37
When we undertake…to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
What part of his priesthood or authority ends if a priesthood leader unrighteously controls or compels? His priesthood offices and callings most likely remain in place; church policy permits coercion. The consequences for the people he punishes also remain, at least, during this life, but some people have expressed hope that a perfect Judge will invalidate the heavenly consequences. Certainly, God wouldn’t bar a person from heaven because they chose to follow their conscience rather than “obey counsel” of a coercive leader?
I think excommunicating her was the wrong decision. Nevertheless, while her former Bishop may have the authority to place temporal administrative sanctions on her, those temporal administrative sanctions cannot separate her heart from the Lord. -Anonymous Reference K
While this thought is comforting, it illustrates how the Church risks its gospel mission when it governs by coercion: as people come to the conclusion that a good and just God will not honor coercive tactics in the eternities, they might reasonably wonder why they should honor such tactics in the present. If the Church’s priesthood power is used to pretend to damn people, one might wonder if it only pretends to save people as well. Some of the Church’s strongest members—those who have embraced the values it teaches—might not be able to tolerate participating in a church that teaches agency and practices coercion.
A woman who describes herself as “very active” in the church wrote:
After seeing the corruption in the church, I feel like I can’t be a member anymore. It goes against my core values. -Anonymous
While the LDS gospel canon emphasizes the principle of agency, it also allows priesthood leaders to use coercion to control church members. The most detailed support for coercive methods such as church discipline and excommunication are found in Doctrine and Covenants sections 102 and 134. These sections are not written in the format of revelation. They do not bear the stamp, “Thus saith the Lord.” These sections detail administrative decisions made by popular vote in 1834 and 1835. The fallible humans who collaborated on these documents may have made the best decisions they could, given the options available to them at that time. A lot has changed since 1835. The Church has had nearly two centuries to expand its palette of tools and strategies for facilitating repentance and clarifying doctrine. Technologies that did not exist in 1835 are now at the Church’s disposal. We are not captive to the policy decisions made by our predecessors. We can let go of tactics that clash with our core values. We have agency.