Wetlands: The Future of Mormonism

Hank Green, John Dehlin, and the evolution of Mormon ecology.

Last month, Hank Green found himself in the crosshairs of cable news anchors from both sides of the political debate. Green is a video blogger, a YouTube celebrity of sorts, and the traditional media seemed annoyed when President Obama chose to spend an afternoon with Green and two other YouTube personalities instead of their own reporters.

In the end, everybody won. The cable networks found a new reason to sell outrage, Obama got a little credibility with jaded younger voters, and Hank Green got some new followers to enjoy his next video about the productivity of the edge.

Before video blogging was a thing, Hank Green was trained as a scientist. Ecologists, he says, understand that the edges between two biomes are the most productive places on the planet. The areas where a forest transitions to grassland, or where the sea transitions to land, are called ecotones. There, at the edge, species can thrive, grow, and adapt in ways that aren’t possible in either biome alone. The wider the edge, the greater its diversity, the more powerful its influence becomes: wetlands, where the ocean and the land can blend for miles at a time, create opportunities for life that benefit the whole planet.

In nature, the edge is a great place to be. But it’s also a risky place to be. Species who thrive along the edge have more opportunity, but they also have to outsmart more predators, face more risks, and adapt to more change.

Maybe that’s why we tend to stay away from the edges of our own philosophies. We draw lines around our politics, our habits, and our religions. We tell ourselves and our children that people at the edges are inauthentic, at least, and probably dangerous. We say, “Why would I ever walk toward the edge? My world makes sense. I have my politics and I see their mistakes. I have my right and I see their wrong. I have us and I see other. Exploring the edge would only weaken my tribe.”

And in some ways, we might be right. In ecology, avoiding the edges, avoiding those areas of change, threat, and opportunity, can create a monoculture — an area so well suited for one species that its growth goes unchecked for miles.

Like ecotones, monocultures are quite productive. Monocultures are safe. They’re comfortable. But unlike a wetland, which creates opportunities for life beyond its own boundaries, a monoculture’s productivity can only strengthen itself.

And a monoculture is fragile. Introducing even one foreign species into a monoculture can destroy the entire biome, so change becomes the enemy. Foreign species are attacked or crowded out. The entire system is rigged to prevent outside influence and maintain the strength of the dominant species.

Society wants us to believe that true strength comes from choosing our ideological biome and then building it into a powerful monoculture. The media, our schools, our churches, all want us to choose a side and then shun the edge and those who venture there. You have to choose: Republican or democrat? Nature or technology? Faithful or apostate? Those who refuse to take a hard stance become a threat to both extremes.

Joseph Smith was gathering “matter unorganized”
and spinning it into his grand American religion.
And he wouldn’t have claimed differently:
Smith’s God, he believed, lived at the edge with him.

The Mormon church has long been a powerful monoculture, isolating itself from outside influence and asserting control to choke out foreign species. That wasn’t always the case — the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, was notoriously progressive, even revolutionary. By the time of his death, Smith had co-opted Masonic ceremony into Mormon temples. He ordained a black man to the Mormon priesthood. He reinvented marriage, taking more than 30 wives. He reinvented integrity, lying to his church and his family about the things his new theology required. He wrote a book of scripture, copying stories and phrases from several books. Smith was gathering “matter unorganized” and spinning it into his grand American religion. And he wouldn’t have claimed differently: Smith’s God, he believed, lived at the edge with him.

In an ecotone, each new species adds richness, opportunity, and, of course, risk. Early converts played key roles in forming Joseph Smith’s gospel, and then later embarrassed their prophet when they discovered his polyandry. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, seemed determined to have more control, and his journey West became a journey that would change Mormonism from a vibrant, violent ecotone into a stable monoculture. Joining the Mormons became a process of conforming — becoming one of the dominant species instead of adding unique perspectives to a dynamic theology. The monoculture took hold.

And for generations, that monoculture served itself well, quelling competition by demanding conformity at the threat of excommunication. But in the wake of a new millennium, the church finds itself defending a monoculture in a world that celebrates ecotones. The massive organization that built its brand on Truth-with-a-capital-T has lost control of its narrative. Now a new kind of truth — lower case this time, and based on a history the church can no longer suppress — erodes the faith from within.

In the wake of a new millennium, the church finds itself
defending a monoculture in a world that celebrates ecotones.

Podcaster John Dehlin, Mormon by one less measure than he was last month.

Last week, the church excommunicated another member, Mormon Stories podcaster and mental health advocate John Dehlin, for apostasy. Most people close enough to Mormonism to care seem content to choose a binary position: Defend John Dehlin, or villify John Dehlin. The edges fade away as people entrench and defend either extreme.

Mormons who try to adopt a more nuanced perspective are reluctant to share their view publicly. The church claims no centralized control over excommunication hearings, but Dehlin’s expulsion reinforces the de facto standard for its members: We don’t need you to conform, we just need you to appear to conform.

A real Mormon will have questions, but he won’t question. A real mormon may have doubts, but he doesn’t doubt. It’s ok to believe whatever you believe, but if you want your church to leave you alone, don’t say it out loud. To observers, the distinction seems like another new definition of integrity: Be true to yourself, if you must, but only in private.

Except that isn’t what a typical Mormon will say the church feels like. Apart from the highest leaders of the church, so-called General Authorities who receive housing, vehicles, and a “modest stipend” from church funds, Mormonism relies on lay leadership — unpaid and largely untrained men who take turns leading local congregations for five to seven years at a time.

The unique volunteer structure creates something many Mormons call “leadership roulette”. If you attend a gay pride event and your bishop is progressive, he may give you a high five in the hallway. If your neighbor who attended with you has a conservative bishop, she may wind up on formal probation.

In a statement released after expelling John Dehlin, the church pointed to leadership roulette: Dehlin’s stake president, a well-meaning volunteer, made the call. Dehlin and others have reason to suspect intervention from the paid leadership in Salt Lake City — a reasonably likely claim that sounds like the plot of a wholesome, short, and rather dull conspiracy novel. Whoever made the decision, and under what kind of influence, the message to members of the church is plain: You’ll do better, socially, mentally, eternally, if you keep your head down.

Even so, the LDS church is progressing, sometimes begrudgingly, toward new levels of openness and acceptance. They used to excommunicate scholars for printing articles about Joseph Smith’s polyandry; now those same articles are cited in official essays on the church’s website. They used to sponsor electroshock aversion therapy to “cure” gay men; now their own literature concedes being gay is not, in fact, a disease to be cured. If the progress appears clumsy from the outside, that may be an indication of a struggle at the highest levels to appear progressive without poking holes in fundamental Mormon doctrine.

While people use the internet to shout about whether Dehlin’s advocacy for gay rights was the last straw, the more productive question gets swept under a rug.

Dehlin’s excommunication doesn’t feel progressive, but it might actually be a solid move from the PR-savvy church. Faithful Mormons will respect the implicit warning (“This is what happens when you question your leaders!”) and withdraw from the edges to strengthen the monoculture. Dissenters and former Mormons will get angry, of course, and believers will be even more convinced that peace can be found only within the safety of their faith. And while these entrenched parties use the internet to shout about whether Dehlin’s advocacy for gay rights was the last straw, the more productive question gets swept under a rug: What does this mean for Mormons already at the edges of their religion?

Mormons have a reputation for homogeny in large part because non-traditional members have learned to hide. The social pressure to conform, at least publicly, drives underground the tens of thousands of Mormon men and women who feel, for one reason or another, like misfits in their own faith. They march in gay pride parades and still pay tithing. They drink coffee and still sing in the choir. They believe the Book of Mormon is fiction and still attend church. They feel nothing like their neighbors, their parents, sometimes even their spouse. And yet these misfits have the power to change their church.

History is built on small shifts that have created huge change, and the Mormon church is at the edge of one of these shifts. Consider the potential impact if the church were to embrace the edge and abandon its self-serving monoculture. Millions of members willingly give up their time, talent, and resources to build up their monoculture; what might we accomplish, together, if that energy were directed elsewhere instead?

If it sounds heretical to faithful Mormons, perhaps they don’t understand the ecological metaphor. A monoculture will thrive only when the environment favors its growth and foreign species can be controlled. That is no longer possible in the world we share. The health of the Mormon church, and its ability to be a force for good in the world around it, depends on its ability to adapt to the turbulence at the edge.

How will they arrive there? Excommunicated apostates can’t move them — that’s the point of expulsion. Angry protests from out-groups and mass resignations from disaffected members only strengthen the resolve to defend the monoculture. No, in religion as in ecology, the potential for change is found only at the edges, where tens of thousands of unorthodox members already live. The Mormon church needs those members to start talking. Not protesting, not arguing, not resigning their memberships in solidarity. Just talking. Being seen for who they truly are. Connecting.

Each time a non-traditional Mormon lets her neighbor see her unique beliefs, she makes it easier for everyone in the congregation to be true to themselves. One respectful voice at a time, the silent minority will begin to understand that they aren’t alone in their doubts and unapproved beliefs. As that understanding grows, power will shift away from the monoculture and toward the productive edges — to the ecotones where opportunity and challenges await, where ideas and opinions and personalities can blend together to create something like an ideological wetland: hard to define, hard to cling to, and infinitely more valuable to the world than anything Mormonism has been able to offer so far.

I love to write and I love to think. Sometimes I do them in the right order. Father of 5.


I love to write and I love to think. Sometimes I do them in the right order. Father of 5.