“If you can’t follow ‘The Brethren,’ why don’t you just leave?”
Kate Kelly’s excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the many conversations surrounding it provide insight not only into current divisions and attitudes within Mormonism, but also into the meaning of Mormonism itself. For some, Kate Kelly is apostate, going against Church teachings and leading believers away from the truth; while for other believers, Kate Kelly is expressing her loyalty and sincere love for the Church by addressing important issues of gender inequality. This is a rather polarized issue within the Church, and the press and blogosphere have made it an international spectacle. This division of course is not new.
In 1938, the Improvement Era published an opinion piece titled, “As a Prophet Speaks.” Its author, Richard L. Evans (member of the IE editorial board and future Apostle), tapped into personal observations about how Mormons react to public utterances of Church leaders following General Conference or other church gatherings. There are the “faithful and undisturbed,” who essentially agree with whatever is said. Others are Satan-inspired and love to find fault. But finally, there are “the most definitely heroic,” those “who sacrifice their own inclinations and interests out of loyalty to the chosen leaders of the Lord.” In facing contradiction between Church teachings and personal conscience, such heroes “find themselves paying some sacrifice either of pride, opinion, or material advantage, notwithstanding which they are numbered among the faithful in the acts of their lives because they believe that inspiration transcends man-made thinking and planning.”
For the sake of a manageable discussion, I propose that there appears to be two basic forms of loyalty within Mormonism, however admittedly over-simplified such a dichotomy must be (I’ll address a third form at the end, demonstrating this as more of a spectrum, rather than a strict dichotomy). This does not mean that there are not many types of Mormons, for indeed there are. Rather, it means that at a moment of crisis when your conscience places you directly at odds with Church teachings or standards, there is a choice to be made: heroically submit or stand up and challenge what you perceive to be wrong. Both choices represent particular approaches to religious loyalty.
This question of loyalty could not be more profound. For Evans, obedience to male leaders should be absolute and unquestioned. Even if you perceive them as wrong or immoral, you are to follow these men and the ecclesiastical institution as though it is God Himself speaking. Quoting President Harold B. Lee, Elder Robert D. Hales explained in a recent General Conference that our safety lay in our unquestioned and absolute obedience to Church leaders, even if it contradicts our personal, political, or social views. We are to accept these words “as if from the mouth of the Lord Himself.” Such words would have been difficult for those struggling with contemporary Church teachings that condemned interracial marriages and upheld principles and laws in support of racial inequality and segregation, but obedience, as Mormons understand it, is the first law of heaven. Obedience is often measured in terms of seemingly petty and small things such as jewelry and facial hair, but the consequences are considered eternal. As Elder M. Russell Ballard explained at General Conference, “Wearing two pair of earrings may or may not have eternal consequences…, but [one’s] willingness to obey the prophet will.” Church leaders are divine vessels in which God is approached and salvation is granted, and speaking against them, ignoring their counsel, or even speaking irreverently about them, places you in an uncomfortable position in the church and the hereafter. Though Mormons prize personal agency, this agency is to be surrendered to those who it is believed are God’s spokesmen on earth. As one widely circulated blog post wrote, church leaders serve as a “person-to-person link” to Jesus Himself. This is a crucial point within Mormon teachings and it is this point that labeled Kate Kelly an apostate.
For those who find themselves dissenting from particular church teachings, they are met with the question from other members as to why they don’t just leave the Church. These Mormons insist however that the Church represents more than “The Brethren,” and point instead to their conscience and their commitment to certain divine principles, be they historical honesty and openness, racial and gender equality, or even the humanization of the LGBT community. The issues can be many. Members of this group feel too much loyalty to these principles and their own consciences to surrender them for the sake of obedience. This position is profoundly attuned to the truth behind Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s admittance that sometimes Church leaders not only make mistakes, but also are “not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” For this group, there is nothing heroic about obedience under such circumstances and either nuance or reject the “person-to-person” link these men hold with the divine. As these members would see it, there were no Mormon heroes at Mountain Meadows, however obedient all were to priesthood leaders. This group would hold that a certain level of “loyal opposition” is both healthy and necessary.
So, there is an impasse between these two approaches to Mormonism, and both sides largely talk past each other. The former group cannot accept that “the Brethren” would ever fail to support good principles, so all critique to the contrary is discarded and ignored. There is a figurative mental “wall” that is hit that they will not pass through. They are loyal to the Church and its leaders, and any information that flies in the face of that loyalty is rejected. The latter group recognizes and anticipates Church fallibility, and as such, remains loyal to reason and conscience and out of loyalty, rejects whatever contradicts. And yes, this latter approach can include just as much mental editing as the former in order to protect this loyalty to conscience. Though there are some, like Kate Kelly, who find their own sense of loyalty rejected by the Church and many of its members, there are also those who are “betwixt and between” the two positions and continue to serve and work within the Church. This group recognizes the problems and complexities of Mormon history and an all-male ecclesiastical authority, but they do not see themselves as opposed to hierarchical obedience. This position has its tensions, but it is also here where spiritual growth and creativity is forged and where many find Mormonism beautiful and enriching, despite current temperaments of the Church itself. Not all Mormons are blindly obedient, and not all dissenters are worthy of the brand apostate. Many Mormons who disagree with all that is said and taught still claim a home within Mormonism, but as the news of Kate Kelly’s excommunication shows, that home feels smaller and less hopeful.
 Improvement Era, “As a Prophet Speaks.” Vol 41, No. 3 (March 1938).
 Apostle Elder Marion G. Romney relayed this personal story with President Heber J. Grant in a summer General Conference in 1972: “We were discussing some criticism that had been directed against an action taken by him in his official capacity. Putting his arm across my back and resting his hand on my left shoulder, he said, ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he tells you to do something wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ And then he added, ‘You don’t need to worry, however; the Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead his people astray.’ I haven’t forgotten his counsel. I think I have been faithful to that charge ever since.” Marion G. Romney, “The Covenant of the Priesthood: A Challenge to the Priesthood Members to Magnify their Callings.” Ensign, July 1972, pg. 98.
 Robert D. Hales, “Strengthening Faith and Testimony.” General Conference, October 2013. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/general-conference-strengthening-faith-and-testimony?lang=eng#10-10791_000_12hales (accessed 6/23/14).
 He further explained, “Today I make you a promise. It’s a simple one, but it is true. If you will listen to the living prophet and the apostles and heed our counsel, you will not go astray.” M. Russell Ballard, “His Word Ye Shall Receive,” Ensign. May, 2001. P. 66.
 http://thestyleofbeing.blogspot.com/2014/06/mormonism-feminism-and-being-snarky.html (accessed on 6/24/14)
 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us.” Gender Conference, October 2013. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng (accessed on 6/24/14)