John Dehlin's Thoughts on Bushman and the Role of Church in Disaffection

I can’t believe Richard Bushman has dominated the month of June on my blog.  (I actually started this at the end of May.)  Anyway, I’m finally on to Part 5 of the Richard Bushman Interview.  At this point, John Dehlin takes a short break an explains that the interview will not cover all the topics as promised in Part 1 due to the depth of his questions and Bushman’s lack of time.  (Four hours was not enough!)  Then John asks some questions that I think are very interesting questions, and I’d love to hear your answers to John’s question.  So, here is John’s thoughts on the interview up to this point.

John Dehlin

JD, “Hi, this is John Dehlin and thank you again for joining us on Mormon Stories.  You are about to hear the final portion of my five-part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman, former stake president, and current patriarch of the LDS Church, professor of U.S. History, and author of the book Joseph Smith:  Rough Stone Rolling.  Before I play the interview, I wanted to share a few final thoughts.

At the beginning of the series, I indicated that Dr. Bushman and I intended to cover 10 or so of the toughest issues surrounding Joseph Smith’s history.  Unfortunately, because of the breadth and depth of the first several segments, we burned through all the time that Dr. Bushman was able to offer, and will not continue beyond this final episode, at least for now.  Dr. Bushman has indicated that he may have time at some future date to continue the series so there’s still some chance, but for now, this will be the final segment of a five-part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman.  I want to take the time again to thank Dr. Bushman for his willingness to come on Mormon Stories Podcast.

In making that decision, it seems as though he had everything to lose and precious little to gain.  In my opinion, Dr. Bushman walks a very fine and difficult line.  On the one hand, he is viewed almost universally as a faithful devoted member of the LDS Church, not only in good standing, but as we mentioned before, currently serving as a patriarch for the Church. His books have been widely sold in Church bookstores and many feel that he has at least tacit approval from leaders of the LDS Church to do what he is doing.  We should not underestimate the heavy burden that he must feel in this position. Notwithstanding, Dr. Bushman is not only a scholar, but remains a clear champion of more open, honest, and accurate history within the LDS Church.

He is not merely defending Joseph and the Church.  He is also calling for change, improvements if you will on all of our parts.  This position between the extremes can be a very lonely road to walk.  On the one hand, he risks being criticized by conservatives as eroding faith by airing too much “dirty laundry” as they say.  On the other hand he exposes himself to ridicule, derision and even blind dismissal by disaffected Mormons for acting out the role of apologist.  Again, this can be a very lonely road to walk, one that requires deep faith, heavy preparation, strong integrity, and conviction.  In my estimation, Dr. Bushman deserves great praise and admiration for trying to walk this middle path.  While dissenting scholars like Brodie, Quinn, Palmer, Compton, and Vogel clearly deserve our deep respect, so does Dr. Bushman.  Regardless of what type of Mormon or ex-Mormon you are, for those of us who are interested in mainstream members of the LDS Church, finally coming to grips with the factual, toughest aspects of Joseph Smith and LDS Church History, including peep stones, masonry, polyandry, kingdom of God, the Nauvoo Expositor, the Kinderhook plates, and all of the other tough topics, I cannot think of another Mormon historian who has done more to drive awareness to these issues deeper into mainstream Mormonism than has Dr. Bushman. In that respect, he deserves credit and praise from all sides of the faith spectrum. And yet, he continues to believe; perhaps the most amazing, inspiring, and for some maddening aspect of all.

Still, as I’ve re-listened to these interviews, I remain almost stunned at the non-traditional language Dr. Bushman is willing to use in his discussions of LDS faith, even as a patriarch for the Church.  He describes his testimony as being centered on goodness, rather than the traditional language of truthfulness with a capital T, though I’m sure that he also holds the gospel to be true.  Still this is reassuring language from the many saints who struggle with the words “know” and “true” relative to testimonies.  It is like a breath of fresh air.  Instead of avoiding the issue, Dr. Bushman openly acknowledges the paradox of honest, yet faithful saint and scholar who experiences the conflict between a belief in the exclusive truthfulness of the LDS Church and the awareness that there is much good in the world outside of Mormonism and that there must be more to God’s plan than what we currently know.  This again is very refreshing, He boldly calls for more openness and honesty within our Church at all levels and acknowledges that perhaps our hesitancy to be candid with the historical evidence has caused many to feel unnecessary pain and feelings of having been deceived.  He does not blame the victim.

In addition, Dr. Bushman is willing to step out from the safety and control of the written word and directly confront charged question after charged question in my own narrative with both poise and acceptance, never shying away from the harder aspects of the history, always validating the historical evidence, and never resulting to ad hominem attacks as so many Mormon apologists have done in the past and continue to do. He is respectful enough to show deference to and even praise for someone like Dan Vogel, in spite of the fact that Mr. Vogel is not by any means a traditional believer in the Church.  Perhaps most importantly of all, Dr. Bushman extends words of support and encouragement to those who are struggling and questioning their faith.  He does not demean them, but instead shows compassion and understanding for their plight and openly encourages them to continue the struggle, to not give up the quest.  He even reduces the dilemma to something very simple. He calls the belief in prophets a choice, something that our heavy emphasis in the Spirit and feelings often does not allow.

In conclusion, if every faithful member of the Church from apostle to prophet to general authority to stake president to bishop to ward member to neighbor and to family member were to follow Dr. Bushman’s example of how to deal with Mormon history and those who have been negatively affected by it, I firmly believe that there would be significantly less pain, anguish, suffering, divorce, isolation, disaffection, antagonism, loneliness, depression, and maybe even suicide within Mormonism.  If I have any criticism of the interview at all, it is in a slight contradiction that I and a few others have noted in Dr. Bushman’s narrative.  One the one hand he begins by speaking so highly of his early Harvard days, where he and other members of the Church were able to spend hours upon hours of time studying, exploring, and discussing all aspects of Mormonism without any real fear of judgment or castigation.  While I acknowledge that the Mormon Historical Association allows for dissenting views, I remain uncertain as to what forums Mormons today have for similar types of discussions, certainly not Sunday School. Study groups and symposia have been formally discouraged by Church leadership, and while Sunstone has made great strides under the leadership of Dan Wotherspoon and others to emphasize what is positive and faithful within Mormonism, the stigma remains.  I will ask our listeners and Dr. Bushman an open, somewhat rhetorical question.  Where, other than on the internet and in Sunstone and in Dialogue can faithful LDS members go to openly discuss the issues and controversies of both LDS Church History and other social aspects of the Church without fear of judgment, disloyalty, or punishment?  Where are the open forums for thought and faith within Mormonism accessible to all?  Sunstone has definitely been through its ups and downs, but until I learn of a better place, I will continue to give Sunstone, Dialogue, and even the Bloggernacle my time and support.  For those who are not comfortable with Sunstone and Dialogue and other places, but are aware of the dilemma of disaffected LDS saints due to history and other cultural history, I’ll ask this one last time.  Where can disaffected Mormons go for open, friendly informed, non-judgmental Church-sanctioned support?  If it is not the Church’s role to directly and officially reach out to those struggling with their faith, what is their role exactly?  And if it is not Sunstone or Dialogue, who is it and where do we go?

4 comments on “John Dehlin's Thoughts on Bushman and the Role of Church in Disaffection

  1. Dynamically Mormonism is indoctrination into a peculiar closed culture that encourages humble childlike teachability, obedience and discourages probing questioning, instead offering prepackaged easily recitable answers. Thinking for oneself when expressed as doubtful probing questioning beyond a question or two is tacitly discouraged and closely linked to and even becoming conflated with apostasy. Where can disaffected Mormons go for open, friendly informed, non-judgmental Church-sanctioned support? Nowhere, except to God and maybe a sympathetic friend.

  2. While not officially sanctioned by the church, I think the bloggernacle is the place to go. I know it has helped me.

  3. Howard, comments of your caliber are callous. I’m a lifelong Mormon and I can assure you I have NEVER had the experience of being discouraged from the deepest of probing and questioning. Perhaps that once was true, not in my experience. Speak for yourself, not for the church.

  4. […] John Dehlin’s Thoughts on Bushman and the Roll of the Church in Disaffection […]

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