The PBS show “The Mormons” discussed the excommunication back in 1994 of several so-called “Mormon intellectuals”. While I think the incident itself was a fair one to raise, I thought the segment was both far too long and very unbalanced for a number of reasons, which, of course, I’ll now discuss at length.
First, as Terryl Givens noted in the show, we only have one side of the story. Church leaders do not announce, discuss, or otherwise release information on what goes on in LDS disciplinary councils, even in the face of any public statements made by the person for whom the court was convened.
Second, this section of the show several times cut back to footage of a large semi-circle of old-fashioned wooden chairs all facing a single wooden chair sitting by itself in a large open, high-ceiling space — implying that this was the setting of such a council. This was just silly. LDS stake high council rooms are built pretty much like a small to mid-size corporate conference room: rectangular, carpeted, low ceiling, few windows (mostly glazed over and/or with curtains), and just enough room to fit a long conference table with padded (but fixed-leg or folding) chairs all around.
Third, the show left the impression (due to statements by Ms. Toscano) that it was her “alone against sixteen men” (or words to that effect). This was an outright falsehood in terms of those defending her. In a stake disciplinary council, half of the stake high council (six of the twelve) are assigned to present arguments in favor of the accused, while the other six present arguments against the accused. The stake presidency does not present arguments one way or the others; they simply listen to the evidence and arguments presented by the high council, as well as statements by the accused.
Fourth, the show referred to “disfellowshipment” as being “just short of excommunication”. This is only true in the same was that probation is “just short of” actual jail/prison time — which is to say, there’s a big difference for the person involved. Excommunication is an actual termination of LDS Church membership; should the person choose to rejoin the LDS Church (and thousands do), they must be re-baptized. Disfellowshipment involves a temporary restriction for that person on certain activities within the LDS Church (attending the temple, taking the sacrament, holding callings), but it can be lifted by a simple decision on the part of that person’s bishop.
Fifth, the show left the impression that there is wholesale excommunication and discipline of “Mormon intellectuals”. Again, not true; indeed, one would be hard pressed to find examples outside of the so-called “September Six” (one of whom has since been rebaptized and another of whom continues to attend LDS meetings), the principal one being Margaret Toscano (in 2000) — and this in a church with nearly 13 million members.
In the meantime, thousands of LDS Church members are disfellowshipped or excommunicated each year due to moral transgressions (sex outside of marriage, spousal and child abuse, polygamy and so on). For that matter, in roughly the same timeframe as the “September Six”, the LDS Church excommunicated or disfellowshiped large numbers of ultraconservative survivalists in southern Utah — but I don’t think that fit into the “persecution of free-thinking liberals” theme that this section of the show appeared to put forth.
Again, I think the issue itself was a fair one to raise, but I think the amount of time spent on it was disproportionate, particularly given that the show gave almost no time to the strong intellectual and educational roots within Mormonism — which is the subject of my next post. ..bruce..