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JOHN DEHLIN: If I have to choose between my conscience and excommunication, I'd choose excommunication any day.
MARTIN: That is the voice of John Dehlin. He started a podcast and website called Mormon Stories as a space for people to question Mormon teachings. Next Sunday, he will face a disciplinary hearing where he expects to be officially excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. John Dehlin has been charged with apostasy for questioning church doctrine, especially on the issue of same-sex marriage and the role of women in the church.
When we spoke of him recently, he walked us back to the moment when he started to question his church. John Dehlin is our Sunday conversation.
DEHLIN: What happened was, you know, around 2001, I started studying the church's history in depth and discovered that the history about Joseph Smith was deeply disturbing.
MARTIN: Joseph Smith was the founding profit of the church.
DEHLIN: Yes, that's right. You know, the fact that he, you know, married over 30 women, many of them were teenagers, one as young as 14. Many of them were other men's wives who, you know, were still living. So that was disturbing, but also studying the origins of The Book of Mormon and The Book of Abraham, which are two sort of foundational scriptural texts for Mormons, I discovered that there's a mountain of evidence that indicates that they are 19th-century documents and not anything necessarily directly of God.
And so that's led to not be able to believe everything the church teaches. And I think the church leaders are uncomfortable with these difficult topics being out in the open and increased awareness about them throughout the church.
MARTIN: Did you grow up in the church?
DEHLIN: I did. I'm a fifth-generation Mormon. My ancestors go all the way back to the earliest years of the church. My ancestors, you know, crossed the planes, settled in Idaho and Utah. And I was raised Moorman, very devout and active. But I was raised in Texas so I wasn't raised in Utah.
MARTIN: You knew then that, culturally, you were taking a risk by talking about some of this stuff.
DEHLIN: Yeah. Yeah. I started Mormon stories about 10 years ago, and I was petrified. I bought that first microphone, and I stared at it. And I recorded my first episode, and I thought, wow, there's no going back once I do this. And to be honest, I've lived with the fear of excommunication and other types of things for 10 years. But what happened was when I was working for Microsoft in Wash., I had my own crisis of faith. And I became so depressed, and then I tried to talk to people. And there was just no one to talk to.
MARTIN: Was there something that triggered that for you?
DEHLIN: Yeah. It was a couple things. I read a book called "No Man Knows My History." And this is going to sound really strange to non-Mormons, but prior to let's just say 2010 or so, most Mormons didn't know that their founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist. That was part of it. And then, you know, scientifically, you study, you know, The Book of Mormon, and then you find out that it contains things like steel swords and horses and chariots - things that the scientists would be able to tell you from the start, well, that can't be true. That's like Abraham Lincoln having an iPod.
Then sort of the scientific underpinnings of The Book of Mormon fall out of place. And then you're sort of in a free-fall where you don't know who you are anymore. You don't know what to believe, what your morality is, what your identity is. But then you try to talk to family and friends, and everybody's scared. And it's like your whole familial and social networks can unravel. And you're left just wondering what you have left.
MARTIN: Why didn't you leave? Right then and there, why didn't you just say, I can't stay in this church anymore?
DEHLIN: Yeah. Probably the most important reason was that I loved it too much. The church had been there for me during hard times. I still love the hymns. I still love the spirituality. But if you think about just the weight of losing the esteem of your family and friends, potentially getting divorced, it's just too much to take. And so what I did was I tried to bargain. I tried to just say if you look at Catholicism, you can criticize the Pope publicly and you can still remain a Catholic and take communion.
MARTIN: So you had started Mormon Stories as this forum for grappling with complicated issues within the church and also as a place to criticize this church that you loved but you had issues with. You also founded a website called Stay LDS, which was a place where you were encouraging people who perhaps did have some concerns and were thinking about leaving. But you were trying to make the case that they should stay. How are those two compatible?
DEHLIN: You just never want to be above the people. And you never want to be above criticism. So to me, the act of providing constructive criticism to your church isn't an act of disloyalty. It's actually an act of allegiance and love. And to be honest, I just came up with all these people who couldn't stay. They would just say to me, John, if I leave the church, my wife will divorce me and take the kids. And so when you're stuck in this position where you can't leave, then Stay LDS was created to provide people with a way to stay.
MARTIN: So doing you and your family stopped going to the Mormon Church this past summer. What do you do now on Sundays?
DEHLIN: You know, we were so conditioned that three hours on Sunday was what we do that for many, many years, we had a lot of anxiety about really leaving. We tried to leave other times, and we just ended up coming back. But this time, you know, we kind of made the move with more confidence. And it's been amazing. We wake up together as a family and instead of rushing to get ready and stressed trying to go to church, we'll have breakfast together, we'll read the paper, we'll talk about current events. It's very common that on a Sunday, we'll go for a hike as a family and enjoy nature. We watch - Oprah Winfrey has a great show called "Super Soul Sunday." We watch that every Sunday to get some spiritual edification.
And mostly, it's just - it's really unified us as a family. Honestly, I haven't missed Church yet at all. And in fact, it's been an incredibly healing thing for our family. That's not to put down those who do go to church. I still consider myself a person of faith, but when I've tried to attend other religious traditions, I find myself deconstructing them in the same way I did Mormonism. I guess we still hold out hope that we can make the Mormon Church our home, but they would have to make a lot of very significant changes before we could do that.
MARTIN: It sounds like you are preparing, though, for a decision in which you leave the church. You are preparing to be excommunicated.
DEHLIN: Yeah. I think excommunication is definitely the path that the state president is going to take.
MARTIN: John Dehlin, founder of the Mormon Stories podcast and website. He spoke to us from the studios of Utah Public Radio. Thanks so much, John.
DEHLIN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
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