Two prominent Mormon activists, Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, announced Wednesday that they’re facing excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kelly is the founder and public face of Ordain Women, a group pushing for female inclusion in the faith’s all-male lay priesthood. Dehlin writes about doubt within Mormonism, and among other things has advocated for greater acceptance of LGBT members.
Excommunication is a blow to their respective causes, but more broadly may signal a decisive end to the period known as the “Mormon Moment.” Here’s why:
The “Mormon Moment” picked up steam sometime around the turn of the decade and showered the religion in often positive attention.
The precise beginning of the so-called Mormon Moment is hard to pin down, but it’s clear what it was: a string of public relations coups, rosy profiles, and rising interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons, it seemed, had somehow become lodged in America’s zeitgeist.
That fascination hit a high point in 2012 as Mitt Romney rose to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency, but it had been percolating for years. By early 2011, for example, the church was already rising on the global stage and a spokesman was penning op-eds in the Washington Post. Later that year, the The Book of Mormon debuted on Broadway. The church responded to the musical cautiously at first, and then later with a cheeky ad in the play’s handbill inviting attendees to “now read the book.” That year also saw the savvy “I’m a Mormon” campaign in full swing, which showed the world a group of faithful who were surprisingly diverse, far-flung, and cool.
Younger, tech-savvy Mormons drove the “Moment” as much as the media.
Though the Mormon Moment is often thought of as a constellation of media profiles and smart PR, its foundation lies deeper in the web, on blogs and social media. Within Mormon culture, that world is known as the “bloggernacle” — a reference to the Tabernacle, the religion’s second-most iconic building in Salt Lake City. The bloggernacle is a loose confederation of sites dealing with everything from feminism to doctrine to simply portraying Mormons as normal people. These span the theological spectrum, from highly orthodox to heretical. Some of them are mommy blogs.
Many websites that make up the bloggernacle predate the Mormon Moment, in some cases by a long time, the community gradually grew until it began to attract attention both inside and outside of Mormonism.
Dehlin comes from this world. And the idea of female ordination to Mormonism’s lay priesthood — a topic that earned Kate Kelly her potential excommunication — matured in the bloggernacle, among other places. The important thing about the bloggernacle is that it is filled with people who are really excited to share their thoughts about Mormonism. It’s a world powered by enthusiasm.
The bloggernacle did at least two important things for Mormon culture and the coming Mormon Moment.
First, it provided a tremendous content farm from which to glean stories. All the way back in 2005, the New York Times was already profiling Mormon blogging. Later, when Salon did a piece on Mormon mommy blogs, seemingly every member of the church with an internet connection shared it with their friends. Mormon blogging was hot, and it created a critical mass of conversations about Mormonism.
The second big effect of the bloggernacle was that it created an accessible space for Mormons to explore more moderate and liberal positions on everything from politics to theology. This is important; Mormonism has had an intellectual class in the past — notably the September Six, who were all excommunicated in the 1990s — but it was never as populist or as popular as the bloggernacle.
The end result was that Mormonism had an extremely diverse digital culture as it entered the “Mormon Moment.” For its part, the church eventually matched these developments, launching a new resource on previously taboo topics.
It was an era of unprecedented openness and diversity for Mormonism, and it was that culture that informed the Mormon Moment.
Interest in Mormonism tapered off after Romney lost in 2012, but it never entirely disappeared. Major profiles on the religion continued well into 2014, and if the coverage was more sparse, the tone remained one of interest in Mormonism’s apparent growing diversity. Without Romney in the picture, groups like LGBT-focused Mormons Building Bridges and feminist Ordain Women, as well as celebrities like Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn, were increasingly the face of Mormonism.
And for a time, it seemed like that was the new reality of the religion.
Excommunicating Mormon intellectuals would seem to mark the end of the Mormon Moment.
The Mormon Moment ends in two ways. First, from a media perspective, excommunicating thought leaders like Kelly and Dehlin will mean getting rid of some of the people who have made Mormonism interesting. This means there’s simply less to report on.
After Kelly and Dehlin revealed their pending punishments, Mormonism suddenly seems less cool and diverse. That may or may not matter to church leaders, but it’s certainly a shift from the type of public image the church had in 2012 at the height of the Mormon Moment.
Secondly, excommunications may reverberate back through the bloggernacle. Both Kelly and Delhin told BuzzFeed Wednesday that the actions against them seem designed to send a message that questioning will not be tolerated by the church. A statement by the church countered that excommunication is a local matter and leaders have a responsibility to “clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled.” But either way, it’s easy to imagine fear of retribution from church leaders discouraging Mormon writers who want to remain in the church while raising questions.