censorship, confidential correspondence, cooking, correspondence, deception, disciplinary hearing, disciplinary hearing documents, John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, Mormon Stories, narrative formation, recipes
At some point in the last week it occurred to me that most of the posts on this blog have been all business, and given the Mormon-related theme and positioning of this blog, it should include a good recipe for something useful. I do not, however, recommend actually following the recipe I am about to describe because, while manifestly effective, it contains dangerous levels of dishonesty, and like too many sweets and a sedentary lifestyle, risks eventually catching up with both the cook and consumer. So without further adieu (see, it does occur in English writing): How to Bake a Narrative.
If you ever need to manipulate a massive number of people, here are a few steps that you need to follow. It’s as easy as 1-2-3-4:
1. Separate the convenient from the inconvenient data, set the inconvenient data aside for later
2. Wait for the narrative to gel (and for people to stop paying attention)
3. After narrative has thoroughly gelled, use the inconvenient data to create a garnish of truth and maintain your credibility (issue minor retractions and clarifications that you can use to cover yourselves if versions of the truth that are incompatible with your narrative emerge)
4. Let the topic die with your version of the events baked into the story, while other competing and potentially more accurate versions of events wither on the vine
We will discuss how Dehlin’s has applied a method similar to this in two recent recent cases in order to mislead the media and those who depend upon them for information. These are his recent announcement of his disciplinary counsel and the associated release of documents that he provided, his announcement in connection with Kate Kelly’s disciplinary hearing that he was undergoing discipline, and possibly one other story.
To begin our discussion of how to apply this process, we first consider Dehlin’s actions during Kate Kelly’s disciplinary hearing. As many will recall they announced their discipline together to New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein, and suggested that their discipline was part of an organized purge of those with various ideological views. This narrative was advantageous to Dehlin because if he can represent himself as part of an organizational effort at punishing ideologies (which many people would disapprove of) it makes him a more sympathetic character than if his efforts are more rightly characterized as an attempt to inculcate unbelief in the religion, which many sensible people would see as a legitimate reason to expel someone. A good exit story is important to future attempts to market himself, so it is understandable that he would attempt to appropriate (however wrongfully) some of the angst that attended certain historical excommunications such as the September Six for his own use, by making it seem like he was a critical element in a two for one special.
In reality both Dehlin’s and Kelly’s communication with local leaders had been ongoing for some time previous to that, so they had no reason to suppose that receiving different types of letters from their leaders (her’s a disciplinary hearing summons, and his an invitation to visit with his Stake President and clarify where he stood) was part of some sinister conspiracy. Kelly’s council was the culmination of a number of meetings that began as early as December related to her activities and had already included informal probation, which she seems to have violated, thus seeing her as part of a coordinated purge ignores the proximate cause contained in everything she ultimately released into the public record, which shows an ongoing process .
Dehlin had received notice the preceding February (2014) that his Bishop felt the need to investigate him. John, writing in an open forum after reporting on the his pretended disciplinary hearing had sufficiently died down stated that the bishop “accused me of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and told me that he was going to begin yet another investigation.” and Dehlin responded by telling him not to contact him as a Bishop or request any interviews. So the bishop had already in February indicated that he thought Dehlin needed to answer for his activities. Responding to a request for an investigation with a do not contact request most likely did two things: First, it created quite a hassle for the leadership of the ward as it contained a number of borderline bizarre requests such as asking leaders not to speak about them in private meetings (see complete letter below: ) and potentially even implied he desired name removal. Second, it made it virtually certain that the Stake President would have to contact him eventually to consider John’s status as a member as the bishop had already seen that this was necessary. That it took this long is not at all surprising. It could easily have taken that long to figure out what to do in the presence of other more urgent administrative responsibilities, and considering John’s non-communication request, it could very well have taken them a significant period of time merely to discuss and decrypt the ambiguities in his Do Not Contact Letter between the relevant local leaders. The resulting letter from the Stake President asking for clarification states clearly why he is writing, and that it is in response to his previous email to the bishop. Pretending that this is part of an organized purge again ignores all of the proximate causes, and instead replaces them with a made up story of a coordinated purge.
This story was given to the media June 11. The letter from the Stake President was given to the New York Times. However, John’s prior email to his bishop seemingly is not. The stories are written within 1-2 days. The media attention dies down quickly with only a limited interest after the initial excitement. After the narrative that there is a coordinated purge in the works has time to set, and attention is low enough that there is no chance of it being broadcast to the same audience reached by the initial messaging, Dehlin then publishes his email to the Bishop (June 16 looks like when it begins to appear). This protects him later from criticism that he withheld this critical piece of information since he is making it available now (now that most people are no longer paying attention). This is the critical step in cooking a narrative. You have to make the counter narrative material available at exactly the right time—after news attention has dropped to the point where few people will bother writing a follow-up story, and before anyone gains access to the information from a third party source and has a chance to call him on withholding the information. This lets the narrative gel properly, and then the additional material can be sprinkled on top as garnish of honesty, which sticks nicely to the surface, but does not penetrate the narrative deeply enough to disrupt its structure. Interestingly in the letter itself he goes to great lengths to ensure that the bishop doesn’t release the letter to anyone else: “Finally, as a person who claims to believe in being honest and charitable, we would like to respectfully ask you to please keep the contents of this email between us.”  One might next expect Dehlin to argue ‘think of the children’, which he actually does in the next line (see footnote 2 below). So as an honest and charitable person the bishop should not publish the letter, and on what grounds is it okay for Dehlin to publish all of the other parties correspondence? This is a bit manipulative and puzzlingly hypocritical, perhaps the reason he didn’t want it released while people were paying attention.
In his more recent news release (January 15, 2015), John Dehlin has an actual disciplinary hearing summons, which does represent somewhat of an improvement in frankness. For future reference to anyone in the media who happens to be reading this, if the personal you are writing a story about cannot produce a letter that states clearly their full name, as well as the date and time of their disciplinary council, they in all likelihood don’t have one scheduled. However, this is not the problem this time. This time, Dehlin plans to exit, and he’s trying to ensure that he has a good martyrdom narrative. He has already made efforts previously (as outlined above) to create the false impression that he is part of a purge. The fact that someone actually printed a news story called “The Coming Crackdown on Mormon Liberals” indicates at least a few of those seeds germinated (at the risk of multiply mixed metaphors). It’s days like this that the hard work of carefully baking a narrative pays off, however, he also wants to be remembered as a heroic defender of minorities.
In order to accomplish this, he needs to follow the same procedure with regards to careful selection and timing of document release outlined in the recipe above and in the previous incident. In order to make the document collection easier to visualize, I am going to chart out the documents we have in order:
*February 2, 2014 John Dehlin to Bishop Hunt
*June 7, 2014 from President King to John Dehlin (this was the document that was contemporary with the Kelly incident indicating the need to determine Dehlin’s status)
*August 7, 2014 from President King to John Dehlin (President King outlines the charges and conditions of repentance, invites repentance, and Dehlin is placed on informal probation)
*August 10, 2014 from John Dehlin to President King (John outlines what he claims the disciplinary council is about, and makes extensive mention of LGBT issues)
*August 11, 2014 from President King to John Dehlin (indicates that Dehlin brought up the question of LGBT issues rather than the Stake President, and that President King’s actual concerns were with five core doctrines the August 10 letter of Dehlin and expressing concerns that he is deliberately misrepresenting the conversation they have had in order to publish it)
*January 8, 2015 from President King to John Dehlin (Summons to disciplinary council)
First, he needs to separate convenient from inconvenient data. In this case, the most convenient data is his press release. This contains the narrative that he wants told. Looking at page 1 of his press release, we can see what he wants his disciplinary council to be about. Many people if given a longer report will only read the executive summary, and often only the abstract, so for many readers, the enumerated list on the first page of his press release may effectively be all they ever see. I expect Dehlin having received at least some training in psychology research is aware of this. In any case he writes as if he is aware of it, which shows a certain amount of common sense.
The main items specifically mentioned to me by President Bryan King and Bishop Brian Hunt as contributing to my alleged apostasy include:
1) My 10-‐year effort with Mormon Stories podcast (http://mormonstories.org), wherein difficult historical and cultural issues are discussed in an interview format.
2) My public support of same-‐sex marriage.
3) My public support of the Ordain Women movement.
4) My publicly expressed doubts regarding key elements of orthodox LDS theology.
5) My publicly expressed criticism of the church’s approach to LGBT members, feminists, intellectuals, as well as its lack of transparency regarding finances.
Out of five items, item 5 is a varied repetition of items 2 and 3 with the addition of financial transparency. Ordinarily transparency probably could have been given its own line, but grouping this under criticisms allows him to restate his the two reasons most favorable to his narrative—support of same-sex marriage (restated as “criticism of the church’s approach to LGBT members”) and support of the Ordain Women movement (restated as “criticism of the church’s approach to… …feminists”) to create the impression that these causes deserve additional emphasis. This will become important later in the story when he attempts to blame the media for these emphases.
So his press release is clearly the most convenient data. Less convenient data include the Stake President’s actual summons. However, everyone knows that he has this document so waiting too long would raise eyebrows. Least convenient data includes the February 2, 2014 and August 11, 2014 letters, which directly complicate or impugn his narrative by showing that in the first case his own actions in response to his Bishop’s proposed investigation led to the Stake President’s letter of June 7, 2014, and in the second case that his Stake President thinks he is misrepresenting their conversation in his August 10, 2014 document.
Initially, Dehlin sets aside those pieces of data that are most inconvenient and releases his initial press release (6 pages) and by 2:30 Eastern Time Laurie Goodstein has published her article in the New York Times though to his credit he does seem to have provided her with the summons letter. Online, he publishes the first documents drop, which only includes his side of the story. Around 5:00 Eastern Standard Time, and thus some two and a half hours after the initial key story was written and while the second round of stories was being produced he released another set of documents, this one with the selected correspondence including the summons. This round included the August 7, 2014, and the January 8, 2015 letters of the Stake President in which he gives his own strongly contrasting reasons for the disciplinary council, with Dehlin’s August 10, 2014 to act as rebuttal to the President’s account of the reasons for the disciplinary council by providing Dehlin’s account of their conversation. However, not unusually for him, Dehlin censors the President’s reply, omitting it from the record. The stories that included this somewhat more balanced information are necessarily more even-handed than those that did not, but any stories written with only the more limited information available in his previous release contain, conveniently, only his perspective, as does any public perception created in the period of time when he released only his side of the story. This allows the story that his discipline is primarily about LGBT and women’s issues to gel without the disruptive influence of his Stake President’s perspective on the council being allowed to interrupt the process to the degree it otherwise might.
Then, quietly, several days later, after media reporting has decayed to nearly nothing, and without mentioning having done it, he finally makes available the complete set of correspondence. The correspondence document has the “complete” correspondence between Dehlin and King. It still doesn’t include his letter to his bishop, which adds important context to the Stake President’s initial letter, but it’s a great improvement in that it includes the Stake President’s letter specifically rebutting Dehlin. However, although Greg Smith kindly explained how he found this significant omission, I still can’t find the document on Dehlin site even knowing what I’m looking for. Fortunately, Greg Smith also provided a link to a copy of the correspondence which he downloaded and placed on his blog, so now you can see it all. Releasing the data ideally provides some protection from accusations of suppressing it later, however, this time, I think those are probably unavoidable. You see, the file properties data for his various documents tells an interesting story (one might say a Mormon Story).
This is a list of the documents that I have a hold of at this time. I’m tacitly assuming they were created on two different computers based on the difference in operating system data for the several files. These are some selections from the file properties data—in each case the first line contains the document title and the date of origin, the second contain the most recent modification time, and the third contains the tool used to produce it:
Initial press release
Thu 15 Jan 2015 07:00:50 PM EST
Thu 15 Jan 2015 07:00:50 PM EST
Mac OS X 10.10.1 Quartz PDFContext
Wed 14 Jan 2015 07:55:23 PM EST
Thu 15 Jan 2015 02:56:36 PM EST
Mac OS X 10.9.4 Quartz PDFContext
Sat 17 Jan 2015 09:30:13 AM EST
Sat 17 Jan 2015 09:30:13 AM EST
Adobe Acrobat Pro 9.5.5
Wed 14 Jan 2015 07:55:23 PM EST
Wed 14 Jan 2015 09:23:30 PM EST
Mac OS X 10.9.4 Quartz PDFContext
We can’t conclude much about FINAL or V4 because respectively the first was on a different system that may have had an incorrectly set clock, strange for a technically-minded person (otherwise it is difficult to explain the late time stamp on a document that was available much earlier in the day), and the the second was on a different program that didn’t consider whatever came before it. We can probably assume from the dating, though, that V4 was the last written, and was at least somewhat derivative from the previous documents, so we can probably comfortably say it was the last produced. However, V3 and “correspondence” have file properties that indicated they originated as the same document, and correspondence matured first, in fact the day before any of this was published if this clock is correct. This is really interesting because it means that he first produced the complete correspondence record and then removed President King’s August 11 letter for V3 and all subsequent main posts. This is strongly supportive of the hypothesis that he deliberately suppressed evidence that was inconsistent with his desired narrative, even going so far as to edit it out of an existing document before releasing it to the public. Even now (as of the time of writing), version 4 as posted on Mormon Stories doesn’t contain King’s August 11 letter in which he expresses his concerns that Dehlin plans to misrepresent him, and that the issues at stake in Dehlin’s disciplinary council are not those which he has represented. The King August 11 letter isn’t close to a boundary and so cannot be easily explained by a cut and paste error. Thus we have fairly good supportive evidence that this wasn’t some sort of accident, and that is was in fact deliberately removed.
Now inevitably some people have noticed that a lot of the media coverage has (unsurprisingly given his press release and its emphasis on it) suggested that he is being excommunicated largely for his LGBT and women’s issues positions. It is also unsurprising that some questioned the narrative given that excommunicating people for political positions is simply not a practice the Church encourages or condones, and many actual LGBT advocates remain in the church as faithful members. They also questioned whether he was really significant as an advocate. Beginning again the process of sprinkling the inconvenient facts on after the main stories have been written, he hedges a bit on this issue in his recent post on the Mormon Stories site and blames the media:
Even though the media have chosen to focus on SSM and OW in many of their stories, I don’t believe that I have ever claimed that SSM and/or OW were the only causes for the disciplinary council, or even necessarily the main causes (if I have done so, I’m more than willing to apologize/clarify).
And while it is impossible for anyone to accurately weigh the various factors that contributed to the decision to hold a disciplinary council, I believe that it is very accurate to say that my support for same-sex marriage and Ordain Women was a main factor, and/or a significant factor in the decision (#3 of 4 specifically listed by Bryan King in his August 7th letter to me)
Reason #3 is “Stop promoting groups or organizations that espouse doctrines contrary to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” a paraphrase of the familiar LDS counsel against supporting groups which oppose the Church’s teachings, and which has historically had its main application in cases involving those practicing polygamy contrary to current Church counsel.This nevertheless provides Dehlin’s entire textual basis for his conclusion that his case is about LGBT issues and women’s ordination.
Thanks to Nathaniel Given at Difficult Run and at Real Clear Religion (both worth reading in my view) for bringing this to my and other people’s attention. It appears to me that the above quote has been through a few edits, but when he gets around to it, Dehlin should probably try and reconcile the first paragraph which says he never “claimed that SSM and/or OW were the only causes for the disciplinary council, or even necessarily the main causes” and the last paragraph where he says “I believe that it is very accurate to say that my support for same-sex marriage and Ordain Women was a main factor, and/or a significant factor in the decision”. Are you saying it is a “main cause/factor” or not? So my suggestion for Dehlin is stop cooking the narrative and it won’t be as embarrassing watching him speak out of both sides of his mouth in the course of as many paragraphs.
Now, I want to clarify, I think it is probable that they discussed those things, and that the Stake President acknowledged that he could see problems in some set of scenarios which Dehlin proposed involving LGBT issues or women’s issues. I don’t think it is productive to imply that this particular story is made up out of whole cloth, but looking at the reactions of both parties, it feels like Dehlin is misrepenting the meeting in order to make his narrative more about LGBT issues, and less about the things the Stake President cares about.
Due to the length this has reached I am going to cut it off here though there is more one could say. Dehlin, like a master chef follows the recipe quite well as a rule, though unfortunately for his latest concoction more people noticed this time than on previous occasions, and it may have disrupted some aspects of smooth narrative gelling, though only time will tell.
Those who are interested in further reading on his claim that gay marriage and women’s ordination are main reasons for his discipline may be interested in reading the follow-up post on this topic.
 It’s a little bit tempting to make a comment about ignoring the airplanes in explanations of 9-11, but that might hit too many nerves for one day. If anyone’s wondering I will not be posting any comments that reference 9-11 claims—period.
 The complete text of the letter as posted by Dehlin in an open venue (posted June 16). He states somewhat amusingly in the same post that he doesn’t “want to appear like I’m hiding anything.”:
Margi and I decided today that we would like to ask the following of you as bishop forward:
1) We would like to ask you to please not request any more interviews with Margi or myself. Please do not contact us again as bishop. As a neighbor, no problem. But as a bishop, please don’t contact us or ask anyone to contact us again (other than to confirm receipt of this email).
2) We would like to ask you to please take our names off of any home or visiting teaching roles/lists. Other than for community service opportunities, we do not want to be contacted by the Elder’s quorum or Relief Society in any way.
3) Please dispose of our fast offering envelope such that the fast offering boys no longer come to our house.
4) Finally, as a person who claims to believe in being honest and charitable, we would like to respectfully ask you to please keep the contents of this email between us. For the sake of our children, we would prefer not to be gossiped about in the ward. We are hopeful that you can arrange 1-3 above without needing to embarrass us or our children with other ward members. Our preference would be that you not speak about us in any way during your ward leadership meetings — and that if our family comes up in such a meeting, you respectfully let the ward members know that we would prefer to not be spoken about. We would just prefer to be left alone.
Finally, please know that we sincerely have no hard feelings towards you or anyone else in the ward. We have not been offended. We are very happy in our lives and still feel much love for you, your family, and for the ward members. We know that you and others are just doing your jobs as you feel moved to do. This is just what would work for us right now. If things change, we will let you know.
Also, please know that we will still be attending church on Sundays in support of our children (when they attend), but otherwise would like you to please no longer consider Margi and myself as members of the ward.
Thanks for respecting this request. As a courtesy, please reply to let me know you have received this email.
Sincerely wishing you and your family all of the best.
John and Margi”