ad hominem, ad hominem circumstantial, disciplinary hearing, financial sacrifice, investment, John Dehlin, John Dehlin's income, MIT, open course ware, Peggy Fletched Stack, priestcraft, start-up costs, USU
John Dehlin recently got really testy with Peggy Fletcher Stack when she dared report on his finances at an inconvenient time, and wrote a blog post rebutting her article and expressing his objections to such things being reported instead of what he wanted reported, even going so far as to employ ad hominem circumstantial to cast doubt on her motivations.
I can also imagine how many active, faithful LDS Church members will respond to an article written primarily about my compensation(???) on the eve of my disciplinary council. Within the active, believing LDS context (Peggy’s context, frankly), it could easily be interpreted as an attempt to elicit shame and ill-will, given our tendency as a church to condemn those who profit from religious endeavors (i.e., “priestcraft”). Again, I do not necessarily believe that this was Peggy’s intent, only that this will likely be the reaction for many, which (again) raises questions about the timing of the article.
So what exactly does Peggy’s context have to do with her reporting? Ad hominem circumstantial is where you basically say that someone’s context invalidates their opinion. Because Peggy, according to Dehlin (I have no interest in her religious activities per se and haven’t researched them, though I don’t know that he has either) comes from an activie believing LDS context, this could be interpreted as an “attempt to elicit shame and ill-will, given our tendency as a church to condemn those who profit from religious endeavors (i.e., “priestcraft”).” An attempt to shame someone would certainly be dismissed as invalid by Dehlin’s audience, so this is in effect an argument ad hominem circumstantial where Dehlin indicates that her argument should be dismissed because of her “active, believing LDS context”. It is an imperfect example, remaining at the level of insinuation, where frankly Dehlin has accomplished some of his best rhetorical work. He reinforces the shaming accusation later on in his post:
I do not believe that non-profit employees should be publicly shamed for what they are paid (not that this was necessarily Peggy’s intention…only that it could appear this way to others).
Repetition matters for rhetoric, and this is a fine example.
So why is it that reporting on his income and prospects prompted his outrage. I would suggest that there are three reasons:
- Priestcraft is a very reasonable objection to what he is doing and this could give quite a bit of impetus to that narrative
- His organization is supported largely by those who dislike the Church and this relationship is evident in Stack’s article
- It risks demonstrating that he is profiting tremendously from his disciplinary council and thus chasing the money by making sure it is in the news
- It risks damaging his narrative that he is sacrificing in order to help people
So, in order….
A classic quick description of the business of priestcraft is given in Alma 1:5-6
Alma 1:5 And it came to pass that he did teach these things so much that many did believe on his words, even so many that they began to support him and give him money.
6 And he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart, and to wear very costly apparel, yea, and even began to establish a church after the manner of his preaching.
On of the most troublesome aspects of priestcraft is that those who practice become beholden to the desires of their clients. It may very well be both the personal spiritual hazard to the practicioner as well as the hazard to those they practice upon that leads it being condemned.
2 Nephi 26:29 He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.
If the support is coming from the anti- and ex- Mormon communities then those are the clients whose interests he places first. John, in his end of the year address specifically indicated that his businesses would be transitioning to serving primarily those who had left the Church and those who have left significant aspects of their belief in it, and there is good evidence to support that these are his primary benefactors/bond-holders.
How can we know who funds Mormon Stories? Well, when John shifted in a more Church-positive direction leading up to Greg Smith releasing his lengthy review of John’s activities, we know that he took some financial hits in order to do it. It’s relatively simple calculus if an increment in apparent faithfulness leads to a decrement in funding then the people who primarily fund you have fundamentally anti-Mormon interests.
3. Disiplinary Hearing Bump
Furthermore, Stack’s article makes the point that donations actually jumped when news of his discipline was made public. Again, if something happens that indicates a decrement in faithfulness, it results in an increment of funding for him and his enterprises. Who do you suppose is funding that? There are undoubtedly some of his followers that bought the notion that he was being persecuted for asking questions, but the majority of the funding bump undoubtedly came from those who oppose the Church are were interested in supporting Dehlin in giving the Church a black eye. This in fact gets more interesting when we realize that all of the discussion of numbers relates to John’s 2013 takings, which in case anyone missed it were approximately $90000. If we consider his statement, apparently made to Stack, that there has been a large increase in donations since news of his possible discipline became known then it is likely that he easily made six figures in 2014, and maybe quite a bit more. Once direct personal gifts, in kind gifts, and any non-Open Stories Foundation sources of income are considered, the conclusion that he is living rather well financially on his followers’ money is simply unavoidable, and I will be interested to see people’s reaction when he releases some of these figures in order to comply with the law related to non-profits, which brings me to my final point this time.
4. The notion that he has sacrificed greatly and suffered loss for the benefit of others deserves to be reevaluated
He makes this claim often enough because he wants to deflect suspicion of primarily capitalist motivations in his work. This quote, from his response to Stack is typical.
Having given up six-figure-salaried and fully-benefited jobs at Microsoft and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to do my work with Mormon Stories, I believe that it would have been worth mentioning in the article that I could have made (and still could make) much, much more money through other channels. All in all, I do not believe it a stretch to estimate that I have forgone well over $1 Million in compensation over the last ten years as the result of my decision to go back to graduate school, and to start Mormon Stories (with a wife and four children courageously at my side). Nonetheless, I have intentionally chosen to make much less money to try to alleviate suffering and promote health within Mormon culture through my work with the OSF. I am proud of this decision, even though it has resulted in a significant financial sacrifice for me and my family.
Now I don’t blame him for being capitalist, I also don’t blame him for wanting to place himself in a good light, but lets evaluate these statements a little bit more critically than he probably wants us to. Forgoing $1000000 in compensation over the course of ten years is his claim. That amounts to something like $100000, a nice well-paying job. In fact, he made roughly 10% less than this in 2013 through his foundation alone. Rumor has it that he was able to move to his Utah home in a rather exclusive area without the need for a mortgage, which I expect would enable him to live on a much lower income at a much higher standard of living than would otherwise be the case. In addition he also enjoyed an attractive mixture of fame, adulation, influence, travel, access to authors and celebrities, reporters, and celebrity status himself. So even though it resulted in significant financial sacrifice for his family, if one considers as of 2013 a 10% reduction significant, it certainly was a nice experience for him. I doubt that the experience of his advocacy for unbelief was as great of an experience for his family, and he has hinted that it generally wasn’t a very positive for them elsewhere (references available on request; post to comments if you want them).
Now certainly it wasn’t this profitable initially, and I don’t want to overstate the case, but if we consider the value of his as yet unrevealed 2014 receipts, and average this over the period of time, it might seem rather low. However, theirs this whole business of him three different jobs in order to devote his life to pain relief via podcasting. The three jobs that are mentioned (only two in this particular post, but the third often enough) are working at Microsoft, working at USU, and working at MIT, the latter two apparently having to do with developing Open Course Ware type programs. According to this article on John Dehlin from Wikipedia he left a job at Microsoft that he had held for 7 years and moved to Logan in 2004. It is understandable he might want to live there as they have relatives there. He then began working at USU on Open Course Ware working for two years on this project while he “completed a Master of Science degree in Instructional Technology in 2007. In the midst of this, in 2005, without apparently quitting his job, he started Mormon Stories. In January 2007, MIT hired Dehlin as the Director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium,” and we aren’t told exactly when and how this last one ended, but it clearly started after Mormon Stories had already begun. What I see here is that he apparently left jobs in 2004, 2007, and whenever his MIT gig ended in order to “do my work with Mormon Stories”. Since then he has been working on a degree in psychology.
So let me put this another way, if someone (not necessarily John) starts a podcast and works, say 50 part time jobs in sequence while their podcast enterprise picks up steam and begins to produce sizable income, can they legitimately say they sacrificed fifty jobs in order to serve their listeners. It seems to me like he left a job at Microsoft for a job at USU, and then a job at MIT, and got two advanced degrees in between. Isn’t going back to school normally a costly venture? I’m honestly impressed with his accomplishment of getting a degree while working, and I think it deserves admiration, and undoubtedly it was a difficult project doing all of this while coordinating podcast speakers and so forth, but because of his podcast efforts he has made less of a sacrifice than he would have had to make if he had gone back to school under normal circumstances, and he held at least two lucrative careers (at least as he describes them in that same period) apart from his podcasting income.
All businesses have start-up costs, and I am confident he understood this from the beginning, but I don’t think there is any particular need to make the start-up costs of his business, which currently appears to yield very nice returns as a personal sacrifice any more than anyone else on Wall Street or who goes back to school to get an education. It’s a nice noble story, but it seems to me that it is just that, a story.