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I recently blogged about a pattern that is often seen in John Dehlin’s releases of information in which he selectively releases information in order of how favorable it is to him in order to create false narratives. The previous post described a pattern for the release of entire documents, which I will cite here for reference:

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

If you haven’t yet read that post, you may want to refer to it as it sets the table, so to speak, for this one both by illustrating the process and by illustrating the specific questionable narrative—that he is being disciplined primarily for his support of women’s ordination and gay marriage—that this post will discuss. This post will discuss a tool that is related to baking a narrative, but slightly different. We will once again watch a master at work, but this time instead of looking at releases of an entire document we will focus on how to selectively release parts of a larger document. The four principles are similar, but some of the finer points differ a bit, and the risks differ slightly.

So what is this about? Recently John attempted to rebuild the story he wants told about his disciplinary hearing after too many people (including apparently Church PR questioned it) by releasing quotes from his Stake President. He has promoted this narrative previously by releasing entire documents. This time he has done so by releasing selective quotations.

The question that comes to mind first is “Quotations from what?” I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it seems likely that he recorded his conversations with his Stake President without his informed consent, made a transcript of it, and that he looked through it to see what would place him in the best light and the Church in the worst light and chose which narrative to focus on accordingly. How his Stake President may have felt when he discovered that someone with whom he supposed he was having a cordial and confidential conversation had recorded him and planned on posting his off-handed thoughts on the internet all while smiling a nice smile, and bringing up various topics that he wanted to have a good gotcha quote on we may never know. And based on the fact that he apparently did this, I suppose that John Dehlin doesn’t particularly care.

What he apparently did with the transcript is called quote mining, which one of his supporters recently condemned in his blog post [1] calling proof-texting, but depending on what you are trying to show this may be an appropriate or inappropriate research approach. For example, quote mining to show that someone has at some point said something (to show existence) has merit, doing so to argue that a particular document or encounter consisted mainly of some particular topic or set of topics (to show dominance or significance) is flawed research methodology at the least, and a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts and their significance at the worst. Which is Dehlin doing? We may be able to evaluate this hypothesis if he actually releases the full unedited recordings if indeed that is the source of these purported quotes. Anything other than that would be basically meaningless except as propaganda.

So what do we learn from the quotes that he has provided? Well, first let’s add the context that will help us to understand the quotes. In order to do that, here are the correspondence between President King and John Dehlin. These quotes are all alleged to be (and because it is tedious to write “alleged” everywhere I am not going to bother with it for the rest of the post so just imagine it in the appropriate locations if you wish) from his August 7, 2014 meeting with his Stake President, where they discussed the Stake President’s August 7, 2014 letter. A few days after this meeting, Dehlin sent a letter to his Stake President giving his gay issues and women’s ordination heavy accounting of what went on in their meeting, which the Stake President replied to on August 11, 2014 expressing concerns about what Dehlin had written, which in retrospect seem to have been very prescient:

Dear Brother Dehlin:

Thank you for sending the letter from you and Margi. I fear that in my willingness to engage in a discussion on all of the issues that you chose to address during our lengthy conversations, the direction of my true concerns may have not been clear. As the letter I gave you states, I am focused on five core doctrines of the Church: (1) The existence and nature of God; (2) Christ being the literal Savior of the World and his Atonement being absolutely necessary to our salvation;(3) the exclusive priesthood authority restored through the Church; (4) The Book of Mormon as scripture and the revealed word of God; and (5) the governance of the Church by doctrine and revelation through inspired leaders.

….[ellipses mine]

Finally, as I read your response, it reinforces my concern that your letter is an attempt to produce an official document of what occurred during our meetings. I feel that it is impossible to fully recount the spirit and context of our discussions in a written document. I hope that in the spirit of confidentiality, you will not be releasing it to the media and posting it on your web site. I hope that I am mistaken about this, because I believe it would undermine the trust we need to have in order to move forward. But if you nevertheless decide to post your letter, I hope that you will have the fairness to post mine along with it, making clear that I presented my letter to you at the beginning of our meeting and that it contains the true focus of my concerns about your conduct.

In this document the Stake President makes several things clear the most relevant one being that he sees the 5 points that he indicates as the main reasons, and the most important reasons, and the focus of John’s disciplinary hearing. In the absence of a very strong reason to disbelieve him, I would tend to accept his statement at face value. What point would there be in his lying to Dehlin about the topic of his disciplinary hearing. If he did, then this would become obvious when at the hearing itself he was convicted for causes different than those which were represented. The entire High Council would have to either approve of trying someone on false pretenses, which would not be at all characteristic of any dozen High Priests I am aware of, or the Stake President would have to try him on the charges listed in the letter. So from a practical perspective Dehlin’s accusation that the court is really about something other than the letter claims is patently absurd and designed to be believed only by those who do not understand the Mormons actually take this stuff seriously, and possibly his followers.

The next point of interest is that President King makes it clear that Dehlin’s letter reflects topics that Dehlin himself brought up.

“I fear that in my willingness to engage in a discussion on all of the issues that you chose to address during our lengthy conversations, the direction of my true concerns may have not been clear.”

He probably fears that they have not been clear because the letter Dehlin has just written to him reflects neither the President’s focus nor the tenor of their conversation. Instead it reflects questions Dehlin raised in order to have quote-worthy material and to claim that his discipline focused on a more sympathy attractive set of topics. Thus it seems likely that the material that Dehlin has now released are the particular quotes that he has specifically elicited, and which the Stake President has already indicated do not reflect the meeting.

With context established, let’s get down to looking at the quotes:

Brian King: You could go back look at your numerous podcasts and know the ones you think are controversial or not.
John Dehlin: So, take down any controversial episode.
Brian King: Yes. That would be the thing to do.
John Dehlin: Is that what you mean?
Brian King: Well I don’t want to appear, in any form or print, saying that that’s exactly what I said, because I would like you to move your personal testimony in line with us being able to resolve your questioning….

The Stake President begins with “You could…” It sounds like the response to a question. So what is the question that Dehlin has asked which likely elicited this response. Dehlin doesn’t tell us, understandable given that he wants to make it appear as though the Stake President is suggesting this out of the blue. Perhaps the questions was “What would restitution look like for podcasting a bunch of anti onto the internet?” The President’s response is perfectly reasonable in that context, and given that Dehlin has at times indicated that he believed his podcast took more people out of the Church than it helped stay it would be reasonable if he were interested in repenting that they would discuss the need to make restitution for the harm that he had done to others. The step of removing those materials that were calculated to offend is an obvious and appropriate choice if he wants to repent and be at peace with the Lord.

Clearly also President King’s request that his remarks not be published was treated with blatant bad faith.

John Dehlin: “What do you mean by “stop promoting groups or organizations that espouse doctrines” (referring to King’s August 7, 2014 letter)?”
Bryan King: “I think that’s inherent, you know those, those that would be supporting of Ordain Women.”

Here he has included the question, which Dehlin posed as it wouldn’t make sense otherwise, which is helpful. Dehlin has been heavily involved in promoting a number of such groups including the Post-Mormon Relief Society, the Phoenix Open Mormons, and promoting organization of online wards, as well as a number of anti-Mormon authors and operators of anti-Mormon ministries (if you want examples just comment). If Dehlin wishes to repent and mend his relationship with God, part of that process would typically involve making restitution for promoting those who wish to injure, embarrass, or damage the Church. Based on the fact that they were talking about this I assume that he represented himself as at least interested enough in repentance to have the conversation.

Dehlin provides a single quote indicating some concern with Ordain Women. However, this isn’t the most important question. If Dehlin wanted to prove existence of the concern this would be sufficient, but his Stake President hasn’t denied the existence of the concern only that it is of relatively main significance, as illustrated in the excerpts from the letter quoted earlier. That Dehlin elicits this as a clarification suggests that the Stake President might not even have brought that particular organization up by himself, which suggests that he didn’t actually see it as a priority. If you were the Stake President and wanted to help John Dehlin repent would you or would you not tell him the things that you were most concerned with without him having to ask for clarification?

Bryan King: “Same-­‐sex marriage is not in harmony with the teachings of the church. So if you come out openly in support of [same-­‐sex marriage], that is a problem.”

First, I must say that I found the Stake President’s contextually awkward use of “come out” amusing. All work and no play and so forth. Dehlin gives us this quote without any context, and if I may speculate a bit I think there is a very plausible reason why he doesn’t give us that context. Perhaps he is discussing a hypothetical. Notice the conditional phrase “if you come out…” This suggests and if this is correct it is frankly kind of damning to Dehlin’s narrative that whatever the Stake President is concerned with hasn’t actually happened yet. Thus while the Stake President acknowledges that some hypothetical action of John’s in which he, in the future, comes out in support of same-sex marriage in some more significant way than he heretofore has it could become problematic.

On the other hand he could be read as speaking to a general principle in which case the sense of the quote would be if someone comes out in favor of SSM that is a Church member this is a problem, with the implication that Dehlin has and knows it, but this reading is weakened by a lack of context and a lack of any specific application of the idea to something Dehlin has done a problem which Dehlin has caused by not giving a contextualized quote.

Given his history of selective document releases, I would not be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on these quotes, but lets assume that they mean exactly what he says ad argumentum. The next question is what does it mean?

The answer is that we can’t with the evidence that is available. I know that is disappointing, but let me clarify. John hasn’t given us anything with this release that we didn’t already know from August 10, 2014 letter, which John alleged addressed those things at some point, and which his Stake President indicated to him was not representative of the conversation. John’s subsequent release of a very small number of quotes—one a piece for the two items (same-sex marriage, and Ordain Women) he is currently claiming are the main reason for his discipline—does nothing more than minimally instantiate the claims, and frankly if this is all that he has that supports those allegations than I hope his followers will have the integrity at the end of all of this to call him a liar. If he was smart, which honestly, I’ve gained a certain amount of respect for the man as a strategist in the process of analyzing him, and I would almost be embarrassed for him if he disappoints me on this point, he’ll have at least one more set of quotes that will make it so when he later releases the audio for the rest of the conversation he isn’t pilloried. That having been said, in order to demonstrate that women’s ordination and gay marriage were major themes in these conversations and main causes of his discipline a commanding portion of the conversation, which was clearly lengthy would have to reflect this reality. I don’t believe this will be the case, and I am looking forward to seeing the document release.

When the release occurs (provided that he follows the protocol for how to bake a narrative that I posted) it will occur after enough time has passed that it can’t usefully become part of a news story in the initial burst of stories. This will allow the appearance of sharing the honest truth without having to deal with the facts in an even-handed way. It’s masterful really, like watching a well-played game of chess unfold, with the caveat that one of the players apparently has a different set of rules.


[1] Passage from Tom Grover’s blog in which he praises Dehlin as more or less the informational Messiah. “That’s the real reason John is being excommunicated. In a twist of irony, the man who has helped Mormons navigate the effects of proof-texted history is the target of proof-texted accusations. Of ten years of John’s work, the accusers have hand picked, and proof-texted a few Facebook comments as the basis to terminate John’s membership in the Church. These Facebook comments, like any Facebook comments, were not polished thoughts but informal, undeveloped statements. Of course, that’s a flimsy pretext.  John is being excommunicated for refusing to deny the existence of the chasm.”