Is Criticizing Mitt Romney an Excommunicable Offense? No.

On Thursday, Newsweek/The Daily Beast reported that David Twede, one of the editors of Mormonthink.com, a website that addresses controversial issues in Mormon history and doctrine, was facing an LDS Church disciplinary council over “a series of articles he wrote this past week that were critical of Mitt Romney.” 

The Daily Beast linked to this article at Mormonthink.com, which suggests that Romney might be religiously obliged to take political instructions from Church leaders, citing six instances—some dating to the nineteenth century—when Church leaders had exerted political pressure on members, including organizing opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and support for Proposition 8.

Friday morning, LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy responded to The Daily Beast report: “It is patently false for someone to suggest they face Church discipline for having questions or for expressing a political view. The Church is an advocate of individual choice. It is a core tenet of our faith. Church discipline becomes necessary only in those rare occasions when an individual’s actions cannot be ignored while they claim to be in good standing with the Church. Every organization, whether religious or secular, must be able to define where its boundaries begin and end.”

And by late Friday, journalists Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune and Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times also had a more complicated story to tell than that reported at The Daily Beast.

According to Stack, the major precipitant for the disciplinary council was not the essay questioning Romney’s political independence from the Church but rather a Mormonthink.com article that publicly disclosed details from LDS temple ceremonies, an act viewed by observant Mormons as an offense and a desecration.

According to Goodstein, local LDS Church leaders called Twede into an impromptu Sunday meeting, interrogated him as to whether he was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”—a phrase often used among Mormons to describe anti- or ex-Mormons who pose as faithful members in an effort to lure others away, and issued Twede a summons to a disciplinary council on charges of “apostasy.” Twede had acknowledged on his blogsite that he had attempted to influence a couple he met at church by emailing them frank information about controversial aspects of Mormon history, while concealing his own identity as an editor of Mormonthink.com. 

His identity was reported to Church officials by Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetics and Information Research, an independent Mormon organization that seeks to answer “criticisms of LDS doctrines, beliefs, and practices.”

Like Mormonthink.com, Twede’s own blogsite aggressively presses on a nexus of deep sensitivity for disaffected and questioning Mormons: the question of whether full information about LDS Church histories and policies are made available to everyday members. 

While the institutional LDS Church once preferred to manage controversial elements of its own history—for example, the polygamy of Joseph Smith, or questions about the origins of the Book of Mormon—by presenting carefully crafted lessons in its own manuals, leaving more complicated discussions to scholarly journals and progressive magazines known to only a minority of Church members, the internet has now put an array of information within a mouse-click of questioning members. Some members report feeling betrayal when they encounter on the internet unexpected information that runs contrary to what they’ve learned from their parents and teachers, especially after they’ve made deep investments in their faith.

That question of openness—the matter and manner in which the LDS community sorts through its own history and practices—is a source of tension among Mormons today.

It’s complicated by so many factors—among them the youth of the Church, Mormon feelings of vulnerability to persecution from and misunderstanding by outsiders, the historical value assigned to secrecy when Mormon lifeways were under threat and from the US government in the nineteenth century, the ceremonial value of secrecy in LDS temple settings, and strong LDS regard for institutional hierarchy.

The questions and feelings stirred up by David Twede’s impending Church court are profound beyond partisan politics. This certainly isn’t about Mitt Romney (who appears destined to do himself in with his own gaffes and without the help of Mormonthink.com). 

This is about the difficult place where a Church that feels it sometimes must protect itself against its own members meets members who feel they sometimes must protect themselves against their own Church.

As the Catholic abortion rights advocate Frances Kissling wrote of her own persistent fears, “No Catholic, however rebellious and irreverent, wants to be excommunicated.”

Same goes for almost every Mormon I have ever met.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.