More Mormons facing church scrutiny for online comments
Published: June 19, 2014 07:08PM
Updated: July 2, 2014 02:10PM
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Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo Temple Square with the Tabernacle and Salt Lake Temple seen from a high angle above South Temple and West Temple streets in 2011.

Rock Waterman, a retired innkeeper in California, writes a blog called “Pure Mormonism,” which attracts Mormons so orthodox that they believe their church is not sufficiently adhering to its own doctrines.

Last month, Waterman posted a combative challenge addressed to one of the Mormon church’s top leaders: “Stop making up your own rules and try preaching the Gospel of Christ for a change.”

Two days later, he said, he was summoned to a meeting with his bishop and told to either stop blogging or resign his church membership. If he did not resign he would face excommunication, he said the bishop told him, on orders from another official higher up - one of the church’s leaders known as an “Area Seventy.”

From California to Virginia and states in between, more than a dozen Mormons interviewed in the past week said they had recently been informed by their bishops that they faced excommunication or risked losing permission to enter a temple because of comments they had made online about their faith, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These members said their bishops had questioned them about specific posts they had made on their blogs, Twitter and Facebook, in the comment streams of websites or in conversations in chat rooms.

The kinds of comments that have attracted the scrutiny of bishops and stake presidents, who are regional supervisors, include: support for the ordination of women; advocacy for same-sex marriage; serious doubts about church history or theology; and, as in Waterman’s case, protests that the church demands more in tithes than its doctrine requires.

Michael Otterson, managing director of the church’s public affairs office, said: “There is no coordinated effort to tell local leaders to keep their members from blogging or discussing their questions online. On the contrary, church leaders have encouraged civil online dialogue, and recognize that today it’s just part of how the world works.”

However, he said, church leaders do grow concerned when discussion is used to recruit others for campaigns to change church doctrine or structure.

“When it goes so far as creating organized groups, staging public events to further a cause, and creating literature for members to share in their local congregations,” Otterson said, “the church has to protect the integrity of its doctrine as well as other members from being misled.”

The crackdown is much broader than the action taken last week against two prominent Mormons, who were threatened with excommunication - Kate Kelly, the founder of the Ordain Women movement, and John P. Dehlin, creator of the “Mormon Stories” podcast and an advocate for gay Mormons.

It has affected Mormons perceived as dissidents from across the ideological spectrum: liberals such as Kelly, Dehlin and others who support same-sex marriage, and conservatives who devoutly believe Mormon teaching and Scripture but criticize the church as straying from it, like Waterman and Denver Snuffer, a lawyer in Utah who blogs and writes books about Mormonism. Snuffer said on his blog that he was excommunicated for apostasy last fall.

“This is clearly boundary maintenance,” said Jan Shipps, a professor emerita of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has written extensively about the Mormon church. “They had essentially created a porous boundary, but once you have a porous boundary, sooner or later you’re going to have to maintain a boundary that says, ‘This is as far as you can go.’”

Mormons are such active bloggers and voluble writers that they have created a whole universe of sites, which they call the “Bloggernacle,” where they go to discuss their faith. The church cannot police them all or shut them down, but it can demonstrate to members where it draws the boundaries of acceptability by scaring those who stray.

The church, in a statement this week, said that disciplinary actions were handled by local leaders and were not coordinated or directed by church headquarters. But some of the Mormons facing disciplinary actions said they had been told by their bishops that the instruction to investigate Internet activity came relatively recently from more senior leaders.

“It feels scary to have all the words I say on Facebook and Twitter monitored,” said Kevin Kloosterman, a mental health therapist in Sycamore, Illinois.

Kloosterman, who was a bishop from 2007 to 2012, attracted headlines and scrutiny for an emotional talk he gave at a conference in Salt Lake City in 2011 apologizing to gay people rejected by their Mormon families. He also lobbied for same-sex marriage in his state. But there were no consequences until March of this year when, at a meeting, his bishop cited a Twitter post by Kloosterman congratulating the first gay couple to be married in Utah.

“Jesus would never do that,” the bishop said, according to Kloosterman. He said his bishop informed him that an Area Seventy church leader had weighed in on his case (Kloosterman declined to name him), and that leaders had been monitoring his Internet activity and knew he supported groups that disagree with church teaching.

The bishop revoked Kloosterman’s “temple recommend,” denying him entrance to the temple, where important rituals like baptisms and marriages are held, and where he and his wife used to go regularly for spiritual uplift.

“It’s been devastating,” he said. “I’m in shock still.”

Some supporters of the Ordain Women movement who have posted profiles and pictures of themselves on the movement’s website have also recently had their temple recommends withdrawn or been removed from church volunteer positions, according to Kelly and Ordain Women leaders.

Kelly’s parents, who live in Provo, were among those who lost temple privileges, as was a higher-profile leader, Hannah Wheelwright, who just graduated from the church’s Brigham Young University and founded a group called Young Mormon Feminists.

But there are also those who never sought the spotlight, like Dana, a member in the church’s Buena Vista stake in Virginia, who did not want her last name used because she has family in the church. She was very active in the church, but supports the ordination of women and same-sex marriage, which church doctrine prohibits.

She said that soon after she posted comments anonymously in an online chat room, her bishop sent her emails quoting what she had written and questioning her about her beliefs. On June 1, she said, her bishop phoned and told her to stop posting or face a church disciplinary hearing. Instead, four days later, she and her family resigned their church membership.

“It was just bizarre,” she said. “I was trying to quietly leave the church because of doctrinal reasons, and I hastily left the church because of my bishop.”

As for Waterman, the blogger in California, he has refused to resign and is willing to face discipline. “I’m not trying to get the church to change,” he said. “I’m trying to get the church to abide by its doctrine.”