Thoughts on the media and Church discipline

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Yesterday I read in the Salt Lake Tribune the sad story of Peter and Mary Danzig, a Utah couple who have resigned their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ rather than face Church discipline.

The Danzigs were both volunteer members of the Orchestra at Temple Square, a Church-operated orchestra that is the instrumental equivalent of the Tabernacle Choir. In June 2006 the Salt Lake Tribune published a letter from Peter Danzig opposing the Church’s effort to pass a federal Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman only. Danzig’s letter also expressed support for Jeffrey Nielsen, a BYU adjunct professor whose contract had not been renewed after he had publicly opposed the Church’s support for the amendment. In his letter Danzig accused Church leaders of exercising “intellectual tyranny” in the Nielsen case, and called Church efforts an “injustice.”

Following the publication of his letter, Peter Danzig was suspended from his position in the Orchestra at Temple Square, apparently at the behest of Church leaders. Mary Danzig later resigned; the Tribune article says she “felt unwelcome in the orchestra.” Over the next year and a half the situation apparently rose to the level of local Church discipline. Rather than face that, the Danzigs resigned their membership in December 2007.

In the wake of this tragic event, I’d like to make a few comments about Church discipline and how stories like these are portrayed in the media.

1. Media reports are always one-sided. As the Tribune article notes, all the Church leaders involved declined to give any comments or written statements on the Danzigs’ case. The Church considers ecclesiastical discipline to be confidential, and does not comment on it. Because of this, reports in the media contain only one side of the issue — that of the disciplined member. Yesterday’s Tribune article tells the story from the Danzigs’ point of view. I am not accusing them of exaggerating or lying; I’m simply saying that there is another side to this story that we’re not hearing.

2. There is a difference between private disagreement with the Church and public criticism of the Church. Peter Danzig contends that there is “[no] room for personal conscience” in the Church, but he is simply mistaken. There are many Church members who disagree with the federal marriage amendment, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a convert and active Latter-day Saint. Senator Reid made public statements against the proposed amendment on the floor of the Senate, and voted against it. The difference between Harry Reid and Peter Danzig is that Danzig didn’t just argue the merits of the bill; he accused the Church of “intellectual tyranny,” requesting him to “violate [his] own conscience,” and supporting “injustice.” This clearly indicates that Danzig doesn’t just disagree with the Church, he believes Church leaders are acting in bad faith.

For what it’s worth, I think the marriage amendment is a very bad idea on Constitutional grounds. It takes power from the states and puts it in the hands of a centralized government, something the writers of the Constitution opposed. It takes away rights from people rather than guaranteeing rights (the only other amendment to do that was the Eighteenth, which prohibited production and sale of alcohol; it’s not insignificant that this is the only amendment that’s been repealed). It could open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences by making individual marriage cases the jurisdiction of federal courts. And it uses federal power to combat the supposed immorality of an unpopular minority group — exactly the same thing that was done to Mormons themselves in the late nineteenth century.

But make no mistake: My personal opposition to the federal marriage amendment does not include condemnation of Church leaders for supporting it. I support and sustain the leaders of the Church, and believe the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve acted in good faith in this matter. From my personal interactions with the Brethren, I know of their love for all men and women, and their honest desire to strengthen marriage and help those who struggle with homosexual feelings.

3. A single incidence of criticism almost never leads to Church discipline. The Church Handbook of Instructions defines apostasy as repeated, clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders. A single incident simply doesn’t bring down excommunication on an ordinary Church member — only acts continued after leaders have counseled with the member and asked him or her to refrain. The Salt Lake Tribune doesn’t go into what happened between the Danzigs and their local leaders during the year and a half after Peter’s letter was published, so we don’t know what interactions they had. But from my experience serving with three bishoprics, I know for a fact that a single letter to the editor doesn’t result in Church discipline.

4. There is a difference between being a member of the Church, and being an employee of the Church. Jeffrey Nielsen’s BYU contract was not renewed after he came out in opposition to the Church’s stance on the marriage amendment.* But as a Church employee, his actions are under greater scrutiny than the average Church member’s, and justifiably so.

I’m employed by a fairly large financial institution. I have at times disagreed with certain policies and practices of the organization, and have expressed disagreement at various meetings with its leaders. If I were to make one of my disagreements public in a letter to the local newspaper, my employers would be perfectly within their rights to fire me. But if a customer of our institution were to write a letter to a newspaper complaining or our products or policies, we would certainly not close their account.

There is a similar difference between Church employment and Church membership. Nielsen was an employee of the Church, and Danzig was a volunteer with a prominent organization within the Church. Both of them were under greater requirements to refrain from public criticism of the Church than they would have been as regular members.

The Danzigs’ experience is a tragic one — tragic for them as individuals and as a family, and tragic for the loss of their great talent that benefited the Church. But the Salt Lake Tribune article doesn’t tell us the whole story, and it’s doubtful that we’ll ever hear it.

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* Note that the Tribune article says Nielsen “lost his job,” which is not technically accurate. He was adjunct faculty, whose contracts are renewed on term-by-term basis. His contract was not renewed, which is not the same thing as being fired or dismissed.

Update: In a comment on this post, Mike L. pointed out that the Church has issued a press release responding to the Tribune article. In it they give some details the Tribune article failed to mention or in which it was mistaken:

http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/care-for-the-flock

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About Mike Parker

Mike Parker has been involved in LDS apologetics since the mid-1980s, and on the Internet since 1997. He joined the team of FairMormon volunteers in 2002, and has been involved in the creation of the FairMormon wiki (http://en.fairmormon.org) and running the annual FairMormon conference. He is the recipient of FairMormon’s 2006 John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award. He resides with his gorgeous wife and two wonderful children in Utah's Dixie region.

71 thoughts on “Thoughts on the media and Church discipline

  1. Mike Parker Post author

    Thank you for posting those, dpc.

    The first letter I find unproblematic.

    The second attacks the Brethren from a position of representing the Church (via the Orchestra).

    The third is disingenuous; if you look at the LDS Safe Space web site, it’s abundantly clear they want more than “safety and respect” — they want to the Church to sanction homosexual relationships.

  2. Greg Smith

    And, no wonder the Orchestra became an issue: he MADE it an issue, and tried to use it as a pulpit or means to enhance his stature in an attack on the Church.

    Again, this is a no-brainer. The impressive thing is that the local leaders worked with him for 18 months.

    “As a member of the GLAAD orchestra, I just want to say that homosexual sex is a grave sin in the sight of God.”

    “What??? I was just expressing my opinion.”

    “As a member of the NAACP glee club, I just want to say that blacks are inherently inferior to whites.”

    “What??? Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!”

  3. Guy Murray

    dpc:

    Yes, thanks for posting these and for the reference sources. Mr. Danzig is not the “gentle musician” portrayed by Peggy Fletcher Stack. He is very much the Mormon Activist he claimed all along not to be. How disappointing he can shield himself from the strict scrutiny he deserves while dragging the Church and its leadership through this recent nonsense in the media. He fools only himself.

  4. Tossman

    I don’t know Fletcher Stack, but I did attend a fireside at the U of U a few years back where she was the speaker. At the time I had never heard of her, so I went in with no bias. I realize this is completely unfair of me, but I did come away with a- let’s say- “different” vibe than with other firesides. There was something kinda “sunstoney” about her. Didn’t think about it for a few years until I started reading the Trib more and got to wondering. Sure enough, I was right.

    Anyway, I know this is unadulterated judging on my part, but if you didn’t know she was active LDS and had to guess based on her work in the Trib, you’d probably guess she was either a non-member or a former member. Just sayin’.

  5. Jacob

    Tossman-

    “Sunstoney”? That seems somehow like it was meant to be derogatory. I grow so weary of people saying that if people fall out of the accepted norms of the LDS church, they are either apostate or radicals. I think unless we know a person’s heart, it is not ours to judge. Therefore, I do not judge you for your comments, but urge caution.

  6. George

    Mike Parker said:

    WRT to the actions of Danzig’s local leadership, we have only Danzig’s word on how they acted. It’s possible they threatened him with a DC for his beliefs, but I find it highly (HIGHLY) unlikely, based on my experiences. It seems more likely to me that it wasn’t just his letter and his private beliefs; he was making a repeated issue of it among members in his ward or stake, and that’s what made him a target. But since we don’t have both sides of the story, we’ll never know.

    Mike, my experience in sitting on a number of different disciplinary councils is that it all depends on the attitude of the stake president. I have certainly seen members disciplined for what they believe. It was viewed as apostasy to not believe in the historicity of the BOM, and to doubt the official version of the First Vision, among other things. I don’t think it is common, but it certainly happens.

  7. Tossman

    Jacob said “I do not judge you for your comments, but urge caution.”

    Or what, I’ll face FAIR blog disciplinary action?

    Seriously, what meant is that given my limited research into Sunstone and not knowing Ms./Mrs. Fletcher Stack’s prior affiliation with it, I was able to make the connection from her fireside talk. That’s all. I simply connected the dots. Get offended if you like.

  8. Greg Smith

    It was viewed as apostasy to not believe in the historicity of the BOM, and to doubt the official version of the First Vision, among other things. I don’t think it is common, but it certainly happens.

    How did the stake president know about these deviations in belief without the member doing something about it besides just (not) believing?

    I gotta get me one of those stake president mind reading devices. :-)

  9. Mike Parker Post author

    Greg is right on the money. Where people get in trouble for unorthodox beliefs is not in believing them, it’s in repeatedly teaching them.

    The Church Handbook gives one definition of “apostasy” as continuing to teach something as Church doctrine after being corrected by Church authorities. There are some people who get on their hobby horse and ride it all the way to a disciplinary council.

  10. Steven B

    The Church Handbook gives one definition of “apostasy” as continuing to teach something as Church doctrine after being corrected by Church authorities.

    But we have no indication that Danzig did this, do we? He wrote three letters to newspapers, but those were within several days of each other. The subsequent 18 months were spent dealing with the fallout. On the surface, this does not appear to be a case of continuing to “teach” an unproved doctrine after being corrected, or continuing to speak out publicly. Rather, it appears to be the result of Danzig’s inability or unwillingness to align his personal beliefs and empirical observations regarding the nature of homosexuality with those of certain general authorities.

  11. jennvan

    I had the honor of having my Institute teacher also be my stake president. He taught us many things about the inner workings of the “running” of the church including disciplinary councils. One of the things that I remember very distinctly that he talked about was that it isn’t always even about the specific actions that a person does but it is more about the attitude of the individual and how that behavior might harm others. I had always wondered why people could have children outside of marriage and not receive much discipline while others commit the same or a seemingly lesser sin and be immediately ex-communicated. When he taught us this principle of attitude he also referred to what we know about the things that happened in the pre-mortal life. We know that there were two plans presented and one was chosen. We know that those who chose to follow the plan even after it was not chosen were cast out from the presence of the Father. They had not, at that time, actually done anything more than have an attitude that was contrary to the will of the Father. Inherent in that is an assumption of pride, thinking that they know better than those who are in authority to speak on behalf of the Lord. While I feel that priesthood holders are mortal and make mistakes at times, that is why we have the spirit to confirm to us the things that are being said to us. We also have a hierarchy within the church to address concerns we have about any principle or stance of the church and it appears in this case that this individual chose not to use that to resolve his concerns.
    I was also talking to a friend about this who reminded me that Jesus isn’t the “love all people regardless of anything” person that people like to think of Him. He set people right and corrected many things He saw that were being done incorrectly. There were many who took his words to be too harsh or not in line with the prevailing culture of the time. Many rejected his message but yet he continued to correct and preach. He loved all people but rejected actions and attitudes that were contrary to eternal truths. I think we would all be wise to remember these things.

  12. Whatcott

    Militant apostates often assert some right to remake the Church or its doctrines in their image. They assume, thereby, dictatorial powers they soon find impossible to exercise, primarily because so few agree with them. Typically, their next shrill pronouncement is that Church authorities practice tyranny.

    The Church’s rightful director is, has always been, and will always be the Lord, Jesus Christ. We acknowledge as much, and make a conscious choice to unite ourselves with His Church, by professing belief in its doctrines and requesting baptism. Subsequent disbelief conveys no new right to direct or remake the Church or its doctrines.

    It is both intellectually dishonest, and gratuitously insulting to believing Church members, for an apostate to presume that his/her newfound disbelief confers some right to demand that millions of believing Church members modify their prophetically-directed beliefs or practices. If such an apostate cannot summon the intellectual honesty to humbly seek the Lord’s will in these matters, he/she should at least abandon the transparent disingenuity of presuming to speak on my behalf.

  13. Mike L.

    Stephen B,

    You’re right that we don’t know that he continued to teach his belief in the 18 months, but you seam to be equally willing to jump the opposite conclusion that he didn’t.

    The fact is we have no idea what happened in the 18 months from when he wrote the letters to when he left the church, other than that he was kicked out of the orchestra and was meeting with his Bishop.

    And let’s not forget that he was not excommunicated, he left the church. We don’t know for sure if excommunication was threatened, and we probably never will as Mr. Danzig says they did but the church denies it, so its his word against theirs. So it’s not consistent to use that as an argument that the church excommunicates people because of their belief.

    So the bottom line is that there is a lot of conclusion jumping here on both sides of the debate. This is why, as I said before, this should have been a private matter and it’s unfortunate that it is now a public debate, since the public does not know all of the facts and is using this to forward their own opinions, for or against the church.

  14. Loki

    Did anyone notice the Church’s statement that the bishop and stake president worked with them on SGM and “other Church doctrines” – during that 18 months?

    I don’t know what this means but it implies, at least, that there were other problems.

  15. MahlerFan

    I am not a regular commenter on the bloggernacle, although I frequently delve therein. I am commenting here for a very specific reason, and although discussion seems to have ended a couple of days ago, I do hope that this post will be read. I am posting it here and not on any other blogs. Should Peter Danzig read this post, he will know who I am by my username.

    I feel the need to comment because I do know Peter Danzig. I served with him in the Germany Dresden Mission. I was not his companion, but I lived with him in same apartment in the city of Erfurt for a month–a month I considered to be the most fun and enjoyable of my entire mission, and he was largely the reason for this.

    I only saw him a couple of times post-mission. One of those was in the lobby at a Utah Symphony concert. I am not going to post any opinion on the entire affair. But I wanted to provide a perspective from somebody who did know Peter, albeit 16 years ago. He WAS a very gentle, kind individual. He had an effervescent personality and the most winning smile you can imagine. I never recall hearing him express any dissent about church doctrine or policy in the mission field. In fact, he was a bright-eyed, very enthusiastic missionary. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this, but I feel that I must to give you an insight into his personality. Before my arrival in the city, his previous companion had become involved in sexual immorality–sneaking out of the apartment while Peter slept–to rendezvous with a particularly attractive femail recent convert who had previously gained a reputation as a “missionary killer.” This affair came to the knowledge of the MP (a very stereotyipcal German general-type if ever there was one) while I was in Erfurt with Peter and two other missionaries, including my companion. This experience deeply affected Peter, and he blamed himself for his companion’s discretion (the companion was sent home, presumably for a disciplinary council), although he was blameless in the matter, and was a notoriously heavy sleeper. He felt genuine remorse about it–I can say that with conviction, and it was the only time I ever saw his cheery, positive disposition fall.

    The Peter Danzig I knew seems incongruous with the individual who has sparked the bloggernacle this week. I remember a kind and fun-loving sould who loved to discuss classical music with me. We lived in a hole of an East German apartment that was infested with fungus, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely. There was a distinctive graffito across from our apartment that read “Killing the Nazi’s Pigs” (which of course implies the process of slaughtering the swine that are the property of a single Nazi). One of my favorite mission pictures is one of me and Peter and the other two missionaries posing next to this graffito. My memories of Peter have not changed, and I can honestly say that I loved him then. Without taking ANY position on this matter, I do have to at least testify with certainty that the adjective “gentle” as quoted in the Trib. story was most CERTAINLY applicaple to Peter Danzig as I knew him in the mission field in Erfurt, Germany in 1992.

    I am an active member in good standing, and the choir director of the Boulder, Colorado ward.

  16. Mike Parker Post author

    MahlerFan,

    Thank you for your perspective. I certainly don’t know Peter Danzig, and am not in a position to comment on his personality as you are.

    I think it’s important to separate the issue of personality versus action. Peter Danzig may be the most gentle person on earth, but he could still do things that are defined as apostasy.

    I appreciate you sharing your personal experiences with us. It puts a human face on what would otherwise be an academic discussion.

  17. MahlerFan

    I don’t doubt the story that he has apostasized. Like I said, I only wanted to give someone I remember fondly, and whose story has saddened me, a human face so that he’s not just “that viola player who left the church and can’t leave it alone because he has bought into the gay agenda.”

  18. MahlerFan

    One comment re: Peter Danzig “keeping quiet” about the September Six. This part of the Trib article is the most difficult for me to fathom because Peter would have returned home from Germany in September 1993 AT THE EARLIEST, and possibly would not have even been home yet at the time of the September Six affair–it would have coincided roughly with his return from his mission. Therefore, to say he “kept quiet” about the September Six when, at that time of his life, it was probably completely off his radar (considering what most returned missionaries are up to right as they return home), is really rather ludicrous and sensationalist, and only would have served to help sensationalize the story.

  19. Shash Nahalin

    Great are the words of Isaiah except when we differ with him?
    Both Jewish and Christian traditions state that the Prophet Isaiah was killed by being sawed in half * by people who were offended by his words of warning. Isaiah, one of the most political of the prophets, seemed to stick his nose into everything. He paid for his audacity.
    Now comes, Peter Danzig and Dr. Neilsen who want it two ways. They want prophets when they like what they say and don’t want them as prophets when they don’t like what they say. Thus, they saw the prophet in two like Isaiah.

    Great are the words of Isaiah except when we differ with him!

    *Hebrews 11:37 (King James Version) They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword…

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