A Matter of Silence
His letters to the editor led to Michael J. Barrett's excommunication from the Mormon Church. He says its leadership seeks to quiet dissenters.
By MATHIS CHAZANOV, TIMES STAFF WRITER
A CIA attorney and Westside native who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for writing letters to the editors of several newspapers says recent changes in Mormon leadership offer little hope for outspoken dissidents in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Church's new president, Howard W. Hunter, has called on the disaffected to come back to the 164-year-old institution. But inveterate letter-writer Michael J. Barrett said other changes in the Church leadership do not bode well for those who hold unorthodox ideas.
"We're dead," said Barrett, an assistant counsel for the intelligence agency, citing the June 6 appointment of Boyd K. Packer as acting president of the powerful Quorum of the 12 Apostles.
Packer, who has spoken out against the influence of homosexuals, feminists and "so-called intellectuals," is widely believed to have been behind an unusual series of excommunications of Mormon dissidents in the past year.
The appointment "means that Boyd K. Packer, who's the moving force behind all of this, is no longer jockeying for power. Now he has express authority," said Barrett, who grew up in the shadow of the Mormon Temple in West Los Angeles, attended Brigham Young University, joined the Church at 19 and served it for two years as a missionary in Argentina.
Barrett, who now lives in Sterling, Va., and others who were excommunicated see their ousters as part of an ideological purge, but Church spokesmen deny that a coordinated crackdown is under way.
Instead, they said, regional leaders are acting on their own to maintain discipline within the Church, which has grown to nearly 9 million members in recent years.
"It's hard to make a general statement to cover each situation, but (local officials) are following protocol and doctrine and policies," said Church spokesman Don LeFevre at Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City. "Half a dozen out of 9 million is not really a purge."
Barrett's ouster on April 24 followed the excommunication last fall of five outspoken dissidents, including thinkers on the ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative fringes of the Church. Also, a Utah activist suffered disfellowship, a lesser penalty; two Brigham Young University faculty members were fired, and a Brandeis University professor who has questioned the antiquity of the Book of Mormon was excommunicated in April. "You can only tweak the nose of the giant so many times before the giant swats back," one Church source said.
Church officials do not dispute the accuracy of Barrett's letters to The Times' Westside Section and to newspapers as far afield as London, England, and Calgary, Alberta. Rather, it was his defiance of orders to stop his letter-writing campaign that got him in trouble.
The letters generally included statements of loyalty to the faith. But Barrett would always slip in zingers that could only irritate Church leaders who oppose the airing of embarrassing historical tidbits.
Among his topics were the Church's former ban against admitting African American men to its priesthood, an honor held by males above the age of puberty.
The reversal of that rule in 1978 "implicitly labeled three of our prophets . . . as purveyors of false doctrine," he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Westside Section of The Times.
"The Church took umbrage at that one," the 48-year-old Barrett said. "They were very offended that anybody would point out that any of their prophets had erred."
Then he went on to write the Washington Post saying that in 1904, then-Church President Joseph F. Smith, the nephew of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, "testified falsely" when he told a Senate committee that the Church had authorized no plural marriages since polygamy was banned in 1890.
The excommunication means that Barrett is barred from taking Communion, sharing his testimony from the pulpit and wearing ritual undergarments, all important parts of being a devout Mormon.
It also denies him participation in the religion's secret Temple services and revokes the Church's promise of eternal union with his wife and their five children.
Despite that, Barrett continues to go to Sunday worship meetings in his town, and he said some congregants have offered quiet encouragement.
"I still believe the Church is true," Barrett said. "I just now have a greater understanding of the fact that our leaders are indeed human."
Church higher-ups weren't the only ones irritated by Barrett's letters. Even some parishioners who say they are his friends bridled at his writings.
"We're allowed to believe whatever we want, but when you write letters or give speeches saying . . . that the Church is wrong, then you've crossed the line," Kathryn H. Kidd of Sterling said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "These people have crossed the line."
She added: "We're just as nice to him as we were before. As long as I've know Mike, he's been cruising for this, trolling to be excommunicated."
The final straw for Church leaders was Barrett's April letter to the Post. Six days later, he was called in for a two-hour disciplinary hearing on a charge of apostasy, or abandonment of the faith. The result: excommunication.
"(They) told me that what the president of the Church said under a congressional subpoena is nobody's business, which I found to be kind of unusual because it's in the Congressional Record," Barrett said. "But evidently they want to be perceived as mainstream Christian, and in order to do that, they have to have a prophet who never makes mistakes, and they have to have doctrines that are completely acceptable, I guess, to blue-collar America."
Upon his elevation on June 6, Hunter, the Church's new president, called on "those who have transgressed or been offended (to) come back . . . (and) let us stand with you and dry your tears." But he also spoke of the need for "those who are confused and assailed by error . . . (to stand) with us. Carry on. Be believing."
On the same date, Church leaders named Packer to head the Quorum of the 12, which governs the institution together with Hunter and two associates--First Counselor Gordon B. Hinckley and Second Counselor Thomas S. Monson--in a separate entity known as the First Presidency.
It was Packer who spoke out at a closed-door meeting of Church leaders last May, saying that ". . . members of the Church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away," according to a partial transcript.
Referring to homosexuals, feminists and "the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals," he said that "our local leaders must deal with all three of them with ever-increasing frequency."
The recent changes in Mormonism come at a time when the Church has been rapidly growing, fueled by a high birth rate and aggressive missionary work.
For the first time in its history, half of the world's almost 9 million believers live outside the United States. The membership rolls have been growing at home as well, with immigrants from Guatemala to Togo adding to the numbers of native-born recruits.
This feverish growth has been cited by the ousted dissidents and other Mormon nonconformists as one of the reasons for the leadership's concern about losing control of its flock.