Has Sunstone Gone “Soft”?

There have been a few exchanges about Sunstone on one of my email discussion groups in the past several days that have given voice to a sentiment I hear from time to time: that Sunstone seems to have gone “soft.” The main protagonist in that online conversation claimed that it 'seems the era of challenging scholarship is history,' that there's been 'a decided absence of critical scholarship in recent issues,' that the magazine and symposium content these days is 'about as exciting as sacrament meeting.' With the recent discussions here on SunstoneBlog about Richard Bushman's comments on Sunstone, I have been encouraged by a couple of SunstoneBloggers to share here the response I made on the email list. So here it is with only minor editing, leaving out names of discussants and tailoring it slightly for this audience.

I don't know how familiar SunstoneBlog readers are with Sunstone's mission statement, so let me include it here: “The mission of The Sunstone Education Foundation is to sponsor open forums of Mormon thought and experience. Under the motto, ?¢‚ǨÀúFaith Seeking Understanding,' we examine and express the rich spiritual, intellectual, social, and artistic qualities of Mormon history and contemporary life. We encourage humanitarian service, honest inquiry, and responsible interchange of ideas that is respectful of all people and what they hold sacred.”

As executive director of the foundation, as well as magazine editor, I know it's my job to be supportive of our organization's mission, but let me say that I really do support it?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùit is a near-perfect match with my own temperament and sensibilities. What it describes are the things that first attracted me to the magazine and symposiums, and it encompasses what I value most about Sunstone still. And the part of it that speaks the loudest to me is the hearkening to St. Anselm's description of the role and purpose of theology as 'faith seeking understanding.' In other words, my first commitment is that Mormonism?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùjust as I argue does Christianity as well as every religion I've encountered and studied with any decent amount of effort?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùcontains important truths, incredible ideas, and tremendous depth. I like my tradition, and I like my people, my tribe. But as Anselm said, 'Once we have been confirmed in faith, we would be neglectful if we did not then attempt to understand what we believe' (from his Cur Deus Homo [Why God Became Man]).

I love that Sunstone is all about that kind of questing, that whatever inquiries our forums host?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù-even if it's looks into the most difficult subjects, whether they be tragic events or crimes or strange and destructive ideas or people who act less than honorably?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù-the intention behind the explorations is the development of larger, deeper, better faith, better people. There's a great line in the preface Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity, which he attributes to his wife, Marianne, an Episcopal priest. Of the book, he declares it is 'for lovers of faith and those seeking a faith to love.' That's what I see Sunstone's publications and gatherings as geared toward. We're first and foremost a place for people who sense a value in some sort of spiritual life and who have felt a longing for soul growth rise up from their Mormon roots, their encounter with LDS scripture, teaching, and worship, and who want to explore that further and to create an authentic faith life within the tradition.

Given this good match between the foundation's mission and my own interests, it's natural that some of that will rub off on much that goes on in Sunstone's pages and at our symposiums. For instance, I think that because of my influence, there are perhaps a few more 'spiritual journeying' kind of pieces and sessions than ever before. My interest in James W. Fowler's model of various 'stages of faith' as well as the work of other faith development theorists has created a bit of a movement at Sunstone in the past six years, of which the recent cover article on the effects of faith issues on couple relationships is just the latest example of this type of piece. But Sunstone is still hosting a goodly share of challenging sessions and publishing articles that highlight difficulties. I still encourage participation in our forums by some who might be considered critics if I sense they are willing to engage according to the rules of honest inquiry and respectful interchange that Sunstone declares as the main prerequisite of its mission, and I am thoroughly convinced that everyone, including the Church, is better off whenever we hear each other's best thinking.

I absolutely will not go along with the sense expressed that somehow Sunstone is driven today by some sort of 'dread of offending someone.' As those who know me well will attest, none of my deliberations about a session or an article involve wondering what 50 E. North Temple might be thinking. Where I draw the line is at unprocessed anger or irresponsible rhetoric. For instance, I wouldn't accept a paper that I knew included characterizations of someone or some group as 'humorless ranks of the Mormon Taliban.' On the other hand, I'd be happy to include a paper that responsibly argued against unfair tactics and characterizations by certain voices within the LDS tradition.

Sunstone has been, and always will be, a 'reflective forum.' The content and tone of its discussions will be driven primarily by what's happening in the Church at the time. Whatever tone or types of wrestles may have appeared in past Sunstone eras reflect the issues being wrestled with at that time. I'm not leading Sunstone during the lead-up to and aftermath of an attempted purge of LDS intellectuals manifest most publicly, but certainly not only, in the September Six disciplinings. I'm not at Sunstone's helm during the end of the 'Arrington spring' or Paul Dunn or George P. Lee-type scandals, nor during the natural power struggles that arise among apostles during a time when a Church president is incapacitated. I've been steering the Sunstone ship during a pretty mellow presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley. Certainly there are today many important issues and struggles that need to be highlighted, and I think Sunstone has been doing a responsible job with them. Sunstone is covering (and I think pretty thoroughly) issues facing gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints, LDS fundamentalism in the news, the renaissance of LDS feminism after a period of relative quiet, etc. Perhaps Sunstone doesn't seem as dramatic or sexy as it did ten or fifteen years ago, but perhaps it's simply the times, too.

Though some in this discussion say it appears that Sunstone is 'trying to hold the middle ground,' and how to some this “new middle ground looks more like Reaganism than moderation.' I hear and respect the sense that things may appear that way, but I also feel that remaining true to Sunstone's core mission, to its commitment to faith and to the good that's in Mormonism, is the only recipe for continued Sunstone success (or even survival) as a relevant and constructive forum. It'd be fun to fire off missives and call people zealots and craft extreme rhetorical pieces to match some that we encounter out there, but I don't see that sort of tack as something that would ultimately be effective.


  1. Ryan Jentzsch says:

    I worked for Sunstone back in the days of Dan Rector, and Elbert Peck. I worked as the bookkeeper. Those were fun times. The George P. Lee scandal had just broken, and Sunstone had just published his letter in the latest issue when I started working for Dan and Elbert.

    What’s funny is that the criticisms of “Sunstone going soft” happened all the time even back then. In fact I remember one Sunstone reader had noticed that the “”O” in magazines masthead had been changed so that it leaned to right. He wrote something along the lines of: Is the changing of the “O” leaning to the right an indicator of a softer and more conservative Sunstone? He went on to say how soft the magazine had become and how intolerable that was. There were several letters to the editor about how Sunstone had been going soft. Elbert often shard these comments with us, asking our opinions and usually responding to the more intelligent letters to the editor.

    At the time I thought that this feedback was weird. Sunstone had recently featured an interview from a former bishop over the San Francisco gay ward. Feminism was still a very hot topic, Dan and Elbert had their temple recommends taken, Sept. six. etc.. So I find it amusing that there are still people out there calling Sunstone soft.

    I think there are many people out there that have had painful experiences with the church, it’s members and leaders. Many times the frustration of these people are often complicated by the structure of the church; where the bishop’s decisions are backed up ALWAYS by the stake pres. and he by the area pres. all the way up to the top. The fact that people who have issues with the church do not feel they have a voice or are heard is an underlying point of contention. Sunstone was sometimes a useful venting mechanism. At least someone out there would hear and perhaps understand.

    Note: The “O” in the masthead had been changed because Elbert had been experimenting with a new font and a bit of a new layout for the cover. In fact he even asked my opinion on how far the “O” should lean, as well as the rest of the office staff, but this had nothing to do with any new policy of Sunstone.

  2. Jettboy says:

    I would hope it doesn’t go soft. I would hope it dies an ignoble death that the apostate, sinful, and hate filled anti-mormon tract diserves.

  3. Rory Swensen says:

    Very funny comment about the right-leaning “O”!

    And Jettboy, your comment sounds like a good starting point for a Symposium presentation. Put together the abstract and see here for submission information.

    You’re also welcome to make a donation, it’s tax-deductible. 🙂

  4. Rory Swensen says:

    Back to serious discussion mode, the several posts on this blog about the image and place of Sunstone are summarized nicely by Dan. It also reflects numerous other discussions on email lists and off-line where those who are working to support Sunstone try to navigate the current waters.

    As Dan mentions in his comments here, there has been a distinct chill-effect in the past 10-15 years that has limited the open participation in some of our forums by some interested and interesting members. That’s unfortunate.

    Hopefully, by consistently holding to the mission and vision of Sunstone, we will continue to see that chill-effect subside.

  5. No way has Sunstone gone soft! If it’s a little more “calm and careful” now than in the past (to quote myself in Mormonism For Dummies), that allows more people to participate and benefit from this vital open forum. I would hate to see our culture get even more polarized by Sunstone getting “harder”–more stident, more critical, more “know-it-all” than the Brethren–because that would just shrink the audience and lessen the influence even more. I’ve been happier with Sunstone since Dan took over, and I applaud the foundation’s progress under his watch.

    (Frankly, I think it’s important to have a heterosexual lead the Sunstone show, because then when the magazine and symposia address homosexual topics–as they do so often–it doesn’t feel SO much like Sunstone is a machine to push the homosexual agenda, which a lot of us feel some reservations about. On my one visit to Sunstone offices before Dan took over, I was struck by the number of rainbow bumper stickers visible in the small parking lot–I think three out of six cars had them. I also don’t think it would be wise for Sunstone to ever be lead by a polygamist. Yeah, be an open forum that includes these more radical constituencies, but keep a more neutral fulcrum and keep things balanced.)

  6. Dan says:

    Thanks for the comments, all—including Jettboy! I hope you will do as Rory suggests and decide to engage us rather than simply wish us ill. We’re open to calls for repentance, especially when we know it comes from a space of genuine concern.

    Good to have you join in the Sunstone conversation, Ryan! You’re still immortalized on the wall of our office restroom with your own special-edition Sunstone cover (a neat tradition that Elbert maintained of doing a mock magazine cover for each employee upon their departure). Drop in and say hi sometime. I’d love to hear some stories!

    Appreciate the kind words about the change in tenor you’ve sensed Chris, and I applaud the bravery of your parenthetical paragraph at the end where you admit some discomfort with the topic of homosexuality. You raise an issue that has come up from time to time, and Sunstone’s coverage of that topic is certainly the one I get the most heat for from subscribers and symposium attendees—in some cases, they complain that we cover the topic at all. I would like to add however that because Elbert is gay, I believe he was far more careful than I have been in choosing how and what to report on that issue in the news section and especially in what to publish in the magazine and the kinds of panels and presentations to host at symposiums.

    (One point of clarification about your observation from years ago of the number of rainbow bumper stickers on cars in the parking lot: up until about three years ago, one of the upstairs offices in our building was leased to the company that produces the Little Lavender Book, which is Salt Lake’s directory of sorts for GLBT-friendly businesses. Plus, it’s been a long, long time since Sunstone has had more than four employees, so six cars in our lot is a very rare occasion these days!)

    Still, the issue of my having been married to the same woman for twenty-plus years and remaining active in the church has come up from time to time as a positive thing for some Sunstone supporters. I don’t know if something like that would be a determining issue in the hiring process for who might replace me someday, but it’s possible I suppose. Anyway, thanks for your contributions to the discussion.


  7. Jettboy says:

    “Thanks for the comments, all?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùincluding Jettboy! I hope you will do as Rory suggests and decide to engage us rather than simply wish us ill. We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re open to calls for repentance, especially when we know it comes from a space of genuine concern.”

    Nope. To engage is to legitimize. That is the last thing I want to do with a magazine that has tried to destroy the faith of the Saints, attacked the morals of God, and mock the leadership of the Church.

  8. Dan says:

    To engage means to be willing to have one’s ideas and assumptions engaged, to be willing to be moved, to have one’s worldview enlarged, to grow. I hope you’ll find yourself in that space one day.

  9. Rick Jepson says:


    Would you mind at least giving specific examples of what you’re talking about? As a recommend-holding, calling-fulfilling member that participates regularly in both the symposiums and the magazine…..I’ve yet to see anything like what you’re describing. I’m genuinely interested in what you’ve seen or heard that makes your react that way.


  10. Paula says:

    Well, ignoring Jett Boy here, my biggest gripe with Sunstone over the last ten years was that the publication schedule was so irregular that I got so I just didn’t anticipate the magazine anymore. When it came it was sort of a surprise. And the second biggest gripe was that so many of the articles were retrospectives, or honoring someone. Basically just a rehash of stuff that had gone before. So combined with the slow publishing schedule, you’d get the 20th anniversary edition one year, then maybe two more magazines, then it was time for the 25th anniversary. I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s where I lost interest. I have been very happy with the magazine lately and excited to see you publishing much more on schedule.

  11. Dan, I agree with Paula that the retrospectives and honorings don’t appeal to me. In the last couple of issues I enjoyed “For Better, For Worse…,” “Scarlet Threads,” and “I am Liberal in my Sentiments.” I don’t think Sunstone has gone soft. But I do appreciate when the articles discuss ambiguity, issues and struggles because there are so few forums for this type of discourse. I probably wouldn’t be that interested in a Sunstone that Jettboy could read comfortably.

  12. Rick Jepson says:

    My concern is that Jettboy and a lot of other people like him aren’t actually reading it at all. What, for example, was “anti-mormon” or “hateful” in the past issue of Sunstone? Certainly nothing I could think of. I forwarded copies to my ultra-conservative, young-earther, vote Mitt, read McConkie relatives and friends. No complaints from them.

    When I hear complaints like Jettboys, I always ask for examples and, at least so far, never get any replies.

  13. Oh, I didn’t know that little yellow house where Sunstone resides was big enough to have offices upstairs! But that does help explain all those rainbow stickers in the parking lot. Not that I would necessarily be opposed to seeing ANY–for me, it’s just a matter of balance. The rainbow stickers nonplussed me somewhat and made me wonder if I was going into a covert Mormon-GLAAD meeting, but what would REALLY have appalled me upon entering a strange building for the first time is seeing a parking lot full of Jettboy bumper stickers….

    And that’s interesting, Dan, about your comments regarding the amount and nature of gay coverage in Sunstone under your and Elbert’s respective watches. I think a gay editor doing as much gay material as you have done could have marginalized and downsized Sunstone into a gay organization.

    I’ve been called homophobic. I admit to being homosexuality-phobic, but I’m not homosexual-phobic, as I’ve had several gay roommates, coworkers, and family members who I didn’t feel threatened by. For me, the jury is still out on just what homosexuality means and how people should deal with it. I’m satisfied by neither the Mormon cultural status quo nor the homosexual agenda.

    Didn’t Orson Scott Card flame out of Sunstone over something related to gay issues?

  14. Ryan Jentzsch says:


    During the time I worked at Sunstone finances were very tight. Sunstone’s income came largely from donations. Most magazines make money by renting out space in their magazine for advertising. There are very few if any ads in Sunstone. Also the target audience for Sunstone is very small in comparison to other magazines like Sport’s illustrated for example.

    I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that Sunstone still has a very thin budget. Back in the old days the money from subscription revenue was just barely enough to cover the cost of printing, but not enough to cover the postage, office space rent, utilities and payroll. Most times we had to hold off publishing and mailing, and run a donation campaign; which from the kind hearted people was usually enough to eventually get the magazine out the door, but certainty not at a regular intervals.

    I sympathize with your frustration in Sunstone’s irregular schedule and I hope my explanation will help you to understand why this may be.

  15. Thomas says:


    “I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve been called homophobic. I admit to being homosexuality-phobic, but I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m not homosexual-phobic”

    You’re not any manner of -phobic. Although comparing garden-variety political enthusiasts to totalitarians should have gone out with the late senator from Wisconsin, the fact is that using the language of mental illness — “phobia” — to describe the thinking of one’s political opponents has parallels with Soviet psychiatry that are just too ironic not to point out.

  16. Rick Jepson says:

    I’m not sure that homosexuals are “political opponents.”

    And I’m sure the usage of “phobia” was not meant as a self diagnosis of actual psychosis. In fact, most of the everyday usage of “-phobe”, “-phile” and, oddly enough, “-oholic” can’t be found in the DSM-IV at all.

    Peace out,

    -Rick “the chocoholic carnoholic Mountaindewoholic bibliophile with excessive hydrophobic midline deposits” Jepson

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