Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Attendance triples at progressive Mormon Sunstone Symposium, despite hiccups

Rock Waterman, John Dehlin (standing), Kate Kelly, Carson Calderwood, and Marisa Calderwood at the Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Carson-Nickolaisen,

Sunstone FB-bannermedWhere else could orthodox Mormon Ed Smart, right-leaning excommunicant Denver Snuffer, left-leaning excommunicant John Dehlin, and regular Flunking Sainthood guest blogger Bryndis Roberts all break bread and share ideas together?

At Sunstone, of course.

I missed this year’s Sunstone symposium because I was out of the country. Today is my first day back in the office after a marathon three-week trip to France, Italy, and Spain. Rough life, huh? I’m thrilled that I got to take that trip, but it sounds like missing this past weekend’s Sunstone Symposium was my loss.

Today I chatted with Lindsay Hansen Park about the changes in this year’s gathering. She’s the assistant director of the Sunstone Foundation and a major factor in some of the fresh energy that has been going into the organization lately.

That energy is paying off. Last year there were about 600 people at Sunstone; this year it was nearly 1500 over the three-day conference. The University of Utah student center, where the event was held, turned out to not be large enough to hold all the various sessions, some of which were so popular that people had to be turned away.

(Or, controversially, some folks were seated in an overflow room to watch the livestream of Kate Kelly’s SRO session, which also featured John Dehlin, Carson Calderwood, Marisa Calderwood, and Rock Waterman. The cramped quarters led to heated criticism from Kelly on Facebook, with Sunstone responding that the small room assigned was the result of the late timing of her session proposal, and noting that with her session room AND the overflow room, she had more seats than for any other panel. But Kelly was still publicly complaining as of an hour ago on FB, and insinuating that this is some kind of personal slight against her by Sunstone. I don’t get it. Maybe you had to be there.)

Rock Waterman, John Dehlin (standing), Kate Kelly, Carson Calderwood, and Marisa Calderwood at the Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Carson-Nickolaisen,

Rock Waterman, John Dehlin (standing), Kate Kelly, Carson Calderwood, and Marisa Calderwood at the Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Carson-Nickolaisen,

So, not a perfect conference. A conference with some growing pains and at least one certifiable diva moment.

But the fact that the symposium has been stretching its wings to move Sunstone from the comfortable, friendly “old home week” it had become in recent years to something more inclusive and wide-ranging is hugely encouraging to me. The Mormon umbrella is wide and getting visibly wider. If more conservative Mormons were made uncomfortable by the conference’s boundary-breaking discussions in areas like sexuality, some liberal Mormons were made to shift in their seats by moments like Ed Smart earnestly bearing his testimony as if he were in church. (I would have loved to hear that, myself.)

And that spectrum is exactly as it should be, says Park. Bring it on.

“The thing we did this year that has been the most successful was we just brought such a diversity of voices to the symposium,” Park told me. “One of the things I did was just to reach out to every Mormon organization I could think of that I hoped would partner with us, and just said, ‘Do you want space on the program?’”

She is particularly proud of the international focus of this year’s Sunstone. Featured speaker Anya Tinajero focused on Mormon feminism in Mexico, where violence against women and girls is an ongoing problem in the wider culture; attendees and speakers came from Europe, New Zealand, Latin America, and Tonga, among other places.

Those different perspectives are hugely important. With a panel like “FEMWOC: Women of Color Crash the Bloggernacle Party” and another looking at Mormonism and immigration, it becomes more clear that this isn’t your grandmother’s Utah Mormonism anymore, in which the only element of color is the green in the Jell-O.

Diversity is the future of the church.

“We had sessions on all kinds of racial issues that are not just about the priesthood,” Park said. “Mormons tend to think that if we address the priesthood, that’s the only conversation we need to have, but it isn’t.”

There were also multiple panels on Mormonism and sexuality, including three sessions about transgender Mormons and at least one featuring fundamentalist polygamists.

Traditional topics were on the menu too, but with a twist. Park’s favorite panel was one presenting four views of Joseph Smith. “Dan Vogel represented the case for Smith as a pious fraud. Ann Taves saw him as a visionary. Christopher Smith did con man, and Don Bradley did prophet. We asked people in the audience to raise their hand for the one they identified with. That’s what we want to foster at Sunstone—respectful dialogue of a variety of different perspectives.”

Although I missed what sounds like a terrific symposium, it looks like I’ll have plenty of opportunities to make up for it:

  • In October, the Kirtland Sunstone conference will take place in my home state of Ohio; I think I can make it there on the last day.
  • In November, Sunstone Northwest will focus on Mormon prepperism and the endtimes movement.
  • In January, the San Francisco will be looking at tech, with an active Mormon Wired developer as the keynote speaker.
  • In February, there will be conferences in Phoenix and in Europe.
  • In early 2017, Sunstone will meet for the first time ever in Mexico.
  • Later in 2017, Sunstone will co-sponsor a conference of feminists from Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and evangelical traditions at Duke University in North Carolina.

8/5/15 Addition to the post: What I wrote on Monday may have given the impression that Sunstone’s attention to diversity is a very recent focus, but I have been reminded that it’s been in the works for some time now. Much of this year’s conference represents the fruits of seeds that have been planted through the years by many people at Sunstone. We owe a lot of gratitude to many people at the organization who have worked hard through the years to foster a “big tent” understanding of the Mormon faith.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • One exciting Sunstone event I want to mention is that we also have a session at the Parliament of World Religions conference this October in Salt Lake where we will be discussing our efforts to widen the tent with thousands of participants from religious traditions around the world. All are welcome.

    Bill McGee
    Chair, Sunstone Board

  • Great write up! I too missed the conference but it sounds like it was a really enriching experience.

    One minor quibble in your language choice: the use of “transgendered” is usually frowned upon. One cannot be “gayed” or “straighted”. As it’s an adjective, transgender or trans is preferable.

  • I mean absolutely no offense by this, but what do you hope to get out of these conferences? My knowledge and testimony of the gospel come from personal prayer, scripture study, and General Conference talks. Attending a special club whose guest speakers are excommunicated (Kate Kelly recently took part in an activity where 100 LDS members marched to Temple Square to resign their membership) does absolutely nothing to strengthen my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If In searching for personal enlightenment, that’s the last venue I’d be looking for. The scriptures mention “educated fools” and I think this may fall into that category.

  • MB – For most I think no offense would be taken.
    I wasn’t able to attend, but I would have loved to.
    I suspect that many that attended feel that even though they pray and study, they are not able to then go to church and talk about much of what that prayer and study. They are shunned and told not to talk about those questions – keep them to yourself. This conference gives the ability to actually hear some discussions that are intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually engaging.

    If you get all of that from prayer and personal study, good for you and you keep doing that and living how you feel the spirit is guiding you – which is just what most of the folks going to Sunstone feel they are doing.

  • @ MB: I understand what you are saying. You make a very good point.

    At Sunstone conferences there are faithful LDS that do sessions and present interesting information.

    Kate Kelly’s behavior and continuing complaints, after being told why she had a smaller space and was apologized to, is very revealing about her as a person.

    Most of the people who went to SLC to ask to be removed from the church membership had already done so, they were there for show and to support the few others who were leaving the church.

  • MB,

    I agree with Happy Hubby. But, for many participants, there’s another motivation.

    Religion can be fascinating. From an anthropological perspective, it’s interesting beyond the extent to which you actually believe in it.

    Some people could talk all day about sports, fishing, science fiction, politics, guns, or doomsday prepping, etc. For others, it’s Mormonism.

    Stuff like Sunstone can help people stay. Recognize that, by a pretty wide margin, most Mormons are NOT active. So, it’s probably safe to say that a majority of Mormons don’t worry about their testimonies. Many Mormons are Mormons for the same reason that most people in the world espouse their respective religions, it’s the religion of their family. For some who feel culturally trapped in Mormonism, symposia like Sunstone can at least make it interesting.

  • As much as there are fascinating sociological and other social scientific aspects of the LDS faith, some of these disparate groups and dissenters make Mormons out to be kookier than we really are, which is both sad and a false representation of Latter day Saints. More than 2 million LDS women alone deserve more attention than Kate Kelly, and regretfully she as a non-member detracts from all the others. Sensationalism outdoes true, good religion and practice. Not kooky but healthy and normal.

  • I don’t think it’s possible to make Mormonism look kookier than it is. The more a person investigates the doctrines (and the logical implications of those doctrines) the more absurd the religion becomes; the more one looks at the history of the church the more ridiculous the church appears.

    To me it seems Sunstone and General Conference are both trying to do the same thing — put variously colored glasses on the faces of Mormons who desperately need to believe in their church, and require the illusion of intellectualism, piety, righteousness, etc., to swallow or ignore all the absurdities in Smith’s concocted mythology.

  • Sunstone was great this year! Thanks to Lindsay and everyone else who organized and put it on. And Jana, I hope to see you in Kirtland in October!

  • Debbie S: Do you think all religions have multiple aspects of the “kooky”? I personally like the social and pragmatic functions of the LDS faith. The spiritual parts can be tricky to achieve but also are rewarding.

  • MB: if you truly mean no offense, why are you calling those who attend “educated fools”? Your comment included many I’s and My’s, and statements that other people’s choices don’t work for you. Unfortunately, you also add yet another anecdotal piece of evidence that your religion is intolerant and offensive.