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, www.stefnick.com.

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, www.stefnick.com.

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, www.stefnick.com.

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" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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