Keeping the Faith | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Keeping the Faith 

With new leadership and a softening of its mission statement, can Sunstone remain an open forum for Mormons who question their faith?

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“Resigned” sounds a little more professional in a press release than something like “he just went on an errand and never came back.” The Sunstone Foundation’s June 12 press release sounds very official. It reads clearly that Elbert Peck, the longtime managing director of the Sunstone Foundation and editor of its magazine, which for so long has tried to walk the line between intellectualism and faithful Mormonism, has “resigned.”

Peck wrote a formal letter of resignation to Sunstone’s board of directors, continues the press release, and the organization’s remaining employees were well-prepared and willing to take over the pressures of the magazine and the organization of upcoming symposia.

What the press release lacks is the sense of abruptness with which Peck ended his tenure at the helm of the organization that has been an open forum for Mormon intellectuals who find a need to probe the underpinnings of their religion. After 15 years of sometimes single-handedly guiding Sunstone through many of its most controversial periods, Peck told office manager Carol Quist that he had to run some errands—which he did. But it was a nice day and without thinking much about it, he decided not to return to his desk. The next day, he just didn’t feel like going in, either. Over the weekend, feeling a bit guilty for his prolonged absence from his job—which he admitted to not having done particularly well for the past year—he promised himself he would go in on Monday. Monday came and went and he knew … knew he was finished. He knew he should call them and tell them the truth. Elbert Peck was done. He had burnt out.

According to the press release he was “wearing down.” But Peck said it was more than that. He was physically and mentally weary. And in many ways, he was bored.

“I just became less and less patient with the fools I had to deal with,” Peck said. “There was always the same old complaints, the same old insights. They just kept focusing on the same issues. After 15 years it became tiresome and boring.”

In other words, he had had enough. Truth is, after 15 years there are a lot of people who had probably had enough of him as well. The nagging question is, has Sunstone lost its relevance?

The Alternate Voices

A fluorescent light buzzes in the upper corner of the room. It’s a loud, obnoxious, almost clanking rattle that seems to warn anyone in the office that it will either blow up or burn out in the very near future. But it will most likely just keep buzzing.

David Knowlton, an anthropology professor at the University of Utah, sits below the light talking calmly. It’s a skill he learned a while ago. For many months in 1993 when he was on faculty at BYU, Knowlton sparred in newspaper reports and television spots with well-financed public relations teams from Brigham Young and ultimately the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The lone professor took both the university and the church to task on many occasions. Then, BYU fired him—officially they didn’t renew his contract. But the Knowlton debacle served as a primary symbol of the LDS church’s infamous reaction to intellectuals that year—ultimately culminating with excommunications and disfellowships of the “September Six,” along with other resignations and firings of BYU professors.

Early on, during his professorship at BYU and before he had perfected his PR skills, Knowlton had begun presenting some conclusions from research about LDS missionaries in South America, both at Sunstone events and in its magazine. The violence that victimized many missionaries on the continent particularly bothered Knowlton, who remembered his own eye-opening mission in Bolivia. Knowlton said seeing pictures of the missionaries who were murdered “stuck like a dagger in my heart.” In various papers and especially during a presentation at a Sunstone symposium, he warned that church missions had tied themselves too closely to traditional targets of aggression by armed terrorists in South America.

Sunstone was a happening place back then. Hordes of scholars, the majority of whom held positions at BYU or Ricks College, participated in the many symposia and published articles in its magazine. All this despite an admonition in 1989 from LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks that members of the church beware of “Alternate Voices” inside the LDS faith which may have the “secret object” of deceit. Subscriptions to the magazine were at the highest levels since Sunstone began and despite Oaks’ warnings, faithful members of the church flocked from their offices in Provo and Salt Lake to Sunstone events.

Founding Editor Scott Kenney reacted to Oaks’ comments in the following edition, articulating the passion of Mormon intellectuals of the time—a new affirmation of the importance of Sunstone’s mission: “Without ‘Alternate Voices’ breathing new ideas into the church, Mormonism would suffocate in its own exhaust.” Regional symposia popped up around the country. With conservatives, moderates and liberals debating issues of political and even what some considered transcendental importance, local journalists started paying attention.

They paid particular attention to Knowlton. Along with a presentation from University of Utah philosophy professor Colleen McDannell about Mormon temple practices and garments, Knowlton’s research and discussions caught the eye of church leaders. In 1991, the Council of the First Presidency of the LDS church dealt a fatal blow to Sunstone’s blooming popularity with a statement expressing its concerns about the two “offensive” discussions and asking in no ambiguous way that faithful members abandon their defense of the church at such events.

The message translated powerfully at BYU. An unwritten, unspoken rule emerged that professors were to cease participating in Sunstone and those who continued would face consequences, Knowlton recalled. “It was something people hadn’t even thought twice about before the statement,” Knowlton said. As one would expect, the numbers of scholars from Provo participating in Sunstone dropped to almost nothing.

When Knowlton’s three-year review came up two years later, BYU officials let him go. But that was just the beginning. Sunstone participants started talking about repression they perceived and in September 1993, five of them were excommunicated and one was disfellowshipped. Others faced disciplinary hearings.

“The simple decision whether to join a public conversation was now for some a test of loyalty to principles and institutions that a decade earlier did not seem in conflict,” wrote Peck of the 1993 debacles.

Sitting at his desk in the worn-down Stewart Building at the U of U, Knowlton talks about his summer project. He is putting together the research he hasn’t been able to avoid. He hopes to complete a book soon about violence against LDS missionaries in South America. The statement from the church didn’t remove that dagger.

The “So-Called” Intellectuals

Like just about any editor’s in the world, Dan Wotherspoon’s desk is a mess. Layout sheets are piled on top of a one foot-deep stack of manuscripts, books and photocopies. The cover illustration for the next issue sits rolled up on a table in the rear of the room. The art was commissioned from local artist Mark England—son of the Sunstone organization’s patriarch, Eugene England, who is now battling cancer. Next to the table sits a framed picture of Eugene England in a similarly chaotic office at BYU, with his hands folded behind his head in a stark image of confidence.

Wotherspoon, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy of religion and theology, took over the editing position of Sunstone magazine recently, drawn inescapably to the organization by the same force to which all “Sunstoners” can relate. “In grad school I encountered many wonderful ideas and I wanted to combine them with my Mormon background. But it’s extremely lonely. It’s lonely when you start to think you are the only one in the church dealing with some very complex questions about your faith. It can very easily become a crisis. Sunstone is received by everyone who participates with a ‘thank you’ because it connects like-minded people who don’t clam up when someone’s ideas clash with their own,” said Wotherspoon.

For many Mormon intellectuals, Sunstone and other independent forums provided exactly the release they needed. They could challenge that powerful feeling of loneliness while simultaneously releasing pressure and stress that internal conflicts could create. “Sunstone serves a very healthy purpose of giving young Mormons a chance to discuss issues that are rarely discussed in other church settings. More people stay loyal and active in the church because of their participation in Sunstone than those who leave because of it,” said Dean May, a history professor at the U of U who has contributed one of the more moderate voices in Sunstone for almost 20 years. “There are a lot of believers who participate. They just have questions and concerns and this is a very appropriate forum to talk about them.”

Some are more open about the personal benefits Sunstone has provided them.

“Sunstone provided an intelligent forum for church discussion that I could not find anywhere else,” said Cindy Le Fevre, a professor at a small college in California. “It was Sunstone that kept me in the church. Sunstone became my ward family.”

It was also a place where Mormon intellectuals could advocate for change in the organization and policies of the LDS church. In fact, some Mormon scholars took very seriously the idea that they as “Alternate Voices” could help the church with their own ideas as it evolved.

Margaret Toscano was one of them. Her husband, Paul, had been one of the infamous “September Six.” For her, Sunstone was a place where she could advocate for feminist changes in the policies of the church. It was a place where she could try to develop a “Mormon feminist theology.”

“It was my hope that the church could reconstruct a place for women to be something other than second-class citizens. It was a personal journey. It was a spiritual journey in which I was trying to keep my faith. I began to feel like I needed to speak out. I felt like there was something I could do because I didn’t feel like it was as healthy of a community as it could be.”

With Sunstone serving as such a pressure valve for many of the faith’s intellectuals, it is somewhat ironic that so many of the former editors and directors resigned their posts at Sunstone because of stress and personal, sometimes physical, weariness. Not everyone saw Sunstone as a place of refuge.

The Open Forum

The consensus of Sunstone officials is that after the 1993 debacles and the resulting reluctance of moderates and conservatives to participate in symposia and the magazine, Sunstone became a bastion of liberal, even radical, thought. The liberals were the only ones left—the only ones willing to participate and face whatever consequences their research and presentations held.

“There was a lot of anger right after all of the incidents in 1993,” Knowlton said. “People had a lot to say about everything that had happened and the subsequent Sunstones were very angry events.”

After 1993, Sunstone participants were regularly called in to visit with their ecclesiastical leaders and defend some of the things they either said or wrote in Sunstone. But Sunstone was not proud of what it had become. An aversion to controversy had never been a salient characteristic of Sunstone’s approach. Some say now, though, that rather than embrace the people who had remained active, the organization’s leadership, including Peck, resented what had happened and took an active role in pushing liberals out. The ugly word “censorship” came up more than once in recent interviews and the accusatory fingers did not point to the LDS church leaders.

“There are some things that have come up that have not been appropriate for what Sunstone hopes to accomplish. It is an open forum, but we have standards and we have set limits about what is appropriate for discussion and what is not. Any time you set limits, it could be seen as censorship,” said Toby Pingree, chairman of Sunstone’s board of directors.

Pingree was at the front of accusations in April during a Sunstone Symposium in California. One of the scheduled talks advertised in the program included the presentation of a paper by Cindy Le Fevre, who had been participating in Sunstone events for more than 18 years. The title of the presentation, “The Hidden Nazi Mentality in the Proclamation of the Family,” sent Sunstone brass scurrying. The day before Le Fevre was scheduled to speak, Pingree announced that Sunstone would not endorse such a talk. Le Fevre had asserted in the paper that there were parallels between the way fascist Germany had viewed Jews and the way the LDS church dealt with homosexuals. The paper had “attempted to connect the LDS church to characteristics of Nazi Germany” and it had done so with “poor scholarship and an offensive tone,” Pingree said. “We pulled it because of the message it would send about what Sunstone was.”

Le Fevre called it a classic example of Sunstone’s attempts to appease the LDS church and to gain an unprecedented acceptance from its leaders—a project she believes Sunstone leaders embarked upon after the 1993 incidents. “Basically, they banned the paper because they didn’t want the church to come down on them for calling them Nazis,” she said. “They have been trying for years to somehow make Sunstone acceptable to the General Authorities of the church while they walk this fine line of an open forum. I don’t think it is possible because, simply put, the church does not allow internal criticism and Sunstone has always been about critical thinking and criticism in general. It’s a losing battle.”

Regardless, Le Fevre went forward with her presentation. Sunstone organizers allowed her to use the same space at the time it was originally scheduled—they just wanted to make it clear they had nothing to do with it. One of those who wanted nothing to do with it was Stan Christensen, who headed the board of directors in the late 1990s. It was Christensen to whom many point as the force that pushed Sunstone toward the boundaries, limits and standards that some have labeled censorship.

Although Christensen declined to say how many times, he volunteered that Sunstone board members had been meeting with LDS church leaders since 1995. “I think the leadership of the church fairly and wisely counsels us to act in ways that will not be against the mission of the church and we take that counsel very seriously,” Christensen said in a telephone interview from California.

“We do not believe in censorship and we maintain an open forum but there are still limits that we, as a board, have come up with and published on a regular basis. We will not permit direct attacks on LDS leaders nor will we allow disrespect of fundamental church doctrines. We need to be respectful. We are part of a larger Mormon community and as part of that community we feel a responsibility to respect its leaders and the membership.”

Christensen has been frustrated with what he described as the media’s bias toward conflict—one that has put Sunstone in the context of an adversary of the church, a description he wholeheartedly denies. “Sunstone is made up of people who are deeply committed to the church. The percent of active members who participate in Sunstone is probably much higher than in any given ward. It’s in the media’s interest to frame Sunstone as an oppositional force to the church, but our mission corresponds very well with the mission of the church and the gospel,” Christensen said.

The Unsatisfied

Hugo Olaiz was one of 12 people who signed a letter to Sunstone’s board of directors last July and one of many who signed a petition in August complaining of the direction that the organization had taken.

The letter complained of Elbert Peck’s “unilateral cancellation” of Maxine Hanks’ session in the next symposium. Hanks was not unfamiliar to Peck. She had been one of the “September Six” who was excommunicated for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church.” The letter expressed frustration at what the authors saw as “an abuse of [Peck’s] editorial power.”

The petition, signed in August and passed around during the August symposium, got more to the point. Those who signed it asked for a profound reorganization of Sunstone, demanded that the magazine publish more often, and asked that decisions regarding the content of future symposia and publications not rest solely in the editor’s hands.

But the petition didn’t make it far. Olaiz said somebody stole it along with the list of signatories, and vandalized the petitioner’s booth. Borrowing a description from Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss, Olaiz said the direction Sunstone had taken would further damage “the lost generation of Mormon intellectuals.” Unlike the previous generation, people around Olaiz’s age of 30 who left BYU and mainstream Mormonism had a less supportive Sunstone to serve as their pressure valve.

“Sunstone’s leadership is all moderate and they are always obsessed with the idea that you cannot offend the church. I blame the church, in part, because as it became more conservative and entrenched, Sunstone also became more entrenched and made it a lot harder for intellectuals,” said Olaiz, a graduate student at the U of U. “We are hungry for the things Sunstone used to provide.”

The City Boy

On his balcony in downtown Salt Lake City, Peck stretches out his legs and pulls a leaf off of one of the dozens of plants around which he maneuvered to set up his chair for an interview. It’s a bright day and he squints as he starts to pick apart the leaf.

In 1981, Peck’s friend Ron Priddis asked him to work on an ambitious project. Together with a couple of others, Priddis and Peck started the 7th East Press just off the BYU campus. The young college students who first worked at the 7th East Press would eventually become the shepherds of many, if not all, of the independent Mormon intellectual forums.

“I fled from 7th East,” Peck said. “I was burnt out at the end of that as well. My friends were all losing their faith in the church. I was very troubled. And I had to leave. I fled to Sunstone of all places.”

Peck is well aware that many Mormon feminists think he avoided women’s issues during his tenure at Sunstone. He’s well aware, at least in his own mind, that because he was gay, people like Stan Christensen thought he was a “time bomb” just waiting to explode in Sunstone’s face and destroy their newly-articulated mission. He’s also aware that his vision and talents would prove to be dearly missed by those who valued what Sunstone was.

“We have never censored anybody,” Peck said. “I don’t know a more temperamental group of people than feminists—gays are even-tempered compared to them,” and he chuckles. “The liberals who, over the years, have gotten up to do their own jeremiads against the church or acted irresponsibly in their presentations at Sunstone have caused as much of the problems with open forums, that they lament now, as the brethren ever did. I don’t have as much of a desire to run the church as many of the liberals do. It’s not our church. It’s not the liberals’ church. Any organization’s agenda is determined by those who are in the pews and writing the checks. Any time the church has changed, it has done so slowly and at the tail end of the social upheavals that forced the rest of society to change along the same lines.”

Peck said he doesn’t understand the frustrations so many people feel about the LDS church. If he ever did, he’s sick of them now. But that doesn’t mean he will ever be done watching the church as it becomes a truly global religion. “It’s not a healthy disposition to consistently write off the church as evil, or anything general for that matter,” he said. “Lots of the assumptions and concerns that people seem so passionate about now don’t interest me at all anymore. Sometimes I see it as sort of a cheap intellectualism. There is so much of my life that is not Mormon—not Sunstone. When I go to Los Angeles or San Francisco and visit with friends there, I realize I am a city boy. I always ask myself why I would ever want to be in Utah debating that crap.”

Meanwhile, Dan Wotherspoon is furiously trying to organize the August Sunstone symposium. Peck had promised to help, but has thus far preferred to clean up his apartment and prepare for his next project. No one argues with the fact that Peck was an organizational genius who, if he was properly motivated, could accomplish whatever goals he had for Sunstone. It’s a talent Wotherspoon hopes he can learn. With Sunstone’s ambitious plans for the coming season, he’ll have to learn.

While Sunstone’s buzz is still audible, it’s hard to tell what it’s warning of. Will it burn out or blow up? Or will it just keep on buzzing?

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