Marketing Sunstone

A while back I commented on the greying of Mormon studies. I just ran across something that further confirmed my initial intuition. According to a survey collected at the 2003 Sunstone Symposium, the age break down of Sunstoners looks like this:

    6% — Under age 25
    7% — age 25-34
    8% — age 35-44
    14% — age 45-54
    35% — age 55-64
    30% — age 65 or older

Wow! Think of what that means. Well over half of the participants are over the age of 55. A whopping 79% of Sunstoners are over the age of 45, and under the most generous reading of the data less than 15% of Sunstoners are in their twenties. Unless Sunstone can do something to reach younger folks, they probably ought to think about marketing promotional deals with modern maturity.

Here is one bit of unsolicited advice. One thing Sunstone might want to think about is its rather awful on-line presence. Their website is clunky in the extreme. One problem that Sunstone has is that even if it wanted to change its reputation to one that was more hospitable to mainline Mormons, the costs of (especially young) Mormons finding out anything about current Sunstone topics are quite high. In a rather obvious move to protect what I assume are dwindling subscription dollars, very few Sunstone articles are on line. The result is that folks have to actually fork over the money to buy a piece of paper in order to find out about it.

One thing that Sunstone ought to seriously consider is creating a blog. A lot of traditional print outlets — The New Republic (Greg Easterbrook) and The National Review (“The Corner”) come to mind — have done this, using the blog as a way of generating interest in their print publication and generally providing themselves a voice to largely paperless readers (like me).

Are you listening Dan Wotherspoon?

44 comments for “Marketing Sunstone

  1. Nate, alternatively, perhaps it ’tis as Aaron B. said elsewhere . . . that as one gets more educated/older, one gets more liberal/[sunstone like]?

    Then again…

  2. Wasn’t it Churchill who said the opposite? That anyone not liberal in their youth had no heart and anyone who wasn’t conservative in their age had no brain? Or something like that.

  3. I have an additional idea:

    While I understand the need to protect most of the magazine content, I think that Sunstone should provide a free review archive. This would be an invaluable resource, imo, for those who are interested in Mormon studies. The times I’ve gone to the site are because I’m looking for a review of a work that I’m interested in and not because of their article content.

    Combine a blog with reviews [obviously I would love access to a database of *all* the reviews — but perhaps those from the past 2-3 years to start out] and maybe throw in a couple of Web only features once a month — an audio file of a Sunstone presentation, a Q&A related to a story in the current issue [much like what The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly do] and I think that the site could attract a lot more young readers [who could turn into subscribers once they have the means for it (like me)].

    I’ve checked out the Sunstone site two or three times in the past year and their search is so clunky [and was wrong for awhile] and there’s so little of value that I don’t visit it regularly. I’ve order two articles via my University library’s document delivery service, but that’s it because the process is so onerous.

  4. Lile — I’m sure I never said that. I’m too lazy to check, but as I recall, what I’ve said was this: It is very noticable, when you go to a Sunstone Symposium, how old the average attendee is. I have occasionally solicited opinions from older attendees as to why they think that is. One response I’ve heard is that “We older folks are less afraid to attend because we’re in the twilight of our lives, and so have less to lose” (a paraphrase). Make of that response what you will.

    I think Nate is right to recommend that Sunstone shift its focus to the online world. I can definitely say for myself that it has met my needs better than Sunstone has or does. Part of this is due to the interactivity of the medium. Part may be due to the relative youth of the participants here. And part may have to do with the tendency at Sunstone, et al. to engage in a bit too much recycling of old ideas.

    But I’m sure it mostly has to do with how brilliant everyone here is! :)

    Having said that, I don’t want to come off as too anti-Sunstone (not a problem I’ve traditionally had). I hope that Sunstone and related organizations can continue to make themselves relevant to new generations of Mormons. I’m still a subscriber.

    Aaron B

  5. Ooooh, look! It appears that Sunstone has put all its cartoons on its site, as far back as 1987! This act alone should make the site quite worth visiting!

    Aaron B

  6. At the SMPT conference, in a self-introduction before delivering a paper, Wotherspoon described Sunstone as more a “ministry” than a magazine. I think that’s basically correct. It’s unfortunate that things developed that way; that, instead of being able to continue providing constructive resources and perspective on things Mormon, as it did through the 1980s, it turned over the last decade or so into a place of “refuge” and little else. A journal or forum of opinion that has entirely adapted itself to an identity based on “consolation” isn’t going to be able grow much, or likely reform itself. (That was the story of Student Review over its final semesters–we kept on existing not because there really was anything to say, but simply because there “needed” to be a Student Review.) Still, as in all ministries, there will always be the occasional wounded soul that will wander into it’s orbit at one point or another (usually later in life), and so that might be reason enough to hope it stays afloat, however utterly unhip it may have become.

  7. I’ve no idea Steve. The Bloggernacle–indeed, the blogosphere–indeed, the INTERNET itself–is way too young and protean to guess to how it’ll involve. “Blogs” are, as cultural phenomenon, two or three years old, max. The internet as a whole isn’t even ten (sure, it’s been around longer, in the form of Usenet or whatever, but basically no one knew what the “world wide web” meant in 1995). So, yeah, the Bloggernacle may someday be nothing more than a gabby way-station for the reclusive and rejected. Then again, maybe ten years from now the church will teach all seminary classes on-line.

  8. Re: Clark Boble’s comment about Churchill:

    “The earliest known version of this observation is attributed to
    mid-nineteenth century historian and statesman Fran├žois Guizot:
    Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart;
    to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.”

  9. I thought I’d make a comment on Sunstone.

    A long time ago, when FARMS got started, I remember a number of Sunstone types complaining that the people at FARMS had not “paid their dues” and it caught my attention. FARMS had engaged in some real research, the individuals had actually done scholarly work (in comparison), but they had not gone through the social hoops that constituted paying ones dues in the Sunstone circle.

    That attitude is a critical one, and one that rejects growth. If it is not the quality of your research, but the quantity of the times you have participated in paying homage in the social court, you are going to have a melieu that rejects its young.

    I think that is the cause of what seems to be a very rigid staleness about Sunstone and a certain narrowness of focus and personality and perspective.

    Not that I haven’t enjoyed the occassional issue (and even sent a few to some non-member friends), but to read the old essays by Eugene England (who did not understand the square cubed law and who was remonstrating with someone who did from the perspective that the latter did not have a legitimate place to speak from due to a lack of social standing — regardless of how it was phrased) is to see the problem in all of its glory.

    Anyway, a few thoughts.

  10. quoting:

    The Bloggernacle–indeed, the blogosphere–indeed, the INTERNET itself–is way too young and protean to guess to how it’ll involve. “Blogs” are, as cultural phenomenon, two or three years old, max. The internet as a whole isn’t even ten (sure, it’s been around longer, in the form of Usenet or whatever …


    Gee, cybernet was running in the late 70s, as was Arpanet. You make it sound as if all of that was redundant :)

    What is interesting to do is to consider blogs in light of APAs (amateur press associations) and to look at blogs such as the against the history of the bbs movement (on and off FIDOnet) (such as Orson Scott Card’s Nauvoo on AOL compared to what it is now).

    I think the cycles are only developing, but they are interesting.

    BTW, I’m 48, I was in my thirties but I woke up one day and realized I’d lost about 11-12 years.

  11. “…but to read the old essays by Eugene England (who did not understand the square cubed law and who was remonstrating with someone who did from the perspective that the latter did not have a legitimate place to speak from due to a lack of social standing — regardless of how it was phrased) is to see the problem in all of its glory.”

    Stephen, I have no idea what you’re saying here. What is your metaphor supposed to be conveying? That Gene England, speaking without knowledge (of the gospel, perhaps?), would criticize those who did have that knowledge for speaking out about it? Please elaborate; the best sense I can make of your comment doesn’t fit anything I’ve ever read by Gene.

  12. Russell,

    You’re right that it’s too soon to predict the future of the internet. I guess I’m thinking more in terms of the flashy factor that gave Student Review its raison d’etre; there is plenty of that same spirit in the Bloggernacle.

    If mormon blogs can continue to provide, as they do here and elsewhere, meaningful discussion and worthwhile resources, I think the future looks bright. That is, it’s a content-related question — if we can keep the public interest while providing constructive dialogue, things look good.

    What does this have to do with Sunstone? Well, I’m not convinced that greater internet presence or other modernization would necessarily be of worth to Sunstone, since again, I think success is a content-related factor.

  13. What’s also interesting is Sunstone isn’t the only group facing this dilemma of a graying crowd. When they asked students to stand up at the Mormon History Association conference a couple of years ago, there were like five of us. Dialogue faces the same issue, as does BYU Studies. I have no information on FARMS, but can’t imagine they’re doing much better. I think all these groups are extremely valuable to Mormon studies, yet all seem to be struggling to attract young people. Any ideas why?

  14. Is this a diaspora issue? I would probably attend some of the aforementioned events–if I didn’t live in Texas! If I were older, perhaps I could afford to fly in. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t 20-somethings in Utah, but many of the young Mormon Studies crowd is going to be out of state (grad school, etc.). I also can’t justify spending the money on Dialogue, Sunstone, FARMS, etc., when I can find plenty of interesting discussion online. If I were older (and therefore less net savvy, or older, and therefore better off), maybe I would pay for these things.

  15. John,

    A part of the difficulty in attracting younger participation for Mormon Studies publications may be a concern over qualification. Many of the younger crowd question how they can be considered as peers in comparison with some of the more established members of the LDS community.

  16. I notice that the peak age group for Sunstone is that cohort that came of age in the sixties–when the rejection of authority was “in the air.” An era when issues like “blacks and the priesthood” and ERA were inclined to raise the visibility of church policy versus individual viewpoint conflicts.

    I think those who have come of age in the last ten years have done so in a much different social and church context. Plus the Church is simply a good bit less tolerant of dissent or even public discussion. The “let a thousand sunstones shine” era of church toleration for Sunstonish association is over and will not be repeated, I think.

  17. Oops. And may I add? I think I may be one of those horrible “Sunstone types.” At least I was present at the near beginning (oh so long ago). How can I atone?

  18. I’ve actually presented at Sunstone twice (although I don’t think I’d consider doing so now) Both times I was asked by someone else. The first time was funny. I don’t even remember the topic but it was a panel on something or other. No one showed up. I laughed and was about to leave only to be told I had to act the whole thing out for the tape recorder. Kind of surreal.

    I’ve not read Sunstone in years to be honest. I read it a bit while at BYU. The honors reading room in the Maeser building had copies of that, Dialog, and most fun of all, the complete unabridged Oxford Dictionary. Great place to hang out between classes. Anyway, I must agree with those who emphasize it as more of a social “clique.” I also agree that most of the social critiques didn’t seem too terribly robust or rigorous. I still remember the freudianism that often crept in. While there was the occasional article, it seemed more like a small clique of college freshmen complaining about the world. Lots of fun when you are a freshman or sophomore – but at sometime one has to grow up.

    Not everyone (or necessarily anyone) will agree with my comments though.

    BTW – the second panel I was on – a philosophical one – was fantastic and was overflowing as I recall. Lots of great discussions afterwards as well.

  19. I’m not terribly familiar with Sunstone, just been to their website a handful of times. But I’ll throw my $.02 in anyway. ;)

    Sunstone was probably quite popular in the activist days of decades gone by. People in their 20s and 30s are raising families and the issues today aren’t as motivating as those of past decades to devote time to such a cause.

    I suspect those older folks have been with Sunstone through the years. I could be wrong but I doubt there’s a large influx of new geriatric readers.

    Based on what I have read of their stuff online, I guess I kind of figure if it’s predominantly senior citizens, they are the Mormon equivalent of Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary.

  20. Mom: I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being old or being Sunstonish. Some of my favorite people are old or sunstonish. I don’t even think that being over 50 is necessarily old.

    What I find surprising, interesting, and a little sad is that one of the flagship institutions of Mormon intellectualdom seems to have more or less missed an entire generation. Perhaps as Dave suggests us young-uns are simply too used to an authoritarian church and lack the fermentation (??) of our elders. (Probably true.) I just think it is a little sad that Sunstone isn’t more relevant to younger Mormons. I think something like it (or like what it has/is aim(ed) to be) — independent, middle to high brow religion/opinion magazine — would be nice.

    Also, I suspect that if they did start a blog their built in name recognition would generate a wicked lot of traffic. Even Sunstone-skeptics could read it without feeling that they were “endorsing” anything suspect. It is a way cool opprotunity.

    If, as Dan and Russell suggest, Sunstone is mainly a ministry of comfort to those who otherwise cannot find comfort, then more power to them. Best wishes…

    I still think a blog would be cool.

  21. Blog? What good would a blog do Sunstone? Excuse me while I change the ribbon on my typewriter. I have a dissertation to type.

  22. Thanks to Nathan for notifying me of this thread. We’re in the last five or six days of our magazine cycle, and I don’t have much time to respond. (It’s been eight years since grad school for me, but I’ve still managed to find a job that still calls for regular all-nighters and missed opportunities for fun when deadlines stare at us.)

    I appreciate the comments and everyone’s helpful tone. Let me say that we’re aware that our website is in need of work, but know that we’re also working on many things these comments are pointing us toward. We’ve recently received a directed donation for the purpose of hiring an analyst to look over our website and make recommendations. We’ve done that, and we’re looking forward to her reports and ideas. And I would expect we’ll have a new “look” and concept up and running sometime this year.

    In the meantime, we’ve been busy correcting errors in judgment made in the very first days of our web presence (about 3/12 years ago). For instance, we’ve removed “frames” (I only vaguely know what that means, but I know it has to do with web spiders not being able to find us effectively). We’ve had to purchase the hardware to do it (not easy when we have to raise about 200K per year to operate) for putting symposium sessions on the web. A few are available now, with more planned. William, our publisher and webmaster, has just figured out how to put video clips up (we have our first try, an interview, up there now, and we’re going to add some of the sessions from last summer’s symposium soon. Robert Kirby’s banquet speech will be a high priority.). We’ve been categorizing old symposiums in order to make searching for topics possible. We’ve been posting two selected items from each new issue (just pdf’s right now. Our few attempts early on to convert into html, etc. were just too time-consuming.) We’ve been making plans to post most of our articles online after an issue has been out a couple of years. Etc. Anyway, it all takes time and energy, and our staff of four is still trying to put out five issues of the magazine and put on 3-5 symposiums per year, as well.

    As far as sponsoring a blog goes, we’ll have to kick that around some. Thanks for the idea. We may be writing soon with questions.

    We’re certainly also aware of the “graying” issue, as are all the independent organizations. I think the comment is correct that the “cohort” that makes up most of our readers and presenters did grow up in that exciting time when there was an openness to questioning and a (naive?) belief that ultimately everyone would agree that free and frank discussion would in time be valued even by Church leaders. Colleges had professors who mentored those who wanted to try to pursue both learning and faith. It was easy for college students to find bright, mature Latter-day Saints who modeled a successful integration of mind and spirit and who would be patient with them through those very difficult first few years of inquiry when every time you turn around it seems like something you’ve hung your hat on as a rock-solid truth is in danger of completely cracking open under the gaze of serious historical inquiry or the power of this or that deconstructive tool.

    Those kinds of models have not been as easy to find for the past decade or two, and I think there definitely is a lost generation of sorts of faithful Mormon intellectuals as a result.

    Now, how can Sunstone (and the other independent organizations) appeal to that generation and the ones coming up? Know that these questions occupy many, many hours of discussion. We’ve got some things cooking that we hope will help, but I just don’t have the time today to talk about them. But know, too, that we also feel that we can’t completely change who we are. We know our base and need to honor it even as we reach out to younger folks who might be happy to know about the discussions we try to host in our magazine and at our symposiums.

    I’ve got to run, but please keep writing with ideas for us to consider. I’ll try to keep checking in on this thread (is that the correct terminology on blogs?).

    Most of all, please feel free to help change the tenor of Sunstone into something more of interest to you by proposing papers or panels for our symposiums and submitting things to the magazine! For those who’ve mentioned a sort of staleness or recycling of topics. . . . Guess what? We’ve been feeling that for years. We’re always looking for fresh voices and perspectives, especially from younger people and more conservative quarters of Mormonism.

    Thanks, again, for sharing your thoughts!

  23. One more thing. I’d like to clarify the comment about Sunstone being a ministry.

    My short lead-in to my presentation at SMPT conference actually was my thanking Brian Birch for inviting me to speak because it reminded me that at one time I had been a philosopher whereas for the past three years at Sunstone I had been feeling more like a minister. I wasn’t trying to say that Sunstone was a minstry more than a magazine.

    And it’s true. I was surprised when I took over this position that so much of my energy would be aimed at encouraging people to just “hang in there” and to not react so strongly to this or that Church action or attitude that had made the Church seem inhospitable for them at that point in their life. I’ve been blessed by the good fortune of having several friends play this role for me, helping me see past the pain of some alienation I was feeling or helping me be patient by reminding me that things may not always move as quickly as we would like, but that the overall arc has been toward the kinds of things I value and hope for (even as there is occasional retrenchment).

    So that’s it, that’s all I was trying to say. I love the sort of pastoring my job entails, but that it had been fun for the couple of weeks leading up to the conference to read and think about philosophy again.

    Sunstone as an organization is not a ministry, and I don’t think we should move in that direction. We may play that role at times for some, and I know I play that role as one among many, but I would hope no one would ever think we think we want to be an alternative church of sorts.


  24. Dan’s too smart and ambitious and positive to make excuses for Sunstone, but I think no one has yet really said how devastating 1993 was to Sunstone (and Dialogue, to a lesser extent). I was in grad school at the time, and even though I was not working on Mormon issues at all, I felt the chill blowing from 40 EST. Sunstone symposium audiences dropped precipitously, and some of the one-sidedness that you’ve all remarked on is the direct and inevitable result of Elder Oaks’ talk, and the BYU/CES attempt to improve on his words by banning all participation in anything Sunstone-related. I think some of the social cliqueishness you’ve remarked on also was intensified by that sense of being a persecuted minority within the church and a sort of circling of the wagons which is a natural (if not always wholly productive) response to perceived threats.

    I think the fact that MHA, BYU Studies, etc. also struggle for younger participants is evidence of a broader Mormon cultural realignment with evangelical Christians (instead of, say, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, who tend to value education, and with whom we had much more in common in the middle part of the 20th century) and the heightened anti-intellectualism in church discourse and (to an even greater extent) at the level of folk understanding over the last couple of decades. Wow, that was a really long sentence. Mostly I mean that defining “so-called intellectuals” as one of the major threats to the church is bound to make young, bright, committed Mormons less interested in scholarly pursuits!

  25. Kristine: I agree with what you say about Elder Oaks and the Church’s action, although I never personally felt any chill winds, but that is because I am too dumb to be a real Mormon intellectual.

    The issue of denominational alignment is interesting. In part I think it may have to do with where converts have been coming from. Also, on this front, I think that Mormon identification with evangelicals has peaked. Mormonism has become large enough to attract sustained evangelical notice, and the resulting burst of anti-Mormonism is sufficient, I think, for most Mormons to be warrier of Evangelical identification than they may have been in the past. At least I hope this is the case. Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, I think that anti-Mormonism by evangelicals will increase rather than decrease in the future. The most conservative elements of the movement are the ones that 1. hate Mormons the most; and, 2. are growing the fastest.

    No worries….

  26. I don’t know, Nate. I think anti-gay politics may keep us in bed with some strange bedfellows for a bit longer. And in some ways it won’t really matter whether we ease off of the affiliation–the fundamentalist habits of reading scriptures and approaching doctrinal questions are now quite firmly entrenched in the general church membership and in CES, which plays a significant role in training future church leaders and missionaries. Even if Eyring the Elder, Widtsoe, and Talmadge (? pick your favorite intellect-friendly apostles) were to become the First Presidency tomorrow, it would take a generation or two to get rid of the anti-intellectual culture that has grown up in the church. (Incidentally, I realize that there was always a strong strain of anti-intellectualism native to Mormonism; it’s certainly not exclusively, and maybe not even primarily, imported)

  27. “I think that Mormon identification with evangelicals has peaked. Mormonism has become large enough to attract sustained evangelical notice, and the resulting burst of anti-Mormonism is sufficient, I think, for most Mormons to be warrier of Evangelical identification than they may have been in the past. At least I hope this is the case. Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, I think that anti-Mormonism by evangelicals will increase rather than decrease in the future. The most conservative elements of the movement are the ones that 1. hate Mormons the most; and, 2. are growing the fastest.”

    Nate, I hear this all the time from my fellow intellectuals. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the data? Are you basing it on your experiences in Little Rock? I’ve lived in the South longer than you, in more conservative areas than you, and I have never once been confronted with or even encountered a single specific anti-Mormon message. (Unless you consider what seem to me to be innocent questions about polygamy to be “anti-Mormon.”) Gary Cooper has lived in the South longer than both of us put together, in an ever MORE conservative environment; what do you make of his experiences (here: )? Is there anti-Mormon material out there? Yes, tons of it, and most of it having emerged at one point or another from evangelical churches, and circulated ever since. But is evangelical anti-Mormonism actually increasing? Our bishop–a long-time Jonesboro resident and actively involved citizen–has talked about this from the pulpit several times, and he’s never suggested he thinks this to be true.

    Now, maybe the growth in anti-Mormon evangelicalism you’re talking about is in the West and Southwest; if that’s the case than I certainly don’t have any data or experiences to prove you wrong. But do you have such to support your claim?

    Of course in some ways the evangelical-Mormon divide is sharper and deeper than before; with Peterson & Co. truly challenging anti-Mormonism, in print and in person, over the last couple of decades many of its advocates have become even more hysterical and dedicated. And obviously, a higher profile church makes for a broader range of engagements. But I just have never seen anything, on an academic or a popular level, to suggest that “hatred” of Mormons is on the increase.

    Is it possible that this sort of language is, on some level, a sublimated wish for difference, a vague hope that we won’t turn out to be American/modern/fill-in-the-blank after all? I’m hardly assume to the appeal of that difference; in reference to this thread, obviously there are many reasons to desire that the church will develop (or recover) its own, independent intellectual culture (as Catholicism has to a degree) rather than be sucked into the Christian mainstream. But when I see that desire shading over into “Careful! Those Protestants will be purging us next!”, I wonder if it’s not just identity politics more than anything else.

  28. In light of this thread, I paid another visit to the Sunstone website.

    Some of the stats from the 2003 Sunstone Symposium may shed some light.

    To the question, “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the world.” Only 63% rated that 8-10 (10 indicating high level of belief).

    To the question, “I believe Joseph Smith is a prophet of God through whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ and essential teachings, priesthood keys and ordinances were restored.” 41% rated that 8-10.

    The high ratings dropped even further when the questions involved belief in the BoM, current prophet, and the plan of salvation.

    If you can’t believe in God and Jesus at even a level of 8 out of 10, if you don’t believe Joseph Smith did what is claimed, if you don’t believe in the BoM, I can’t for the life of me understand why you are pursuing Mormon intellectual studies. It certainly isn’t to gain a testimony. No one ever learned or debated themselves into one.

    So in answer to the question of Sunstone skipping a generation, I’d add this: If you are an average joe member who has a question or three about some practices or doctrines, you probably don’t want to affiliate with an organization who’s membership doesn’t have much faith in God, let alone the church.

    After what I’ve today, I stand by my earlier comparison to Sunstone members as the Mormon equivalents of 60s radicals Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman. Their message is not one of trying to understand doctrine, it seeks to divide. It strikes me that many of the members of Sunstone are the type who, if God answered every question they had today, would get up tomorrow and say “Yeah, but…”

  29. I don’t know if Renee’s description of Sunstoners is exactly fair. I have a couple of friends/acquaintances who affiliate with Sunstone and have written for their magazine in the past, and they aren’t anything like Abbie Hoffman. They are dedicated members of the Church who are using the tools they have learned in their professions to enhance an understanding of the Church and the gospel. Just because Sunstone attracts a few people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be active Mormons doesn’t mean that the organization isn’t of some worth.

  30. Renee, I’d be really careful about drawing firm conclusions based on those survey results. The survey was done at the SLC symposium, which attracts the greatest number of disaffected Mormons–they would have gotten really different results if they had surveyed the entire readership or even done the survey at the regional symposiums. Also, it was a small survey; the number of respondents was less than a couple hundred, as I recall (Nate? I can’t find my copy of this issue), which would lead to at least potentially skewed results. Also, as I recall, if you add in 7s to your 8-10 requirements above, you get drastically higher percentages answering positively to the questions you cite. Given that this is by definition a population prone to questioning and qualifying their answers, looking for caveats, etc., you probably wouldn’t get them to answer with a higher degree of certainty about whether 2 + 2 = 4 (after all, everyone who’s been near M.I.T. knows that 2+2=5, for relatively large values of 2 :) ). Also, for instance, the Book of Mormon question was quite specific about whether people believed in the *historicity* of the Book of Mormon, which is (or can be) a different question than whether one believes in it at all or values it as a devotional tool.

    In all, Renee, I think you’re drawing extreme and somewhat simplistic conclusions based on insufficient information. (But hey, welcome to the club! I think that’s what we’re doing here most of the time, anyway :) )

  31. Russell: Gee! Sublimating, eh?

    My claim was not based on my experience in the South, so any post-Confederate defensiveness is unnecessary. Rather I am basing it on a couple of things. First, the most conservative branches of Protestantism are growing the fastest both here and abroad. These are the branches most likely to produce anti-Mormonism. Second, I have heard from friends and family in both Utah and California about increased levels of Mormon baiting, e.g. the street preachers at general conference and on the Main Street plaza. Perhaps I am wrong, and given the pyschological explanation offered I am no don’t simply working out my inner identity politics anxieties. Damn my over active super-ego!

    Kristine: Perhaps you are right. My tendency is to think that intellectuals are too defensive about these sorts of things and tend to overstate the extent to which they are a beleaguered minority in a sea of fundamentalist fellow travellers. They are probably just sublimating or something.

    No doubt I live in an overly polly-annish world on these subjects, and I have been informed by more than one hardened intellectual that I will become more cynical and paranoid when I grow up. One thing to remember, I think, is that most people are not intellectuals. Intellectuals tend to self-select into intellectual circles which can give them a scewed sense of what is normal and what is “extreme anti-intellectualism.” That said, I think that there is something to what you are saying.

  32. “Post-Confederate defensiveness”–moi? Let’s not make this about the recent unpleasantness between the states, Nate.

    Re-reading my post…ok, I was perhaps a little too much on the emphatic side. My apologies. As I said, I’ve no idea what’s going on in California and Utah. Perhaps that’s where the growth you speak of is taking place (i.e., the conservative “mega-church” movement). Still, I think the experiences of Melissa and I suggest that the claim that evangelical anti-Mormonism is increasing needs to be carefully qualified, because all the evidence I’m directly aware of suggests, on the contrary, that such anti-Mormon, anti-cult paranoia is gradually being marginalized within evangelical Protestantism generally (though perhaps growing ever more hysterical for that very reason).

  33. Russell: Perhaps you are right. Neither of us has a huge amount of data from which to generalize. Fortunately that does not require silence ;->

    As for the late unpleasantness, my boss is the scion of an ancient Southern dynasty with more than a few confederate generals up the family tree. He is also a federal judge. We have a running argument about whether or not Robert E. Lee could have been prosecuted for treason under Article III…

  34. Renee, I don’t think it’s particularly fair to draw the kind of conclusions you seem to reached based on the survey data. I agree with other comments and would only add that someone choosing something below 8-10 doesn’t mean they don’t believe, as you seem to imply. It may only mean they are at a place in their life where they are seriously questioning.

    I think it’s a shame that journeying and seeking have become something we rescue people from in the Mormon faith, not something we encourage people to experience. A journey of self-discovery and trying to find what one believes is a valuable experience, IMO. Questions and doubts don’t equal lack of faith. Faith, by its very definition, implies doubt. Faith is not a perfect knowledge of things, afterall.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say the group has a majority of members who don’t “have much faith in God, let alone the Church.” Just because it may not be the same kind of faith you exhibit, doesn’t invalidate it. As Dean May once said, Sunstone’s kept far more people in the Church than its ever driven away.

  35. Concerning Renee’s comments about the survey data and the sense of Sunstone’s constituents she draws from it:

    I’ve really been helped both personally in my own faith journey and professionally as I’ve looked over the church as a whole and Sunstone’s participants in particular by the findings and insights in developmental theory. With regard to faith development, the classic study is James Fowler’s _Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning_. But I also very much like the work of people like Ken Wilber (perhaps start with _A Brief History of Everything_) and Jenny Wade (_Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness_) who also take spirituality seriously in their models.

    Anyway, the upshot from these models (for Renee’s comments) is that at a certain point in life, hardly ever before college and most often sometime in middle age, the typical and healthy developmental stage is to switch from a largely unexamined and inherited worldview to a far more individuated perspective, and a large part of this fresh examination involves demythologizing. And it takes time and energy, and it can be a very depressing and angry stage with many, many “dark nights of the soul,” and so forth. Luckily, generally in one’s forties and fifties, what emerges is a “conjuctive” stage (Fowler’s term) where one is able to re-value and appreciate again the stories and overarching myths that animated earlier stages. But it is also a stage of being alive to paradoxes, of integrating opposites, valuing ambiguity, etc. And it IS faith, even though it may not look to some like what they consider faith to be.

    The point in this, then, is to say that we need to be careful in looking at a snapshot like a survey that measures basic faith positions for it will be a picture of folks all along the spectrum from the unexamined to the “in the middle of the dark night” to a position much like that articulated beautifully by Bill Bradshaw (BYU professor) a couple of issues of Sunstone ago: “I now find myself in the very paradoxical state of being less sure about a whole lot of things but having greater faith. I used to view the statement, ‘Have faith in Christ,’ as. . . You’d better have faith or else. Now I see it as a simipler description of the way things are, the way this life works.”

    We’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt that today’s position on an issue is not a final position. Life moves us along different paths and through different stages, and I tend to trust that for those who are truly in the wrestle, a blessing of deep, abiding faith and trust really does lie at the end.


  36. I actually thought that one of the more interesting comments on the survey was the one by the person who was getting tired of the constant emphasis on the “Club of Excommunicants,” which I assume referred Toscano, et al.

    I thought that it was interesting that Dan mentioned that “we also feel that we can’t completely change who we are. We know our base and need to honor it.” I am curious as to what exactly this means. Who is the Sunstone base? Was he making a statement about age, ideology, or economics.

    A final point: I am curious about the economics of Sunstone. To what extent is it financed by subscriptions, to what extent is it financed by symposia related revenue, and to what extent is it financed by donations? How are the donors broken up? Are there a couple of large donors? Lots of small donors? What is their ideological make up? Ultimately, I am curious if Sunstone is in the thrall of a certain recycling because of economic constraints. Do the vital donors feel (and require) a sense of familiarity that precludes change?

  37. Sunstone has hundreds of donors, and a handful of larger donors. I coordinate the symposiums and I have never, ever received a phone call from a donor saying “Do such and such or I’m pulling out.” I don’t believe Dan ever has either. There is also no kind of “unspoken agreement” that we’ll do certain things for our donors. People donate to Sunstone because they believe in an “open forum” and we do the best we can to honor that. Obviously, open forum doesn’t equal an open microphone.

    People continue to donate to Sunstone even if they hear a session that bothers them, or that they don’t agree with. They do so because they recognize that the alternative – no Sunstone, is a lot worse than a handful of sessions that might get under ones skin.

    As for the Sunstone base, I can’t speak to what Dan meant and will let him offer his own comments. But we get it from both sides – comments that we only cater to the radicals and the disaffected members of Sunstone, that we need to appeal to more “faithful” people, and we also hear that we are obviously worried about offending the Brethren, that we’re not hard-hitting enough, that we’re only catering to the faithful. I take that as a sign we’re at least doing something right, but perhaps we’re not. Thoughts?

  38. I’d love to see a thread about Ensign similar to this thread about Sunstone. While Ensign obviously doesn’t have much of a marketing problem, as people feel compelled to buy it and are encouraged to do so from the pulpit, it is certainly the most “gray”, repetitive and boring magazine that I have ever subscribed to. Not a lot of meaty scholarly or historical articles are published in it. Not a lot of articles that feel like they are written by and about real human beings rather than composites. As more and more Mormons get involved in blogs like this one, and message boards such as the Mormon mothers board on ivillage, and email groups such as the Mormon writers groups, and even Meridian, which addresses current events and movies and such, the Ensign is going to become even more irrelevant. Maybe it will be phased out, and people will just go to every month to print out the HT/VT message.

  39. John: I wasn’t suggesting that there was some sort of sinister cabal of donors. I have simply read a LOT of law and economics, so I like to think about things in terms of institutional incentives and economic forces. I am a little skeptical, however, in that I don’t know of ANY other non-profit that doesn’t operate with at least one eye on the donor base. It seems like it is that nature of the beast.

  40. I know you weren’t implying that Nate, and my apologies if I came across a bit harsh.

    I think you put it quite well, that we do keep an eye on our donor base. But that’s probably the extent of it. I suppose it’s hard to put our attitudes and feelings into words that might make sense. Yes, we’re aware of our base, but I don’t recall a signle conversation since I’ve worked for Sunstone that says, “Hey, we can’t do this or that because it will offend so and so and we don’t want to do that!” On the other hand, we are aware of our own survival and that donors are essential to keeping Sunstone alive. I suppose we are somewhere in between those realities.

  41. Mind you, if there WAS a sinister cabal of donors it would make a great story! You might want to invent one. As a fund raising tool, you understand, e.g. Give us money to save us from the sinister cabal of donors…

    See the possibilities? ;->

  42. Hats off to Renee.

    I disagree with Wendy. The Ensign is by no means a masterpiece, but it is faithful and I do get as much out of it as I do from, say, this blog.

    In re Nate’s Mormon/evangelical convergence: I actually think the street protests, etc., are a symptom of a growing convergence. As we and other Christians find ourselves allied on many issues, some of those other Christians are going to struggle harder to separate themselves, true, but it’s going to be the more extreme elements who will in turn cause the rest of the Christian community to support us publicly and thus increase the convergence.

Comments are closed.