Finding Mormon freethinkers was not an easy thing to do until I began reading Sunstone magazine, the bad boy of the Mormon world.
I had barely heard of the publication (which publishes between four and six times a year) until traveling to Salt Lake City in 2006. There, someone handed me a copy of Sunstone, named after a sun image on a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) temple in Nauvoo, Ill.
Sunstone’s tongue-in-cheek essays range from blacks and the Mormon priesthood, Mormons and first-time sex (titled “When Virgins Collide”), reviews of a new film about Joseph Smith, and divorce, spouse abuse and child abuse in the church. I’d call it the Christianity Today of the Mormon world.
It was founded 35 years ago by LDS graduate students at secular universities who wanted to start a scholarly journal. The publication then morphed into an examination and critique of Mormon culture.
Sunstone’s sometimes irreverent way of dealing with church teachings got the cold shoulder from the church hierarchy especially from 1989 to 1993, which cut into subscriptions a bit. The magazine has rallied in recent years but still remains fairly tiny at 2,500 circulation.
When some members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the top leaders of the LDS church) showed up at The Washington Times’ editorial offices last year, I told them that my sum total knowledge of Mormon theology was the book “Mormonism for Dummies” and Sunstone magazine. They looked horrified.
“Sunstone is hardly representative of Mormon thought,” one apostle told me.
When I repeated this anecdote to Carol Quist, Sunstone’s office manager and associate editor, she responded: “Well, some of them subscribe.”
When they do, they get poetry, fiction, cartoons and news clips along with offbeat essays such as “Cross-Dressing and the LDS Church.”
“We take Mormonism seriously,” Stephen Carter, Sunstone’s new editor, told me, “but we still like to have fun.”
Sunstone is a view into an alternate world where Mormon doctrines are taken seriously. Beliefs - such as a Mother God or the pre-existence of the human soul before birth in a “pre-mortal world” - are woven into the narrative as fact.
One recent essay, “How the Prayers Ran Dry,” talked about a common human bewilderment about God and faith that any believer in God could sympathize with. The same issue had a lively discussion on how or whether the church should have pushed California’s Proposition 8, which said marriage is only between one man and one woman.
“The great problem in Mormon culture is the tension between intellectualism and faith,” said Matt Bowman, a graduate student in American religious history at Georgetown University. “Sunstone provides a forum where people can combine the two.”
He organized a Sunstone symposium in January at Marymount University in Arlington that drew 120 people. Topics ranged from “an LDS rationale for a humane immigration policy” to Mormon singles.
“We help people feel they are not alone if they are not in total lock step with the church and its ideology,” Mary Ellen Robertson, Sunstone’s outreach director, told me. “People would never otherwise know there are folks who loathe the idea of Mitt Romney in the White House or who disagree with the church on gay marriage.”