By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret Morning News
Whatever software-coding challenges John Dehlin has tackled in
the past may look a little less daunting once he tackles his newest
John Dehlin, new executive director of Sunstone, says he hopes to make
the organization more "faith-affirming." (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
John Dehlin, new executive director of Sunstone, says he hopes to make
the organization more "faith-affirming."
As the new executive director of Sunstone — a magazine and
scholarly forum devoted to examining the more controversial aspects of
the LDS Church and its history — Dehlin will be breaking new
philosophical ground in his stated goal to make the organization more
It remains to be seen how some of the forum's longtime devotees
will embrace that new direction. The annual Sunstone Symposium begins
Wednesday at the Salt Lake Sheraton City Centre.
Dehlin, who telecommutes from Logan to Boston as OpenCourse Ware
Consortium director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
doesn't shy away from acknowledging Sunstone's longtime reputation as
a melting pot not only for scholarly LDS discussion, but often for
He and the forum's leadership team are reframing the way they
will approach Sunstone's motto, "faith seeking understanding," though
"that's what it has always meant to people who have been a part of
"I understand some people are scared because of fireworks of the
past," he said. So the new vision statement says the group will be "an
independent forum for open, thoughtful and constructive discussion of
all things Mormon."
"Independent means we're not apologetic and we're not anti
(LDS)," he said. "We lean toward faith and being pro-Mormon, but we
want to create a neutral ground where people can ask questions.
"People need to find their own way in their faith journey. If
someone is struggling with the First Vision story, we don't just say,
'Well, you need to simply believe it.' There are a certain number of
people who need a neutral voice to allow them the freedom to make
The history of the LDS Church — and the peculiarities of its
claims regarding the nature of God and the origin of new and unique
scriptural texts — has been fodder for critics since church founder
Joseph Smith organized the faith in 1830. Members of The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints profess knowledge of spiritual
truths based on faith in the claims Smith made about the church's
divine origin as a "restoration" of true Christianity.
But some who were born into the faith or consider themselves
believers are troubled by either historical episodes or doctrines that
continue to generate media attention, particularly with Mitt Romney's
Dehlin said the word "open" in Sunstone's new vision statement
"means we can discuss things openly people can't discuss elsewhere."
Whatever the questions, "I need a safe place where I can talk to
people like me and know they won't judge me," Dehlin said of Sunstone
"Faithful means we're trying to deal with history and facts,
finding the best of academia so opinions are informed rather than
He believes Sunstone has a larger role to play among Latter-day
Saints who are not necessarily disaffected but who encounter
information about the faith that they didn't learn from the church's
formal education programs.
The belief comes from his own experience. Called to be a
seminary teacher five years ago while working at Microsoft, Dehlin had
gone through all the church's programs for youths and had served an
LDS mission. But when he began studying the faith in order to teach
his students, he came across aspects as an active member in his early
30s that he'd never known before.
"I had no idea Joseph Smith had multiple wives, that he
translated the Book of Mormon by putting a peep stone in a hat, or
that the practice of polygamy was continued unofficially in the church
for several years after the Manifesto.
"The immediate reaction was to say 'I've been deceived, they've
been hiding this stuff because it's embarrassing.' The whole framework
of what I believed was challenged by a radical different reality."
When he approached people in his ward to discuss the issues that
troubled him, he learned quickly that "you can't bring those topics
up." His bishop "wasn't comfortable and didn't know about it."
Then he went to the Internet but found the information there was
overwhelmingly anti-Mormon. He realized immersing himself in those
sites was "a fast path out of the church. They're all about anger and
bitterness and misrepresentation."
Another alternative was apologetic forums, like FAIR or FARMS at
Brigham Young University. While he respects those entities and
understands their role, "there is a group of people who find the way
apologetics are done not only is not helpful but in many ways it
accelerates their disaffection from the church," he said.
It was finally at Sunstone that he found a physical community he
could interact with and ask questions of. That community was, he
acknowledged, a less strident one that many Latter-day Saints became
jaded about in the early 1990s when six of Sunstone's most outspoken
authors and writers were excommunicated from the LDS Church.
Shortly afterward, top church leaders warned their members to
avoid alternative forums for discussion of history and doctrine, and
the faculty at Brigham Young University was particularly cautioned to
At that point, membership in Sunstone dropped between 50 and 75
percent, Dehlin said. For several years afterward, discussions within
the forum "became a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the conservatives
no longer feel comfortable engaging, the liberal voices become more
While he understands why the forum gained an unsavory reputation
among many church members and leaders, Dehlin credits former executive
director Dan Wotherspoon for working hard in in recent years to
"moderate the voices, to be responsible and to become a
faith-promoting institution again."
In that regard, he thinks the forum continues to get a bad rap.
"People perceive it much different than how it's being done."
So he's determined to get the word out.
"We're pro-LDS. We're not trying to compete with or tear down
the church or discredit it or tell them it's a bad place to be. There
are things the church can do well, but they will never offer a class
on early folk magic and Mormonism and why that shouldn't want to make
you leave the church."
Going forward, the forum will look to not only retain longtime
participants — most of whom are 40 and older — but seek out ways to
attract a younger, broader membership base. Dehlin hopes to offer
magazine articles, podcast interviews, video interviews and even
multimedia projects on Sunstone's Web site that draw people who are
struggling in with contemporary issues like addiction, their status in
the church and lifestyle questions.
"I wouldn't be getting involved if I felt Sunstone's mission was
to take away from the church in any way or to erode or take away from
people's faith. We want people to feel good about their faith and
convictions, to strengthen the level of their happiness and
productivity in the church."
As for troubling historical or doctrinal questions, he sees
Sunstone as a forum for some — "certainly not everyone" — to delve
into a background examination in a way they can't do at church on
As for the "faith-affirming" direction, a discussion of the
forum's reputation has been ongoing between Dehlin and board members.
"We're not talking about it like it's all messed up and we need
to make big changes to fix it. Rather, there's a new generation of
people who have needs and wants. We've served current customer base
well, but there are new things we can do to reach out to a new and