We are all familiar with the tired formulation of “I don’t have anything against x. Some of my best friends are x.” For my purposes these two sentences fail more than average. While some of my best friends do attend Salt Lake Sunstone (enjoying themselves as I type, actually), I apparently do have something against it.
First let’s be clear, as usual, there looks to be some high quality presentations this year. And the digital archives of yesteryear’s Sunstones hold some magnificent gems (like Sam Taylor and Ron Esplin discussing the relationship of Brigham Young and John Taylor, or Kathleen Flake riffing on the JST). At its finest, Sunstone SLC features presentations with lasting importance.
Besides the interesting panels, it is also my impression that Sunstone is a place where people disaffected with Mormonism in some way can gather and be angsty together.  If it were a strictly scholarly conference, it wouldn’t particularly matter what the composition of attendees was. But Sunstone isn’t necessarily about history, anthropology, sociology, scripture studies, or any other discipline. As I understand it, Sunstone is about letting people talk about whatever interests them with respect to the Mormon tradition, including how they choose to currently envision their religion. This is coupled with a tradition among many that views the event as a public therapy session.
Looking at this year’s program, I’m actually pretty surprised. As I said, there are many presentations that look great; but a significant portion also looks like it was planned in 1994. I understand that Sunstone is in the midst of an existential crisis. But here is a hint: if you want more legitimacy among more Mormons, why would you think it would be a good idea to host a panel on how premarital sex is great thing for female single twenty-somethings? If you don’t want more legitimacy, well, that is another matter completely. I am also guessing that Sonja Johnson is probably not going to be a great “Mormon Feminist role model.” 
I am a bit biased, it is true. I prefer studies of spiritualism not promotions of it. I also tend to like my devotionals to use as texts traditional devotional literature, not things like The Sacrament of doubt. I think topics like female ritual healing should be the subject of rigorous scholarship, not a segue for a discussion of modern new age homeopathic evangelism.
I tend to not care about people’s personal heterodoxies. If people want to set up a website where they can wax effulgent, by all means, wax on. But when you have one opportunity a year to be host and define what you are to the broader Mormon community, the religion-makers, antagonists, whiners, and loop-de-loos ruin your possibilities, and unfortunately taint, in the minds of many, the real scholarship done.
- I once asked a prominent non-Mormon scholar if s/he attended Sunstone. This person responded with a simple “no,” indicating that it was too full of angst.
- There are many folks where I live that remember her chaining herself to the temple gates. Good times.