Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Family

Family is very important in the Mormon church. From a doctrinal standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. The essence of LDS theology is the belief that God is our Eternal Father, and that the purpose of this life is to prove ourselves worthy to become like him. Celestial marriage (what that means depends on which prophet you ask) is considered indispensable for salvation because the function of immortality--that is, being like God--is to create more worlds and populate them with one's spiritual offspring. (Naturally this necessitates polygamy in the Celestial Kingdom, but that is another issue entirely.) Since the purpose of this life is for all of Elohim's children to gain bodies and be tested for worthiness, the church teaches that everyone has the responsibility to assist in this plan by bringing as many spirits as possible into the world. That is the ostensible reason why Mormon families tend to be rather large, and why Mormons are encouraged to marry early and to have children as soon as possible after marriage. Many Mormons also believe that their families were constituted in the preexistence and that there are certain spirits who were meant to be in their families. It's common for members, especially women, to share stories of thinking at one point that they were done having children, but later realizing that there was still one or more spirits waiting to be a part of their family.

Because the family is so central to the LDS view of the very meaning of existence, the church places a great deal of emphasis on it. In 1995, the church issued a Proclamation on the Family that outlines the church's beliefs about the family and its role in this life and the next. Among other things, the Proclamation emphasizes traditional gender roles and sexual mores, as well as insisting that "God's commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force." 

In recent years, the church has been trying to enhance its image as a "family" church. It has always been adamantly opposed to homosexuality and gay marriage, and it has received a lot of press for this since its involvement in Prop 8. Nary a conference goes by without a veiled reference to "the family" being under attack. The current threat is the gay rights movement, but historically the church has also identified feminism and interracial marriage as threats to the family. 

All this leads one to ask what exactly the LDS church means when they talk about "the family" When they state from the pulpit that "the family" is "under attack," what do they mean? Personally, I find it rather absurd when the church says that marriage and family are under attack when in fact they are actively trying to deny marriage and family to LGBT people. It is obvious that not all families are created equal in the church's eyes--gay parents, single parents, and working mothers are all considered threats to their ideal. 

"Family" is a loaded word, and not just in the LDS church. Politics is peppered with references to "family values" and such. That's not surprising--humans are social creatures by nature, and one's family is one's first social network and plays a vital role in human development. We tend to have strong emotions about our families as a result. This makes "family," with all its emotional baggage, an ideal word for manipulation. A common technique that coercive organizations use is thought-stopping. One thought-stopping technique is to use loaded language that elicits knee-jerk responses rather than promoting rational discourse. "Family" in Mormon-speak is one of these words. It means more to a Mormon than the dictionary definitions that can include a family with a married heterosexual couple and their children as well as a childless married couple or a family with gay parents. Family for Mormons is not just a group of people who are joined together by love and commitment; it is also a set of ideas. I outline some of these below.

  1. Mormons believe that the family was intended to be an eternal unit, and in order for this to happen one has to have certain ordinances performed in LDS temples. Only members can have these ordinances performed, and this means that the whole family must be Mormon. It means that if you are a member and single, you should only marry a member (and the church uses scare tactics and manipulation to convince people to do this). It means that if you are a convert, then you should convert your family as well. And it means that your most important priority in raising your children will be to keep them in the church. 
  2. Because Mormons see the family as the instrument that executes God's plan, they believe that they have an obligation to marry early and to have many children starting as early as possible. I discussed this and the damage it causes in my previous blog post
  3. Biologically speaking, only a male and a female can have children, and the LDS church makes much of this fact. Because having children is so central to their conception of existence--God's spirit children must be given bodies--the church defines family by these biological limitations. This is further fueled by the fact that the church subscribes to a very rigid view of gender and gender roles, insisting that children need both male and female parents. 
  4. Because women who work are likely to have children later and to have fewer of them, the LDS church emphasizes a traditional family model with a working father and a stay-at-home mother. As many of my previous posts have indicated, I have serious beef with the role that this creates for women. There is more to a woman than her reproductive capacity, and her choices in life should not be circumscribed by that. 
In sum, "the family" as defined by the church is in fact shorthand for a Mormon, heterosexual, patriarchal, traditional family unit. Such a narrow definition, with its emphasis on superficial and non-universal criteria, causes more important considerations to take a backseat. The church does not like a definition of marriage or family based on mutual love and commitment because such a definition is not exclusive to heterosexuals. Such a clinical focus on the family as an offspring-producing unit is ultimately harmful to the family as an instrument of human association and affection. Gay couples cannot marry, foster children are denied stable homes, young adults are pressured into early and unwise marriages, and young married couples are pressured to have children when whey may not be able to afford them and may not even want them. It is ironic that a loaded word that relies on legitimate emotions about family and its meaning actually undermines those very emotions in order to reduce the family to a coercive tool. I find this to be deeply disturbing. I love my own family very much, and the fact that the church essentially reduces it to a political tool is very bothersome to me--and I am a child of heterosexual parents in a church-sanctioned marriage. How much more does that undermining of what "family" really means apply to people whose families do not fit the church's political ideal, but are families nonetheless?


  1. Wow, I couldn't have said it better myself.
    If you don't mind, I'm going add a link to this post on my own blog.

  2. now that you mention it, i've seen far more families come "under attack" because they refuse to accept their gay child unconditionally. on most other issues (drugs, pregnancy) i've mostly seen families rally together. sounds like this "attack" comes BECAUSE of what the church teaches. the irony....