Julie Smith wrote a stimulating post last week, “A Rhetoric of Indirection,” in which she argues that the Church is undergoing a counterproductive cultural shift in homiletic emphasis from personal discipleship to strong nuclear families. When she joined the church in the 90s, she writes, “there was a focus on individual righteousness–personal scripture study, prayer, personal worthiness, temple attendance, etc. Now when I hear those things, they are usually couched in or around The Family.” While official discourse did address families 25 years ago, she concedes, it was a secondary concern rather than a direct focus. She concludes by lamenting that the present emphasis on families is distorting our culture and teachings, “leading us to focus on precisely the wrong things, to the detriment of individuals and families.”
Julie’s post was hugely appreciated by our readership, and I understand why. I’m very sympathetic to — more than sympathetic, deeply invested in — the difficult position of singles, gays, childless couples and members in non-traditional family situations, and I am troubled that teachings on the importance of families leaves them spiritually under-nourished. I consider this to be a question of pressing concern for church leaders.
Because I enjoy conversation with Julie, and because I think it’s important and fun for social conservatives and progressives to talk, I’d like to respond to her post on two points, one small and one fundamental. First, I’m skeptical of the implied historical narrative, in which the Church has swung sharply toward an emphasis on family. Rather, I believe the Church has reacted sharply and conservatively to each successive cultural shock to traditional conjugal culture beginning in the 60s, but has linguistically coded each reaction rather differently. The 60s brought trouble for traditional forms of patriarchal authority through its emboldened, insurgent youth culture and the beginnings of the revolution in divorce law, and the church responded with a neo-Victorian emphasis on “the home” as the site of a benevolent patriarchy and “morality” as a code of traditional sexual ethics. The 70s and 80s brought the challenges of feminism and contraception, and the church responded with a new emphasis on “mothers” and “multiply and replenish.” As working mothers normalized in the 90s, the emphasis shifted to the less-prescriptive — but still normative — language of “gender roles.” The major challenge to traditional conjugal culture in the new century is, of course, the restructuring of marriage to exclude gender as an organizing principle, embodied in the legalization of gay marriage, and the church has responded strongly with an official emphasis on heterosexual family formation, “The Family,” as Julie sardonically calls it.
On my account, then, this latest salvo is another in a series of the Church’s attempted defenses against changing family norms in American society, its primary host. Have these ideological efforts succeeded? It’s hard to say. Certainly Mormon family culture has shifted to accommodate changing American norms in virtually every category, sometimes dramatically. Yet Mormons are still more likely to marry, remain married, and raise children at above-replacement rate than are comparable demographic groups. It appears that official discourse has “succeeded” in some important respects, then. In my view, the church’s demographic vigor is indispensable to carrying out its mission — including its important missions to bless individuals and foster individual righteousness. As world trends demonstrate, demography is a delicate and fickle business. Once marriage and birthrates collapse, there’s no easy way to deliberately revive them.
This is largely beside the point of Julie’s post, of course. Whether or not there has been a significant historical shift, the question is not whether official discourse “succeeds” in shaping LDS norms of family formation. The urgent question Julie raises is at what cost? What does it matter that we are strengthening families if we are damaging individuals? After all, aren’t families made of individuals? How can we make strong families out of damaged individuals?
This question points to a fundamental philosophical difference between social conservatism (at least my brand of it) and progressivism. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: what comes first, the family or the individual? Which is the cause, which the effect? Which is prior, which is product? Do individuals make families, or do families make individuals?
(The answer, quite obviously, lies in a thicket of complicated psychological and sociological feedback loops. One’s family of origin affects one’s character and personality, and one’s character and personality in turn affect the nature of one’s marriage and family. That’s clearly the case. But meaningful analysis requires some level of reduction, so we naturally and rightly try to tease out ultimate causation.)
Mormon teachings provide no definitive answer. Joseph’s inventive sacred anthropology offers two different accounts of the origin of the soul, one in which the individual is the fundamental ground of identity and sociality arises from prior individuals (our belief in eternally-existing intelligences), and one in which the conjugal union is the fundamental ground and individual identity arises as the fruit of that communion (our belief in the Heavenly Couple and spirit birth). It is the infuriating genius of Mormonism that both of these fundamentally incompatible accounts happily co-exist in our teachings without apparent priority.
Without clear dogmatic direction, then, we tend to fall back on our intuition to answer the question of whether individuals or social forms are ultimately causal. Julie’s post implies the former: individuals are the basic social unit, and families are made up of collections of individuals. The strength of the individual thus influences the success of the family form more than the other way round. It makes sense, then, for church leaders to focus primarily on individual righteousness and personal flourishing, trusting that successful families will arise from strong individuals and, even when an individual does not find herself in a family, she will flourish anyway in her strong state.
My intuition tells me, in no uncertain terms, that the causal arrow goes the other direction. Individuals are not given, they are made — made by the ideological, social, and, yes, familial forms into which they are born, always in a complex duet with biological and neural forces. Please give me credit for not espousing a naive deterministic constructivism here: YES, of course agency and subjectivity can and do emerge from social and biological givens, and they immediately turn around to alter and shape those givens. But that’s the point: the individual emerges, arises from a prior social and material context. It’s the context that is fundamentally causal. Families make individuals, not the other way round. There’s a narrow sense in which this is true — nuclear families, mothers and fathers and siblings, fundamentally shape the subjectivity of the children they rear — and there’s a larger sense, as well. Society makes individuals more inexorably than individuals make society. Thus, perhaps, it makes sense to focus homiletic efforts first on the social context that gives rise to individuals, before turning our attention to the existing individuals that, to a large extent, have already been made.
Of course, my intuitions could be dead wrong. I absolutely acknowledge that there is something deeply foreign to Mormonism in the kind of critical anti-humanism that speaks to me so strongly. Yet I also believe there is a strand of thought in Mormonism that recognizes and privileges social forms as the primary object of the cosmic telos of salvation, and this has been a constant theme in my writing.
In the end, I lack the courage of my convictions. I cower from hard decisions, and I am squeamish about blood. I can’t quite bring myself to wholeheartedly endorse The Family, even though that’s where my basic worldview points, when I know it will alienate (or worse) people I love. So I quibble from the sidelines. And try to keep on loving the people given to me in my imperfect way.