Family and individual: the chicken or the egg?

UnknownJulie 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.

42 comments for “Family and individual: the chicken or the egg?

  1. ji
    December 8, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Certainly, individuals form families; and certainly, families help shape individuals. I want to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the church that bears His name, is for the saving of individual persons. As an added bonus, the church offers sealing ordinances to its members and variously for their dead. Rightfully so, the church wants to protect and strengthen families. To me, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the Church of Eternal Families of Latter-day Saints — and Jesus came to save individuals.

    Even so, I want to support the church’s strong stand on family values, and protecting and strengthening the family. I want the church to encourage men and women to form families. I also want all persons of faith who don’t fit a certain model, as individuals, to have a place in the church.

    I think any church leader, if asked in a personal conversation, would agree with me. However, I am mindful of the reasons for concern. Some statements, and some curriculum decisions, are troubling in isolation. The cumulative weight of these “in isolation” happenings is causing concern to some. I’m sympathetic to that concern.

  2. Julie M. Smith
    December 8, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    I’m honored that you’d engage my post so seriously. Thank you.

    That said, I think you misread me in a really fundamental way: I’m not using “The Family” sardonically. If it seemed that way, it was a failure on my part to communicate well, although in my defense, I did say in my post that “To be clear: I am not anti-The Family. I have three levels of deep concern about the family” and I think we share those concerns. Which is why I can’t agree with the framing of your post that I’m advocating privileging individuals over the family. I’m not. One of the main points of my post (which, again, if it didn’t convey, is my fault) is that the emphasis on The Family harms (traditional) families. You reference “the difficult position of singles, gays, childless couples and members in non-traditional family situations” as if they were the primary concern of my post, but they aren’t. Not that I’m *not* concerned with those folks, of course, but I am mostly concerned here with the effect that The Family rhetoric has on families. For example, let’s look at the Elder Bednar quote I use in my post:

    “The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to make available the Priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and a woman and their children to be sealed together and be happy at home. Period, exclamation point, end of sentence, that’s it.”

    I’m temple-married with children at home. We have all of the priesthood authority and ordinances and covenants that we should have at this point in our lives. We’re happy at home. On a strict reading of his statement, the church and the gospel have nothing more to offer us. We’re done. I don’t think this is what Elder Bednar meant, of course, but it is the unfortunate implication of this kind of rhetoric, especially when compared to the three- (later, four-) fold mission of the church, which made clear what function the church should have in our lives. We need, as a family, to perfect the saints, redeem the dead, preach the gospel, and care for the poor.

    I like your paragraph tracing the church’s reaction to the various family-related changes of the last 50 years. But I think it rather proves my point: there was no Proclamation on The Home or Proclamation on Birth Control; there was no policy prohibiting baptizing the children of working mothers or cohabitating heterosexuals; there were no global changes to the CES curriculum offering a class on The Home or Morality in place of the Book of Mormon. Recent rhetoric reflects, as you note, a response to social changes just as previous rhetoric did, but I think it is unprecedented in scope and intensity and nature. It’s one thing to get a conference talk or two about working mothers; it’s another thing entirely to prohibit baptisms of children with same-sex parents.

    I chose the title “A Rhetoric of Indirection” and the swimmer metaphor in order to emphasize that the main concern of my post is how an overemphasis on The Family harms families; the implication is that I approve of a rhetoric of indirection about families, implicitly acknowledging the priority of families; the implication is that I approve of attractive swimmers’ bodies, implicitly acknowledging the importance of thriving families. Of course I agree that much of the rhetoric about The Family harms people in less-than-ideal situations, and perhaps they suffer the worst harm from The Family rhetoric, but they aren’t the point of my post; the thrust of my post is about how the rhetoric harms families.

    I spend about half of the post criticizing the seminary evaluation and maybe I could have made my point more clearly, but the idea there was that the rhetoric about The Family (especially when it includes an unsustainable narrative about the consistency of prophetic teachings) leads to faith crises which make it much less likely that people will raise their own families in the church. I end that paragraph with the concern that “This seminary assessment is but one example of many of how our focus on The Family is leading us to focus on precisely the wrong things, to the detriment of individuals and families.” Note the last two words.

    Well, any post with a Dr. Seuss book in it is a win in my book, even if I think you have misread me. I fully agree with you that it is fun and important for progressives and conservatives to talk. Thank you for engaging me.

  3. Martin James
    December 8, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    “Once marriage and birthrates collapse, there’s no easy way to deliberately revive them.”

    I think there are ways to deliberately revive them for a couple, say, make more babies? There just not ways to revive them for others. Evolution will assist those that either deliberately or because of a lack of deliberation revive them.

    ” Families make individuals, not the other way round.”

    It is not clear that parenting changes the child more than the child changes the parents. In terms of language and imitative behavior the parent may change the child, but the feelings a parent has for a child and that child’s individuality also changes the parental behavior. A simple example might be that having more boys makes a man less likely to get divorced. Causality is a slippery concept.

    In the social world you mention, individuals spend significant time away from their family members producing additional individuation. I think it increasingly rare in current social circumstances to interact with or evaluate a family as a family rather than as a collection of individuals. Almost all socialization individuates both in the family and the larger social world. Inheritance, taxes. naming and residence are among the few remaining collective indicators socially of family.

    But to me the most fundamental reason that the individual is primary is that not matter how close people are consciousness and sensation have individual aspects. Without individuals there are no families but there are individuals with no family.

  4. Martin James
    December 8, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    I’m interested in how you think families created the trend toward smaller families. In other words, were families the primary driver in the trend to smaller families? Did families intentionally or unintentionally transmit that trend?

  5. Rosalynde
    December 8, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    Julie, thanks for your response. I appreciate the clarification, as I think I had generally misread your tone for The Capitalized Family. (But why capitalize, if not to convey a layer of irony?)

    I am happy to concede the question of whether and how the present moment represents an historical intensification in the church’s strategy — it could be, as you suggest, or it may level out. We’ll probably have to wait another ten years before we see.

    I think you were clear in the original post that you are supportive of strengthening families, and I should have summarized your point better. I don’t sense that you (and others like you) necessarily privilege individuals over families in some kind of rugged-individualistic way. But I do think there is a meaningful difference in our underlying models of individual- and family-formation. I think you make the point when you write, “I feel that the church I joined was one where the swimmers ate carefully and exercised hard in order to win their races. The by-product of that was nice-looking bodies, by which I mean thriving families.” On other words, thriving families are a natural byproduct of righteous individuals. For me, that fundamental causal arrow is reversed (with all the caveats about complexity and mutual interaction). The aim of the post was largely to draw out the conceptual distinction and suggest that it might explain how conservatives and progressives view the issues differently.

  6. Rosalynde
    December 8, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Martin, I think demographers believe they have a pretty good grasp on when and how birthrates decline, and it has to do with the opportunity cost of childbearing for women. That is, it’s largely a structural phenomenon that can be accelerated or slowed at the margins by things like religious teachings. (Maybe demographers are wrong, but I don’t really have a better explanation.) Once the demographic transition is underway, it’s reinforced socially in all sorts of ways — including, sure, social influence from other families. Is that what you’re getting at?

  7. Karla
    December 8, 2015 at 11:02 pm

    I can see how our activity in the church has been good for our (my husband and my) family, and I can see ways in which it has been harmful. One thing our life-long activity has done is teach me that my family is even more important than the church, and if it comes to choosing between them, I will chose my family. In that way, I suppose, the church has succeeded. Ironic, ain’t it?

  8. Julie M. Smith
    December 9, 2015 at 7:29 am

    “(But why capitalize, if not to convey a layer of irony?)”

    (1) To quickly summarize the constellation of rhetoric and practices which the church has adopted regarding families in the last 15 or so years.

    (2) To reflect an intonation that I think I hear from speakers sometimes, where it sounds capitalized and therefore borders on idolatry in my mind.

    (3) To be able to make easy distinctions between the rhetoric/policies and real families, as in my comment above: “I am mostly concerned here with the effect that The Family rhetoric has on families.” That is, to indicate that they are *not* the same thing.

  9. Martin James
    December 9, 2015 at 10:24 am


    The demographers have something of a handle on how birth rates decline, but they were only guessing by calling it a “transition”. They mainly assumed that it would return smoothly to replacement rates. There is not good empirical justification for this. Returning to replacement is one possibility, ceasing to exist is another and returning to high fertility is another still. Biologically speaking, individuals rather than families experience mutations. Sexual selection operates at the level of individuals and so does sexual reproduction. The egg is fundamentally different from the chickens in a way that is an individual phenomenon. This is not to say that we are not products of families both by nature and by nurture but the demographic transition creates tremendous competitive opportunities for those that reproduce at higher rates. No one knows how this will play out, but basically those least subject to the opportunity cost of children will be the beings of the future for however long that future lasts.
    It is very hard to reason about this because we do not have a good theory relating biology to social beliefs or individual choice. Most physical theories would say free will doesn’t exist but no one really knows what this even means.
    My main point is that beliefs differ substantially within families and that families are not that effective in replicating belief systems and social practices without substantial variation.

  10. J Town
    December 9, 2015 at 11:02 am

    I keep seeing this thought of idolatry as it relates to the family. Can you elucidate? It’s frankly baffling to me.

  11. J Town
    December 9, 2015 at 11:03 am

    That was intended as reply to Julie’s comment, sorry for not being clear.

  12. Julie M. Smith
    December 9, 2015 at 11:09 am

    J Town, I’m using “idolatry” to mean anything one puts before God. As I said in the original post, “It often feels in church settings as if The Family is more important–more emphasized, more loved, more fussed over, more worshiped–than God or Jesus Christ.”

    Any time we prioritize The Family over God, I think we are guilty of idolatry.

  13. Rosalynde Welch
    December 9, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Julie, thanks for your 8., that helps me understand your intention better. I do think that, whether or not you intend it, an element of irony/mockery will inevitably be conveyed on a first reading of the capitalization device.

    If your overall point in the original post is that rhetorical emphasis on families will actually harm Mormon family formation and family stability, or even harm married Mormons’ spiritual progression, then I am simply unpersuaded. I don’t think any serious interpretation of the rhetoric can conclude that once a person is married, the gospel ceases to be relevant. I am sympathetic to the idea that leaders only have so much discursive bandwidth, and if they spend most of it on family then there is less available for other important topics, but I don’t see that tradeoff — which is a ongoing issue for any topic — as rising to level of active harm.

    I have no doubt that the overwhelming rhetorical emphasis on family *will* acutely annoy or bore many members of families — myself included!

  14. Rosalynde Welch
    December 9, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Karla, thanks for your interesting comment. I fully agree that the church’s vibrant culture of family has several ironic effects — as you point out, loving families divide one’s loyalty to the institutional church when there is conflict. I also think the Mormon glorification of family life makes the idea of gay families much more urgent and attractive for Mormons — I’d bet good money that gay Mormon couples marry at much higher rates than non-Mormon gay couples. And our norm of stable, functional families allows many Mormons to take that privilege for granted — when you’ve never known anything else, it can be easy to minimize the advantages of a stable family upbringing. I’m remembering a post at BCC by a married mother a while back asking “What has marriage ever done for me?” or something to that effect.

    Despite all this, though, in my view the more urgent concern is still convincing young people to marry and raise children in stable families.

  15. zjg
    December 9, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Wonderful post, Rosalynde. I tend to agree with you about the causation story (individuality following from context, including family context), but to be honest, I’m not sure to what extent that responds to Julie’s underlying theological concern. Isn’t the theology that God takes individuals as they are (context and all), changes them through grace (or a “change of heart” in Mormon speak), and then sets them on a path of holiness, which holiness and accompanying good works follows from that grace or change of heart? In that theology, the Savior is the model. If all of the sudden, the theology makes the family central, then, well, we don’t really have a model for that. Jesus modeled individual holiness, not familyness. Of course, you’re right that that the theology of the family doesn’t have to displace the traditional Christian theology of individual righteousness. But the risk that such displacement occurs I think depends on the robustness of our theology of individual righteousness. In other words, how good do you think we as a church are at ethics? Based on conversations with my non-Mormon friends, I personally think that we could do a whole lot better. (I remember on my mission Elder Gene R. Cook talking to us missionaries about how there is a deeper level to righteousness dealing with motivations and attitudes, not just outward signs of good works. That was a revelation to me. I may have just been ethically stunted, I don’t know. But I do think that a fairly compelling case could be made that Mormonism’s recurrent neo-Palagianism creates a natural barrier to a robust Mormon ethics.) Replacing those (in my opinion, already scant) ethical conversations with the theology of the family (which seems to me to be have even less ethical content) in my view implies that Julie’s concerns are not ill-founded.

  16. Rob Osborn
    December 9, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    The gospel of Jesus Christ is what our church is founded upon. The vehicle in which we use to administer that gospel and learn is through the family. It’s clearly obvious that when God organized his church in these latter days that fundamental to this are temples and the sealing power of husband to wife and children to parents. It’s actually through the bond of marriage and its accompanying covenants made in the endowment ceremony that the vehicle is made operational to carry one towards exaltation in God’s kingdom.

    Thus, we can easily see, that the goal of God is to advance us into the type of being he is and the type of life he lives. Without a vehicle we cannot arrive. The vehicle is the family. The atonement makes it possible to attain the path where we can use our vehicle (family) to achieve salvation and full exaltation in all things.

    It can seem at times we over emphasize the family, but in reality it’s the real fact that we tend to forget all too easy that the family is the vehicle used by God that allows us to achieve exaltation. If we, as a society are wanting to discard the vehicle of exaltation then it’s easy to see that God will counter with counsel through his holy prophets on the dangers of such enormously catastrophic mistakes. The Proclamation is thus one such counter of many that God is using to correct men’s behaviors that lead to destruction both physically and spiritually. So, we end up spending a lot of time focusing on this family issue in our church because without the family salvation is not accessible through the atonement. The Proclamation warns and prophesies of all nations and peoples utter destruction if the family is not upheld.

    SSM is but just one of the devious methods of Satan to destroy the family and thus destroy the vehicle that makes salvation accessible. Heterosexual living outside outside of marriage is another method that destroys that vehicle. As these become the norm of society and acceptable it makes it harder and harder for new rising generations to do what is right in finding the path of godliness and instead accept immorality as right. In doing so they are cut off from the path leading to exaltation. It is only in the bonds of marriage in the temple where we begin to know our purpose and reason of our creation. For some of us, these blessings will not nor cannot come in this life but in the next. Nevertheless, we needs be teach it to all because without marriage, no man nor woman will ever reachGod and become what they were created for.

  17. zjg
    December 9, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    The story Rob Osborn tells is a familiar one, and one that obviously has a lot of traction within the church. It seems to view SSM as yet another example of secular humanism triumphing over religion. And the response is predictably one of resistance and push back. There is however a counter-narrative, which doesn’t get told as often, that views SSM as a case of religion triumphing over secular humanism. It’s not a narrative that gets much play because it’s not the kind that wins constitutional arguments. (Because it’s not about rights.) I often wonder how the church would have responded to SSM if this counter-narrative had been pressed and explored more thoroughly.

  18. Brad L
    December 9, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    Thus, we can easily see, that the goal of God is to advance us into the type of being he is and the type of life he lives. Without a vehicle we cannot arrive. The vehicle is the family.

    You tell ’em, Rob. Those orphans who die before the age of eight can’t get into the celestial kingdom. What are they thinking? Neither can those old spinsters who are the only converts to the LDS church from their family and who die before getting married. Sheesh!

    And that Jesus guy, saying that “every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29). Who is he fooling? Didn’t Jesus get the memo that the vehicle to God is the family?

  19. A Turtle Named Mack
    December 9, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Playing with Rob’s transportation metaphor a little. If the vehicle is the family, I guess the road is the gospel, maintained by the Church. The problem is that we seem to spend all our time talking about the car, and just assume that the road is being maintained. However, at least in my town, someone keeps putting up random traffic lights, one-way roads, and no matter which route I take there is construction. Don’t even get me started on the potholes. Turns out all that maintenance is making it impossible for me to get anywhere in my car. Is it any wonder people decide to get out and walk?

  20. December 10, 2015 at 1:18 am

    I really like zjg’s comment in 17 — with some quibbles that I won’t focus on (on same sex marriage being a case of religion triumphing over secular humanism) and I think it dovetails nicely with something Rosalynde said in comment 14:

    I also think the Mormon glorification of family life makes the idea of gay families much more urgent and attractive for Mormons — I’d bet good money that gay Mormon couples marry at much higher rates than non-Mormon gay couples.

    I don’t really have much of a direct comment on the discussion between Rosalynde and Julie (other than to say that y’all both seem really compelling to me, so in my head it’s like a ping pong match reading your comments), but I will say this: it feels like even if the church wants to emphasize families, it seems to be missing an opportunity with same-sex marriage.

    I mean, yeah, yeah, heteronormativity is and will be the ideal. It’s clear that the church is doubling down on that.

    But is heteronormativity so strong an ideal that it’s worth injuring same-sex families, when the case could be made that those same-sex families are far more consistent with a family-centric gospel than other alternatives?

  21. Ardis
    December 10, 2015 at 11:20 am

    One other point of misunderstanding of Julie’s post that I don’t think has been addressed:

    A problem with the current emphasis on the family that doesn’t seem to have been true with the other family-related emphases that Rosalynde notes is that today’s emphasis on the family overwhelms our attention to anything else. When President Benson stressed the need of mothers in the home, he at the very same time gave great emphasis to study of the Book of Mormon. You can read through the Conference reports from those years and find addresses on a whole range if gospel topics, without “mothers at home” coloring those topics at all. That range made its way into local discourse.

    Today’s emphasis on The Family overwhelms everything else, to the point where “ponderizing” or a talk on mental illness stand out from the pack not because they were so wonderfully eloquent or moving, but merely because they were different. Even when talks are not primarily about family matters, the importance of the topic in the home or to the home is often stressed, and the talk becomes just another in the blur of talks on The Family. That, too, filters down to local discourse and frames every topic in terms of The Family.

    It isn’t so much that we used to emphadize The Individual; it’s just that individuals used to have guidance on a person’s individual duties and blessings, sometimes in relation to her family and other times directly in relation to her God. Today it seems that the indvidual has no duties or blessings except as some fraction of, dependent entirely upon, The Family.

  22. Rob Osborn
    December 10, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    The prophetic warnings of the disintegration of the family is why this has taken such notice. I for one like my freedom and blessings in a community/country. But, as the family disintegrates, so too will all of our blessings and freedoms.

    “WE WARN that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”

  23. David Day
    December 10, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    In reference to Rob (22) At least partially because my mind prefers concrete lists, I wish I knew exactly what calamities have been foretold by ancient and modern prophets with respect to the disintegration of the family. I’d love to have an actual list of the calamites and the specific prophets who have foretold them. At present, that part of the proclamation strikes me as a tautology.

  24. Jim Donaldson
    December 10, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    I keep forgetting–between Roselyn and Julie–which one is the conservative and which one is the progressive?

  25. Clark Goble
    December 10, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    The issue ends up being the ideal vs what’s better than the alternative. The conservative case for SSM is pretty compelling in certain ways in that it it attempting to put stability, commitment and related virtues into same sex relationships. Further it’s typically presented by proponents in comparison to the worse case scenario which is strong promiscuity with many partners, no commitment and often no safety. Arguably acts that degrade society and lead to many social problems.

    The Church hasn’t really presented it’s argument against this. So we can only speculate based upon what they’ve said in various places. If I understand them (or at least the major figures) correctly even if we acknowledge some are same sex oriented due to strong biological/physical drives, not everyone is. While Church officials have never even used the term, my sense is that they see a concern with bisexual people – which most likely makes up a much larger share of society than many portray. If homosexual relations and especially formal same sex relations become normalized then we’d expect bisexuality to become more prevalent and eventually more stable homosexual relationship by people who could be in heterosexual relations.

    While I’m not sure this is the correct form of their fears, it does seem to address their issues. Further within the last year or two we’ve certainly seen many prominent (especially in entertainment) people make just such arguments regarding relationships – that there is no difference between the types of relationships.

    Even if the Church is doing a kind of utilitarian calculus (although I rather doubt they are) the benefits over promiscuity by SSM for people only attracted to same sex may be outweighed by those who are somewhere in the potential bisexual spectrum who reject traditional marriage.

    I recognize few here probably like thinking along those terms and note I’m not arguing for this position. Just noting that one could easily argue along these lines and make sense of a lot of the concerns of the brethren.

  26. December 11, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Rosalynde, thank you for this post. I started replying to Julie’s three different times but wasn’t able to clarify my concerns.You did and then some.

    I also read “The Family” cynically. I think Julie’s #2 came out strongly as kind of a scold on family worship, so I appreciate her clarification on that point.

    I have also mostly seen the emphasis on family as a response to the emphasis on, shall we say, de-family, in the culture at large. In other words, it has been done to emphasize the already existing positions that are being culturally challenged.

    Rob Osborn makes a statement that is mocked by some, but it’s pretty clearly the LDS position to a great extent. I’m unsure what Rob L means with his response. The position on children who die before the age of accountability and “those who have never had a companion through no fault of their own, or to those who have lost companions in death or through divorce or desertion” has been addressed again and again. Those positions do not contradict Rob’s.

    Over time what makes sense to me—in trying to reconcile the various doctrinal and historical issues—is that God is actually God the Mother and God the Father working together as one. At this point I reject an absent non-participatory Heavenly Mother (who knits in the back room…or something) and I reject polygamy. In that context (and if that is correct) exaltation requires a heterosexual union. In that sense, rejecting heterosexual pairing (either outright or by accepting an alternative) is rejecting eternal progression.

    In this way the individual and the family collide. Individuals will be required to make and keep covenants and accept God’s plan which includes being part of such a family unit for those who choose to progress.

    I reserve the right to change my position if/when something else makes more sense to me. :)

    Clark Goble, thank you for articulating some very interesting points in the discussion.

    P.S. The way you, Rosalynde and Julie, interact even when differing in opinions is a wonderful example to me. Thank you.

  27. zjg
    December 11, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Allison Moore Smith makes an important point here. Clearly, much of the church’s response to SSM is not simply about human flourishing. (Which is why Clark Goble’s arguments, interesting though they might be, are unlikely the ones motivating the brethren, although this is no knock against Goble — he acknowledges as much in his comment.) Rather the church’s response is clearly an attempt to model the ideal based on our understanding of the eternities. Yet, Allison Moore Smith’s comment also illustrates (inadvertently I think) the problems with that approach — when push comes to shove, we just don’t know much about the eternities. As the church recently made clear, we don’t even know enough about our Heavenly Mother to say much more than that she exists. Add to this the fact that Joseph clearly believed that there were multitudes of gods, of which we know absolutely nothing (for example, do any of them have same-sex partners?). In order to take this body of highly speculative theology (wonderful though it might be) and use it to draw inferences regarding concrete policies like SSM requires a lot of fairly arbitrary editing. Throw polygamy out. Make Heavenly Mother into the sort of 21st century Mormon woman who reads Times and Seasons (but maybe not By Common Consent). And voila — SSM is clearly not the heavenly ideal. But at that point, can we really say that theology is what is driving the policymaking?

  28. ji
    December 11, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    I think you’re making it too hard. How about something simpler? Homosexual behavior is sin. Doesn’t that explain the church’s approach?

  29. Clark Goble
    December 11, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    zjg while I think the brethren clearly are worried about the ideal case, I think that explains the basic doctrine but not the particular emphasis they’ve given this doctrine. They aren’t just saying SSM is wrong with some minor opposition. They’ve gone well beyond that to treat it as a type of apostasy. That suggests a practical worry well beyond just a worry about the eternities but a practical problem here and now.

    Now I might be wrong in what I said. And I’d never say that’s all that’s going on. But if it were just about the eternities we might expect a different approach.

    Regarding heaven, I think you raise some good points. But simultaneously I think you downplay too much how big a doctrinal issue this is for the church. To suggest that drawing inferences about SSM requires a lot of fairly arbitrary editing seems difficult to swallow. The ideal is men and women married. Now one could throw polyandry into the mix to make things more complex except that as far as we can see all cases of polyandry in church history are for this life only. Even if polyandry might make an interesting way of dealing with the situation, it’d still require a pretty massive revelation. Thus there just are no examples of male-male sealings, so drawing inferences from that isn’t hard.

    Now the issue of women is trickier. Of course most of us get squeamish just thinking about the topic. (Oddly I’m far more open to my wife remarrying if I were to die prematurely than I’d be for remarrying were the reverse to happen) Again going to the history, however icky, women were married to men, and while they were in a kind of joint relationship via the man, they weren’t in a direct relationship with each other. (Ignoring the issue of what went on behind closed doors – just dealing with the theology. So far as I know the Church didn’t even conceive of problems behind closed door although as I recall that issue caused a schism in the Manti polygamous apostate group a decade or two ago) So from a theological perspective there’s simply no basis for SS relations for women that are considered authorized.

    If we’re just going by our theology then any SS relationship would be intrinsically fornication/adultery. That seems to entail fairly clear inferences regarding SSM without really being speculative. We can always acknowledge there’s a lot we don’t know. But it seems reasonably safe to draw inferences from what we do know, even if it might turn out they don’t have universal application.

    I think the assumption by many (not you) is that this is all conservative homophobia driving theology and overreaction. Yet I really think this ignores just how thorny an issue this is for the particular type of physicalist theology we Mormons have. As soon as you have marriage between a man and a woman as the basis for deity then intrinsically homosexuality is a theological problem it just isn’t for other Christians (who at best see it just as an issue of fornication).

  30. Clark Goble
    December 11, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    ji, I think homosexuality is sin was the Church’s position. That is SS relations were just an other sort of fornication. Perhaps a type of fornication with more social stigma in the 20th century but fundamentally no different. Since the push for SSM and the reaction with the Prop-8 push and similar move in Hawaii though it seems that the Church has seen it as a threat that goes well beyond fornication. Thus explanations that simply treat it as fornication seem to be missing something.

  31. Brad L
    December 11, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Rob Osborn makes a statement that is mocked by some, but it’s pretty clearly the LDS position to a great extent.

    Rob Obsorn’s assertion that the family is the vehicle to God is actually not supported by LDS church doctrine, hence the ridicule. In LDS church doctrine Jesus Christ is the vehicle to God, even at the expense of family (see the verse I quoted above, this is also supported by a few other verses in the New Testament). One cannot choose the type of family that he/she comes from. Many are orphans by no choice of their own. Furthermore, some don’t have the choice to get married and create a family, either because they die too young or they cannot attract a mate for physical and psychological reasons. Are these people excluded from reaching God? Not according to church doctrine they aren’t. Rob is overemphasizing the importance of family in church doctrine and misses the mark. What gets me is that Rob comes on here thinking that he is preaching church doctrine and telling us freethinkers to repent. What he doesn’t realize is that he is engaging in just as much freethinking in saying that the family is the vehicle to God as the active LDS person who supports SSM.

    Rob also makes another claim that is inconsistent with church doctrine that I just caught, which is “the vehicle in which we use to administer that gospel and learn is through the family.” The family may be one way in which individuals learn about the teachings of the LDS church. I learned about them from my parents, and I’m sure many others have. But that isn’t the only way. LDS ordinances are administered by individuals to individuals regardless of whether they are biologically related or not. And LDS teachings are taught by individuals in the LDS church to other individuals, again, regardless of whether they are family-related or not. Rob Osborn clearly does not have a good understanding of the role of the family in the LDS church teachings.

  32. Clark Goble
    December 11, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Brad Rob Obsorn’s assertion that the family is the vehicle to God is actually not supported by LDS church doctrine, hence the ridicule. In LDS church doctrine Jesus Christ is the vehicle to God, even at the expense of family (see the verse I quoted above, this is also supported by a few other verses in the New Testament).

    I think you’re talking past one an other by equivocating over vehicle. Clearly Jesus tells us we may have to choose between family and God. It’s not hard to find examples of this even in the restoration when people left family to get baptized and join the Church. However part of following Jesus entails entering to the structure of family. Both a literal one and then an extended family as we become a community in Christ.

    Put an other way we have to distinguish between a particular family and the structure of family in general.

    Again to your later point, certainly we can learn in many ways. However it’s also clear that there is a special responsibility in family to teach and learn that just isn’t there in the same degree more broadly. So I think your position simply is discounting the structure of the family as revealed. It’s kind of akin to how a Protestant might say baptism couldn’t be necessary as Christ is the way to God. Baptism is just a sign. You seem to want to make family kind of an accidental and non-necessary trapping but I’m not sure you can really make that move. There’s just too many explicit scriptures going the other direction.

  33. Brad L
    December 11, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Clark, Rob and I are not talking past each other. Rob has no idea what he is talking about, and that should be very clear. Rob Osborn writes, “the family is the vehicle used by God that allows us to achieve exaltation.” My understanding of LDS church teachings is that children who die young can achieve exaltation, and so can people who never marry on this earth life. Rob’s comment doesn’t reflect church teachings.

    However part of following Jesus entails entering to the structure of family.

    Considering that Rob said that SSM and heterosexual cohabiting destroy the vehicle to exaltation, he is talking about family in the sense of nuclear family units as in husband and wife with their children, not extended family or metaphorical church congregation families. Also, bear in mind that people who remain single their whole lives can be said, according to LDS teachings, to be following Jesus. So what you say is not in line entirely with LDS teachings.

    it’s also clear that there is a special responsibility in family to teach and learn

    That’s beyond the point, which was that there are other ways besides the family (well, immediate, nuclear family) in which the LDS church teaches its doctrines and administers its ordinances.

  34. Clark Goble
    December 11, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Brad, the way that takes place is by having them form a family prior to the resurrection. That’s one of the big functions of the temple – creating those family units to enable exaltation. Again, the parallel to baptism is quite pronounced.

    I’ll let Rob speak for himself of course. But again I don’t think we’re talking just metaphoric families. The whole view of Malachi in the church is making the church as a whole into one large family unit. When within the church the patriarchal order is talked about (not in the feminist sense) it’s wrapped up with a theology of families with Adam as the head.

    This is pretty key theology and isn’t meant metaphorically at all. The whole idea within the church is that we’re not saved individually but as families.

  35. Jack
    December 11, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    “Rob has no idea what he is talking about, and that should be very clear.”

    Why? Because he has the gonads to speak in a plain believing vernacular?

    We will not be exalted outside of a familial context. And that context, whenever it is expressed or pointed to in the scriptures is based in the bond of man and woman. Simple? Yes, but not simplistic. There’s a lot going on that we really don’t understand. But even so, scripturally speaking, what we have is: Husband, wife, and progeny — however extended the process may be.

  36. Brad L
    December 11, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    Clark and Jack, clearly, according to LDS church doctrine, in this mortal life, you don’t have to have a family to qualify for exaltation by the time you die. Rob is placing great emphasis on the importance of family in this mortal life.

  37. Jack
    December 11, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    Rob can speak for himself. But I’ve no doubt that he, like any believing LDS, has no problem with the idea that children get a free ticket to paradise — exaltation. It just goes without saying. But on the other hand, why even have the highest ordinances — those pertaining to the sealing of families — in the here and now if they’re not to be taken seriously here and now as well as in the future?

  38. December 12, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Clark Goble:

    Perhaps a type of fornication with more social stigma in the 20th century but fundamentally no different.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with that. It seems the church’s position is that homosexual relations are more than a proper behavior used in improper circumstances (like “regular” fornication), but a deviation of the proper behavior that will not be acceptable no matter the circumstances. This makes more sense of the apostasy position, I think.

    I think you’re talking past one an other by equivocating over vehicle…It’s kind of akin to how a Protestant might say baptism couldn’t be necessary as Christ is the way to God. Baptism is just a sign. You seem to want to make family kind of an accidental and non-necessary trapping but I’m not sure you can really make that move. There’s just too many explicit scriptures going the other direction.


    Brad L, it seems you are conflating the church’s positions about our condition when we die vs requirements for godhood. Yes, children who die before accountability are saved in celestial kingdom. Yes, single adults who keep their covenants can enter the celestial kingdom. There is no doctrine that suggests these people won’t need to have a spouse in order to attain godhood.

    From (emphasis mine):

    From another revelation to the Prophet Joseph, we learn that there are three degrees within the celestial kingdom. To be exalted in the highest degree and continue eternally in family relationships, we must enter into “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” and be true to that covenant. In other words, temple marriage is a requirement for obtaining the highest degree of celestial glory. (See D&C 131:1-4.) All who are worthy to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage will have that opportunity, whether in this life or the next.

    It makes sense that those who would choose to “continue eternally in family relationships” would need to be in family relationships.

  39. December 12, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    [I am days late to this and the discussion has veered off in a way that I’m not interested in following, so I jump back.]
    At response 14 (Dec 9, 11:42 am), Rosalynde says:
    “Despite all this, though, in my view the more urgent concern is still convincing young people to marry and raise children in stable families.”
    That’s a strong statement. It sets an audience and an objective. In a different mood I might argue with either or both. But taking that statement as a starting point I still disagree that the Church does well by this audience and this objective to so emphasize The Family™ in the way it does.
    Putting aside political and legal consequences, putting aside culture wars, when I think about The Family™ direct messages to young people, they boil down to these:
    (1) Don’t have sex until you are married.
    (2) If you’re gay, don’t get married.
    (3) If you’re straight, get married early.
    (4) As soon as you are married, have lots of children.
    (5) If you’re a woman, don’t work outside the home.
    I’m on board with the sex before marriage (don’t) point. Personally, I would debate or question the rest, especially as universals. But they do seem to be the message of modern prophets (and some/many social conservatives). Most directly applicable to this post, I think these teachings are best conveyed by example, by ‘pull to the light’ rhetoric. I think that prescriptive or ‘push from behind’ rhetoric is simple and simplistic, draws sharp boundaries with the inevitable exclusive and exclusionary effects, and is likely to be counterproductive on average, i.e., more likely to cause resentment and disaffiliation than compliance.

  40. zjg
    December 12, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    Clark Goble — I completely understand why you would say that I’m downplaying the doctrinal difficulties of SSM. I think most Mormons understand exaltation to turn on marriage between a man and woman. And I agree on the marriage part. I’m just not exactly sure where the man and woman part comes from. I don’t know that we can draw strong inferences from what little we know about the eternities. To be sure, all of the models that we see in the temple and the scriptures are heterosexual marriage — but why is that? We don’t have a theology of the body like the Catholics. Is there some other similar doctrine about gender complementarity or is it just that gay marriages didn’t really exist until very recently and so the prophets never had any reason to address it? And yes, our heavenly parents are in a heterosexual relationship, but are we to take that to mean that there are no gods in a homosexual relationship? I guess there are three possible sources I see for the view that exaltation requires heterosexual marriage. First, there’s the notion that spirit children are born of sexual relations, which requires a heterosexual relationship. But that’s a highly speculative doctrine, invented by Orson Pratt in an effort to bolster polygamy and in tension with much of what Joseph taught on the subject. Second, there is the notion that the resurrection eliminates homosexuality. Again, that strikes me as little more than a folk doctrine. Finally, there’s the fact that we believe that homosexuality is sinful. But it’s not clear to me that the sinfulness of homosexuality forecloses gay marriage as a doctrinal manner any more than the sinfulness of any adulterous sex forecloses heterosexual marriage. Of course, our modern prophets have been clear I think that exaltation requires heterosexual marriage. It’s just that now that I have close friends who are gay and married with children, I realize how consequential that view of exaltation is and I wonder where it comes from. It just doesn’t seem to me to be a necessary conclusion based on Mormonism’s materialism or any other aspect of the doctrine. And for that reason, I wonder to what extent it is our doctrine that is driving our predisposition toward gay marriage and to what extent it is our predisposition toward gay marriage that is driving our view of the doctrine.

  41. Clark Goble
    December 14, 2015 at 11:00 am

    Zjg, I’m not sure what you count as evidence here. Certainly in the revelations there’s a lot saying it’s a man and a woman. It sounds like it’d only count as evidence if an explanation for sexual difference of spirits is given. While I can understand why people want this vague and of course Mormonism entails a certain fallibilism wherein new revelation can always throw doctrinal relations in new ways. Yet it really does seem like a key doctrine is sexual/gender difference as a fundamental ontological characteristic of spirits. The implication of that is that both genders are necessary – and necessary to deity as well.

    Christian, I think we’re starting to see (5) changing to simply having a parent home for the children. I also think there’s been a significant shift in (4) to pay more attention to people’s abilities. So it’s more have as many children as you are able, but pay attention to your limits (and especially wives’ limits given our social expectations).

    Alison, fornication though is conceived of as “a deviation of the proper behavior that will not be acceptable no matter the circumstances.” Admittedly the same acts in most fornication can be made legitimate in marriage and that’s not true of gay relations. If that’s what you mean then I agree. But I think the evidence is the Church conceives of SSM as fundamentally different an issue than say gay-curiosity by young people. Maybe you’re right and that will change though.

    Brad, you don’t need a family in this life anymore than you need baptism in this life. But just as church membership as seen as important in this life, so too is marriage. That is the structure is seen as significant on its own terms.

    Now I think this is why since the demographic shift starting in the 90’s that the church has struggled. It just doesn’t know how to deal with a populace that is becoming more and more single. Trust me, I married rather late, and as I said it’s very difficult feeling like one has a social place in the church after around 26 let alone 30 when you get the boot from singles wards. It was pretty devastating and there really is no transition for members.

    So don’t think I’m downplaying the significance here. But I think a big part of the reason it is so problematic isn’t just the social issues (I’m bored, what do I do socially? Who should my friends be?) Rather it’s that gnawing feeling like you’re not a part because you’re not involved in these structures you feel to be essential. Certainly I felt like that in my 30’s and it wasn’t pleasant. In hindsight I think I was significantly overreacting. But at the time it really was a huge stress.

  42. TG
    December 16, 2015 at 2:01 am

    Clark wrote (25) “While Church officials have never even used the term, my sense is that they see a concern with bisexual people – which most likely makes up a much larger share of society than many portray. If homosexual relations and especially formal same sex relations become normalized then we’d expect bisexuality to become more prevalent and eventually more stable homosexual relationship by people who could be in heterosexual relations.”

    As a single bisexual homoromantic man, myself, relabeling homosexual monogamy as apostasy (a.k.a. enemy of the Church) has not made me feel more encouraged to get out there and date women. There is already plenty at stake in dating. Raising the stakes by declaring that acting on my most natural and desirable inclinations are grounds for expulsion from my community only paralyzes me in the face of family formation.

    If the stakes were intentionally lowered — if I was told that I had permission to pursue a SSM for time only vs. pursue an OSM for eternity, I might be persuaded to go for the gold of my own volition. But lately all I’ve felt is intense pressure to conform OR ELSE. And that OR ELSE tends to drive me in the opposite direction. I know I’m not the only gay man who feels this way.

    That OR ELSE is a direct result of the ramped-up rhetoric on The Family that Julie’s been writing about.

Comments are closed.