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I gave the following talk in my ward today:
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A need for defending the family
In 1995, the Council on Families in America issued a report titled "Marriage in America: a report to the nation." In that paper, this diverse group of family scholars said the following:
The divorce revolution—the steady displacement of a marriage culture by a culture of divorce and unwed parenthood—has failed. It has created terrible hardships for children, incurred unsupportable social costs, and failed to deliver on its promise of greater adult happiness. The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage…. To reverse the current deterioration of child and societal well-being in the United States, we must strengthen the institution of marriage…. Strengthening marriage…. must become our most important goal. For unless we reverse the decline of marriage, no other achievements—no tax cut, no new government program, no new idea—will be powerful enough to reverse the trend of declining child well-being…. We call for the nation to commit itself to this overriding goal: To increase the proportion of children who grow up with their two married parents and decrease the proportion of children who do not… Who, today, is still promoting marriage? Who is even talking about it? In place of a national debate about what has happened to marriage there has been silence—stone-cold silence. (Council on Families in America (1995), Marriage in America: A report to the nation)
The proclamation and its preface
During the same year that this challenge was issued, President Hinckley introduced a document with which we are all now very familiar: "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." Rather than focusing my remarks primarily on the various doctrines and principles it contains, I’d instead like to begin by reviewing how President Hinckley prefaced the proclamation’s introduction during its announcement in the October 1995 General Relief Society Meeting. After some remarks to the sisters, and prior to reading the proclamation in its entirety, he stated the following:
With so much of sophistry that is passed off as truth, with so much of deception concerning standards and values, with so much of allurement and enticement to take on the slow stain of the world, we have felt to warn and forewarn. In furtherance of this we of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles now issue a proclamation to the Church and to the world as a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices relative to the family which the prophets, seers, and revelators of this church have repeatedly stated throughout its history.
There are several key points here that we should consider in order to understand the context in which the proclamation was given to the world. First, President Hinckley describes the environment in which we live—one of sophistry, deceit, and temptation. We often talk about these Satanic tactics in a general sense, but rarely do we take the time to truly understand how these things are implemented on a level that affects us individually, as well as our society as a whole. These are not mere words President Hinckley has thrown out, but rather a description of the world we live in—a world that surrounds us with lies, half-truths, immorality, and corruption at every turn. Rarely, though, are we truly tempted by the blatant portrayals of wickedness we see all around us. No, Satan’s best bait for Latter-day Saints is to use the "slow stain" method, whereby we suppress the voice of the Spirit and ignore its promptings little by little, until the flaxen cords of bondage are made strong and nearly unbreakable.
Having described the conditions in which we currently live, President Hinckley offers us a motive for the proclamation, saying that in light of these circumstances, he and the other prophets and apostles have "felt to warn and forewarn". In essence, he is saying that as a prophet, he prophesies; as an apostle ("messenger", in Greek) he shares with us important messages. Thus, the intention for the proclamation is not to describe some current event or expound on a doctrinal principle, but rather to prophecy and warn of a future possible condition—one which the proclamation says will entail "the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets." That is, unless we collectively promote and defend these doctrines while there is still time to change course.
Finally, President Hinckley clarifies that the doctrines and ideas contained in the proclamation are not new; these standards have been "repeatedly stated throughout [the Church’s] history", and were simply compiled and "reaffirm[ed]" in the proclamation. This is important, because as then-Elder Eyring noted, repetition fulfills the law of witnesses:
In our own time we have been warned with counsel on where to find safety from sin and from sorrow. One of the keys to recognizing those warnings is that they are repeated. For instance, more than once in general conferences, you have heard our prophet say that he would quote a preceding prophet and would therefore be a second witness and sometimes even a third. Each of us old enough to listen heard President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) give counsel on the importance of a mother in the home and then heard President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) quote him, and we have heard President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) quote them both.
The Apostle Paul wrote, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (2 Corinthians 13:1). One of the ways we may know that the warning is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.
Another purpose of this repetition was made clear by Elder Neal A. Maxwell who, commenting on the steady stream of telestial temptations we face, said "The ways of the world receive constant reinforcement—should not the ways of heaven?" (Not My Will, But Thine, p. 133–34) It is in that spirit of continuously asserting divine doctrine and teaching correct principles that the proclamation was given to the world fourteen years ago.
A warning of what?
President Hinckley spoke of the proclamation being given to warn God’s children, but in what ways did this collection of doctrines and principles do that? If the proclamation exists to warn us of a future time and set of circumstances, what exactly would that reality look like? And fourteen years now having passed, can we look back with hindsight and notice any change in the status of marriage and the family?
First, it is important to remember the audience of this proclamation. It was not given to Utah families with large children and stable marriages, nor to Americans, nor to Latter-day Saints. Rather, this bold statement of pure doctrine was intended for every single individual on this planet. As such, we would do well to try and take off our American Mormon goggles and understand how these truths and warnings could not only affect our culture and nation, but those of others around the world as well. Indeed, the principles taught in the proclamation are as much for the remote villagers of Africa as they are for us.
Second, we must beware of rationalization by comparison—the idea that marriage and family issues are under more attack in other countries compared to our own. This comparison invites apathy because it leads people to assume that since our community has not degenerated as much as another, we can let our guard down and focus on other activities. Perhaps an analogy will help explain why this is a bad position to take. Imagine a large group of people floating down a river, unaware that they are headed towards a large waterfall. A bystander on the shoreline realizes their danger and begins to loudly alert them all to the impending doom. Clearly, this warning is intended for everybody in the river, regardless of how close to the edge they currently are. Even those who are in the back of the group would do well to pay attention and follow the bystander’s instructions in order to avert disaster. Only the foolhardy would compare his position in the river to the people in front of the group, and assume that he still has time to enjoy the water before he swims to the shore. Regardless of what marriages and families in other areas of the world look like, we need to heed the prophet’s warnings and ensure that their sanctity is protected.
Having said all that, what exactly are we being warned against? How is marriage and family under attack? What was President Hinckley and his colleagues issuing a warning about? In a keynote address before the World Family Policy Center in 1999, Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed a few of the key issues:
As church leaders we have observed many worldwide trends and conditions that threaten the traditional family and have a disturbing effect upon our church members. I list six of these, not necessarily in order of importance:
- As a result of increases in divorce and separation, the traditional two-parent family is decreasing as the setting within which most children are raised.
- Increasing numbers of women are working outside of the home and devoting less attention to their responsibilities as mothers.
- As more and more people travel great distances and enjoy flexibility as to where they reside, extended families are scattered and the nurturing and disciplinary roles of grandparents, aunts and uncles are felt by a smaller proportion of children.
- The network of mothers who keep an eye on one another’s children in a tight-knit community is likewise weakening.
- The competitive demands of a variety of community and school activities weaken family activities and togetherness.
- Current attempts to redefine the family by treaty or law include everyone who has keys to the same house, threatening to dilute the legal concept of family beyond the point where it merits special protection.
Given our familiarity with the doctrines contained in the proclamation, I think it then becomes necessary that we understand where they are most needed. Possessing an antidote does us little good if we don’t know what poison it counteracts. So, let’s look a little more carefully at each of these six items Elder Oaks listed, and what the proclamation has to say about each one.
Divorce and single parenting
The first item on Elder Oaks’ list mentions the rising divorce and separation rates throughout the world, and the resulting variety of non-traditional family structures. Indirectly included in this list are individuals who co-habit instead of marrying, and those who bear children without even any pretense of commitment to the child’s other parent.
The poison of broken marriages is generally well-known, with roughly half of all marriages in the United States ending in divorce. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of cohabiting individuals increased by almost 90%. And as of 2007, 40% of all births were to unmarried women. Numbers and details change from country to country, of course, but one thing is certain throughout the world: marriages are failing, and children are being denied the opportunity to be raised by both parents. This leads us to the antidote found in the proclamation, where it says that:
Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.
While certain situations of divorce are unavoidable or the fault of one party alone, the overwhelming majority of marriages deteriorate from underlying conditions that are in opposition to the commandments of God.
Elder Oaks’ second item of concern is the increasing number of women who are working outside of the home and shirking their responsibilities as mothers. As of 2003 in the United States, nearly three-fourths of mothers were in the workforce. Several European countries rank even higher on the scale. And as just one of the many consequences of these choices, one-third of working mothers admitted in a recent survey to spending less than three hours per day with their children.
Speaking in terms of child development and parental bonding, this is poison. We live in a world where outsourcing is as common as breathing; our food, clothing, shelter, and other commodities are all produced by other people and handed over to us when we wave our credit card or sign on the dotted line. Worse yet is the natural consequence of a working mother: that of outsourcing the role of motherhood to a paid professional. Two-thirds of the nation’s children under five years of age are in some type of child-care arrangement every week. And worse still, the television has become a second nanny for children, with the average child watching four hours of programming every single day.
Latter-day Saints have long understood the divine role of motherhood, and yet many within our ranks oppose the responsibilities that role entails. As one recent example of this, many of you will recall a recent General Conference address by the Relief Society’s President, Sister Julie Beck. Titled "Mothers Who Know", this talk reiterated things we’ve been told for decades by prophets and apostles—namely, that righteous mothers will bear children, honor covenants, be a nurturer in the family, teach their children, and maintain an environment in the home which is productive to the development of their children and welcoming of the Spirit. And yet, this address sparked an online firestorm of controversy in the following weeks and months from Latter-day Saint bloggers and commentators who deeply disagreed with several portions of Sister Beck’s talk. It seems that even some members of the Church stand in need of the simple antidote found in the proclamation which declares that "Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children." If raising children is primary, all else should naturally become secondary.
Families spread thin
Elder Oaks’ third item mentioned how modern families are scattered across long distances, thus weakening extended family bonds. In third-world nations, it is quite common to find three or more generations of family members living under one roof. Forced by economic conditions to band together and share a common home, these families enjoy a benefit long-since lost in so-called developed nations. In this environment, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other family members all have opportunities to assist in raising the children and providing additional, trusted perspective to aid in that child’s development.
With the recent birth of our son, we welcomed our mothers with open arms during their short (and much appreciated!) stays in our home. They provided timely assistance, especially when I had to return to work and could not dedicate as much time to taking care of mom and baby. Observing what great lengths our parents had to go to in order to be with us for a few days made me think of what life would be like if we all lived more closely together. Clearly, such living arrangements can have their disadvantages as well. But by spreading ourselves thin over large geographical distances, extended family members forfeit opportunities to help nurture each new child and assist in ways that the child’s own parents cannot. The proclamation says that "Extended families should lend support when needed." But is this a convenient option if each instance of support requires purchasing a round trip airline ticket?
It takes a village…
Elder Oaks then mentioned our weakening communities and support structures which provide fewer opportunities for mothers to be a positive influence on the friends of their children in the neighborhood. One influencing factor here is the amount of women who are simply not home, as discussed earlier. But still greater is the decrease in social capital that Sister Hall discussed in her fireside a few weeks ago, where there is a general lack of trust and closeness in our neighborhoods that would facilitate children openly and securely spending time in each others’ homes.
Families that exemplify the virtues found in the proclamation should not exist in a vacuum. Their influence can and should be felt by all those around them who might be benefitted from their example, their loving care of the friends of their own children, and the protection and peace that exists in their home as a result of their efforts to welcome the Spirit.
Busy, busy, busy
Fifth on Elder Oaks’ list was the threat of family members being pulled in different directions, with various activities taking up a great deal of time and thus reducing the amount of quality time families can spend together. Studies do show that children generally excel in school when they participate in an extra-curricular activity. However, we as parents must be careful that we do not burden our children with too many scheduled activities that not only overly complicate their lives at a young age, but also reduce the amount of family time they have, to say nothing of unscheduled free time that allows for creativity and personal development.
The Church’s popular advertising campaign to promote strong families doesn’t focus on expensive vacations, or on elaborate science projects, or on successful outings to the park. Instead, the focus is one word and one word only: time. That time can involve any number of things, planned or unplanned—what’s important is that we are creating memories together and deepening our relationships. Dedicating the time to strengthen those bonds will have large dividends if and when trials come that might otherwise cause a distancing between family members.
In the past 20 years, structured sports time for children has doubled, and unstructured activities have declined by 50%. Family dinners have declined by one-third, and family vacations have decreased by nearly one-third as well. Notice the order of priorities established in the proclamation: "Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities." If this list has any sort of order to it, the fact that recreational activities comes in last place should say something about where a greater portion of our time might be spent.
The last item on Elder Oaks’ list of threats to the family is perhaps one of the more noticeable ones. He defined this threat as "attempts to redefine the family by treaty or law [to] include everyone who has keys to the same house, threatening to dilute the legal concept of family beyond the point where it merits special protection." As a former justice on the Utah Supreme Court, Elder Oaks knows what he’s talking about.
If we were to look at the events relating to same-gender "marriage", we would easily see an example of the prophetic nature of the proclamation. Here in the United States, every action to redefine marriage has come after the proclamation was given in 1995.
Consider the case of California, where the Church has been very involved in the battle to protect marriage as being between a man and a woman. Proposition 22 passed in 2000, with Church members playing a large part in spreading the word and encouraging support for this bill which declared that California would only recognize opposite-gender marriages. When the California Supreme Court declared this law un-constitutional eight years later (which resulted in the recent Proposition 8), three of the seven judges disagreed with the ruling. One judge wrote the following in his dissent:
I cannot join this exercise in legal jujitsu, by which the Legislature’s own weight is used against it to create a constitutional right from whole cloth, defeat the People’s will, and invalidate a statute otherwise immune from legislative interference….
[The other judges voting to strike down Proposition 22 have] violated these principles. [They] simply [do] not have the right to erase, then [change], the age-old definition of marriage, as virtually all societies have understood it, in order to satisfy [their] own contemporary notions of equality and justice.
This so-called "legal jujitsu" is what Elder Oaks was referring to when mentioning how governments around the world are diluting and distorting the concept of family. These legal battles, in contrast to the other threats previously mentioned, play themselves out in the media, in daily conversation, and in protests by angry citizens.
The proclamation makes clear our responsibility: "We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society." You and I must be those responsible citizens that actively promote and defend family values. A French political economist named Frédéric Bastiat once wrote that "the worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended." If you and I do not defend marriage, who will? Remember the question posed by the authors of the report I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks? They asked:
Who, today, is still promoting marriage? Who is even talking about it? In place of a national debate about what has happened to marriage there has been silence—stone-cold silence.
President Hinckley made clear our obligation when he said:
We believe that defending this sacred institution by working to preserve traditional marriage lies clearly within our religious and constitutional prerogatives. Indeed, we are compelled by our doctrine to speak out.
Two years after announcing this proclamation to the world, President Hinckley commented on its purpose and relevance:
Why do we have this proclamation on the family now? Because the family is under attack. All across the world families are falling apart. The place to begin to improve society is in the home. Children do, for the most part, what they are taught. We are trying to make the world better by making the family stronger.
This document, brothers and sisters, is far more than a mere collection of doctrines and principles. We were told specifically to whom it was given (the world), why it was given (to warn us), and what our responsibility is (promote what it says). I testify that the men we revere as prophets knew then and know now what will happen if the family unit is further weakened. It is up to you and I to first, ensure that our own families are in line with what the proclamation says; second, be an example to those around us who might benefit from what the proclamation has to say; and third, be a vocal supporter of these principles through community efforts and public policies. I testify that our Heavenly Father is anxious to bless us in this cause, and stands ready to inspire us along the way. Our goal is to form eternal families, but the work begins here and now.