In a post at By Common Consent over the weekend (What has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap about the Family?), Rebecca J writes that “If I’m not currently standing up for the Family, it’s… really just that I don’t care enough about the Family. I don’t think I care at all.” She goes on to write:
I’m really not sure what they [Church leaders] mean. I mean, it can’t mean that I’m supposed to be speaking out against divorce or same-sex marriage or unwed parenthood because if it did, they would just come out and say that, right? I mean, I know that church leaders rarely just come out and say anything, but if I were to raise my hand and ask for clarification by saying, “Hey, does this mean I should be speaking out against divorce and/or same-sex marriage and/or unwed parenthood?” they would definitely not respond in the affirmative but would probably say something that had nothing to do with my question and didn’t mean anything, which I think means that there’s some deeper message here that I’m just not getting.
So here are some thoughts on the twin questions Rebecca J raises:
- Why should we care about the family?
- What does it mean to stand up for the family?
As for the first, I can do no better than reference the string of posts my co-blogger Walker Wright has written for Difficult Run over the past couple of years:
- Marriage and Social Mobility (October 11, 2013)
- Another Post On Marriage and Social Mobility: This Time With Graphs (October 31, 2013)
- Rivalry and Marriage (February 11, 2014)
- (Neo) Traditional Marriage (March 1, 2014)
- Marriage, Parenthood, and Public Policy (May 21, 2014)
- CDC Reports: Children’s Health and Family Structure (July 8, 2014)
- Family Instability and Wages (August 6, 2014)
- Marriage and Children Outcomes (September 9, 2014)
- New AEI Study on Family Structure (November 17, 2014)
- Family Structure & The Great Gatsby Curve (January 2, 2014)
- Healthy Marriages: Protecting Women and Children From Domestic Violence (January 12, 2015)
- Marriage: Safe Haven in Unsafe Neighborhoods (March 5, 2015)
- Wealth’s Impact on Child Outcomes: Evidence from Sweden (March 19, 2015)
Obviously, there’s a lot of material to cover, and I can’t hope to summarize it all. Instead, I’ll justcopy-paste a couple of charts to whet your interest (and perhaps Rebecca J’s as well.)
If you care about domestic violence, then you should care about the family.
If you care about poverty and income inequality, then you should care about the family.
If you care about children and violent crime, then you should care about the family.
If you care about social mobility, then you should care about the family.
Now, one might take the approach that family isn’t really the causal factor in any of these cases. It’s just a correlated variable. Maybe being rich, being educated, and/or being happy are all correlated with getting married before you have kids and with staying married. So we think we’re looking at the benefits of marriage, but really we’re just attributing the benefits of wealth, education, and happiness to marriage because they’re all positively correlated with each other.
Of course the bane of all social science research is that you generally can’t run controlled experiments. You have to make due as best you can with natural experiments and sophisticated controls in your statistical models. So this isn’t a question that I can hope to answer definitively in a blog post, but it’s worth pointing out that many of these studies do control for income, race, education, and pretty much every other measurable factor and—while some of these factors are clearly relevant—marriage and family still come out as important factors in their own rights. Which is why I agree wholeheartedly with Walker’s conclusion: “those who are concerned about social justice should be the biggest advocates of marriage.”
Now that we’ve answered the question of why we should care, let’s address the second one: what does it mean to stand up for the family?
Let me observe, first and foremost, that not a single one of the articles that I cited from Walker focused on either gay marriage or divorce. Those issues are relevant, but standing up for the family is first and foremost a positive approach to what the family gets right, not a negative approach to alternatives or problems which erode the family’s beneficial impact. In any case, gay marriage and divorce are not the core threat facing the family. The much greater threat is the casual dismissal of marriage and the family as unimportant and irrelevant. As Rebecca J writes:
Perhaps I’m supposed to go around affirming that being married for eighteen years to the same guy who fathered all my kids (after we were married) has made me very happy and that it can make other people happy too. Well, I’m not sure that’s true.
She then goes on to express doubts that the family itself really has anything very much to do with the benefits she enjoys in her life. By far the most incisive criticism of this particular approach comes from Ross Douthat’s January 2014 editorial in the NYT: Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.
The core of Douthat’s piece is the simple observation that a lot of those who are most dismissive of family and marriage are the best practitioners thereof. He notes that the one thing uniting social elites from across the political spectrum (“Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side”) is outright antipathy towards “any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family.” And yet despite this apparent denigration of the traditional moral script, “In upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.”
In other words, social elites—while continuing to enjoy the benefits of marriage and family themselves—have worked hard to erode the capacity for those less fortunate to do so. How has this been accomplished? In what sense is the family under attack? Douthat writes:
Much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.
The conservative view of marriage and family is not as naïve and magical as stereotypes would lead you to believe. We understand that marriage:
only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs.
Unfortunately, however, it is this larger script that has been under attack since the 1970s. We live in a society where lots of folks point out that the divorce rate has declined, but far fewer pair that with a recognition that so has the marriage rate. Marriage is increasingly becoming an exclusive privilege of socially liberal elites (who, in our increasingly hereditary meritocracy, are busily kicking away the ladder after they have climbed it) and religious conservatives (who are increasingly vilified for trying to maintain the social mores and cues from which marriage and the family have historically derived much of their vitality, strength, and accessibility.)
I may as well take a moment to address the elephant in the room: gay marriage. If conservatives are so intent on promoting and strengthening the family because they believe that the two-parent + kids model (“the Family”) is so great for everybody, why aren’t they on the front-lines advocating for gay couples to be able to join their ranks? I can’t address that completely in this post, but it’s absolutely essential to note at least one point: if gay marriage were being promoted first and foremost under this banner, it would be far less disconcerting to social conservatives. It’s not, however. The first recourse of gay marriage proponents is a set of arguments about equality. This approach redefines marriage (before we even start talking about the gender of the spouses) as primarily a right that exists for the sake of the participating spouses as opposed to a binding contract that exists primarily for the sake of their offspring. Along these lines, for example, prominent members of the gay community are open about challenging conventional marriage norms like monogamy. Thus, it’s reasonable to point out that a great deal (not all) of the conflict over gay marriage arises not from the policy itself (how should marriage be defined?) but rather from the particular arguments which have been employed to advocate for same sex marriage thus far. These arguments, while clearly very persuasive in terms of public opinion, do themselves represent a threat to the family over and above any threat represented by the institution of gay marriage itself. In short: I think it’s entirely possible to imagine a pro-family, pro-gay marriage Mormon, but such a Mormon would have to be deeply uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric and logic being used by his or her allies. (Nate Oman has not designated himself this way to my knowledge, but it certainly seems to fit his views as expressed here about two years ago.)
Now, I want to make one more observation from this piece by Douthat. He observes that:
It’s hard for the meritocracy’s inhabitants, I think, to recognize that their own script really can be a kind of a gnostic secret – that people outside their circle are getting a very different message about sex and children and marriage than the one that’s implicitly imparted to the new upper class’s organization kids.
This, it turns out, is a general problem with privilege in all its many and varied incarnation: it is routinely invisible to those who benefit from it. As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of White Folks in 1910, African American have to be very conscious of race while white Americans tend not to think very much about it at all. This is just one of the many “wages of whiteness” (essentially: white privilege) they enjoy without a thought. The concept of white privilege was brought back to the forefront in 1988 by Peggy McIntosh in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.” (Full text here, if you’re curious.) As the title indicates, McIntosh reiterates that privilege is invisible to those who benefit from it. Thus, McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” (emphasis added)
I submit that under any standard definition of privilege (e.g. Wikipedia: “Privilege is the sociological concept that some groups of people have advantages relative to other groups… Specific elements of privilege may be financial or material such as access to housing, education, and jobs, as well as others that are emotional or psychological, such as a sense of personal self-confidence and comfortableness, or having a sense of belonging or worth in society.”) there are more forms of privilege than those associated with identity. At the top of that list, for example, I would talk about the invisible privilege of a low ACE score.
ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experience, and it refers to groundbreaking and heartbreaking research into the extent and the impact of traumatic childhood experiences (including abuse, the death of a parent, living with an alcoholic parent, and others). I wrote previously about this concept here, and it also continues to be a topic of important discussion as with articles like this one from NPR. People with a low ACE score are those who avoided most or all major childhood trauma. People with a high ACE score are those who suffered more. What the research uncovered was that high ACE scores were far, far more common than previously believed and that they had long-reaching negative effects on health, income, incarceration, and a wide variety of important life outcomes. The primary researcher described his reaction when he looked at the results from the first large-scale study this way: “I wept. I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”
A healthy, intact, biological family is another major and invisible privilege. Those who experience it, perhaps like Rebecca J, are unaware of the causal benefits that they have enjoyed in their lives and which they are passing on to their children, children who will have a significant advantage over their peers in school, in work, and in life generally. I do not fault Rebecca J at all for being unaware of her privilege in this particular regard. Unless you know to look for it, you won’t be able to see that it is there. But it is there.
So what does it mean to stand up for the family? It means, first and foremost, recognizing the powerful privilege that being a member of an intact, biological family confers on its members. It means working to strengthen the social scripts that make these benefits widely known and generally accessible. It means lending one’s opinion to policies and attitudes that serve to underscore the importance and blessings of the family.
Of course this work should be done with a spirit of humility, empathy, and tolerance. This is not a unique challenge for us as Mormons. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we understand that there’s no way to teach about the Restoration without at least implying the corollary to that message: the Great Apostasy. Despite the difficulty, we should not abandon our mission to teach about the Restoration. We should simply seek to be effective missionaries and truly Christian disciples by finding ways to speak boldly without contention or animosity or arrogance. We should emphasize the positive things we believe in, not engage in attacking the faith of others, even where we disagree. And, as a general rule, we are fairly good at that. (There is no Mormon analog to the countercult movement, for example, which is something I have always been proud of.) As it goes with the message of the Restoration, so it goes with our mission to stand for the family. It’s a vital message, and one that can bring the world great peace and joy, and so we should do our best to speak out boldly in ways that are loving and uplifting.
If this isn’t concrete enough an answer, let me add one final point. We spend far too much time thinking about the superficial aspects of controversial issues. Which is to say: the legal and political aspects. This tendency is natural. Elections have clear winners and losers. Bills are passed or they are not passed. Courts uphold laws or reject them. This enables us to keep score, to focus our attention on discrete events, and to easily weave simplistic, powerful narratives out of the complexity of real life. But it is mostly an illusion. Laws matter, but they are not as important as the culture that underlies them and provides the context within which they are interpreted and enforced (or not). In this regard, I have found Alma 31:5 coming to mind more and more often as political debates rage all around us:
And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
While I certainly don’t suggest that anyone abandon political activism, I do think that we might want to refocus our efforts on the humble but ultimately more powerful approach of individual, person-to-person “preaching of the word.” To me, this is what standing for the family is primarily about. It is about speaking positively about the family, about the importance of marital fidelity, about the importance chastity, about the blessings of parenthood, and about the central role the family plays in the Plan of Salvation. We all come from Heavenly Parents who provided a home for us before we came to Earth, and who are there waiting to receive us back home when our journey here is through. We all enter this mortal experience with earthly parents in a God-ordained representation of our heavenly origins, and these parents are charged with a sacred duty to honor and love each other and their children and to do their utmost despite personal weaknesses and the vicissitudes of a tempestuous environment to recreate that heavenly home here on Earth.
Not all of us are privileged enough to experience healthy family life as children. Not all of us are blessed enough to be able to participate in families as parents when we are adults. As with all trials, it is a sin to assume that those who miss out on these opportunities do so because of some wickedness on their part (or their parents, or anyone else’s). Some of us receive healthy bodies and minds for this mortal trial. Others do not. In this, there is no shame. Some of us live out our full natural lives in peace. Others are taken much, much too early by violence or accident or disease. In this, there is no shame. Our hope as Mormons is that these mortal inequities and tragedies will find recompense in the eternities where none die, none are sick or infirm, and all have hope of participating in a grand, united, loving family with a perfect Father and Mother at the head.
As Mormons, the family is at the very core of our belief about our origins, the sacred worship we practice here on Earth, and our hoped-for final salvation. There’s a reason that the world knows Mormons as “those weird guys who really care about families.” It’s because that is who we are. To stand for the family, let us start by simply not forgetting who we are and what our message for this world is. When we teach about the Restoration and the Plan of Happiness, perhaps we have already taken the most important step in standing for the family.