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Opposing families in defense of The Family

December 10, 2015

Over at Times and Seasons, Julie Smith wrote a great post “A Rhetoric of Indirection”, wherein she discussed her misgivings over the LDS church’s increasing emphasis of “The Family” as its centering anchor for doctrine. From her post:

But. 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. Yes, families were huge–literally and figuratively–in the church I joined. But that was the result of a rhetoric of indirection; it wasn’t the result of a direct focus on The Family. I feel like the church I am in now is one where the swimmers are obsessively trying to look good in skinny jeans. And they–by which I mean “we”–are not only not looking so hot these days, but we are going to lose our races. This emphasis on The Family is going to do us more harm than good. And it is starting to feel like idolatry to me. 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. And anything that doesn’t mesh well with The Family–be it an older single member or a child raised by gay parents–needs to be ignored or banished so as not to interfere with The Family.

This week, Rosalynde Welch wrote an article in response questioning whether the difference between Julie and herself might instead represent a sort of “chicken-and-egg” problem with respect to family or individual primacy.

From Rosalynde’s post:

…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.

These are just snippets of the articles, so definitely click those links to read on, and especially read the comments between Julie and Rosalynde on Rosalynde’s article.

However, the reason I wrote this comment was because of a secondary consideration. I think that both Julie and Rosalynde make compelling points — chalk that up to “the infuriating genius of Mormonism,” I suppose — but my thoughts were slightly elsewhere. The 17th comment, written by zjg, gets at this point:

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.

This dovetailed nicely with a line that Rosalynde had written in one of her comments:

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.

The basic thought is this: it seems to me that by opposing same-sex marriage, Mormonism is in some way opposing families to defend “The Family”.

Gay family

I understand that heteronormativity is strongly reinforced as the ideal — the church especially wants to double down on it, even after all the political efforts have shaken out.

But I still feel that there could be room to recognize that committed monogamous same-sex marriages are far more consistent with the church’s pro-family rhetoric than a lot of other alternatives.

I know that many people (especially religious commentators) say that same-sex marriage really isn’t consistent, because, so the narrative goes, gay people really just want to change marriage for the worse. According to this narrative, rather than binding gay couples in monogamy, gay couples simply bring their promiscuity into the marital institution.

But it seems to me that this still concedes ground to the “secular humanism” from zjg’s comment — that same-sex marriage will ultimately look like what secular folks who have no attachment to antiquated religious values want it to look like.

My argument would be that in the same way that religions try to mold their straight members behavior — why can’t they try to mold their gay members behavior*? By being inclusive of same-sex marriage, the LDS church could promote the ideal of monogamy over promiscuity rather than “conceding” that ground away.

*Obviously, I know that some people will react: “Of course the LDS church tries to gay members’ behavior — by suggesting that they don’t identify as gay and that they don’t act on their attractions. If you agree that the LDS church can mold members behaviors, why not support the Mormon advocacy of celibacy for gay members?”
My response would be similar to what I’ve said in the past: Mormonism ultimately doesn’t have a telos for celibacy. Especially if Mormonism prioritizes family, sociality, and relationships, then long-term singleness could be arguably more inconsistent with those Mormon values than committed, monogamous (yet same-sex) relationships. I mean, yeah, it still throws single people under the bus (which is why I would say Julie’s argument still has merit…it seems obvious that the Gospel should have applicability to single people…considering, as far as it is popularly taught, Jesus wasn’t personally a big family guy), but I guess that’s part of that infuriating genius.
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4 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    My response would be similar to what I’ve said in the past: Mormonism ultimately doesn’t have a telos for celibacy. Especially if Mormonism prioritizes family, sociality, and relationships, then long-term singleness could be arguably more inconsistent with those Mormon values than committed, monogamous (yet same-sex) relationships. I mean, yeah, it still throws single people under the bus (which is why I would say Julie’s argument still has merit…it seems obvious that the Gospel should have applicability to single people…considering, as far as it is popularly taught, Jesus wasn’t personally a big family guy), but I guess that’s part of that infuriating genius.

    This is an interesting and new (to me) take on it. I think you make a good point when you say that “singleness could be arguably more inconsistent with those Mormon values than committed, monogamous (yet same-sex) relationships”.

    But it nevertheless remains a fact that homosexuality (same-sex sexual relations) is specifically and repeatedly proscribed in Christian revelation, whereas singleness is not. Singleness, in Mormon doctrine (playing devil’s advocate since I’m obviously not a Mormon), is not ideal but is not in any way considered sinful either. In the hierarchy of Mormon values, anything which is not sinful must be preferable to anything which is sinful, even if the non-sinful thing is not the best possible thing.

    Further, as I understand it, heterosexual monogamous marriage being at the top of the hierarchy of values, is essentially tied to the related value of having lots of kids, which homosexual couples can’t do. So while a homosexual couple might be fulfilling the ideal of not being single, it could never fulfill the ideal of procreating fruitfully and abundantly, and in that respect is no better than being single.

  2. Agellius,

    In terms of a traditional Christian (and especially a Catholic) understanding, I totally agree. (But I also think that traditional Christianity and especially Catholicism do have telos for singleness. I mean, for Paul, marriage is clearly not the ideal…it’s a stop gap measure for people who otherwise can’t control their passions).

    But I think this is an area of great difference for Mormonism. I mean, I would say that in the same way a lot of traditional Christians think Mormonism has an utterly heretical view of God, I would say that from that view of God spills differences in the values of relationships and so on. So, in Mormonism, when I say singleness has no telos, I think I might go so far as to say that singleness *might be* considered sinful. (This is definitely clear cut for heterosexuals. If you are not actively pursuing marriage and family, that is not OK. I don’t think most Mormons would say the same thing for homosexuals, but my point would be to point out that Mormon rhetoric on homosexuality is just a mess. 😉 )

    Although I get your point that the hierarchy of values would relate to having lots of kids, I wouldn’t say that’s something “homosexual couples can’t do.” Rather, I would say the response should be: “strive to adopt and take care of children whose birth parents can’t or aren’t taking care of them.”

  3. Agellius permalink

    I don’t believe that singleness is actually a sin in Mormonism, but I won’t argue the point since I have no dog in this fight. : )

    Regarding gay couples adopting, I’m not sure that solves the procreation problem since I believe you are supposed to go on procreating even after death, whereas it’s doubtful that there will be a role for adoption in the afterlife since nobody dies.

  4. I will just say that there’s a LOT of rhetoric pointing out that if people aren’t doing everything they can to get married and have children sooner rather than later, then they are wrong. Heterosexual marriage was even (problematically) advised as a therapeutic for same-sex attraction. (So, even the calls for homosexual celibacy are “new” in terms of Mormon rhetoric.)

    I agree that for certain narratives (e.g., spirit gestation in spirit wombs), same-sex relationships pose problems for procreating even after death, but would suggest here that 1) it’s not really set in stone that the whole “spirit gestation in spirit wombs” thing is how things work out and 2) at least some folks are suggesting that the super early LDS “law of adoption” practice be brought back and applied w/r/t same sex relationships. [Not suggesting that this practice was originally applied in that circumstance, only that there are the theological building blocks to make something like that work out.]

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