This week the Come Follow Me curriculum focused on "The Family: A Proclamation to the World". This, I believe, is the first time in its three years of existence that the Come Follow Me curriculum has focused on anything that isn't canonized scripture. Nobody can deny the heavy emphasis and authoritativeness that church leaders have placed on the Family Proclamation, but it is not canonized scripture, and acting like it is frankly feels like cheating to me. It feels kind of like how BYU's police department tried to have the power of a police department and the privileges of a private security force at the same time. Right now this manual can imply that it's on par with the Official Declarations at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants, but if necessary at some future time the Church can still quietly downplay or even disavow it because it's not actually in the Doctrine and Covenants. I'm not saying that will happen, but the option has been left open. It could also, on the other hand, be added to the Doctrine and Covenants - but I would've thought the ideal time to do that was in 2013 when the Church released an updated edition anyway.
As an asexual person with ambivalent feelings about marriage, of course I likewise have ambivalent feelings about the Family Proclamation. It seems to outline a one-size-fits-all requirement for all of God's children that doesn't quite fit me because of how God made me. At least I like women a little bit, so it could be much worse. I was also nervous because last time I sat in a Sunday school lesson about the Family Proclamation, the teacher ranted about how God wants all women to be full-time homemakers and only use their college education to be better mothers. (The Proclamation itself makes no such claim but is easy to read through that lens, especially when church leaders in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s did make statements to that effect.) This time the teacher did an excellent job, and I commented how nice it is that the Proclamation just gives principles for families to adapt as they see fit rather than outlining step-by-step how every family needs to be run, and we had a great little discussion about LGBTQ+ people. Not just the usual obligatory acknowledgement that gay people exist before continuing the rest of the lesson as if they don't, but an actual show of empathy, appreciation, and love. And someone mentioned that some people "have no sexual attraction at all," and I've never heard anything like that at church and I appreciated it very, very much.
So here are some things I wish more people recognized about the Family Proclamation, things I can't say in Sunday school because they would be too controversial.
It Didn't Come Out of the Blue
I've heard multiple people who were adults in 1995 say that when the Family Proclamation came out, they didn't understand the point because everything it said was so obvious, but now it's become controversial. This, they say, proves that it was prophetic. I'm not saying it wasn't. But even if they didn't notice, the societal changes we've seen today were already well underway in 1995. The Family Proclamation was written in large part to bolster the Church's position in a court battle over same-sex marriage in Hawaii that it had been involved in for four years. Earlier still, in 1984, new Apostle and former lawyer Dallin H. Oaks wrote that "the interests at stake in the proposed legalization of so-called homosexual marriages are sufficient to justify a formal Church position and significant efforts in opposition." Earlier still, in March 1980 - a full fifteen years and six months before the Family Proclamation - the Ensign magazine staff warned that "Passage of the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] would carry with it the risk of extending constitutional protection to immoral same-sex - lesbian and homosexual - marriages." A year after the Family Proclamation, US president Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act to federally define marriage as between a man and a woman and protect states from having to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. (We all know how much Bill Clinton valued the sanctity of opposite-sex marriage.) Even though same-sex marriage wasn't actually legalized in any state until Massachusetts in 2004, it was by no means a brand-new issue at that time.
As documented in Taylor Petrey's book Tabernacles of Clay, the Family Proclamation is also very similar in structure and content to at least three previous documents produced by conservative Christian groups (up to and including their warnings of societal collapse) - the Moral Majority / Eagle Forum / Family Research Council "Family Manifesto" (1988), the Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood "Danvers Statement" (1989), and the Christian Coalition "Contract with the American Family" (May 1995). Nobody can prove that these documents were direct influences, but the likehood that they weren't is close to zero. We dodged a heck of a bullet, though - the Family Proclamation is far more discreet in its enunciation of complementarian gender roles. It makes no mention, for instance, of "the husband's loving, humble headship" or "the wife's intelligent, loving submission." (Barfity barf barf barf.) And again, it doesn't even incorporate then-recent Latter-day Saint rhetoric to the effect that women should only seek employment if their husbands were dead or incapacitated. Such counsel would be worse than useless in today's economy.
Women Were Not Consulted
In a 2005 interview with Gregory Prince, former Relief Society general presidency first counselor Chieko Okazaki said, "I’m on several community boards, and sometimes I’m the only woman there or one of two or three women. I’m on the YWCA advisory board; I’m on the advisory board for the University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work; and I’m on the Belle Spafford Chair board. If I got the message that I was supposed to just sit there and listen to the men, I’d quit that board. I’d say, 'What am I here for?' I speak up a lot in all of these board meetings.
"In contrast, in 1995 when 'The Family: A Proclamation to the World' was written, the Relief Society presidency was asked to come to a meeting. We did, and they read this proclamation. It was all finished. The only question was whether they should present it at the priesthood meeting or at the Relief Society meeting. It didn’t matter to me where it was presented. What I wanted to know was, 'How come we weren’t consulted?'
Greg Prince: "You didn’t even know it was in the works?"
Chieko Okazaki: "No. They just asked us which meeting to present it in, and we said, 'Whatever President Hinckley decides is fine with us.' He decided to do it at the Relief Society meeting. The apostle who was our liaison said, 'Isn’t it wonderful that he made the choice to present it at the Relief Society meeting?' Well, that was fine, but as I read it I thought that we could have made a few changes in it."
In a Q&A session at Claremont University in 2011, former Relief Society general presidency second counselor Aileen H. Clyde gave more detail: "This was in 1995 and our Presidency and Board had been working for a whole year on putting together the general meeting, which we wanted to focus on families of faith within the Church who had all kinds of differences. There were families with father, mother, children at home, there were single-parent families. In some cases the father being the head of the household, in some cases the mother. We had met these families of many descriptions often in the Church and we found that the anchor in their lives was the Church and the gospel, and that they were thriving and surviving and doing what they had to do because of that. So we spent nearly a year putting together a meeting using [unintelligible] and other things to represent these different families.
"About two weeks before General Conference, President Hinckley called us in – talked with us for an hour and a half. We could not understand why we were there, except that he was inquiring about all of the kinds of things that we had done, and he said, 'We're going to have to have you change your general meeting. We would like you to address the traditional family. We do not wish to demonstrate the many kinds of families at this time,' and he said it lovingly and intelligently, but that was a bit of a shock to us. Then he said, 'I have a decision to make and I've been making it as I've sat here this morning.' He said, 'We have forthcoming a proclamation on the family,' and he said, 'I've been trying to decide when to have it announced.' And he said, 'I could do it in General Conference, I could do it in priesthood session, I could do it in your meeting.' And he said, 'While I've sat here today I've decided that I'd like to do it in your Relief Society meeting.' Now brothers and sisters, and those of you who feel that way, we had not at that point seen the Family Proclamation. We saw it when you saw it. When it was presented to the Church. I’m still wondering about the wisdom of that because we would like to have… but on the other hand, we had been heard. We had been heard on many levels." (ellipses do not indicate omitted text)
I certainly hope that if the Family Proclamation were released today, this situation would have been different. Women should certainly have some input into their own roles and status within families. No cisgender man, however empathetic and well-intentioned, knows what it's like to be a woman or has any business telling all women how to woman. Now of course many would argue that the Family Proclamation was written by revelation, and revelation comes straight from God, and therefore it would be exactly the same regardless of who receives it or who tries to put it into words or who writes those words down - but unless it's a transcription of a recording of Jesus' own voice, that's just not how revelation works. The sooner we as a people get that into our heads, the better. Numbers 27 even includes a cool story about Moses being told by God to revise the Law of Moses, which had already come from God in the first place, after Zelophehad's daughters requested a change to allow them to inherit their father's land even though they were women.
Some of it is Not for All Times and Cultures
In my opinion, the main deficiency in today's otherwise excellent Sunday school lesson was the teacher's claim that the Family Proclamation is perfect. She said sometimes it's a source of pain because it's perfect and we're not. I think there's some truth to that, but I'm pretty confident that it's not perfect because not even the Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, claims to be perfect. ("And now, if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men," it says on the Title Page.) And even when scripture is relatively free of what we would consider out-and-out mistakes, it can still be revised or expanded with further light and knowledge. It may also be more applicable to some times and cultures than others.
M. David Huston writes, "The proclamation’s Western/European/twentieth-century notion of family would not have worked and does not work for many, many situations in the Church’s past and present. Between 1843 and 1877 while Brigham Young was president of the Church, an authoritative document on marriage and family would have certainly included overt references to, and a powerful defense of, plural marriage. Additionally, the proclamation’s view of extended family is not consistent with living situations in Latin America and parts of Africa (regions of rapid Church growth), where the percentage of individuals in living in extended families range from 25 to 75 percent, with extended families helping to provide 'an important measure of social and economic support.' Further, the proclamation’s picture of the ideal family is not consistent with the family structures portrayed in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which are most often described as communities of interrelated individuals living in close proximity to each other. Given this dissonance, one approach would be to dismiss these alternative family structures (e.g., the extended-family households and ancient family structures of the Bible and Book of Mormon) as flawed and contrary to divine will. However, another, and I believe more productive, approach is to recognize that the proclamation portrays a culturally specific vision of family that can be easily situated within a particular time and place and is not reflective of many historical and contemporary family structures....
"In sum, the proclamation reflects the social assumptions and conventions of the time and place in which it was produced. Written at a different time, in a different location, by different people, an authoritative statement on marriage and family would reflect different priorities and focal points. To be clear: this does not mean that the proclamation is not inspired. But prophets and their prophetic oracles come out of some social context. Acknowledgment of this situatedness should encourage flexibility in interpreting the proclamation for our time and place and create the expectation that future statements on family structure - which will inevitably be released in different social environments - will reflect and respond to these differences." (emphasis in original)
The Family Proclamation captures in print an awkward transitional period between patriarchal marriage and egalitarian marriage. Men "preside," but women are somehow "equal partners." It teaches that "Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose," but I don't think it's a stretch to see that the gender roles it enunciates are not altogether eternal. It says that "By divine design, fathers... are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families." Heavenly Mother is the Queen of the universe. She does not need Her husband to provide Her with anything or protect Her from anything. It says that "Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children." Heavenly Father possesses an infinite degree of every skill and positive attribute, and has unlimited time and resources. He does not need to divide up responsibilities and have His wife do the "nurturing." So what does gender actually mean for our eternal identity and purpose? I don't know, and anyone who says they do is lying.
I think most couples, in or out of the Church, divide up responsibilities based on individual preferences and abilities, and partners do what needs to be done when they're available to do it. If a father spends forty hours a week (plus commute time) away from his children to "provide" for them while the mother stays home to "nurture" them, is she not also the one responsible to "protect" them during that entire time? And why have we as a people always taken for granted an inseparable connection between "nurturing" and "homemaking" (a word that mercifully appears zero times in the Family Proclamation)? Is it not possible for a mother to read her children bedtime stories (nurturing) while the father washes the dishes (homemaking / providing clean dishes)? Oh right, no, because that's the opposite of the natural order of things.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.