It’s not quite General Conference time yet, but the semi-annual marriage question has arisen early this fall. After last April’s Conference, the Salt Lake Tribune popped the question; this time, it’s in the Sacramento Bee, of all places. The Exponent has talked about it lately, and after a fireside with Elder Oaks on Sunday night, my Facebook feed has exploded with discussion. It’s the old menace-to-society dilemma: as the Tribute put it, why are young LDS men pushing back marriage?
There’s a lot to be discussed here–How bad are the marriage stats really? Why does everyone assume only men can be agents in this scenario? How slow a news day must the Sacramento Bee have had?–but I want to focus here on one that I’ve thought about a lot lately: why do Church leaders care so much?
Yes, it appears that the median age of first marriages in Utah has risen (to a shocking 23!), but really, what’s the big worry? (That’s still well below the national average, after all.) 23 is still plenty young enough to have a gaggle of children, and, if I recall correctly, Utah and Idaho still lead the nation in overall rates of adults who marry. Obviously I know that marriage is an important part of our doctrine, so please don’t tell me that; what I’m wondering is why our leaders choose to focus so heavily in their talks and lessons to single adults on getting married, at the expense of focusing on other gospel principles, when marriage is not something that’s entirely within an individual’s control?
(As an aside, I didn’t watch the recent fireside with Elder Oaks, but my brother reported that Sister Oaks de-emphasized stressing about marriage and instead stressed focusing on being a disciple of Christ, regardless of marital status. If so, good for her!)
I can think of several potential reasons for this: maybe Church leaders really do think that single adults need to hear that marriage is important. Maybe they’re anxious about the activity rates and inclusion of single adults in the church and hope to solve the problem by marrying them all off. Listening hard to talks like President Monson’s priesthood session talk last April, or even Elder Oaks’ classic “dating vs. hanging out” talk, though, it seems to me that much of what their criticism really gets at is not just being single but still being, essentially, an adolescent: taking vacations, buying cars and other expensive toys, and generally, as he puts it, “enjoying the carefree life with…friends.” Elder Oaks puts this even more clearly: in his famous 2005 “dating versus hanging out” talk, he chastised single young adults for “the tendency to postpone adult responsibilities, including marriage and family.”
Elder Oaks then went on to focus on marriage and family and lecture YSA about dating, but still, that quote nicely sums up my latest hypothesis on the marriage pressure and anxiety from Church leadership. I think what they’re really worried about, deep down, is not that so many young adults are single, but that so many young adults are delaying adulthood. That is, all these talks are really less about whether young folks marry at 20 or 29 and more about what they do in the intervening years: are they taking on jobs and church callings and independence, financial and otherwise, or are they living in their parents’ basements and playing video games all day?
(As another side note, let me clarify that I never knew any YSA like this, and would be very surprised if they actually exist as plentifully as the stereotypes tell us they do.)
This is a tension in non-Mormon Western culture as well, as any review of a Judd Apatow movie will tell you, though among non-Mormons the anxious older folks agonize endlessly in the New York Times, throw around terms like “Peter Pan Syndrome,” and hate on Seth Rogen. Church leaders, hailing from an older generation where marriage and adulthood were essentially synonymous and from a church where marriage is deep doctrine, push marriage.
I wish they wouldn’t, of course—I think it would be far more productive to treat single adults as if they were, well, adults, and I wish that firesides for single adults focused on core gospel principles rather than marriage, marriage, marriage—but, at the very least, my own tolerance for these talks increased when I started thinking of the marriage-and-dating talks as being about demography, not me. Nowadays I pull a Henry Eyring and give myself my own sermon on the topic, replacing “marry” with “grow up”:
“Now, I have thought a lot lately about you young men who are of an age to [grow up] but who have not yet felt to do so…”
What do you think? Am I just crazy here for thinking there must be an underlying reason to preach marriage and dating to single adults? Or is the underlying reason I’m suggesting just crazy?