In last month’s (August) Ensign, Elder Bruce C. Hafen purports to put the Proclamation on the Family into its historical and cultural context.1 Hafen’s view is that marriage as an institution is collapsing, and the family with it, because society has come to value the individual’s interest at the expense of social interests, one of which is the support and privileging of stable heterosexual nuclear families. He views this as a cultural shift driven by legal changes in the last half decade, before which “laws maintained a workable balance between social interests and individual interests.” In the 60s and 70s, however, the courts “began to interpret family laws in ways that gave individual interests a much higher priority than social interests, which knocked the legal and social system off balance.” (52) Hafen picks out no-fault divorce laws, the availability of child custody and adoption to single people, abortion, and (as always) same-sex marriage as elements of this threat to the family, and mourns how far the family has fallen since the year 1960, to which he makes repeated and regretful reference, as his reference point for a happier time when families were stronger and we better enforced pro-social values.
But here are some other fun things going on in 1960: Former Klan member Robert Byrd, who notoriously would rather “die a thousand times . . . than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds,” was in his first term in the Senate. The governor of Georgia promised to cut off state funding to any schools that attempted racial integration. Nearly all of the students at William Frantz Elementary School withdrew after six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the school’s first black student, enrolled; Ruby subsequently spent the entire school year in a classroom by herself. Around five percent of blacks were voting in southern states, where poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of lynching kept them from the polls. 3.1 percent of black adults graduated from college, and on average, a black man could expect to make less than sixty percent of what a white man took home in wages. Interracial marriage was illegal in twenty-two states.2 Oh, and also, black Mormons couldn’t hold the priesthood, go to the temple, or be sealed to their families.
I suspect that very few black Americans are eager to return to the year 1960 (to say nothing of women, LGBT individuals, and people of color in general). Hafen can idealize this historical period because while he can see losses between then and now, he is dismissive of the gains. And indeed, he is a straight white man, and so most of the gains were not his.
In this and so many articles and talks like it, where the “assault” on the family is decried and the members rallied to “defend it,” the family is not any real family, and the model it represents is implicitly a middle-class, white model of family. That is, The Family(™) is an ideological fiction, an imagined family for whom the legal and social status quo of the mid-twentieth century is understood to be preferred–this is the time period almost invariably invoked when church leaders wax nostalgic about a time before the feminists, the gays, and (for a previous generation of church leadership), the misegenators rose up to destroy the family. When we’re told to defend the family, we’re being told to defend, not actual families, but an idea of The Family, which rests on an idealized mid-20th-century image of family (white, middle-class, suburban, with parental labor divided according to nineteenth-century gender roles). We are not, with this ideology, defending poor families, immigrant families, families of color, or most global families.
Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story, in this year’s wrenching meditation on race in America Between the World and Me, of slipping away from his parents as a child to find a playground:
When they found me, Dad did what every parent I knew would have done—he reached for his belt. I remember watching him in a kind of daze, awed at the distance between punishment and offense. Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice—“Either I can beat him, or the police.” Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit.3
Coates echoes a narrative and a point made elsewhere—that the threat of police violence intersects with, helps drive, domestic, family violence. This kind of anxious family violence was broadly visible (at least to white America) most recently in the case of mother in Baltimore who was caught on camera hitting her teenage son to keep him from participating in the April 2015 protests. Her explanation: “I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” The narrative that black parents beat their children to teach them respect for authority, so that they don’t get killed when the authority is legal and armed, has its problems (Stacey Patton argues, for example, that this narrative plays into the notion that black people are inherently more “thuggish,” more in need of domestication.) But it is clear nonetheless that the pervasive specter of state-sanctioned violence against black individuals, the experience of knowing the police force to be more against you than for you, translates into violence within the family. Black families are arguably in this way “under assault” in a much more literal and pressing way than church rhetoric about families can accommodate.
As Hafen’s article was going to press, the white policeman who shot Samuel DuBose in the head in Cincinnati was pleading “not guilty” to charges of murder. The trial was beginning for the officer who shot Jonathan Ferrell ten times and killed him; Ferrell, a black man, was seeking help after crashing his car. When we talk about defending the family, we aren’t talking about what happens to DuBose’s mother and sisters in the aftermath of his utterly unnecessary death. We aren’t talking about Samaria Rice mourning her twelve-year-old child, or Sandra Bland’s family looking for answers. We aren’t talking about Eric Garner’s children or Renisha McBride’s parents. We aren’t talking about what it means for families when a lifetime struggling in a racist landscape can give you PTSD, or when your “black-sounding” name makes it harder to find work.
Definitely white and kind of middle-class, I have been hesitant to write this. I can’t possibly catalog the injustices and threats particular to black families in the United States. Nor can I tell black families whether or how to find themselves in the LDS church’s obsessive family discourse. But I can identify this much: it rings hollow when we busily decry the assault that same-sex marriage or accessible abortions make on our ideology of The Family, but have not a word to say about the policies and structures that make black parents feel responsible to teach their children to fear the police, that incarcerate black people at six times the rate of white people,4 that hold no one responsible in the choking death of a black man for the crime of selling cigarettes. Surely these literal attacks on the black bodies that make up black families demand more attention from those who aspire to defend the family than, say, the inability of the state to keep people married who don’t want to be.5 The fact that they don’t merit such attention is indicative of which families The Family has reference to, and which it does not.
It’s been encouraging, the last week or so, to watch the #togetheriwthoutborders hashtag spread on social media. Here is a place where the church has recognized a real threat to real families and taken a position that does not throw actual families under the ideological bus of The Family—and where, I hope, church members can articulate the real needs of their real families and expect the church to be on their side.
If we’re going to defend the family, let’s do it with more of this, more work to keep actual families together, more help for families facing unbearable pressures and struggles. Let’s defend refugee families, families threatened or split up by deportation, poor families who can’t afford healthcare and caretakers who can’t get time off to stay with a sick child, children whose parents are in prison for minor drug charges, parents watching their children shuttled down the school-to-prison pipeline.
The alternative is insupportable. Defending The Family while neglecting the needs of real families is intrinsically a way of caring only about the families that look like yours.
- “The Proclamation on the Family: Transcending the Cultural Confusion,” Ensign August 2015, 50-55 [↩]
- Voting statistics from Steven Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (Lexington Books, 1976), 22; educational numbers available here and earning satistics here [↩]
- Spiegel and Garu, 2015, 16-17 [↩]
- The NAACP reports that furthermore, “5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites,” and “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” [↩]
- Hafen seems to find it concerning that judges generally do not exercise the authority to deny a couple a divorce: “In theory, only a judge, who still represented society’s interests, could decide whether a marriage was beyond repair. But in practice, family court judges deferred to the personal preference of the couple and eventually liberated whichever partner wanted to end the marriage. (52) [↩]