Defending the White Family

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.

 

  1. “The Proclamation on the Family: Transcending the Cultural Confusion,” Ensign August 2015, 50-55 []
  2. 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  []
  3. Spiegel and Garu, 2015, 16-17 []
  4. 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).” []
  5. 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) []

29 comments

  1. I have never heard that there is a Gospel principle that some people have to sacrifice their human rights to benefit society. I would have thought that society becomes more celestial as we have our rights mutually recognised. I assume that we will all be equal in the celestial kingdom “all are alike unto God black and white, bond and free, male and female” so would that not also be the ideal here too.

    Are we teaching false doctrine in the Ensign, when we teach the idea that everyone except white males need to sacrifice to defend the privilege of white males. Women did not have it all that good in the 60s either, unless they were lucky enough to marry a good white man. Police did not respond to rape or violence within marriage, and sexual assault in the workplace could not successful, complained about.
    You read that the white family was the ideal that is being defended, by everyone else having their rights curtailed. I think many of the women married to white males also sacrificed a lot, and so it may only be the white males who were the beneficiaries. When no fault divorce became available, most were initiated by women.
    Surely a society where one section benefits because everyone else suffers is not a healthy, or Christlike society, and we should not be running articles promoting this concept. It sounds a lot like we are promoting white male suprematism, to me.




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  2. Children, gays, and racial minorities were much more vulnerable to abuse in Bruce Hafens ideal world of the 60s.




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  3. I don’t subscribe to the Ensign, partly to insulate myself from articles like this. But Hafen seriously wrote that it’s a judge’s job to “decide whether a marriage was beyond repair”??? I. am. speechless.

    “I have never heard that there is a Gospel principle that some people have to sacrifice their human rights to benefit society.” AMEN, Geoff.

    Thanks, Melyngoch, for this incisive critique. I’m reminded that the biggest criticism of wickedness in the Book of Mormon came not because of anything to do with family structure, but because they were oppressing the poor and the vulnerable.




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  4. God will force no man [or woman] to heaven, but we should force people to stay married who don’t want to be – for their own good, and the sake of their children! That seems like a good idea.




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  5. I guess I am laboring under the utopia delusion that we are ALL family, together. The Celestial Kingdom, in my mind, will have none of these hard drawn lines of “we-were-a-nuclear-family-on-earth”.




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  6. I don’t think it’s fair to paint Hafen’s argument as a call to “return to the 1960s.” You point out all of the other social issues going on at the time and try to criticize his point by saying that he wants to go back to that time with all of the negative baggage. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to look back, take the positive, and leave the negative behind. I don’t think his lack of mentioning or excluding that negative baggage implies that he supports it.




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  7. JCW, I’m not arguing that Hafen necessarily wants to return to the 60s. (Nor do I, in fact, want to only call out Hafen–he’s conveniently symptomatic of what I see as, at core, a racist discourse of the family throughout Mormonism.) But nostalgia for an era in which everyone who wasn’t a straight white male was measurably worse is going, in the end, to mostly serve the interests of straight white males. If you construct a broad cultural narrative (as Hafen is explicitly doing here, although again, it’s hardly his invention) while being enormously selective about which relevant parts of history will matter to your narrative, then you’re creating not history, but propaganda. And in this case that propaganda is racist. (Also misogynistic and homophobic and weirdly nasty about adoptive parents.)




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  8. JCW, Can you list some of the positives for women, gays, children, and racial minorities, of 1960s society compared to now? There is a long list going in the other direction.




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  9. #6: I see what you’re getting at, but all it takes for a speaker to acknowledge that properly is a single line, something like: “While many strides forward in civil rights/science/etc. took place, other changes in society presented new challenges to the family.” Otherwise it kind of does come off a little weird, particularly to members of color like myself who have to raise an eyebrow when older [white] members reminisce about how much simpler things were “back then.”




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  10. I love your response here, Melyngoch. I just wanted to mention another trend since 1960, in the US anyway. In 1960, birth control was illegal and marital rape was legal. So women couldn’t say no to sex and they couldn’t say no to babies. This says a lot about the type of marriage Hafen sees as ideal. It’s clearly more of the old-school woman-as-property and man-as-owner, and certainly not any of this new-fangled equal partners type. It’s kind of horrifying, actually.




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  11. My reading of Bruce C. Hafen’s article was quite different. When I read: “[new legal theories] helped the United States begin to overcome its embarrassing history of racial discrimination”, I didn’t think that was nostalgia for pre-civil rights race relations. Most of the article attempts to connect changes in marriage law to real, important societal changes in divorce and family formation. This was often a subject of his earlier academic work. The 1980s spikes in crime and divorce severely affected Black America, so the insinuations about only protecting white families are galling. Now, how much of those big sociological trends were actually caused by changes in family law is an open question. He does acknowledge that multiple causes may be at play, but since the article reprints a speech to law society, I’m not surprised it selectively focuses on family law.

    Maybe the focus is in the wrong place for an Ensign article, and certainly many of his asserts should be debated. Bruce C. Hafen has, for decades, written with nuance on both family law and feminism. Engaging what he has actually written would probably be more interesting than slander.




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  12. Geoff-Aus (#8) – Hafen’s list of ways women and children are worse off is towards the end of the article (on page 54 of the print edition). He claims increases in juvenile crime, child abuse, childhood depression, child poverty, and domestic violence against women. (Less under-reporting and under-diagnosis is at least part of the story for childhood depression and domestic violence. That’s not addressed in the article. The footnote leads to his Covenant Hearts book; I don’t know what discussion the data get there.)

    Bro. Jones (#9) – The first paragraph on page 52 might be what you seek. It’s a little awkward, because he also uses that paragraph to introduce jargon from his Michigan Law Review article. He later says that the legal theories that helped reduce racial and gender discrimination caused problems when applied to divorce law, but I’m puzzled how that leads to the interpretations seen above.




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  13. Brian, Yes I saw his list and thought most of them were most likely a result of under reporting in the 60s. Some like domestic violence, and child abuse were not seen as something police should get involved in, so not reported. The child poverty I do not know about.
    Do you agree with his main idea that some people have to sacrifice their human rights for the common good? And when you take out the groups sacrificing, the common good seems to be white males?




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  14. There’s a really strange shift in your comment, Brian. You go from implicitly admitting that there could be other readings of Hafen’s article and conceding that “maybe the focus is wrong” to deciding that anyone who disagrees with you isn’t reading “what he has actually written” and is engaged in “slander.”




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  15. Geoff – A (#14) – Hafen uses the term individual interests instead of human rights; I don’t know how important that distinction is. I’m fine with eminent domain, so I guess I agree that some rights (like normal property rights) sometimes should be sacrificed for overall welfare. Parents can be expected to forgo some of their right to privacy and some measure of their right to end relationships at will after having children. But on the specific example of a judge denying or delaying a divorce, I’m not completely convinced.

    Ziff (#15) – I shouldn’t have written the last paragraph, and especially that last sentence, of my comment 12. I apologize. (The strange shifts come because I agree with some of the larger themes of Melyngloch’s critique while feeling upset at what I think is a misrepresentation of Bruce C. Hafen, whom I like. The “ever darkening world” motif and some of the more thoughtless “defend the family” rhetoric are hard to reconcile with the extremely positive developments of the last half century. I also agree that Ensign articles have a responsibility to inspire readers towards greater charity for real people. Hafen could have done better in adapting his Clark Society remarks, but he is far from a monster nostalgic for segregation. I don’t get to decree what readings valid, but somewhere there’s a line between different interpretations and outright misreadings. The allegations that Hafen is serving racist interests look to me more like the latter.)




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  16. Brian, Bruce Hafen may have other more nuanced views, but as a foreign member I only see what he writes in the Ensign, and that is seen by many as having weight (not quite scripture).
    This article does not seem to teach the Gospel of Christ, so what is it doing in the official magazine of the church?




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  17. Geoff-A (#17) – That’s a fair question for whoever makes decisions at the Ensign. I hope I didn’t imply pop sociology fits well there. If any church magazine staff are reading, more articles on New Testament parables, please.




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  18. Brian A, thanks remaining engaged in this (and for revising your evaluation of my OP as slanderous 🙂 ). I see Hafen as symptomatic of a much larger problem–one I was already thinking through and drafting a post about before the August Ensign arrived–and I want to be addressing that problem, not just one writer or one article. I think we’re clueless about the way we “defend the family” in the present, neglectful of the issues that plague real families whose struggles fall outside of the spectrum of concerns church leaders care about, and that the gap there is racially charged. Hafen’s article, though, makes clear how implicit racism in the present relies on the explicit racism of the past. I don’t think Hafen is a “monster nostalgic for segregation,” but he is willing idealize a part of the ideology of that period while denying that ideology’s entanglement with and support for segregation, lynchings, etc., a kind of passive, even apathetic racism that assumes the conditions of non-white lives are marginal in the way we narrate history. Hafen didn’t invent this kind of tunnel-vision nostalgia, but he does embrace it with full throat, so he gets to be my prime bad example here. But the problem I want to draw attention to is much, much bigger.




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  19. A few thoughts. You’ve contextualized American race issues in the ’60s, and I certainly don’t disagree with what you’ve spelled out, but I would argue that a similar essay on women’s issues and the women’s movement could be drawn, which might be even more relevant and threatening to the world view articulated in the Ensign article. Both issues were part of the post WWII era and contributory to change.

    What I find to be troubling is the extremely weighty authority Hafen brings to the discussion. He’s an articulate scholar, a knowledgeable attorney and is more well versed in family case law and precedent than most, and on top of all that his article was codified by the Ensign. Thank you for helping us to evaluate it with other tools.




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  20. Mortimer, I absolutely agree with your first paragraph. But I wrote this because I think that, while it’s generally understood that there’s tension (to say the least) between the church’s family ideology and the ideals of feminism and gay rights, the implicit racism of that ideology has gone largely undiscussed. It’s obvious that The Family is heteronormative and patriarchal. I think it’s a little more insidious that The Family is also white.




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  21. Thank you for your patience with me, but I still don’t understand. I get that a family about to be separated by deportation has far more pressing concerns than the subtleties of divorce law. Yet, I don’t think the issues Hafen writes about here (changes in marriage patterns, connections to child poverty, etc.) are especially white issues. Quite possibly Hafen overstates the link between marriage law and these sociological trends, but whatever their causes, changes in family structure in the late 20th century were a big deal with important consequences for every race.

    I also don’t yet follow the connections to the racism of the past. In what ways are showing-of-fault divorce law or the cultural expectation of marriage before having children entangled with segregation and lynchings? They were part of an ideology in the 1960s (and in many other time periods), but weren’t they some of the parts that had the most cross-cultural support?




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  22. Thank you especially for the first section of this article – it articulates beautifully what I was sputtering about in the car on the way home from church last Sunday.




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  23. So, no defending the societal ethics that support The Family because – Black People? and White People?

    If you presume to lecture White People that the reason they must give up their family social morality is because of Black people, then you are immoral, dull, insulting to Black People, and have a curious desire to spew inanities.

    You are correct. You should not have written this. Your conception of Black People, and non-Middle class White People is cartoonish to say the least. No one is going to give up their sense of social morality because you try and fail to link racism to everything that White People (and many Blacks) defend.

    Is this what the West has come to? Anything that liberals want is gotten by means of crying racism, no matter how silly and specious the claim?

    And haven’t you heard? Quoting Coates has the credibility of a Hitler quote these days: when you do so to make a serious point, you’ve broken a rhetorical rule whose consequence is that you automatically lose the debate. Internet etiquette aside, quoting race hustlers will only confine you to an echo chamber.




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  24. Re your last point: Religious family incubation has always been about the provision of a moral and spiritual framework in which families could survive and thrive, not agitation for social privilege and monetary benefits that any secular organization could accomplish. By confusing the responsibility of the Church, you work to dismantle it. What separates you from a communist in practical terms? Nothing. Religion is not about material provisions nor even love. It is about identifying the sin and providing a means of salvation should penance be made. It is about creating Gods Kingdom in this Earthly Life, and having a place in it in the afterlife. None of that is accomplished through your communized Christianity. Acceptance of and care for the sinner regardless of their Faith is purposeless toward Christian ends. Providing them a means for their salvation in the next life and their self-salvation in this life, through adherence to the Law, is not.




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  25. D, you’re entirely within your rights to disagree with Melyngoch. You’re well outside both logic and courtesy when you argue that her position is indistinguishable from communism and then hold her accountable for the sins of a communized Christianity which she has not endorsed. Further comments in that vein will be deleted.




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  26. D his defence of the family includes some new doctrine, that many people have to give up their individual interests, for the social interest. That there is a balance between these interests, and that balance was correct in 1960.
    Would a Zion society, be one where everyone’s interests were respected , and equal, or would we see an ideal society as Bro Haffen seems to be like the 60s where women were much more oppressed, as were racial minorities, gay people, and children, so that white males could benefit at their expense. What are the benefits of a 1960 society that we should aspire to it?




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