Coming to Terms with “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”

…or at least trying to.

One thing I dislike about conversations revolving around “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” are the ways in which people tend to extrapolate it endlessly with the purpose of making it more palatable. I’m guilty of doing this, too. When I want this document to make more sense to me, I tend to interpret it in ways that are most appealing to me. This time, I want to do something different. I want to lean into the discomfort of finding things that rub me the wrong way in hopes of finding greater understanding after studying and meditating on those things. I am hopeful that I will find universal truths instead of excuses and weak interpretations aimed at making myself feel better. I’m hopeful this will work.

 

Hurdle #1

“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” sets forth ideals of family life and values. While there is nothing wrong with having an ideal definition of family life, some aspects of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” can be very hard to read if you or someone you love is different and does not fit into the neatly prescribed boxes it sets forth. This is where different interpretations of the text start to creep in. One could interpret the text a number of ways as to make the text fit one’s personal situation.

But the very fact that there are different ways to interpret “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is troubling to someone looking for universal truths… and wasn’t that the point of the document in the first place—to establish a concrete definition of the family that would not be abstract? I have heard those few sentences about the roles of fathers and mothers in the home interpreted so many different ways as to make me lose all hope in understanding what I’m supposed to get out of the text itself.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” I agree 100% with this statement. Just look at how confused Joseph Smith was when he heard such wildly different interpretations of the same Biblical passages. If one interpretation of an important text grows more popular, this does not mean it is automatically true. The difference for religious people is that we do believe in absolute truths, and we hope to be guided to them by the Spirit.

This happens a lot when you apply an eternally true principle to this flawed life. It doesn’t always fit very well, and we need to keep our minds open to abstract ways of applying those principles without losing their integrity. In other words, the spirit of the law is more important that the letter of the law, and we should trust the Spirit to guide us in those things we have a hard time understanding.

 

Hurdle #2

So, what is the eternally true principle behind the traditional gender roles set forth in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World?” How do we get to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law when it comes to gender roles within the family?

According to the text, it is a father’s responsibility to “provide the necessities of life and protection for their families,” and mothers “are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” But then the text offers the caveat, “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.”

So, maybe not all stay-home dads are losers. Maybe not all working mothers are apostates. I can totally get behind that interpretation of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” The text sets forth traditional gender roles in the home, but concedes that there are exceptions in extreme circumstances.

But why should exceptions only be extreme such as “disability” or “death”? What if a married woman just wanted to have a successful career? Does that fit the definition of the family in the text? Should we be discouraging ambitious women from working? I hope not. But it seems like that’s what the text is saying.

And what about men who don’t fit this paradigm? I worry about the shame Mormon men experience as a result of the gender roles in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” I am personally acquainted with loads of Mormon men who feel constrained in their career choices. They feel like they aren’t allowed to pursue careers in art, theater, languages, music, film, etc. They feel like they are not allowed to pursue careers that tend not pay out as well as others. Because of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” young men of my generation believe that a career is only valid insofar as it earns lots of money. We’re shaming creativity and culture out of our young men.

When we would rather see the men in our lives disabled or dead than lose their ability to support their entire family on one income, we’re definitely doing something wrong. I don’t think shaming people was ever part of God’s plan, and I don’t think God ever meant us to hold money in such high esteem. In fact, according to Jesus, the love of money is usually the downfall of men. So, why are we teaching our young people to value money so highly?

The question is whether people who shame women for having ambition and career goals or shame men for not earning enough money are misinterpreting “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” If this interpretation is misguided, what is the correct interpretation? I’m not really sure.

 

Hurdle #3

There are some things that “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is very clear about. It is very clear in stating, “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” obviously ruling out gay marriage as a God-sanctioned form of marriage. Religions are well within their rights to define marriage however they want, especially since the process of getting married is often a religious event as well as a civil one. So why does this part of the text bother me?

I guess, in this situation, the text does not bother me so much as the ways in which so many Mormons interpret the text. The text reads, “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” not, “Mormons should always vote against gay rights.” The text says, “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” not, “Mormons are hereafter totally justified in their homophobia.”

Admittedly, any situation in which members of the Church use Church teachings such as “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” as justification for the marginalization of others upsets me, but I guess that’s no reason to despise the document itself. It is the ultimate manifestation of ignorance to think the teachings of Jesus Christ justify anything less than unconditional love for every member of the human family. It’s not Jesus’ fault if someone uses his teachings for evil purposes. The same principle should be applied to “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”

 

Conclusions

I haven’t delved into every aspect of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that deserves a closer look, but I’m tired of reading it over and over again, so here are the highlights of the conclusions I’ve made thus far:

  1. It’s still hard to read this thing knowing some people I really care about don’t fit into “The Family.” I’m not sure how that will all work out in the end. This is probably just one of those situations where faith is required more than understanding. Admitting this is frustrating for me, but we can’t always have all the answers. If we did, faith would be obsolete.
  2. I guess I sometimes don’t have beef with “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” so much as I have beef with Mormons who interpret it in ways that validate their own harmful traditions, justify their hatred and prejudices, or use it as a tool to shame people who are different. This isn’t the fault of the document itself, but the fault of poor judgement on the part of individuals.
  3. The purpose of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was to set a standard, right? To make a definition that would stand out from the fluctuations and changes of the world? I guess one of the ongoing frustrations I have with this document is that it solved some problems, but created others in the process. Maybe it’s meant to be open to interpretation where it is left vague. Maybe the spaces left between the lines of doctrines and principles are meant to be filled by the conscience of every person who tries to read it with the help of the Spirit.

There are parts in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that I really like. It hasn’t been my goal to discredit it, but to face my own issues with it. I’m not sure how well it worked, but I’ll keep praying about it and hoping for better understanding. I guess that’s the only thing I can do.

 

Tyler Clark

Postmodern Mormon

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