The Family is Under Attack
The family is under attack. This is a refrain that we have heard for many years in General Conference and pamphlets and lessons. As a historian, I have a hard time taking these alarmist statements particularly seriously. My own area of specialization is the history of marriage/family/sex, and claims that the family is disintegrating are nothing new.
In 23 B.C.E. the Roman poet Horace rebuked his fellow citizens for having forsaken the stern moral code of the preceding centuries in favor of self-indulgence and decadence:
“The times, fertile in wickedness, have in the first place polluted the marriage state, and [thence] the issue and families. From this fountain perdition being derived, has overwhelmed the nation and people.”Horace, Third Book of Odes, VI
He gloomily concluded that the disintegration of the morality of Roman families would lead to military feebleness and destruction.
Horace was neither the first nor the last to see the family as an institution nearing destruction, nor was he alone in tying the moral health of families to the strength of a nation. Jacques Bertillon, a demographer in nineteenth-century France, realized that the population of his country was growing much less rapidly than that of Germany. He blamed voluntary contraception, which he called “Malthusianism” (after Thomas Malthus) for the imminent demise of his people.
“The decadence of France is due, as we’ve said, to the rarity of birth in our country. . . it is the result of malthusianism long and obstinately practiced. But there is this difference between violent causes of devastation and Malthusianism, that this latter calamity, while slowly destroying the country, has not caused suffering to any of its inhabitants. Thus it is true that the interests of individuals can be entirely opposed to those of the collective. This means that few people are terrified as they ought to be of the depopulation of France, and that our country is disappearing slowly from the world such that none of the interested parties protest. It is death by chloroform. It isn’t painful but it is death all the same.”Jacques Bertillion, Le problème de la dépopulation (Paris: Colin, 1897). Translation mine.
These two examples are intended only as a sample of the many politicians, religious leaders, philosophers and demagogues who have, in their own eras, expressed a sense of panic about how the family is under attack and, if we could only turn back time, all would be well. Of course having arrived in the halcyon past, these wistful time travelers would perhaps be upset to learn that the family was also in danger of destruction in the golden years as well. Thus, I have a difficult time taking terribly seriously the position that now, suddenly, there is a totally new and fresh crisis of the family.
I also struggle with the phrase “the family is under attack” because it commits one of the cardinal errors I am always trying to root out of my students’ writing. I refer, of course, to passive sentence construction. Who is attacking the family? While the call to action is certainly alarming, the phrase obscures agency and allows each hearer to imagine their own bogeyman into existence. Is it gay marriage? Divorce? iPhones? Your child marrying outside the church? Woe!
Yet for all my skepticism, I have to agree that the warnings of the prophets that “the family will come under attack” were absolutely correct. Only, as usual, we were looking the wrong direction. Comfortable middle-class Euro-American Saints assumed that ourfamilies would be victims, and the aggressor would be some nebulous foe from whom we must defend our kin. Only now do I see that the families under attack come from the Global South, and I and my peers are the attackers. I am the agent of destruction, ripping children from parents’ arms, isolating them, abusing them, traumatizing each one and causing irreparable psychological damage.
I am a citizen of the United States. My state does not share a border with Mexico. I do not work for ICE. I don’t run a for-profit child prison. But I am a citizen, and my country is attacking families in my name. To me it seems that this is the moment when American members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints must decide if they will listen to the council of prophets, or if they will worship at the altar of the GOP, because in this moment the two are not compatible with one another. The message from Christ and from modern revelation is clear – families must be preserved. The attacker is real, and the attacker is us.