It is evident that the LDS church has made the institution of the nuclear family its centerpiece in both its external PR and internal emphasis. There are many wonderful things that can be said about such an approach. The rise and fall of the nuclear family in the 20th century is certainly an interesting moment in history and much can and should be said about this trend in the coming years. I have been doing a bit of reading lately that has got me thinking about the role of the family and the critiques it has faced by different religious thinkers.
Jesus is the most obvious critic of the family. The well-known gospel passages that advocate the dissolution of the family are difficult to make sense out of. On one hand, he sees families as being antithetical to one’s commitment to God (Mt 10:34-39/Lk 12:51-53/GTh 16, 55, 101). On the other, he adopts a more expansive view of the family which includes all those who follow God (Mt 12:46-50/GTh 99). The early Christian usage of “brother” and “sister” to refer to fellow-believers reflects this new order of families. The very early adoption of virginity as a preferred form of discipleship by both Jesus Paul and many other early Christians also points to a view of the family as somehow a hindrance in one’s membership in the Kingdom of God. (It is difficult to make sense of Jesus’s anti-divorce sayings in this context, especially given his anti-oath stance, but that problem we shall save for another day.)
I have also been reading a bit of Gandhi lately. His treatment of his own family has been much discussed and is somewhat controversial. At the same time, his critique of the family as a provincializing institution is less understood. The comparison between Gandhi and Jesus has been frequently made, and the former’s self-fashioning after the latter was also explicit. But one particular shared view seems to be a more expansive view of the family. Familial ethics are still valued, but they should not be restricted to blood relatives. Gandhi’s view of the family is actually much more broad than Jesus’s since it is not restricted to believers.
There has been a well-known argument to contextualize early Mormon polygamy as a critique of the family. Polygamous families attempted to overcome the smallness of traditional families by literally expanding the borders of the family. Husbands and wives were connected to increasing familial networks that could include hundreds and hundreds of people. Jesus, Gandhi, and early Mormons all seemed to think that there was something just too local, particular, and incomplete about traditional families. The communities they created were too small and distracted from the obligations one has to larger social communities, whether of “believers” or of all of humanity. I think that the current LDS view of “families are forever” is also somewhat of a misnomer since it overlooks the fact that eventually all of [saved?] humanity is sealed together, thus obviated familial bonds. We are all family then.
Does the current church’s emphasis on nuclear families sow the seeds of the unraveling of LDS communities? Will the tension between the particular family and the ward or church family eventually lead to the undoing of the bonds and obligations to larger community networks? Do families and a provincial view of family values conflict with ethical obligations and cause a myopic vision of one’s membership in the Kingdom?