Family in the Future Tense: Accommodation and Critique in Mormonism’s Past and Present

Family in the Future Tense: Accommodation and Critique in Mormonism’s Past and Present August 4, 2015

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Mormonism. Read other perspectives here.

London_MMB_«Z4_Siemens_Innovation_Centre_-_Inspiro_MetroIn the present moment, I think it’s fair to say, Mormonism is preoccupied with the vitality of heterosexual marriage as the fundamental private social institution and the premiere context for childrearing. As law and social attitudes in the US evolve on this question, Mormonism will be displaced from the position relatively near the mainstream of American society that it has occupied for several decades now. Where is the church headed with respect to its first and primary host culture?

To see the future, lift the lamp of the past. Many observers point to plural marriage and the racial priesthood ban as paradigmatic instances of Mormon tension and accommodation with American society, predicting that the Church will ultimately yield on the issues of family and sexual autonomy as it appeared to do on polygamy and race.

There is a kernel of truth to these predictions. Mormonism thrives in a relationship of weak tension with its surrounding culture, sufficiently distinct to provide an alternative witness to modernity, but not so far afield that it cannot reach out in friendship to the mainstream on the basis of shared foundations. When the tension between the Church and its cultural host becomes extreme, as it did with plural marriage and the priesthood ban, Mormonism has found a way to accommodate change and normalize relations while protecting the legitimacy of prophetic revelation.

Thus I think it is likely that the church will adjust to the ongoing deinstitutionalization of marriage, though I make no predictions on when or how this accommodation might occur. I think it will take the form of incremental cultural change–perhaps swiftly incremental cultural change–rather than theological rupture, and I think that Mormonism will retain its distinctiveness even as it shifts toward the mainstream. This accommodation will not be a shame-faced capitulation, but rather a positive act of ministry to the seedbed society from which it was first called.

But I wonder whether polygamy and the priesthood ban are really the best historical examples of the coming accommodation. It’s instructive to look at the afterlife of the defensive internal discourse that buttressed the Church’s unpopular positions on plural marriage and race. These pro-polygamy and racist ideas have largely (though not entirely) disappeared from Mormonism: most of us encounter these ideas today as curious and sometimes cringe-worthy relics of an earlier age. I do not believe that the Church’s pro-family, anti-gay-marriage rhetoric is destined for the the same dustbin of history.

Consider instead the church’s history of counter-cultural communitarian economic practices. While the US was in the throes of the second industrial revolution leading to the extreme economic inequality of the Gilded Age, Mormonism launched an ambitious experiment in cooperative local economic systems. Latter-day Saints framed communitarianism and its surrounding discourse as a direct challenge to the moral decay and social disruption of avaricious capitalism. In 1875, Mormon apostles exhorted the Saints to “understand that it is our duty to sustain co-operation and to do all in [their] power to make it a success.”

It was not a success. Religious economic communitarianism proved unsustainable, and after Utah achieved statehood these cooperatives died out together with the anti-capitalist rhetoric that had nourished them.

Or so it seemed. As Mormons moved toward integration with mainstream US culture, the rhetorical pendulum swung far to the right, and strains of post-war conservative free-market capitalism began to appear in official LDS discourse. Meanwhile, an economic counterculture was emerging from mainstream American culture, dissatisfied with the military-industrial-corporate milieu that dominated post-war society.

Among these cultural dissidents was a young Latter-day Saint named Hugh Nibley. Nibley discovered in early Mormonism a rich vein of social critique grounded in the sacred, and he revived Brigham Young’s 19th-century anti-capitalist rhetoric in service of his own social criticism of post-war commercialization. Brigham Young’s communitarian ideals, originally aimed at purifying the moral economics of Deseret, achieved a vibrant second life in Nibley’s ongoing crusade for economic justice in post-war America. Nibley was never going to overthrow American capitalism, of course, but the moral force of his argument made him an influential gadfly and corrective at the unjust margins of the mainstream.

I suggest that there is an important likeness between 19th-century Mormon economic rhetoric and 21st-century Mormon family rhetoric. The 1875 “Proclamation on the Economy” makes a stimulating companion piece to the 1995 “Proclamation on the Family.” Both launch an audacious (and perhaps doomed) critique of a powerful locus of American liberalism, decrying moral decay and social deterioration. Both place American Mormons in a situation of great tension with their host culture. And both invoke a vocabulary of social justice grounded in the sacred rather than the purely political.

If I am right, the future of the Mormon family may follow the path of Mormon communitarianism. According to this trajectory, the church will pass through a period of accommodation–perhaps even dramatic accommodation–to mainstream sexual and family norms, and during this time traditionalist family discourse is likely to fade. As a social conservative, however, I believe that the general decline of traditional marriage is likely to hasten the already striking social and economic stratification of our society, and that from this injustice will emerge a countercultural movement seeking a vocabulary of social and family justice grounded in the sacred.

Five or ten decades from now, perhaps a young LDS countercultural dissident with a passion for Mormon history will rediscover the pro-family discourse that has germinated in the cultural conflict we are now witnessing. Perhaps she will revive this discourse in the service of a new moment and a new movement, recognizing a power and a truth thrown into greater relief by greater inequality. From the margins of the future, the Mormon family may provide a witness and a corrective to the injustices that mar the unfolding of modernity.

After all, that’s what Mormonism has always done best.

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