Several years ago, I invited a guest speaker to present to one of my political science courses at Brigham Young University. He talked about his service in the state Legislature and his campaigns for office, but in the middle of that presentation he stopped and asked the students how many of them believed that same-sex marriage should be legal. (This was prior to the Obergefell decision that legalized same sex marriage in 2015.)
To my surprise, at least half the students in the class raised their hands. I began to wonder if BYU students, who are among the most faithful in the church, supported same-sex marriage, how many other Latter-day Saint young adults did so as well.
A survey by Religion News columnist Jana Riess conducted in 2016 discovered that 40% of Latter-day Saints between the ages of 18 and 26 supported same-sex marriage. That is a sizable percentage of the church’s young adults. But another survey, this one conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and taken one year later, found 52% of Latter-day Saints between 18 and 29 supported gay marriage. Now that minority has become a majority.
That’s why a recent lesson in the church’s Sunday School curriculum seemed so out of place. It was on “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” This proclamation was first announced by President Gordon B. Hinckley in a General Relief Society Meeting on September 23, 1995. It describes marriage as being between only a man and a woman, that gender is eternal and that men and women have distinctive roles in the family. Then, it urges “responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”
The lesson on this proclamation was unusual because Sunday School addresses the scriptural canon of the church – the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” has never been canonized by a vote of the church in general conference; it was only announced.
Also, church leaders have said that church members should put the culture wars behind them. Although there are many parts of the proclamation that nearly everyone would agree with, the family proclamation was part of the culture war. It was church leadership setting down a marker against same-sex marriage. One of the church leader quotes in the teacher’s manual that could be shared with the class (and was available for any member to read) said that the proclamation’s declarations are “visibly different from some current laws, practices, and advocacy of the world in which we live” and continued to include same-sex marriage and child-rearing by same-sex couples as examples.
This kind of language, along with the proclamation’s call to change government policy to reflect the proclamation, seems to be intended to reignite the culture wars rather than end them. In the Sunday School class I attended, the teacher and some class members made references to threats to the family. They were not referring to divorce, which disintegrates families more than anything else. Rather, they were focusing on same-sex marriage, which has little or no effect on other people’s marriages.
Bringing back the culture wars is not likely to help the church to retain young adults who have no problem with same sex marriage. Nor is it likely to aid the church’s missionary work, particularly among young people. Instead, the more probable consequence is more people walking away from the church because they view it as homophobic.
The first thing that church members viewing that lesson read was a statement by a church leader declaring that “our attitude toward and use of the family proclamation is [a test] for this generation. I pray for all Latter-day Saints to stand firm in that test.”
However, if the exclusion of others beyond the traditional nuclear family (mother, father, children) that is implicit in the family proclamation becomes a litmus test, many church members, and particularly its next generation, may not pass.
Richard Davis, Orem, is the author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics.”