SALT LAKE CITY — The gap between the LDS Church's position on families and Western culture has widened dramatically in the 20 years since the 15 church leaders known to Mormons as prophets and apostles issued "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" in September 1995.
At the same time, the divide between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other conservative religions has narrowed so much that new partnerships now exist that were unthinkable a few decades ago, historians and scholars say.
The family proclamation has played a major role in those developments, and it remains as unique, distinctive and bold as it was when President Gordon B. Hinckley introduced it at a general Relief Society meeting of the church on Sept. 23, 1995. It has achieved an unusual staying power because of its use at every level in the church, from those who issued it — the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — to children's Primary classes in Africa and a college course at Brigham Young University that dissects and amplifies the document's 600 words.
"The usage of the proclamation among the leadership and membership of the church is really striking," said Patrick Mason, director of Claremont Graduate University's North American Religion and Mormon Studies programs.
"It hasn't been canonized, and as far as I know there's no immediate impulse to canonize it, to include it in either the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price, but just the way that it is used shows its importance.
"Mormons don't frame copies of (D&C) Section 76 and put it on the wall of their home. Just that act is a really significant statement of saying, 'This is really part of the bedrock of who we are and what we believe as Latter-day Saints in the 21st century.'"
LDS prophets, or the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, have issued messages, press releases, declarations and other statements, but the family proclamation was preceded by only four previous proclamations in the church's history since it was founded in 1830.
"For them to label it a proclamation does put it in rarefied air," Mason said. "There's only been a handful throughout the history of the church. ... Just by labeling it a 'proclamation' does elevate it in importance."
It's even unique among the proclamations, said Mason and Brigham Young University School of Family Life professor Alan Hawkins, who with others created the university course on the proclamation — SFL 100, Strengthening Marriage and Family: Proclamation Principles and Scholarship.
"This without question has been the most public and most influential proclamation the church has ever given," Hawkins said.
Church leaders give out framed copies of the proclamation to heads of state who visit church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
"I don't want to minimize the other proclamations," Hawkins added, "but this one has legs. It's 20 years later, and it's still going strong. My students today, many of them weren't born when it came out, but they know it, they've been aware of it their entire lives.
"From what I can tell, it's been intentional. In 1996 and '97, church leaders focused all of the general authority training sessions on the proclamation. They've had worldwide leadership training meetings for local leaders on it. It has seeped deeply into the lexicon of preaching in this church, both from the pulpit in the Conference Center and the pulpits in our local congregations in every part of the world."
In the proclamation, God is telling "us what a family ought to be and why," President Henry B. Eyring, today the first counselor in the church's First Presidency, wrote in a church publication in 1998 while a member of the Twelve.
The proclamation states clearly the doctrine of the family: God ordained that a family would have a father, a mother and children. It also states, "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation."
President Eyring wrote, "It takes courage and faith to plan for what God holds before you as the ideal rather than what might be forced upon you by circumstances."
In the mid-20th century, those LDS teachings were so similar to Western cultural norms that "Mormons were held up by the general culture as paragons of the American family ideal," Mason said. "There was this sense that 'this is what we all believe about families, and Mormons maybe do it better than anybody.'"
That had begun to change by 1995, but since the proclamation, same-sex marriage has become legal throughout the United States and in Europe, creating sharpened contrasts between Western culture and the church's position. Elder Robert D. Hales of the Twelve illustrated the widening gap during a talk at a church general conference two years ago, recalling a devotional address he gave at BYU in 1982.
"I invited the students to imagine that the church was on one side of the podium, right here," he said, gesturing with one hand, "and the world was just a foot or two away on the other side. This represented the 'very short distance between where the world was and where the church standards were' when I was in college. Then, standing before the students 30 years later, I held up my hands in the same manner and explained, 'The world has gone far afield; (it has traveled; it is nowhere to be seen;) it has proceeded way, way out, all the way out of this (building and around the world). What we and our children and our grandchildren have to remember is that the church will remain constant, (it’s still right here; yet) the world will keep moving — that gap is (becoming) wider and wider.'"
The proclamation "put the church into conflict with a lot of groups," Mason said, "with other religious groups and political groups and other groups such as especially the LGBT community."
On the other hand, LDS leaders weren't the only religious leaders to make a statement in the 1990s about traditional families. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, also took a similar stand.
In that way, the proclamation "has become a point of common ground with other churches and religious groups," Mason said, "most notably evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Muslims, conservative Jews and others.
"The relationship with the Roman Catholic Church has really developed over the past 20 years. I think we can see this is a direct byproduct of the church's stance on families, that it has made partners of the LDS Church and the Roman Catholic Church to the point that BYU is welcoming prominent Roman Catholic theologians and cardinals to speak at BYU and LDS leaders like President Henry B. Eyring have been in Rome speaking about families in the heart of Catholicism."
At the invitation of the Vatican's Holy See Pontifical Council for the Family, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Twelve, spoke last week at the World Meeting on Families, a major Catholic event held once every three years. He shared principles and activities that unify Mormon families worldwide
"LDS leaders are invited to events they simply weren't 30 to 40 years ago," Mason said. "This common cause over the concern about the family has brought Mormons and Catholics together."
The centrality of proclamation is underscored on the church's official website, lds.org. The second navigation tab on the top of the home page is "Families and Individuals," and the first item on the pull-down menu is "Doctrine of the Family." Click on that and the proclamation appears with a short introduction:
"The family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of his children. The living prophets tell us why."
"This is one of the really distinctive aspects of LDS theology," Mason said. "Sometimes we talk about this as if nobody else loves their families like Mormons love their families. That's just not true, of course. Actually, the fact is that most people sort of, kind of think they'll be with their families in the next life. That's not actually the doctrinal teaching of any other Christian denomination, but for most people, the formal theology of whatever church they attend doesn't really matter so much as that just in their gut they expect that they'll be with their loved ones in the next life.
"The difference is that Mormonism has a formal theology that explicates that. In Mormonism, it's not just an idea, or a hope or a warm, fuzzy feeling that we'll all be with our loved ones in the next life. Mormonism has a set of rituals and ordinances that formalize these relationships as men and women are sealed in Mormon temples and then sealed to their children. The sealing power of the Mormon priesthood binds families together and transcends the power of death and the grave."
For Latter-day Saints, then, families aren't just a laboratory where they work out their Christian discipleship, Mason said — they are an essential unit for what Mormons call "exaltation."
To understand Latter-day Saints, Hawkins said, people have to understand, too, that Mormons believe in the eternal family, that every person is a son or daughter of heavenly parents.
"It's fundamental," he said. "It's not just historic tradition, it's fundamental to our understanding of the purpose of God."
BYU's School of Family Life has five sections of SFL 100 this semester. The class is also available online as a free, personal enrichment course for those who simply want to study the proclamation and its 600 words.
The proclamation generated a lot of buzz on campus, Hawkins said, and the BYU president at the time, Elder Merrill J. Bateman, a member of the church's Quorum of the Seventy, charged family life faculty to respond.
"It eventually led us to create a class that was an in-depth exploration of proclamation principles," Hawkins said. "We dissected into a number of chunks and shaped those into chapters for a textbook where we bring together the secular and the spiritual, the research and the sacred teachings in the proclamation."
Mason said Latter-day Saints use it more than any other source for defining the church's doctrines about gender, family and sexuality.
"The fact is that many of the points of doctrine that are taught in the family proclamation are only found implicitly or in kind of scattershot fashion across the scriptures," Mason said, "so actually what the proclamation does is it becomes a really effective way to have a one-stop shop where people can look for a quick and handy reference about what the church teaches about the family, gender and sexuality.
"That is part of the success of the proclamation. It pulls together a lot of strands that are found throughout scripture, throughout the teaching of the prophets over the past almost 200 years, all together in one page that is easily accessible, easy to read, but also with a kind of depth and potency that it's been able to sustain examinations over 20 years, and I think it will continue to for many years."
The proclamation warns that the disintegration of the family will bring "calamities" to people, communities and nations, and Hawkins said BYU's class adds research to illustrate those warnings. Students report the research gives them a new "language" for talking about families with other people.
For example, cohabitation for many Americans has become a lab for marriage, but research shows that it often traps people into marriage relationships that have higher rates of divorce and lower marital satisfaction.
Hawkins also said family instability is leading to increased rates of rape and family abuse, especially among more vulnerable parts of society.
The problems addressed in the proclamation had existed long before it was issued, Hawkins and Mason said. The proclamation was a product of its time, as cultural change began to gather steam.
"Certainly they anticipated the family was going to be a major issue over the next generation," Mason said, "and here we are 20 years later. Not everything has changed, but a lot has. The ground has shifted significantly under our feet."
He called it natural for men considered prophets to respond.
"Religion always operates in time and in culture," he said. "Prophets are always responding to the times in which they live. They speak out on issues of contemporary concern. They not only look backward but they look forward and they look at what's happening in the general culture and they speak out with God's voice, and with God's authority, to the issues they see as of most concern. It is a prophetic document in that sense."
While authoritative, the family proclamation is brief. Mason called that an absolute strength, but said it also provides flexibility in the interpretation of some points.
"It allows a certain kind of elasticity moving forward," he said. "I think actually that's the way a lot of Joseph Smith's revelations worked as well. Oftentimes they were more evocative and illustrative than systematic."
President Hinckley's daughter, Virginia Hinckley Pearce, looked back and ahead when she wrote an essay published on the proclamation's 20-year-anniversary last week, providing a close-up view of the event.
She said she has faith that God is real and life's purpose is to improve enough to live with him again. She expressed hope that all people — the family of God — would follow the proclamation's counsel to live by principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work and wholesome recreational activities.
She wrote, "Let’s work on those things for another 20 years!"