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At 25, The Family proclamation looks prophetic in addressing a 2020 society

The carefully written document outlining the church’s doctrines and principles on marriage and family life was the fifth such “proclamation” in the church’s history

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“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was issued in 1995.

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America Online was giving away free internet startup kits. Steve Young won the Super Bowl MVP. Republicans controlled both houses of the U.S. Congress for the first time since the 1950s, and Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record for the most consecutive games played in Major League Baseball. 

The year was 1995. The date was Sept. 23.

In Salt Lake City, the temperature outside was a comfortable 70 degrees. And inside the Salt Lake Tabernacle — the historic dome-shaped meetinghouse at the center of Temple Square — Gordon B. Hinckley, the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had taken the rostrum to deliver an address during the church’s General Relief Society Meeting.

He had an announcement. 

In a modest blue suit with a mauve-colored necktie, a man sustained by church members as God’s prophet unveiled “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”

That was 25 years ago today.

The carefully written document outlining the church’s doctrines and principles on marriage and family life was the fifth such “proclamation” in the church’s history and carried the signatures of each member of the faith’s highest governing bodies. 

From teachings on sexual relations (“powers of procreation are to be employed only between … [a] husband and wife”) to gender (“gender is an essential characteristic of individual … identity and purpose”), to parental responsibilities (“teach [children] to love and serve one another, obey the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens”), the proclamation brings within its four corners an unambiguous reaffirmation of the faith’s core tenets on family life and human personhood.

Marriage between a man and a woman, the document declares, “is ordained of God.” Children “are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a mother and father who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” The sanctity of life, it continues, is vital to “God’s eternal plan” — so too is the “commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth.” Those who abuse spouse or children, it says, “will one day stand accountable before God.”

It ends with a call to “citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.” 

But in 1995, it’s fair to say that “officers of government” were already headed in that direction.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act had just been signed into law; following shortly behind, the Defense of Marriage Act codified “marriage” as “only a legal union between one man and one woman.” Soon the Child Pornography Prevention Act was passed, aiming to protect children and regulating certain pornographic depictions; the U.S. government also began supporting educational programs to help at-risk couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships.

So why, in the words of President Hinckley that September evening, was there such a need to “warn and forewarn”?

Well, seers, it’s said, peer a bit further over the horizon. And since 1995, there have been a number of trends that concern those of us who study family life. 

While the percent of married individuals within the top two quintiles of income earners has remained surprisingly steady over the past three decades, for the bottom three-fifths, declines have been steep. And estimates today are that about 1/3 of young adults in the United States will never marry. 

Additionally, a sizable plurality of Americans 25 years ago believed premarital sex was “always or almost always” wrong. Today, only a quarter of Americans feel the same. Sexual promiscuity, of course, isn’t limited to premarital adventurism (which has actually started to trend downward in an age of social media and cellphones). Indeed, rates of marital infidelity appear to have increased as well over the past 25 years.

Alongside declining marriage rates, birth rates are at a historic nadir in the United States (now hovering well below the rate of replacement). And fully 40% of children that are born in the U.S. today won’t begin life with the blessing of married parents.

Many raised in single parent and co-habiting households may experience a series of nonbiologically related adult figures in their lives. Rates of child abuse also seem to have increased over the past three decades. Certainly, many single parents, and families of all stripes, raise remarkable children who are healthy, safe and well-acclimated. But there are many others who face real struggles, including troubling increases in childhood symptoms related to anxiety and depression. The rates of youth suicide over the past decade have also increased.

We see shifts in how society understands marriage and family life today.

For instance, 25 years ago, the vast majority of Americans (nearly 70%) defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In 2020, the figures have almost flipped with a significant majority of citizens now in support of same-sex marriage (some 60%), which is now a protected constitutional right.

Many have also questioned whether monogamy is an essential element of marriage.

It’s hard to gauge just how widespread nonmonogamous unions are, but popular press and academic attention laud the “mutual” choice some make to pursue sexual or even asexual emotional connections beyond the bonds of a traditional two-person marriage. A headline from The Atlantic this week, for example, heralds “The Rise of the 3-Parent Family.”

The Somerville, Massachusetts, City Council, meanwhile, recently passed an ordinance extending recognition and certain domestic partner benefits to polyamorous pairings (groupings of three or more in “committed” sexual systems).

Separately, a noted Harvard scholar recently welcomed in the pages of The New York Times the coming biotechnological innovation of in vitro gametogenisis (IVG) or polyparenting, in which the gametes of two, three or more parents of whatever sex are combined to make a baby. 

Not every change merits hand-wringing, of course. And as technology and society change, there are always positive developments.

For example, we see less divorce (even as fewer marry); there’s a slight trend reversal away from family instability in recent years; far fewer teen pregnancies occur today in the U.S. (even as 20-something unmarried childbirth increases). The number of abortions has also decreased substantially.

“In the midst of these tensions, the proclamation points individuals and society toward purpose amid a crisis of meaning; toward stability amid change.” — Hal Boyd, Alan Hawkins

As a society, we have made strides in promoting the dignity of those who feel they are outside the mainstream of traditional family life or gender experiences. And we are making progress in understanding marriage as the union of equal partners.

Despite this good news, countless children and adults still remain isolated from the joy and peace that comes through strong and stable family units. This can’t help but take a toll on the quality of our personal and community lives.

In the midst of these tensions, the proclamation points individuals and society toward purpose amid a crisis of meaning; toward stability amid change. It teaches divine life scripts that tend to lead, overall, to better outcomes for adults and children.

The proclamation begins with recognizing that human personhood is rooted in a divine nature and that this nature aligns with familial orderings that lead to eternal growth. This includes husbands and wives caring “for each other” and their “children”; it includes aligning one’s actions with the “teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ” and relying on the processes of “faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities” to sustain family life. It also means sensible flexibility and the “support” of extended family.

All this was true 25 years ago. It’s still true today. Perhaps then, a central message of the proclamation remains that when it comes to our deepest human needs, much less has changed than we suppose.

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. Alan Hawkins is a professor of family life and is the director of the School of Family Life at Brigham University University.