If the LDS Church had a tagline, it would probably be “families are forever.” As a Mormon missionary, our focus really was on the family: “All those other religions are until death do us part. Become a Mormon and you can be with your children and husband/wife forever!” (admittedly, this probably would not have been a strong selling point with those in troubled relationships)
This emphasis on family attracted me to the Church. When I went to meetings on Sunday, I escaped my own Jerry Springer-esque existence (kids who are traumatized by accidental discovery of acts of infidelity filmed by a parent, next at 10!) to a world populated by the Cleavers, the Brady Bunch and the cast of Father Knows Best. Here were models for a happy existence! (Later I learned that these families had their issues, including that of the physically abusive Stake President/respected city manager who was later ex’d for a long-term relationship with a prostitute.)
Over the years, my experience has reinforced that the Church isn’t about the family; the Church is ultimately about the Church. Sure, the family’s in there, but it’s subordinate to the great family of Adam (never the “Family of Eve”). Jesus himself said, “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law…He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35&37). Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac kind of reinforces this God First, Family Second principle. When I was disowned for converting, I was praised for placing the Gospel truth above familly and found great comfort in the promises that members of my family would eventually join. Joseph Smith sent fathers from impoverished frontier families to proselytize overseas for many years at a time (fortunately, Joseph made good on his promises to take care of their lovely wives for them). Church members make solemn oaths “before God, angels, and these witnesses at this altar…[to] consecrate yourselves, your time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion.” This is heavy pressure in a mostly volunteer organization. I have friends who feel like they were Church widows or orphans because of how much time their parents and spouses devoted to the institution. Sister Cleaver doesn’t see much of Bishop Cleaver, who doesn’t have the luxury of spending his evenings with his feet up, smoking his pipe and dispensing fatherly wisdom to Beaver and Wally (who are at Scouting or Young Men’s anyway).
I acknowledge that for the many members who value both Church and family, this ordering of priorities isn’t felt as a strong conflict. But for some of us this hierarchy can create massive dissonance and can, to put it crudely but appropriately, really fuck some of us up. Take my case, for example: I grew out of my convictions in God and the Church in my mid-20s. Because I was already married and had two children, what should have been a fairly straightforward journey of conscience and something that should have been worked out primarily between me and Jana was vastly complicated by feelings of guilt and shame reinforced by my environment: I felt unworthy, because my partner deserved to be married to a worthy priesthood holder; I was married to someone who for some time thought I was placing the her eternal welfare and that of her children in jeopardy (exacerbated by jabs made by Mormon extended family members); my primary sources of social and emotional support encouraged me to suppress my issues and to maintain a façade that further aggravated my cognitive dissonance. I fell into depression and was a pretty sucky father and husband during much of this time. As should be obvious, I’m still working through much of the anger and emotional damage sustained during this time. My family history doesn’t fit into any sitcoms.
And there are many others who have similar stories. A culture of sexual shame outside of narrowly prescribed marriage relationships hastens many people into getting married and starting families in their late teens and early twenties. So what happens when a young Mormon mother or father comes to intellectual maturity as a feminist, atheist, agnostic, pagan, universalist, humanist, etc., and awakens to find that they are they are deeply embedded in an institution they now abhor (or at best harbor a profound ambivalent towards) and that the same organizaiton has a death grip on them is through their family? The poor souls often find themselves torn between non-options: supress who they are and try to preserve harmony in the family they love and to which they are irrevocably bound; or risk losing or damaging their loved ones to find their own fulfillment. I’m speaking in vague terms here, because I’ve seen so many manifestations: talented mothers who followed the prophets and gave up careers to stay home but who now wonder what they’ve lost, skeptic spouses who portray themselves as believers to keep their partners happy, married children who hide their inactivity from parents, parents whose conversion is as valid as their partner’s continuing commitment to Mormonism but who feel they must raise the children under offensive LDS principles. These situations are varied and complex, and are often filled with human suffering. And overshadowing this quiet desperation is the Church and its teachings on the family.
I recognize that many, perhaps most members of the Church don’t experience it this way. Their family life may vary as much as the Bradies do from the Simpsons, but I hope that we can realize too that there are those in the Church who feel their experience has more parallels with the Corleones of the Godfather than the Andersons of Father Knows Best.
I hope that some of you will share your experiences as well–I tried to give voice to a perspective rarely shared in the general Church environment, but there are so many nuances, so many variations that I’ve missed.