Chapter 6: Four C’s of the Mormon Family: Chastity, Conjugality, Children, and Chauvinism
Tim B. Heaton, “Four C’s of the Mormon Family: Chastity, Conjugality, Children, and Chauvinism,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 107–24.
Chapter 6: Four C’s of the Mormon Family: Chastity, Conjugality, Children, and Chauvinism
Tim B. Heaton
Tim B. Heaton was associate professor of sociology and researcher with the Family and Demographic Research Institute at Brigham Young University when this was published. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin.
From its inception, Mormonism has been characterized by a blend of traditional American culture mixed with unique, sometimes even radical, elements. Such was the case with the nineteenth-century Mormon family system which combined aspects of Puritan family morality with a unique theology of family continuity in the hereafter and a radical form of marriage—polygamy. During the twentieth century, the Mormon family has been subjected to many of the same social forces that impact the nation. Parallels between Mormon and national trends might lead to the mistaken impression that the Mormon family is no longer distinctive. Perhaps it would appear that Mormons are running several years behind the rest of the country on a course that will eventually lead to convergence.
The thesis of this paper is that, despite being influenced by broader social forces, the Mormon family remains distinctive in many ways; that distinctive elements are integrated into a family system; and that this family system will continue to influence individual and organizational behavior in Mormondom for years to come. The first section documents four areas of contemporary Mormon family distinctiveness. The second discusses the interrelatedness of these areas as they form the basis for a family system by considering the theological, demographic, and social bases for these aspects of the family system. The third section speculates about the future of this family system.
The Four C’s
Chastity. Studies of adolescents and young adults demonstrate the conservative nature of Mormon premarital sexual behavior. In a comparison of Mormons at an intermountain university with several other college campuses, Christensen (1976) found that Mormon men and women have lower approval of and exposure to premarital coitus than other students with the exception of a Midwestern Men-nonite college. These findings are corroborated in surveys of college students done by Smith (1974), who found low percentages of Mormons reporting nonmarital coitus when compared with Catholics, Protestants, or those with no religious preference. Similar conclusions apply to a small subset of adolescent Mormons in the 1971 National Survey of Young Women. Tabulations from this national sample (in possession of the author) indicate that 15 percent of Mormon teenagers had engaged in premarital intercourse compared to 26 percent for the entire sample. Obviously, not all Mormon youth conform to the^Church’s moral code, but evidence consistently indicates that premarital chastity is more common among Mormons than is generally the case.
These differentials in premarital sexual intercourse are confirmed in a more recent survey of high school students. Miller and associates (1985) surveyed students in several high schools in three Western states. Seventeen percent of the Mormon students reported premarital sexual experience, compared with 48 percent of Catholics, 51 percent of those with no religion, and 67 percent of Protestants. In a multiple regression analysis, religious affiliation was second only to church attendance in predicting sexual experience, with Mormons being significantly lower than other groups.
The high teenage birthrate in Utah appears to contradict claims that premarital sex is low among Mormons. When teenage abortions are taken into account to estimate teenage pregnancy, however, our conclusion is sustained (Chadwick, 1986; Smith, 1986). The low teenage pregnancy rate in Utah is consistent with survey reports of premarital chastity.
The religious influence on sexual behavior becomes even more evident when we compare active and inactive Mormons. In the above-mentioned 1971 National Survey of Young Women, only 3 percent of the active Mormons had experienced premarital intercourse, compared to 23 percent for the inactive group. Indeed, the inactive group was not appreciably different from the national average. Data collected by Smith (1974) yield a similar conclusion. Moreover, the differential in sexual experience between active and inactive Mormons is greater than that for Protestants or Catholics (see Table 1). The percentage point difference between most and least active is 30 for Catholic men, 36 for Protestant men, and 48 for Mormon men. Comparable figures for women are 26 for Catholics, 18 for Protestants and 43 for Mormons. Not only does membership in the Mormon church result in more conservative sexual behavior, but level of participation has a greater effect on sexual behavior than is generally the case.
Table 1. Percentages Who are Premarital Virgins by Religion and Frequency of Church Attendance
|Religion||Men Attendance||Women Attendance|
Source: Smith, 1974
To be sure, Mormons have been influenced by the sexual revolution of the ‘60s. Moreover, there is some evidence that Utahns are more conservative than those living elsewhere (Mauss, 1976). Nevertheless, the most active Mormons appear to have been more insulated from social trends. According to the surveys done by Smith (1974; 1976), between 1950 and 1972 premarital virginity changed little for Mormons who attended church regularly (from 95 to 98 percent for men, and from 96 to 98 percent for women); but there was a liberalizing tendency among those who did not attend church (from 63 to 52 percent for men, and from 85 to 62 percent for women). To say that Mormons simply follow national trends on a delayed basis does not accurately portray these differences between attending and nonattending Mormons.
Institutional control over sexual behavior establishes the church’s influence over family life (Christensen, 1976). Sexual behavior is thus regulated by the moral codes of the church. Once legitimacy is conceded to the church to regulate sexual motivation, the stage is set for further religious influence on patterns of marriage, child-rearing, and sex role allocation. In short, there is convincing evidence that Mormons are less likely to engage in premarital sexual activity; and we argue that this willingness to submit to the moral authority of the church in nonmarital sexual behavior is a key component of the distinctive family life-style.
Conjugality. By conjugality, we refer to the tendency for Mormons to be married. In comparison with Catholics, Protestants, and persons with no religious preference, Mormons have a higher percentage of persons over age 30 who have ever married than any other religious group (see Table 2).
Table 2. Marriage Patterns of Mormons Compared with Other Religious Groups
% over the age of 30
who have ever married
% of ever married
who have ever divorced
% of ever divorced
Note: Nonwhites are excluded from the data.
Source: Heaton and Goodman (1985)
Data from the Canadian census also indicate that Mormons have an above average proclivity toward marriage: 74.2 percent have been married compared to a national figure of 72.2 percent. Since most people marry, differences in the percentage ever married may seem small. The relative likelihood of never marrying makes the comparison more dramatic. Catholics over 30 are more than three times more likely than Mormons to have never married. Protestants are about twice as likely, and those with no religion at least four times more likely to have never married than Mormons.
The marriage norm also shows up when we look at divorce rates (see Table 2). Mormons are less divorce prone than Catholics or Protestants, and are far below the unchurched in divorce. The low propensity to divorce has often gone unnoticed because Utah’s divorce rate is above the national average. More recent analysis of census data points to possible explanations for the high state divorce rate (Goodman and Heaton, 1986). First, Utah has liberal divorce laws. Second, the married population of Utah is concentrated in the younger ages when the risk of divorce is greater. This accentuates the year-to-year divorce rate, even if the percentage who will ever get divorced is low. Finally, the high rate of remarriage in Utah creates a large group susceptible to multiple divorces which will increase the number of divorces, but not the percentage ever divorced.
Religious involvement is closely related to divorce. Data reported by Heaton and Goodman (1985) indicate that of Mormons who attend church regularly, 10.2 percent of men and 15.2 percent of women have experienced divorce compared to 21.6 percent of men and 26.3 percent of women who do not attend regularly. Of course, it is not clear from these percentages whether people who attend church don’t get divorced or divorced people don’t attend church. Temple marriage, however, gives some indication of the couples’ religious commitment at the initiation of the marriage. Among ever married men, of those married in the temple only 5.4 percent have been divorced compared to 27.8 percent of the nontemple group. Among women, the comparable figures are 6.5 for temple marriages, and 32.7 for nontemple marriages. (Heaton and Goodman, 1985.) In other words, nontemple marriages run a six times higher risk of divorce than temple marriages.
Even when Mormons do get divorced, they are more likely to remarry than is generally the case (see Table 2). This high rate of remarriage attests to the high value placed on conjugality.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Mormon church does not contain an overabundance of single people. In fact, it may well be the strong emphasis placed on marriage that accentuates the plight of the singles. High rates of marriage, low divorce, and high remarriage after divorce clearly point to marriage as the normative status. Given the large group who conform to this norm, the unmarried form a minority group within the church.
Children. The most widely noted demographic characteristic of the Mormon family is its high fertility. Even in the early Utah period when the nation as a whole had a high birthrate, Mormon fertility was above the national average (Mineau et al., 1979)- Above-average fertility has been maintained throughout the twentieth century, at least in Utah (Thornton, 1979). Although Utah fertility (often accepted as a barometer of Mormon fertility) has followed the national trend, the two lines do not run parallel. Indeed, the smallest difference between Utah and national birthrates in the recent past occurred in the mid-sixties. During the seventies the Utah rate increased while the national rate was declining, creating an even wider gap (Heaton and Calkins, 1983). Since 1980 the Utah rate has dropped substantially, but it still remains the highest state in the nation. In 1984, Utah’s crude birthrate was 23.7, 50 percent higher than the national rate. Likewise, a national sample of Mormons shows their number of children ever born to be approximately 50 percent higher than other religious groups, even after excluding nonwhites. (Heaton and Goodman, 1985.) Thus, the pattern of high fertility has continued into the present. Fertility expectations of Utah’s Mormon high school students also imply that differentials will persist into the future (Toney et al, 1985).
It is important to note that high Mormon fertility is not simply a result of reluctance to use birth control. In fact, information from a small sample of Mormons participating in a national study indicates that Mormons are just as likely as the national population to use modern methods of birth control at some point in their life (Heaton and Calkins, 1983). For Mormons, however, contraceptive use is often delayed until after child-rearing has begun, and frequency of use is lowered in order to obtain the larger desired family size. For lack of a better term, this tendency might be called positive pronatalism based on a desire for more children as contrasted with negative pronatalism based on ethical restrictions against the use of contraceptives.
Despite the clear documentation of a high fertility rate, surprisingly little empirical analysis has been done on the determinants of Mormon fertility. One recent analysis of a national sample of Mormons demonstrates two interesting aspects of their fertility (Heaton, 1986). First, no single variable is sufficient to explain why some Mormons have larger families. Marital commitment to a pronatalist ideology, association with a Mormon reference group, and socialization within a pronatalist context each share in the explanation. In combination, these factors can account for larger Mormon family size: Mormons who do not fit within these categories do not have fertility rates any higher than the national average. Second, the demographic determinants of fertility may affect Mormons in a different way than is generally the case. In national studies, higher socioeconomic status, as measured by income and education, often has a negative relationship with fertility rates. Among Mormons, however, family income and wife’s education both have a positive relationship with fertility (Heaton, 1986; Thomas, 1979). Thus, Mormonism alters the socioeconomic basis for fertility decision making.
As with premarital sexual experience, religious involvement has a stronger relationship with fertility among Mormons than is the case for other religious groups (Heaton and Goodman, 1985). Moreover, socioeconomic variables have a different effect on fertility of highly involved Mormons than is the case for less involved Mormons (Heaton, 1986). These differences add to the evidence that religiosity plays an important role in Mormon family size.
Qualitative analysis of Mormons with large families also points to the importance of religious belief (Bahr et al, 1982). In their interviews with women having at least seven children, Bahr and associates found a predominance of religious explanations for their behavior. Among the reasons given were: (1) each family has a predestined number of children; (2) having large families conforms to the counsel of church leaders; (3) interference in the reproductive process is wrong; and (4) spirits in heaven should have the opportunity of coming to good Mormon families. Although the reasons vary, they all reflect a religious orientation to fertility decisions.
In short, Mormons take seriously the biblical injunction to multiply and replenish the earth. The most religious and those with greater resources (that is, education and income) tend to have the largest families. Fertility is imbued with religious meaning. If any single demographic trait distinguishes Mormon families it is high fertility.
Chauvinism. Two elements of chauvinism have received some attention in empirical research, namely: the division of labor between husband and wife, and attribution of authority in the home. A division of labor is not necessarily chauvinistic; but in contemporary society it often turns out that way. Labor force participation provides control over economic resources, prestige and opportunities for advancement which are often lacking in the homemaking role.
Although earlier reviews of the literature on Mormon families do not find consistent evidence that Mormons are more chauvinistic than other groups (Thomas, 1983; Campbell and Campbell, 1977), more recent evidence shows greater consistency. Table 3 compares responses from Mormons selected from a random statewide survey of Utahns with a national sample in the General Social Survey (conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago). In each case the Mormon sample is about twice as likely to take a more traditional position in favor of the motherhood role than is the national sample. According to Mormons, the mother should be the homemaker and the father should be the breadwinner.
Table 3. Mormon and National Opinions on Sex Roles
|A preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works.|
agree or not sure
|It is more important for a wife to help her husband's career than to have one herself.|
In comparing role definitions (who should perform the task) and role enactment (who does perform the role), Mormons have different patterns than other religious groups (Bahr and Chadwick, 1984). Mormons have less egalitarian definitions of who should take the roles of provider, housekeeper, caring for children, socializing children and home repair then do other religious groups. When it comes to role enactment, Mormons are still less egalitarian in housekeeping, caring for children and socializing children; but the gap in role enactment is much smaller than is the case for role definition (Bahr, 1982).
Comparison of Mormon female employment rates challenges the ideology of a gender-based division of labor. Using Utah as a surrogate for Mormons, census data indicate that Utah women are much less distinctive in their employment patterns than they once were (Bahr, 1979). Closer inspection of these data, however, indicates that much of the convergence between Utah and national female employment rates is a result of greater increases in part-time employment on the part of Utah women. Even though the 1980 census indicates that female employment rates in Utah are virtually identical to the national rate, Utah’s married women with children under age six are less likely to work than their national counterparts, and those who do work are more likely to work part-time (Heaton and Parkinson, 1985). A recent survey of Mormon women in the United States indicates a similar pattern of low employment when children are young, but high employment otherwise (Goodman and Heaton, 1986). In short, Mormon women do work; but during the years when children are young, they devote less time to employment than do most women in the United States.
When the issue of chauvinism is stated more bluntly in terms of who has power to make the final decision on these roles, Mormon women have less power than women in other religious groups (Bahr and Bahr, 1977). In fact, Mormon men are reported to have more authority in decision making, even in the roles where women are expected to take more of the responsibility. In short, the traditional Mormon position on sex roles is more a matter of stated attitude, or perhaps even ideology, than one of actual behavior. Nevertheless, Mormons are more traditional when it comes to tasks such as taking care of the house and children; but men are attributed with more power in decision making when there is disagreement.
Consistent with the findings cited above, Mormons who attend church regularly are less inclined to have egalitarian views of the household division of labor than those who seldom attend church (Bahr and Chadwick, 1984). An average of 7 percent of the active Mormons give egalitarian definitions to the roles of provider, housekeeper, and caring for children, compared to 13 percent of the group who seldom attends church. Likewise, 9 percent of the actives and 14 percent of the inactives report egalitarian performance of these roles.
Information from a younger age group suggests that these trends may continue into the future. In a survey of college students from four universities, Mormons scored higher on a macho scale than Catholics, mainline Protestants, or persons with no religious preference; and the Mormon scores were comparable to fundamentalist Protestants (Brinkerhoff and Mackie, 1984). Using age as a surrogate for trends, there is no clear-cut trend toward egalitarian marital relationships (Albrecht et al., 1979). Thus, a traditional view of appropriate sex roles appears to be an inherent part of the Mormon family life-style.
The Mormon Family System
The four aspects of the Mormon family we have documented above are not isolated behavior patterns. Rather they are linked together by common theological underpinnings, by demographic interdependence, and by a social structure which integrates them into a particular life-style.
Theology. Mormon doctrine posits both a preexistence in which all persons live in spirit form before being born on earth, and a postmortal existence where all persons will continue to maintain an individual identity. The Mormon conception of heaven includes various levels or degrees of glory, the greatest of which is reserved for married couples who will continue their role as parents by creating spirit children. In temples, Mormons are married for time and eternity, thus initiating families which will persist in the hereafter. Families play a central role by (1) providing a mechanism for bringing premortal spirits to earth; (2) creating a training and proving ground for those who will acquire the role of parents in the postmortal existence; and (3) actually establishing eternal marriage bonds. Specific ethical injunctions regarding family life are often derived from this theological perspective (Smith, 1986; Christopherson, 1954). For example, McConkie (1966) discusses Mormon theology with many scriptural references, under such topics as preexistence, spirit children, heaven, celestial kingdom, sexual immorality, and celestial marriage. Talmage (1968) in his discussion of temples emphasizes the importance of the family both in this world and the world to come, especially his discussion in chapters 3 and 4.
Premarital and extramarital sexual relations are anathema because they threaten the integrity of the marital bond, and violate God’s plan for bringing premortal spirits to earth (see McConkie, 1966, under adultery). Procreation, the theological term for reproduction, is viewed as a God-given responsibility which should occur within the family unit (Kimball, 1981). Indeed, exhortations to remain chaste became more prominent between 1951 and 1979 (Ryt-ting and Rytting, 1982). Nonmarital sex is a serious sin, surpassed only by murder and denying a witness from the Holy Ghost. The Doctrine and Covenants instructs that unrepentant adulterers should be excommunicated (D&C 42:24–26). Although reasons for excommunication are confidential, common perception is that adultery is the single most common cause of excommunication. Bishops are instructed to interview the youth (ages 12–18) on a yearly basis and their conformity to the “law of chastity” is to be one of the topics discussed. In short, this aspect of theology is emphasized by organizational policy. Although Mormonism does not condemn all nonreproductive coitus, it is expected that those who engage in the pleasures of sex should be willing to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. Thus, marriage is the legitimate arena for sexual expression. Teenagers and adults are taught to abide by the church’s moral code, and violations of this code can jeopardize one’s membership in the church.
Obviously, marriage is essential to the entire plan. Indeed, only those who marry in a Mormon temple are eligible for the highest degree of celestial glory. The small minority who never have the chance to marry are consoled with the promise that they will have that opportunity in the postmortal existence, and are counseled to develop personal attributes that will help them perform well when the time arrives. Those who avoid opportunities to marry are advised that they are not in conformity with God’s plan. Divorce is permitted, but not advised. Since ideal marriages are intended to survive the eternities, couples are encouraged to work out their problems rather than resort to divorce (Kimball, 1981).
Having and rearing children is a fundamental part of the process. In so doing, parents participate with God in furthering the development of premortal spirits, and gain experiences in preparation for their own role as eternal parents. The family is the divine organization designed for the purpose of reproduction and socialization of children. Any other institution is an inferior substitute, and couples who avoid having children are missing a key aspect of their own religious and spiritual development.
The importance of parenthood was reaffirmed in a recent talk by Ezra Taft Benson, the President of the LDS Church (1987). Husbands and wives are given the role of “co-creators” who “should eagerly and prayerfully invite children into their homes” (p. 3). They are instructed not to postpone childbearing or curtail family size for “personal or selfish reasons” (p. 5). Material goods or convenience cannot compare with “a righteous posterity” (p. 4). The greatest joys and blessings in life are derived from family roles.
The logical link between importance of the family and male authority is not well developed, but male authority is an integrated aspect of the theology. Men are designated to be the spiritual leaders and heads of Mormon households (Kimball, 1981). If deemed worthy, they are given the priesthood, which is defined as the authority to act in God’s name. This priesthood can be used not only to direct the affairs of the church, but also to govern the household. Husbands are designated as the providers and wives as the homemakers. Of course, wives and mothers can seek spiritual guidance from God through prayer and can help with the provider role when necessary. Men are also encouraged to support their wives in homemaking tasks. Still, the ideal home has a father who is both spiritual leader and provider for the family. A mother’s God-ordained role is “to conceive, to bear, to nourish, to love, and to train” (Benson, 1987: 5). Women are taught that a primary expression of their faith is a willingness to acknowledge the role of priesthood authority in their lives (Relief Society Course of Study, 1986). In short, each of the aspects of the family we described in section one is embedded in a theology of the family.
One aspect of the theology which is not widely discussed is more egalitarian in its implications. When husband and wife are married in the temple, they jointly enter into an “order of the Priesthood” called the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage (McConkie, 1967). Identical blessings are promised to husband and wife, including thrones, kingdoms, principalities, powers, and dominions (D&C 132:19). Neither has access to these powers and privileges without the other, and neither is promised more than the other. Such a marriage suggests unity, interdependence, shared priesthood authority as parents, and cooperation, rather than hierarchy and male dominance. Greater emphasis on these aspects of the theology might fit more comfortably with current tendencies in many families.
Demographic Linkages. Restricting sexual activity within the marriage bonds has the dual effect of promoting near universal marriage and eliminating ambiguity regarding parentage. Sexual gratification can be a powerful motivational force. The requirement of marriage to legitimate such activity is a strong inducement to marry without undue delays, and to remain married. For those who do conform to the sexual moral code, parents and children know that they belong to each other and that there are no competitors for family membership outside the nuclear unit. Thus, the sexual code of conduct solidifies the notion of the family as an eternal unit.
Getting married and having children commits people to some form of family life. Conformity to the family norm creates a sense of fellowship with the church; and the church teachings and programs designed for families become directly relevant, thus linking individuals to the church as an institution. At the same time, reproduction and religious socialization of children provides a major source of growth in the organization. In this fashion, interdependence between the two institutions of church and family is established.
Rearing children also creates increased demands on the roles of provider and homemaker. As additional children are born, the economic demands grow, as do the necessary household and child care tasks. Children place an unremitting responsibility on parents. Specialization of roles becomes a common solution to the increased demand. At the same time, organization of the family unit becomes more difficult, and the need for authority and leadership increases. In many cases, the designation of a leader, a provider, and a home-maker facilitates management of the whole operation.
Social Structure. Conformity to the appropriate family behaviors is deeply ingrained into the social and normative structure. Those who violate the sexual code of conduct or who intentionally avoid marriage or having children are deviants. The wedding ring, station wagon, basement, and diaper pail (or Pampers box) are standard artifacts in Mormon culture.
The strong sense of community which develops in many Mormon congregations reinforces a family-centered life-style. Moreover, distinctive family traits help to reinforce the community bond. The demands introduced by marriage and children forms the basis for common interest, leisure activities, time schedules, and other similar elements of life-style. Children’s friendships often form the basis for adult friendships, as does interchange of child care. Social networks have a large influence on involvement in church activities (Cornwall, 1985), and the shared exigencies of family life promote formation of social networks.
Programs of the church are designed to support this family-centered social structure. Family home evening and home teaching reinforce the ideal family which includes children and is headed by a man. The Primary, Young Men, and Young Women programs are designed to help in socializing children. The Relief Society is a women’s organization that promotes the role of homemaker. Ironically, even though many congregations have recently changed the time of Relief Society meetings to accommodate working women, the lesson topics in these meetings have much more to do with maintaining a house and raising children than with jobs and working.
The development of the Correlation Program of the church in the 1960s and 70s created an even closer correspondence between families and the church as an organization. This program shifted more of the decision-making power to men and reduced the autonomy of the women’s organization. (Cornwall, 1983.) It established a pipeline of authority from the president of the church down through the organizational hierarchy to the husband as head of the household. Children and wives were linked to the church through their fathers and husbands. Thus, the church programs, and the husband’s role in these programs, further legitimizes his authority.
In sum, there are multiple bases of support for the particularistic aspects of the Mormon family. Theology, demographic requisites, and social structure mutually promote marriage and children. The church promotes family life, and the family reciprocates by socializing children to become active participants in the church. Thus, the interdependence between church and family is solidified.
Prospects for the Future
To this point, we have claimed the existence of distinctive traits of the Mormon family, and have discussed the theological, demographic, and social bases of support for these traits. The reader might get the false impression that the family is a very static institution. Clearly, the family is not impervious to change. A 50 percent decrease in fertility since the turn of the century, coupled with equally large increases in divorce and female labor force participation belie any static image of the Mormon family.
The ideology of the LDS church has been remarkably flexible in accommodating social change (Leone, 1979). The same central doctrine of eternal marriage was used to sanction polygamy in the nineteenth century as is currently used to promote family patterns described above. As the church has spread to more culturally diverse areas and as new social trends have been adopted by the LDS membership, policies and practices have modified accordingly. (Hansen, 1981.) Stress with the Mormon family system also provides impetus for social change (Christensen, 1972).
At the same time, any direct confrontation with the family ideology, at least since the dramatic exception of polygamy, have been ill-fated. The recent demise of the Equal Rights Amendment illustrates the point well. The church took opposition to the amendment, not because of opposition to economic equality for women, but because of the perceived threat the amendment poses to the family. Another case in point is President Hinckley’s (1985) statement on the use of artificial insemination by single women. The procedure in question would allow more women to achieve one characteristic of the family, but other characteristics would be circumvented. Thus, the procedure is in contradiction to the family system and is unacceptable. In fact, the statements on reproductive medicine (Bush, 1985), homosexuality, and women holding the priesthood can all be seen as efforts by the church leaders to defend the family.
Recent changes in family size, divorce, and female labor force participation have not been a result of direct ideological confrontation. Rather, other considerations have come into play. Couples can now have three, four, or five children instead of eight, nine or ten and still feel they are multiplying and replenishing the earth. Justification for not having more is based on economic and emotional well-being of other family members, not on a rejection of the church’s theology of the family. Likewise, women consider working as a means to supplement the income or to utilize talents, not as usurping the provider role of the husband. Divorce is a realization that not all marriages created on earth work out, not as a rejection of the eternal family ideal. In this fashion, behavior changes without directly confronting theological positions.
Other such changes may possibly occur in the future. Family size may decline even further without eliminating the Mormon fertility differential or destroying the notion that Mormons have a family-centered church. As medical technology advances, attitudes toward specific procedures affecting reproduction will possibly change without threatening fundamental doctrines of the church (Bush, 1985). Modification in the sanctions applied to violators of the sexual moral code may occur without changing the code itself. More allowance may be made to incorporate single adults into the programs of the church without denying the ultimate importance of marriage. Husbands and wives may be told to jointly arrive at important decisions without changing policies regarding the priesthood. Greater emphasis could be placed on the joint holding of priesthood responsibilities by husbands and wives with temple marriages. This theology could be used to encourage egalitarian rather than authoritarian marriage relationships.
Not only is change possible, it is very probable. The stresses and strains engendered by societal change in family structure must be dealt with. Working women, reconstituted families, and singles are each growing segments of the church membership who do not fit well within the existing structure. The reorientation toward appropriate sex roles will continue within the church. As they have done in the past, most Mormons will adjust to these changes while maintaining their sense of uniqueness. In fact, unwillingness to change may be more detrimental in the long run than open acceptance of change, as was the case with those who refused to accept the cessation of polygamy. At the same time, attempts to induce change through direct confrontation with the core ideology of the Mormon family will fall on deaf ears. Those who see change as a means to preserve the core values by alleviating existing stresses and strains will have more success. To observe, understand, and even participate in change in the Mormon family is the challenge before us.
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