Laura Compton at Rational Faiths has an enlightening and informative post on the origins of the Family Proclamation. She effectively demonstrates that the controversy surrounding Baehr v. Lewin–the first major victory for same-sex marriage proponents–gave birth to the quasi-canonical document. I do not dispute the influence of this legal case in the creation of the Proclamation. However, I do think there are other possible influences and contexts that helped mold its final shape. I hope to explore one of these possibilities below. And since she began with a time traveler, I will too. So please step into the blue box…
Now that we can travel anywhere in time and space in a police box that is bigger on the inside, we’re going to travel back so we can cover a decade’s worth of American politics in a very short amount of linear, subjectively-viewed time. It’s incredibly complex, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Coordinates set and…Geronimo! Allons-y! As we join the Doctor and his companion in the TARDIS–because a TARDIS, much like a bowtie, is cool…much cooler than the Wayback Machine (no offense, Laura)–we remind ourselves what was happening during the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s in the American political climate. For the majority of the period we discuss, Laura’s description is apt: “Ezra Taft Benson was the prophet and titular leader of the LDS Church, but he was in ill health, to say the least. First Counselor Gordon B. Hinckley was the public spokesman in many places (a supportive role he continued throughout successor Howard W. Hunter’s administration until he became the new president of the Church on March 12, 1995). Boyd K. Packer was the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since Hinckley was serving in the First Presidency rather than the larger quorum.” Divorce and family breakdown had been addressed for decades by Church leadership, while President Benson had taken the lead over most of his apostolic career in attacking socialism and other related (at least in his view) systems such as the welfare state. Yet, this particular stretch saw the development of a political and social climate that was ripe for the creation and reception of a document like the Family Proclamation. However, this story begins a couple decades earlier with the writing of the (in)famous Moynihan Report by Democratic sociologist and then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965. The report argued that the nation’s history of racism and slavery had led to the disintegration of the black nuclear family and exacerbated the problem of poverty among African-Americans. Though often misunderstood by both the Left and Right, Moynihan used surprisingly conservative frankness about family statistics to argue in favor of more liberal government policies geared toward boosting education and employment. Though published in early 1965, there was relatively little public discussion on the topic of family breakdown until the mid-1980s. Yet, academic research on family structure continued to grow. Then, in 1984, political scientist Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 burst on to the scene. Then a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Murray argued that the U.S. welfare system created perverse incentives followed by rational, understandable responses. Some of the results, Murray believed, were the choices to remain unmarried and unemployed in order to continue receiving welfare benefits. Murray’s statistical analyses were controversial, but highly influential in the years to come.
The focus on family breakdown also increased in broader circles, thanks largely to Bill Moyers’ 1986 CBS documentary The Vanishing Family – Crisis in Black America. While Murray could be dismissed due to his conservatism and easily marginalized to an obscure corner of academia, Moyers had strong liberal credentials thanks to his time as White House Press Secretary under Lyndon Johnson and his prolific career in journalism. The report allowed for a more open discussion among the masses on the subject of family breakdown. The documentary also highlighted the intertwining elements of work, family, and welfare. For example, when Moyers interviewed one young man who had fathered 6 children by 4 different women, he asked, “How do [your children] make it? Where do they get the money?” In response, the father answered, “Well, the majority of the mothers are on welfare. Welfare gives them their stipend for the month. So, what I’m not doing, the government does.” While the documentary aired in January, several General Authorities addressed welfare and its relation to family and work in the April conference of that year. “When we depart from the Lord’s way in caring for the poor,” said Thomas S. Monson (then the Second Counselor in the First Presidency),
chaos comes. Said John Goodman, president of the National Center for Political Analysis, as reported this year in a Dallas, Texas, newspaper:
“The USA’s welfare system is a disaster. It is creating poverty, not destroying it. It subsidizes divorce, unwed teenage pregnancy, the abandonment of elderly parents by their children, and the wholesale dissolution of the family. The reason? We pay people to be poor. Private charities have always been better at providing relief where it is truly needed.”
In 1982 it was my privilege to serve as a member of President Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. Meeting in the White House with prominent leaders assembled from throughout the nation, President Reagan paid tribute to the welfare program of the Church. He observed: “Elder Monson is here representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If, during the period of the Great Depression, every church had come forth with a welfare program founded on correct principles as his church did, we would not be in the difficulty in which we find ourselves today.” President Reagan praised self-sufficiency; lauded our storehouse, production, and distribution system; and emphasized family members assisting one another. He urged that in our need we turn not to government but rather to ourselves.
Presiding Bishop Robert D. Hales stated that both the rich and poor tend to “shut their hearts to…love and compassion. The rich languish in their abundance and justify turning the poor away as “welfare cases.” The poor are likewise entrapped, becoming dependent on others in a system destined to trample initiative, undermine family responsibility, foster divisiveness, and erect barriers to equity, opportunity, and fellowship. The Lord rejects such welfare programs.” Hales explained that the Church welfare program “requires that we develop self-reliance and live providently. Provident living requires us to develop proper attitudes—a willingness to forego luxuries, to avoid excess, and to fully use what we have—learning to live within our means.” Elder James E. Faust declared that one “bedrock principle” the saints must build upon “is that the responsibility for welfare rests with me and my family. In 1936 the First Presidency said in a great statement of purpose, “The aim of the Church is to help the people to help themselves.””
The conversation about family breakdown began to find acceptance a few years later even among Democratic politicians with the influence of future Clinton adviser William Galston’s article “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family.” Galston’s paper has been identified as playing a key role “in persuading Democratic members (plus staffers) of the National Commission on Children, in 1991, to endorse unusually direct language on the importance of two-parent families. Similarly, if not the paper itself, then certainly Galston himself and his circle of colleagues, were influential in shaping candidate Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign rhetoric about paternal responsibility and welfare reform, among other things. At root, “A Liberal-Democratic Case” gave essential and welcome cover to men and women on the left side of the continuum who had perhaps long shared the paper’s ideas, but who had been reluctant…to speak out.” This same National Commission on Children acknowledged in 1991, “Children do best when they have the personal involvement and material support of a father and a mother and when both parents fulfill their responsibility to be loving providers.” During this time, the LDS Church’s welfare system was praised in the media by outlets such as the Heritage Foundation. “The Latter-day Saints Church has one of the most effective and compassionate welfare systems in the world,” affirmed conservative pundit Tucker Carlson in Policy Review. “It works because Mormons realize that welfare has the same properties as nitroglycerine: if utilized correctly it can heal and sustain. If used wantonly it will certainly destroy. The Mormon welfare system’s primary goal is not to provide material necessities for those in need, although it does accomplish this efficiently. It focuses instead on strengthening the family, teaching a vigorous work ethic, and helping the needy to help themselves. Its themes are ones the secular world would do well to study.” Once again, the intersection of work, family, and welfare was highlighted.
And, of course, there was Vice President Dan Quayle’s well-known 1992 “Murphy Brown speech” in which he discussed “the breakdown of the family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society.” The speech earned its nickname from the single brief reference to the TV show Murphy Brown: “a character,” Quayle maintained, “who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” The speech was met with ridicule from pundits and even uncertainty from the White House. However, the following year social scientist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote her famous piece “Dan Quayle Was Right” in The Atlantic Monthly. Reviewing the scholarly literature from the past couple decades, Whitehead argued,
Taken together, the research presents a powerful challenge to the prevailing view of family change as social progress. Not a single one of the assumptions underlying that view can be sustained against the empirical evidence. Single-parent families are not able to do well economically on a mother’s income. In fact, most teeter on the economic brink, and many fall into poverty and welfare dependency. Growing up in a disrupted family does not enrich a child’s life or expand the number of adults committed to the child’s well-being. In fact, disrupted families threaten the psychological well-being of children and diminish the investment of adult time and money in them. Family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families does not strengthen the social fabric. It dramatically weakens and undermines society, placing new burdens on schools, courts, prisons, and the welfare system. These new families are not an improvement on the nuclear family, nor are they even just as good, whether you look at outcomes for children or outcomes for society as a whole. In short, far from representing social progress, family change represents a stunning example of social regress.
Murray returned later that year with a WSJ article on the increasing illegitimacy among both whites and blacks:
Every once in a while the sky really is falling, and this seems to be the case with the latest national figures on illegitimacy. The unadorned statistic is that, in 1991, 1.2 million children were born to unmarried mothers, within a hair of 30% of all live births. How high is 30%? About four percentage points higher than the black illegitimacy rate in the early 1960s that motivated Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write his famous memorandum on the breakdown of the black family.
The 1991 story for blacks is that illegitimacy has now reached 68% of births to black women. In inner cities, the figure is typically in excess of 80%. Many of us have heard these numbers so often that we are inured…But the black story, however dismaying, is old news. The new trend that threatens the U.S. is white illegitimacy. Matters have not yet quite gotten out of hand, but they are on the brink…In 1991, 707,502 babies were born to single white women, representing 22% of white births…As the spatial concentration of illegitimacy reaches critical mass, we should expect the deterioration to be as fast among low-income whites in the 1990s as it was among low-income blacks in the 1960s. My proposition is that illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time — more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else. Doing something about it is not just one more item on the American policy agenda, but should be at the top.
That same month, President Hinckley (then called as the First Counselor in the First Presidency) lamented what he saw as the moral decline of the United States:
We in America are saddled with a huge financial deficit in our national budget. This has led to astronomical debt. But there is another deficit which, in its long-term implications, is more serious. It is a moral deficit, a decline in values in the lives of the people, which is sapping the very foundation of our society. It is serious in this land. And it is serious in every other nation of which I know. Some few months ago there appeared in the Wall Street Journal what was spoken of as an index of what is happening to our culture. I read from this statement: “Since 1960, the U.S. population has increased 41%; the gross domestic product has nearly tripled; and total social spending by all levels of government [has experienced] more than a fivefold increase…But during the same…period there has been a 560% increase in violent crime; a 419% increase in illegitimate births; a quadrupling in divorce rates; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a 200% increase in the teenage suicide rate.”
The following two years saw the publication of Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps by sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur and Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem by Institute for American Values founder David Blankenhorn. These two volumes further supported the idea that the two-parent household was the ideal environment for raising a child. General Authorities continued to bemoan the changing family dynamics within the country. In 1994, Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke of “several terrible trends which, if uncorrected, will produce an even worse coalition of consequences.” These trends included the fragmentation of family life:
- In ten years, one-half of all children born in America will be illegitimate.
- More and more children have no functioning fathers. Already 70 percent of our juvenile criminals come from fatherless homes.
- Less than half of all children born today will live continuously with their own mother and father throughout childhood.
These various trends in the public and political perception of welfare, work, and family breakdown eventually culminated in the passing of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act under President Clinton. As one author explains, “The federal government’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is best understood as the product of two major movements: one…in celebration and service of marriage itself; with a second, an integral part of the drive for welfare reform.” According to welfare expert Ron Haskins, the issue of out-of-wedlock births began to rival the welfare state in the “Republican hierarchy of social ills.” Bill Clinton “had been more outspoken than any other president about the tragedy of illegitimacy; he was even given to stating flatly that it was “wrong” for young people to have children outside of marriage whom they could not support.” Haskins contends that five major factors led to reform:
- The public did not approve of able-bodied people being supported on welfare for extended periods.
- The 1988 welfare legislation increased welfare enrollment due to its generous benefits.
- Experimental programs were shown to increase work and reduce welfare spending.
- Part of Clinton’s campaign rhetoric was “ending welfare as we know it”: a very foreign concept for a Democratic presidential candidate.
- Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1994, replacing the Democrats that were unwilling to back the strong work requirements in Clinton’s previous bill. Clinton vetoed the first two Republican bills, but finally passed a modified bill in 1996.
It was within this context that the newly-minted President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley revealed the Family Proclamation at the General Relief Society Meeting in October of 1995. President Hinckley provided a grave background for its introduction:
How bitter are the fruits of casting aside standards of virtue. The statistics are appalling. More than one-fourth of all children born in the United States are born out of wedlock, and the situation grows more serious. Of the teens who give birth, 46 percent will go on welfare within four years; of unmarried teens who give birth, 73 percent will be on welfare within four years. I believe that it should be the blessing of every child to be born into a home where that child is welcomed, nurtured, loved, and blessed with parents, a father and a mother, who live with loyalty to one another and to their children. I am sure that none of you younger women want less than this. Stand strong against the wiles of the world…There are those who would have us believe in the validity of what they choose to call same-sex marriage. Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender. We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and our sisters. However, we cannot condone immoral practices on your part any more than we can condone immoral practices on the part of others.
Here, welfare and family breakdown are put side-by-side with same-sex marriage. While the Proclamation dedicates considerable space to heteronormative marriage and gender essentialism, it also focuses on the rearing of children: “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations…Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity” (italics mine). The portion on father/mother responsibilities is typically interpreted as a mere restatement of traditional (or outdated) gender roles. However, the concept that “fathers are to preside over their families…and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families” may stem from the political and public discussions revolving around fatherless families and welfare-dependent mothers (recall the absent father from Moyers’ documentary). “Work” is listed among multiple “principles” upon which “successful families and marriages are established…” On an even more dire note, the Proclamation warns “that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God” (italics mine). The language surrounding parental responsibility and specifically working, present, faithful fathers fits quite well into the national politics of the day. Statements similar to the Proclamation’s final line could be pulled from any of the above cited works: “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.” From Murray to Moyers to Whitehead to Clinton, concern over welfare dependence and family breakdown had been growing among General Authorities and the public at large. While same-sex marriage legalities most definitely played a leading role in the Proclamation’s conception, I think it is safe to say that the American discussion regarding family fragmentation (especially fatherlessness) and welfare dependency also paved the way for it and helped shape its final draft.
*Complementary might be a better word than alternative.
1. The following narrative draws heavily from Chapter 1 of Mitch Pearlstein’s From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011).
2. Officially “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
3. It should be stressed again that Murray saw these responses to welfare benefits as rational. For example, “If Phyllis and Harry marry and he is employed, she will lose her AFDC benefits. His minimum wage job at the laundry will produce no more income than she can make [on welfare], and, not incidentally, he, not she, will have control of the check. In exchange for giving up this degree of independence, she gains no real security. Harold’s job is not nearly as stable as the welfare system” (Murray, Losing Ground, 160-161).
4. William A. Galston, “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family,” The Responsive Community 1:1 (Winter 1990-1991).
5. Pearlstein, 2011, 11.
6. Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families: Final Report of the National Commission on Children (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991), xix.
7. Tucker Carlson, “Holy Dolers: The Secular Lessons of Mormon Charity,” Policy Review 59 (Winter 1992): 25. Available from Business Source Complete. See also Chiung Hwang Chen, Ethan Yorgason, “”Those Amazing Mormons”: The Media’s Construction of Latter-day Saints as a Model Minority,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 32:2 (Summer 1999): 107-128.
8. See also Isabel Sawhill, “20 Years Later, It Turns Out Dan Quayle Was Right About Murphy Brown and Unmarried Moms,” The Washington Post (May 25, 2012).
9. Charles Murray, “The Coming White Underclass,” The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 29, 1993), A14. He expanded this research nearly 20 years later in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012).
10. Pearlstein, 2011, 19.
11. Ron Haskins, Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2006), 7. Quoted in Pearlstein, 2011, 20.
12. Ibid., 8.
13. Ron Haskins, “What Works Is Work: Welfare Reform and Poverty Reduction,” Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy 4:1 (Winter 2009): 40-41.
14. The following month, President Hinckley and Elder Maxwell visited President Clinton at the White House, presenting him with a copy of the Family Proclamation as well as “a volume containing six generations of his family history and another containing that of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.” The conversation is said to have “covered a range of issues, including welfare, education and the need for parents to be actively involved in their children’s lives.” It was the following year that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was passed.