The Archdefenders of the Nuclear Family: Sailing over the Cliff with the Ragtop Down?

Source: screenshot from here

An official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently printed an editorial entitled “A fence at the top or an ambulance at the bottom?” in which emeritus General Authority Seventy and former Sunday School general president Elder Tad R. Callister expresses the hope that his readers would be “archdefenders of the nuclear family and God’s moral values” and weighs in on the importance we ought to attach to “the essentiality of the family unit to the well-being of society”:

If you were asked, “What is the greatest challenge facing our nation today?” how would you respond? The economy, national security, immigration, gun control, poverty, racism, crime, pandemics, climate change? While each of these is a valid concern and deserves attention, I do not believe that any of them strikes at the heart of our greatest challenge — a return to family and moral values. To put our prime focus on other challenges is to strike at the leaves, not the root, of the problem. It is, as some have noted, to put an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than a fence at the top.

Given the enormity of the economic devastation worldwide wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe and mounting effects of climate change on us all, but particularly vulnerable populations and countries, I appreciate that Elder Callister’s piece grants that poverty, pandemics and climate change deserve attention, though I have to wonder how much he is interested in the latter given his assertion that Satan is “disguis[ing] his plan of attack [on the nuclear family and God’s moral values] with alluring labels such as […] ‘environmental emergency’ for promotion of a zero-growth population agenda.”

I just don’t know what the view is like from 50 N. 300 West in May 2021 that would lead one to conclude that all this talk about climate change is really just a smokescreen for liberal sophists to push an anti-nuclear-family agenda rather than a sincere expression of concern about an actual emergency, but even Utah’s governor has acknowledged that something dire is going on:

We need everyone in the state to understand right now that we’re heading into one of the worst droughts and potentially one of the worst fire seasons that we’ve seen. And we’ve seen some bad ones.

U.S. Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, has also joined the chorus:

Utah is in the midst of a very, very significant drought which poses a challenge for every individual and industry in Utah.

Meanwhile, international civil servants, taking a somewhat broader view, have identified a number of additional challenges that all of us here on earth will eventually have to grapple with. LI Yong, Director General of UNIDO, reported that in 2020,

Just as we entered the Decade of Action, determined to accelerate progress towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, causing widespread loss of life, human suffering and lost livelihoods. The progress made in the field of development over decades is likely to be undone, as hundreds of millions of people revert into poverty. […] Amid this dramatic socioeconomic situation, the world is moving closer and closer towards another existential threat: the climate catastrophe.

Annual Report 2020

The UN Inter-agency Task Force on Financing for Development similarly reports that

COVID-19 has dramatically set back [sustainable development goal] progress, and affected all aspects of financing for development: the global economy has experienced the worst recession in 90 years, with the most vulnerable segments of societies disproportionately affected; around 120 million people have fallen back into extreme poverty; 114 million jobs have been lost […]. This is despite a large-scale, if highly uneven, policy response.

[…] The crisis disproportionately affected the most vulnerable people and countries, with socioeconomic conditions, ethnicity, gender and geography shaping its impact. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, are more likely to lose their source of income, and are less likely to be covered by social protection measures, and women-led firms are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

[…] 2020 ranks as the hottest year in recorded history as global temperatures continued to rise. Climate change creates economic costs through physical risks, such as climate-related disasters, and transition risks, as low-carbon strategies lead to stranded assets. Such economic damages are already substantial: with the Earth’s temperature 1°C hotter than pre-industrial levels, climate-related damages due to disasters and worldwide economic stress were estimated to be $165 billion in 2018 (a very conservative estimate). Estimates of future damages are subject to high uncertainty, but there is consensus that they will be substantial: unmitigated warming could lead to average global income losses of over 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100. Regions in the southern hemisphere and poorer countries are projected to experience the most significant impacts on economic growth, further increasing inequality between countries.

Financing for Sustainable Development Report 2021

Last week I took part in a forum where the three candidates from Bolivia, Ethiopia and Germany for the post of Director General of UNIDO outlined their visions for the future of the organization. While they presented different solutions to the problems UNIDO faces and is mandated to address, they shared a concern about the effects of poverty, pandemics and climate change on humanity and the need for the international community to work together to address problems that affect us all. And during the UNIDO Programme and Budget Committee later in the week, one country after another took the floor to reflect on the dramatic effects of poverty, pandemics and climate change on development as a whole, such as education, employment, education, capital and investment flows and other areas where UNIDO is concerned.

These were all countries where religion and families play important social roles, and yet not a single representative identified “a return to family and moral values” as anything approaching “our greatest challenge.” This is perhaps not surprising given the focus of these meetings on development and the fact that the speakers were civil servants.

What is surprising, however, is that a former leader of a church operating not just in but also beyond the western United States would characterize climate change mitigation efforts as “a frontal attack on the family unit and its survival” in an official church publication. Is this really what general authorities are hearing from units in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and elsewhere?

I realize that people disagree about whether, say, the droughts in the western United States are caused by climate change—though there does seem to be a consensus among conservative politicians from the western United States that government policies and infrastructure projects are the solution—and no doubt there will continue to be spirited debates about the nature and consequences of the government policies and projects designed to address social issues. And I get that a church is going to have a different focus than, say, a specialized UN agency on the problems that beset us and their solutions.

Nevertheless, this opinion piece strikes me as a regrettable contribution to the public debate on the challenges the world faces. It’s not just that the editorial is dismissive of efforts to address the very real impact of climate change on God’s children—see Elder Callister’s assertion that “these ‘solutions’ are nothing less than time bombs wrapped with glitter and a glamorous bow”—it’s also the bizarre focus on the nuclear family and the marshalling of support from sources with questionable family-related track records that have me wondering if the church plans to hone its violin chops while the world burns.

Elder Callister clarifies twice that he has only a particular iteration of the family in mind:

[Satan’s] plan is in direct opposition to the family proclamation. It is an insidious attempt to destroy the nuclear family and God’s moral values.

Hopefully, we will be archdefenders of the nuclear family and God’s moral values. 

I’m not sure why he zeroes in on the nuclear family given the variety of forms the family takes around the world and has taken across time, but given his legal training I assume this qualification is intentional. Yet it’s not only disconcerting for an emeritus general authority of a church that expends vast resources connecting members of the human family with each other for eternity to preach the nuclear family in an official church publication, it’s also counterproductive for the well-being of families in the here and now. As notorious liberal sophist well-known conservative commentator David Brooks wrote,

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

But Elder Callister doesn’t just ask us to take it from him—he approvingly quotes former US Attorney General Barr and refers to the experience of colonists to shore up his position. Barr is invoked to argue that government cannot be part of the solution:

The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the state to set itself up as the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father to their children. The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage. While we think we are solving problems, we are underwriting them. [emphasis in the original]

You would think Barr knows a thing or two about how government can underwrite problems facing families since the remarks Elder Callister quotes were delivered during Barr’s tenure as a cabinet member of an administration known far and wide for its “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adult aliens apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exception for asylum seekers or those with minor children. The fruits of this policy were bitter:

During the six weeks the policy was active, DHS separated 2,816 children—subsequently included in a class action lawsuit—from their parents or guardians. Almost all have since been reunited with their parents or placed in alternative custodial arrangements. In 2019, DOJ disclosed the separations of an additional 1,556 children prior to the zero tolerance policy but also during the Trump Administration who were included in the lawsuit class. As of December 2020, a steering committee assembled to locate separated children in this second group had not yet established contact with the parents of 628 children. In the period since the zero tolerance policy was effectively paused in June 2018, at least 1,000 additional children were separated, bringing the total reported number of separated children to between 5,300 and 5,500.

Congressional Research Service, The Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” Immigration Enforcement Policy

Yet, when questioned about his support for this policy and commitment not to reinstitute anything resembling the policy as Attorney General, Barr simply responded: “As I stated in my testimony, I do not know all the details of the Zero Tolerance Initiative and its application to family units.” When asked about the effect of detention on children—with or without their parents—Barr only replied that “I cannot comment on matters within the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.” Talk about silos—the would-be principal advisor to the president of the United States on all legal matters doesn’t have a clue about the effect of government policy on families! I hope the reader will look with forbearance on my unwillingness to accept William P. Barr as an expert witness on how government does or does not underwrite problems facing families.

And then there are the colonists, whose experience is pressed into service to reveal the deep roots of the United States’ family-friendly environment now under attack by big-government-embracing culture warriors:

The colonists understood [that if we promote family and moral values, then we will experience the consequences that flow from such efforts]. Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “Although colonial life was woven of many strands — English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, German and so on — all the new groups, whatever their ethnic differences, shared the common belief that the family was, in Franklin’s phrase, the ’sacred cement of all societies.’”

Do I need to elaborate the many and diverse ways that colonists took jackhammers and wrecking balls to the sacred cement of societies on the African and North American continents in the course of their settlement of the United States? I mean, sure, we can acknowledge the undoubtedly sincere conviction that theirs was the Lord’s work, but at a time when the United States has yet to reckon with its colonial past and the long shadows it casts on the present, the colonists’ myopic focus on English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, German families at the expense of those they imported in chains and cast out at gunpoint ought to serve at least as much as a cautionary tale as a model for the twenty-first century nuclear family.

As I read it, the intent of the editorial is to encourage individuals to take responsibility for preserving a certain vision of the family. This is one of the things churches and church leaders do. But dismissing the effects of poverty, pandemics and climate change on families while yearning for a revitalization of a checkered past is not going to protect families from being pushed over the edge by Satan—indeed, it is a lead foot on the accelerator of a car headed for the precipice.


  1. Anneke Garcia says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. C. Keen says:

    This strikes me as not the most charitable way to read Tad Callister, but the most acrimonious. Do better.

  3. This is an excellent piece of writing, and must have taken quite some time to gather your thoughts together. Callister would do well to take note. Appalling.

  4. Read the article for myself. Can confirm: drivel.

    So out of touch and tone-deaf to think that railing against gay marriage, abortion, and climate change is going to inspire anyone to any kind of Christlike discipleship. And “out of touch” is how I would increasingly describe our paid clergy.

  5. @C Keen, I think Callister could do better. That’s my brother & his husband, and many others like them, that he’s attacking. These are real families he’s hurting. Acrimony is a totally appropriate reaction to an *actual* attack on our families.

  6. Once when I was complaining about a Church leader’s misleading rhetorical exaggeration, I did it in such a way that my friend remarked that I was also engaged in rhetorical exaggeration. I responded that it was the only part of GA-speech I’d been able to get down. I suppose I might also have noted that my rhetorical exaggerations were not from a position of authority or assumed authority that might lead any to suppose they were literally accurate.

    I continue to be appalled by some leaders’ rhetoric, but try to ignore it in favor of perceived intent. Peter’s post does note “the intent of the editorial is to encourage individuals to take responsibility for preserving a certain vision of the family.” I’m glad others will sometimes call out the rhetorical exaggerations as misleading. There are those who have or have had a hard time learning that. Maybe some of our Church leaders or emeritus leaders are among them.

  7. Brent P says:

    By appealing to the crisis of the nuclear family, Callister speaks instrumentally. For his main interest is the preservation of control of the church in people’s lives. And the church thrived in the past because of patriarchalism and members feeling perpetually guilty about not having more children. Now with church members having fewer kids, getting married later, and women achieving more education and seeking careers, the church feels that it’s grip on individuals’ lives through the ward structure is loosening and that it faces a crisis moving forward.

    Another factor is the leaders own sense of guilt in what they talk about. When they write and talk, they do so with a nagging concern in the back of their minds about how other leaders might react. Might my talk be construed as enabling the doubters? Might my talk challenge too much what other leaders are saying? Might my talk offend the rank-and-file members on whom we leaders depend to fill callings at local levels and keep the church strong? Hence they toe the traditional line, say stuff that has been said before with some slight repackaging.

    Hey, Callister subtly validated that it’s OK to be concerned about climate change. Too little too late. What humanity needs are more warnings from people in important positions. But what the church institution perceives that it needs is more of the old-school guilt. Yet it is unclear how effective that will be on younger generations.

  8. It’s a really disappointing take from Elder Callister. He seems really out of touch with the actual root causes of this issue.

    When my spouse and I had our first kid, I was a student and my spouse worked full time in a job that didn’t pay very well. There were some minor complications during delivery, everything turned out OK but we were still billed $10K even after our insurance coverage. We had to put off repaying student loans to make that happen and suffered other financial hardship. She also only had a 3 month unpaid maternity leave to recover, we had to live off of our savings during that time. Then she had to go back to work and I took care of our kid while also studying, it was a really difficult time.

    Later I graduated and got a full time job, the pay was better than what my spouse made but still wasn’t much. My spouse quit their job to watch our kid full time. We we’re doing better but only incrementally so. We figured that we probably wouldn’t be able to have a second child any time soon because of the financial obstacles.

    Luckily, an opportunity came up to go do graduate school in Canada, after 18 months of residency we qualified for federal benefits in which families below a certain income recieve up to $500 a month per child. “Free” healthcare also meant that we wouldn’t be paying most medical bills out of pocket. We decided to have a second child, similar complications during delivery occured but this time our bill was $0.

    So even though I make less up here with my funding package, the combination of minimal healthcare costs and support in the form of government money on a monthly basis, means that my spouse can take care of the kids full time while I work and study.

    In sum, my family situation improved precisely because of what Elder Callister would call erstaz government blah blah blah.

    We have time to be together, that’s what families need, the economic security to actually spend time together. No amount of scripture reading, church attendance, and faith affirming can compensate for families not having the time to actually be with each other.

    The roots of this problem, at least for low income families, is economic.

  9. This strikes me as not the most charitable way to read Tad Callister, but the most acrimonious. Do better.

    You will be unsurprised to learn that I do not share your assessment that my assessment of Elder Callister’s assessment of the problems facing the family is the most acrimonious possible.

    That said, you may be surprised to learn that I do agree it would be possible to improve my assessment of Elder Callister’s editorial. For example, I could have focused on common ground, expressing support for

    less crime and drug abuse, less fraud and abuse, fewer divorces and lawsuits, fewer babies born out of wedlock, more ethical employees and employers, a reduction in welfare cases, less contention and hate, and a resurgence of faith in God

    even as I surmise that defense of the nuclear family is not the (only) path that will lead to these outcomes. This post no doubt missed some opportunities. Then again, so did the editorial. Perhaps he and I will learn from this experience and in fact do better.

  10. The roots of this problem, at least for low income families, is economic.

    Indeed. As I read him, that’s the point of the article by David Brooks I quoted in the post.

  11. LetsBeHonest says:

    Anyone who cares to speak on behalf of the church and urge a return to basic values could start by suggesting that the First Presidency find the courage to take a clear and unequivocal position on members supporting insurrection against the elected US government and threatening to kill politicians some members don’t agree with.

  12. Pconnornc says:

    peterllc, as one who often reads (lurks) here and often leaves w/ sprained eye muscles from all the rolling they do, I really want to say how much I appreciate your response to C. Keen. I don’t think you’re apologizing at all for your overall message, but I sensed humility in your response. I know I could benefit from that approach in discussing issues where I often take strong positions. Thanks and I will try to do better too.

  13. Thank you for the kind words, Pconnornc. I think it’s only fair to accept criticism even as I mete it out, and the responses really do help me see things differently.

  14. Antonio Parr says:

    Peterllc –

    Your contention that Elder Callister was “dismissing the effects of poverty, pandemics and climate change on families while yearning for a revitalization of a checkered past” is jarring in its lack of charity towards the author (someone who I trust you perceive to be your brother). Had you thought about reaching out to him to inquire whether his intentions were as malicious as you suggest? After all, there is so much nuance that once can include in a brief article. (That is true even for lawyers.)

    Elder Callister appears to believe that the traditional family unit is worthy of advocacy, which was the topic of his article. Perhaps you disagree. Since you have the floor, what “vision of the family” are *you* advocating?

  15. @Antonio, the article literally puts “love and compassion” in air-quotes like they are Satan’s trickery. How hard could it be to see what this article’s agenda is? It’s plain as day.

  16. We have met the enemy and he is us. Here’s another example, from today’s NYT: “For Issenberg, however, the duality of the political conflict — the two sides of the ‘engagement’ — is central. Most significant, he implies that the marriage issue would not have taken hold of L.G.B.T.Q. politics if it had not been for the vociferous opposition of the religious right. Because conservatives deemed marriage so crucial — and because they went to such lengths to keep queer Americans away from the institution — they successfully (and perhaps unwittingly) laid a trap, forcing activists to defend gay marriage and concede the importance of the institution. Issenberg’s book, then, serves as a 900-page case study of what the sociologist Tina Fetner refers to as the “symbiotic” relationship between conservatives and queer activists. The religious right told us we couldn’t have marriage, so we decided we needed it. If that’s the case, gay couples owe no organization more than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
    America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage
    By Sasha Issenberg 5/30/2021 NYT
    “We have met the enemy .. .” POGO by Walt Kelly

  17. I don’t come here often any more but it’s great to see writers such as Peter continuing to fight the good fight.

    I agree with Callister that the family is vital for the well-being of society. This is why I stopped attending the church when it took a sledgehammer to certain types of family that are every bit as valid as mine.

    The enemy of the family is economic insecurity, which is why I support generous child tax credits and benefits, paid parental leave, free birth control, abortion rights, subsidised tuition, universal healthcare and — as will soon be trialled in one part of the UK — universal basic income.

    And I want families in the future to live in a world that respects the rule of law as well as basic norms of decency and ethics in public life, which is why I have no time for religious leaders who would turn to a Trump acolyte such as William Barr for guidance. I also want future families not to live in a polluted, burning world, which is why I think climate change mitigation is a priority.

    Mormonism as the Heritage Foundation lite is just such a waste.

  18. Word up, RJH, well said, esp the Barr thing. I’m just waiting for a Stephen Miller quote.

  19. Antonio Parr says:

    Brother RJH –

    Advocacy for traditional nuclear families and advocacy for a world free of pollution and poverty are not mutually exclusive, are they?

  20. Your contention that Elder Callister was “dismissing the effects of poverty, pandemics and climate change on families while yearning for a revitalization of a checkered past” is jarring in its lack of charity towards the author (someone who I trust you perceive to be your brother).

    Antonio Parr, I did make an effort to point out where I felt Elder Callister had been dismissive and where he had invoked a problematic past to support his argument, so it’s not as if that sentence can only be read as a sucker punch.

    As for charity more generally, please see my response to C. Keen above.

    Elder Callister appears to believe that the traditional family unit is worthy of advocacy, which was the topic of his article.

    No, he was specifically advocating for the nuclear family. As you may have gathered from my post, I think this focus is too narrow (and also not traditional in the sense of long-established).

    Since you have the floor, what “vision of the family” are *you* advocating?

    In my mind, this post was not to advocate for a specific vision of the family but to argue that a narrowly defined vision of the family will not save families of any stripe from the calamities of poverty, pandemics and climate change. I could be wrong, and I’m open to the possibility that my message was lost in a mire of convoluted thinking and uncharitable sniping, but that’s what I set out to do.

  21. Antonio Parr says:

    Brother Peterllc –

    You clearly are a thoughtful and good-hearted person. Nothing that I have written is meant to suggest otherwise. It is just that I think that Tad Callister is a thoughtful and good-hearted person, too, and deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    My concern about your post is that is ascribes the worst possible motives to Tad Callister, and suggests that he is uncaring about such things as poverty and pandemics and pollution.

    Brother Tad appears to believe that (a) societies are stronger when children are raised by their biological mothers and fathers; and (b) a stronger society is best equipped to address serious global challenges (including poverty, pandemics and pollution).

    Is there merit to his argument? Is being raised by one’s biological parents an ideal and, if so, should a Church like the LDS Church be advocating for that ideal?

    Or is a child’s relationship with her/his biological parents inconsequential (and, therefore, not worthy of the kind of particularized advocacy offered by Callister)?

    Those seem to be the questions that flow from Callister’s article. Is Tad’s article imperfect? Of course it is. But so is your post and so are my comments.

  22. I moved to Utah as an adult. For me, one of the most difficult aspects of living here is the nearly complete inability of so many to differentiate between Utah Mormon culture and the actual doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m trying to be charitable. Maybe Elder Callister just didn’t see the subtext of choosing these quotations? Maybe for him they were simply readily available quotations from a recent government official with assumed authority? I’m pretty sure that’s the case for many of my ward members who genuinely do not seem to see their comments as political or cultural rather than doctrinal or just simply “the truth”.

  23. My concern about your post is that is ascribes the worst possible motives to Tad Callister, and suggests that he is uncaring about such things as poverty and pandemics and pollution.

    Well, I’m ready to take responsibility for failing to communicate; it was my post, after all, and if this is the takeaway, it has fallen short of my aim. But like I said above, my reading of Elder Callister’s editorial leads me to conclude that he did dismiss the effects of climate change by characterising “environmental emergency” as an “alluring label” that Satan uses in “an insidious attempt to destroy the nuclear family and God’s moral values” by hoodwinking well-meaning citizens into accepting “a zero-growth population agenda.” Climate change is not the only cause of environmental emergencies, of course, so I’m ready to hear arguments that in literally demonizing the expression he had something entirely different in mind, but it seems reasonable to assume that Elder Callister is not talking about relatively minor events like an oil spill that would precipitate a zero-growth population agenda but the megatrend elephant in the room of climate change.

    Also, who is even calling for a zero-growth population agenda? I’m no development expert, but in my limited experience what I am hearing is a resounding call by developing countries to the international community to prepare for the overall increase in the world population by ensuring that economic growth catches up with population growth, not to stop having children.

  24. Brent P says:

    People keep saying that economic insecurity is keeping parents from having more kids and forcing them to work more thereby making it difficult to see their kids. I agree in part and disagree in part. Here is where I disagree. The places in the world with the highest fertility rates are the poorest. African countries are growing the fastest in the world, by far. In Niger, Somalia, and DR Congo the average number of children per female is six. And these are not just among the poorest countries in the world, but the poorest on the African continent. These countries’ populations are also extremely rural, so in most contexts, you literally have villages raising all these children.

    Here is where I agree. The deeper economic structure of rural agrarian countries lends itself to higher total fertility rates. In 1800, when the US was mostly rural and agrarian, its total fertility rate was 7, meaning on average a woman had seven kids. Highly industrialized, developed countries with mostly urban populations are not going to go back to rural agrarianism any time soon. Urban life is more expensive, takes longer to commute to work in, is more exhausting, and crowded. Children are seen as liabilities who cost money, take up space, and decrease flexibility. In much of rural sub-Saharan Africa they’re seen as sources of income. Extra farm hands for more production. Extra acquirers of some surplus of some sort. Some one to take care of you when your body can no longer be physically productive.

    There are also cultural differences to take into consideration. In much of the developed world, individualism is the ideal. Freedom from government restrictions as well as freedom from cultural norms and cultural structures. If you’re a female in much of sub-Saharan Africa, you’re expected to marry young and endure about a dozen pregnancies, often at the expense of your physical and mental health.

  25. @Brent P, you make a compelling argument that what the Church really cares about isn’t more babies but is more white babies.

  26. For those concerned that the post ascribed the worst possible motives to Elder Callister, I promise that is not the case. I know this for sure because I ascribe worse motives to Elder Callister.

  27. “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”

  28. Puuuuhleeeaase. 🙄

  29. “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”

    President McKay’s messages have certainly stood the test of time, but did you know he did not actually coin that one? See here:

    The “home,” outside of which no success can compare, was for the man who originally made this statement very likely not an isolated haven, to which modern men and women can escape from the world, but rather the apex of a worldly social and moral order; to moral reformers and Southern conservatives of that era, the family was the capstone of a fundamentally religious and profoundly communal project: namely, Christian civilization itself. From this perspective, the duty which the family places upon fathers and mothers to raise up righteous children comes at least as much from social obligation as it does from any concern for happy souls. And I wonder if, with all the present pressures placed upon doctrines of the “traditional family,” a more knowing embrace of the communal presumptions and consequences of this perspective is likely to be forthcoming from our leaders.

    Anyway, returning to President McKay’s messages, one that has become increasingly pertinent in the 21st century is the following:

    “honesty in government is essential to the perpetuation and stability of our government as it is necessary to the stability of character in the individual.”

  30. This isn’t even the start of how terrible that op-ed was. How about the idea that love and unity (aka marriage) among LGBT people are part of Satan’s plan? Atrocious.

    This is what happens when people are deluded in thinking they speak for God. Also, I hate when Satan is used a s a literal boogieman instead of a construct or a symbol of what is the worst of humanity.

  31. Elder Callister’s op-ed starts out talking about families, makes some points I might accept, but then halfway through flips from families and spells out nuclear families. Which really sticks home how he feels that those are the only “real” families, and traditional, mixed, or other family types aren’t real families. Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilfrid Woodruff certainly didn’t live in nuclear families. Are they the cause of so much of the moral failings in the world?
    I wonder if Elder Callister is familiar with the contents of “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power”? A book about two nuclear families, spreading crime, drug abuse, fraud, abuse, divorce, lawsuits, and unethical employers (amongst other things) to unprecedented degrees. Everyone who lives in a democracy should be familiar with how nuclear families like the Trumps and the Kushners spread fraud and abuse.
    Now we can compare the outcomes of the nuclear family structure to the traditional family structure (or other family structures), but I feel like that would result talking past each other with anecdotes similar to how anti-Mormon writers use to write about how children born into good Christian households were of a healthier stalk, compared to children born into Mormon polygamous families who were weak and sickly. And conversely Mormon writers would write the opposite.
    The one thing that nuclear families do is give adults more privacy. That’s it. No other adults are around to place checks on the adults worse traits in a nuclear family. This isn’t saying that there aren’t abusive adults in other family structures, but the lack of privacy results in other adults intervening in abusive situations. No family structure will ever prevent all bad things from happening, but I just don’t see how the surplus of privacy which is granted to nuclear families results in any of those things that Elder Callister believes will be the outcome.
    I believe that Elder Callister put the horse before the cart. In his circle, he sees functioning nuclear families which he doesn’t suspect are dependent upon welfare. But he has it backwards. Nuclear families are a luxury. Many of us want to be in a nuclear family (and the privacy it brings), but we can’t afford it. How do we know this? The nuclear family was only predominate in the US from 1950 to 1965. That’s it. Besides that one country in those 15 years, nuclear families have been the exception, not the rule. So what made that time so special? Super high tax rates on the wealthiest tax bracket, living wages, strong unions, and money collected from the super wealthy being spent on projects that benefited the majority. Should we implement those policies again, people will be able to afford the luxury of nuclear families like they used to be able to.
    Something else that I find interesting is that Elder Callister seems to want to promote moral values. He thinks that nuclear families do that, but they don’t. Nuclear families just grant privacy. What does promote moral values? Religions do. If Elder Callister wants to promote moral values (and I think it’s worthwhile for him to do so) he should focus on finding a religion that does so; not op-ed’ing about something that doesn’t.
    If you had not posted this, I never would have heard about the op-ed. I hope that I am not guilty now of speaking evil of the Lords anointed.

  32. This isn’t even the start of how terrible that op-ed was. How about the idea that love and unity (aka marriage) among LGBT people are part of Satan’s plan? Atrocious.

    The scope of my post was fairly narrow, all things considered, so you are right that it didn’t address all of the concerns that you and others have.

    I hope that I am not guilty now of speaking evil of the Lords anointed.

    No doubt some of those who find value in adding “DezNat” hashtags to their social media musings would think that of you (and me, for that matter), but in my view an op-ed is a genre—unlike, say, a sermon—that invites a range of responses, even critical ones, regardless of the author. Elder Callister commands our attention due to his status as an emeritus general authority, of course, but as the author of an editorial released to influence political debates, I don’t think it’s appropriate to grant him political immunity.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on the implications of focusing on the nuclear family. The David Brooks article I referenced in the post outlines a number of related issues.

  33. Geoff - Aus says:

    The Peoples Republic of China has just announced that families can have 3 children. I expect Callister will be doing his next editorial on how wonderfully moral China will become now.

    That 70% of members voting for trump is not a moral problem, but all the things he thinks, and probably the trump voters agree are the real problem. His views are extreme right.

  34. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been stewing over it since it came across my screen Sunday (not great headspace to begin one’s Sabbath). Your critique is calm and well-argued. My reaction has been deep disappointment mixed with anger. It seems to me a not-so-subtle, approving nod to the “DezNat” crowd, which is certainly how they have interpreted it, based on their chest-thumping (and trolling towards others who expressed concern) in Twitter comments on the Church News official Twitter feed.
    It also struck me as incredibly wrong-headed, not only in labeling what might be seen as progressive stances as Satan’s “time bombs” and citing Bill Barr as an authority on the proper role of government, but also incredibly wrong-headed in its either/or, zero-sum framing. It doesn’t seem too difficult to me to imagine that one could support an ideal, or something close to it (his fence) AND recognize the need for and appreciate even, the ambulances. One can support the state providing a safety net as what civilized societies do, but not believe the state is trying to replace families (indeed, it can pretty easily be viewed as how the state helps support families). The simplistic zero-sum thinking is not only wrong on the face of it, but is the kind of thinking that fuels the “contention and hate” he seems to disapprove of. And beyond the obscenity of approvingly name-checking Bill Barr (a quote that is essentially an anti-government screed) and use of colonialism as model of righteousness (really?!), his commentary seems oblivious to the fact that Jesus was not up there building fences, He was ministering to those “at the bottom of the cliff” – He was the ambulance! How could the author of a well-regarded book on the Atonement not see this?
    I want to approach Elder Callister’s words with humility and as generous an interpretation as possible, but I am having a very hard time seeing it as anything more than a totem representing the significant portion of church members who are Trump-loving, Q-anon believing folks who very much see themselves as “archdefenders of the nuclear family and God’s moral values.” This is precisely the kind of fuel that the DezNat crowd thrives on. That it comes from an emeritus general authority, in the pages of an official church publication, in 2021, literally makes me sick.

  35. It seems to me a not-so-subtle, approving nod to the “DezNat” crowd, which is certainly how they have interpreted it

    For sure. Some of the commenters here have suggested that I need to be more charitable in my assessment of Elder Callister’s work, so I’ll just say that its weaponization by DezNat is a predictable outcome while hoping that he didn’t intend it to be.

  36. Mortimer says:

    Callister’s disdain for the poor and those who he sees receiving the consequences of their wayward ways is heartless.

    And what does King Benjamin in Mosiah 4 say about that?

    17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
    18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

    19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

    What is Callister saying when he runs down government welfare? That the church and it’s $100 B nest egg is prepared to pick up the slack? Oh no. The church directs members to first pursue public assistance before seeking church help. The poor are a hot potato that he believes shouldn’t really ever be caught. He’s not extending an ounce of charity or compassion, he’s calling for tough “love” and for the poor to shape up and live by the code or endure the consequences. . (Has he read Mosiah? Any part of the BOM? Maybe he got through it, but it didn’t get through to him.)

    I can’t imagine what kind of wealth and privilege bubble he lives in to be so oblivious to the plight of the poor, the fact that the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the US is not sin, but medical bills, the bulk of middle class that is one disaster, one paycheck away from ruin, the impact of COVID in families world wide has been and continues to be devastating, the plight of refugees is heart-breaking, etc.

    This tone-deafness and coldness of leader “servants” like Callister (if his emeritus status even qualifies him as a current LDS leader/official, which I do not think it does) might just, and I’m going to go out in a limb here, be a reason for member and millennial generation dissatisfaction. Perhaps people hesitate to fully engage in a church that turns its back on the poor. Perhaps those of us in the pews are sick and tired of having church leaders spew recycled R talking points. Perhaps we can stop pretending that the prosperity doctrine is the only spiritual principle and that it somehow supersedes charity and loving our neighbors.

    I for one am humiliated, ashamed, angered and fearful that his hateful drivel was posited as a position of the church that
    I love and know was built to succor the poor, not revile them.

  37. In an effort to celebrate the advantages of the perfect (i.e., nuclear) family structure, Elder C wars against other excellent and good family structures. A divorced family is likely better for society — e.g., for raising children — than an intact, but abusive, family. Gay people living together in a committed loving relationship — is probably better for society than the San Francisco bathhouses of yore. There is no need to rail against families that are unlike our own.

  38. Rex Bergsma says:

    I was really disappointed as a high priest and member of the faith that this archaic thinking of nuclear family and focus on being gay or lesbian and how “same sex marriages” as something that is ruining our families or that such persons are contributing to the insidious plans of Satan’s members. It is not the truth. Such bombastic words and views of Mr. Callister suggest he is not in touch with the high quality nature of many of our LGTBQ members. As a father of a gay member, I found his words hurtful and actually out of line with the more loving message we receive now from leaders of the church and in local wards and stakes. Love and acceptance is fortunately being preached and administered more than ever with judging or shaming decreasing.

    Who checks or oversees the messages or opinions that make their way onto church publications? Someone really blew this one. From what I read, this was a recycled talk from Mr. Callister. Maybe it was a slow news month and someone sent this back out to the masses. Sad.

    I have met amazing people through my son’s friends and connections. There is no finer son than mine and what he has done for the church was also incredibly unselfish – always the top kid in the Quorums, always the scout leader, always the Stake Youth Committee go-to guy…a superb missionary. A superb human.

    Please quit demonizing LGBT folks in or out of the church. These are great people…so far as I have seen, the church does not have a monopoly on the “good” people of this planet.

    Rex Bergsma

  39. Truckers Atlas says:

    “Although colonial life was woven of many strands — English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, German and so on — all the new groups, whatever their ethnic differences, shared the common belief that the family was, in Franklin’s phrase, the ’sacred cement of all societies.”

    Man, you’d think nobody immigrated to this country after 1850!

  40. “Many of the things we have long taken for granted –our financial institutions and our political policies. . .–seem suddenly inadequate. We are unable to deal with the massive problems of hunger and poverty; we know that our environmental policies are unsustainable, and yet we cannot seem to find a viable way of dealing with them. We look around us and realize that something needs to be done, yet find no immediate solutions.”

    This quotation comes from Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, p. 68.
    In terms of context, she’s talking about “the Confucian concentric circles of compassion,” which start with the family (68).

    Confucius lived during the axial age, which wasn’t so different from our age in terms of its social ailments. And what was Confucius’s solution? I wonder how some readers of BCC would have responded to him when he offered up compassion. How interesting, then, that Callister’s defense of the family elicits such acrimony:

    -“his main interest is the preservation of control of the church in people’s lives”;
    -“disdain for the poor”;
    -“not-so-subtle, approving nod to the ‘DezNat’ crowd”;
    -“Callister will be doing his next editorial on how wonderfully moral China will become now”;
    -“I ascribe worse motives to Elder Callister”;

    I wonder if Confucius’s critics felt him equally “out of touch with the actual root causes of [the] issue[s].”

    Would that one found in the pages of BCC more compassionate criticisms of certain ideas (e.g., Callister’s defense of the nuclear family). Those of a more cynical variety abound.

  41. Thank you for this well written response. I’m grateful for your words.

  42. The “nuclear family” wasn’t even a thing until after WWII. Before it, multi-generational households were the big thing. What makes “the nuclear family” THE sacred family arrangement that justifies abandoning empathy and compassion and lending a hand to others who might believe differently? (I believe Jesus was big on empathy and compassion, by the way. See NT and the 2nd great commandment.)
    Glad this guy’s not on the active GA list. Sad he was republished.

  43. For what it’s worth, I did a search from the church’s website for references to ‘nuclear family’ in General Conference addresses. It yielded zero results. Church leaders and documents (e.g., the family proclamation) focus on the family; I happen to think it makes sense to do so. There is plenty of sociological data to support such a position. Broken homes don’t unbroken societies make, generally speaking. That ‘nuclear families’ aren’t a perfect panacea for societies’ ills doesn’t discount the soundness of such a means of organizing people. (baby-bathwater logical fallacy)

    In my experience/observation, most LDS families have ‘family’ networks that go beyond the nuclear family, even if the nuclear family plays a key role in that network.

    I wonder if the degree to which one focuses on ‘nuclear’ says more about one than about the church.

  44. Robert Davis says:

    The Author is very talented at making a typical bait and switch argument. The author does provides a list of real problems and suffering and then applies it to an article written about a different and specific topic. Objective and honest readers of Mr. Callister’s article “A fence at the top or an ambulance at the bottom?” understand this fact.

    One can honestly disagree with Callister’s premise and conclusions. But to attack the article because Callister does not attempt to solve all the world’s ills, would be akin to dismissing the critic who failed in the same respect.

    The critic goes on to argue for exactly the essence of what Mr. Callister warns us not to do. That is, instead of addressing underlying causes of many current issues, today in America, too often our Government focuses on treating the result of the underlying cause and then leaves that cause to continue to fester and infect the citizenry.

    Callister simply believes the nuclear family is God’s will and that following God’s will is a good thing. So what the critic has artfully done is to cite real problems and real suffering to tug on the reader’s hearts strings when the real attack is on the premise that the nuclear family and basic morality is more closely aligned with God’s teachings and commandments. That is the critic’s right. However, the critic should be honest and not disguise an attack on basic biblical teachings with an attack on a man who did nothing more than have the temerity to remind us of that fact.


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