I taught lesson 45 in LDS Sunday School yesterday on marriage and family. Having heard from a friend who sat through the same lesson last week and was offended and walked out, my goal for the class (I wrote it on the board) was to have no one be offended and leave the room. My theme for the lesson (wrote this on the board too) was that everyone in the room would leave the class thinking their family (of whatever arrangement) and their marriage (of whatever type) could be strengthened or improved by following gospel principles and the good advice kicked around during the class discussion. How did the topic of marriage get so politicized or polarizing within the Church that some teachers manage to offend or discourage some class members?

I’m guessing most readers already have an idea how this happens, so I’ll just summarize a few points I covered that helped, I think, to broaden the discussion and make it applicable to all families and all marriages rather than to just those lucky folks who find themselves in an Ideal Mormon Marriage with an Ideal Mormon Family.

1. Let’s talk about actual families in all their variety, not just the Ideal Mormon Family. Imagine questions in the manual like “how can living the gospel improve your relationship with your ex?” or “what have you learned by being a single parent?” rather than a succession of questions on how to make an Ideal Mormon Family just a little happier. Even the traditional family arrangement offers variants that fall outside the standard Mormon circle off approval (interfaith marriages, interracial marriages, unmarried couples with kids who never formally married). Farther outside that circle of approval are non-traditional families (single-parent families, blended families, various post-divorce custody and visitation arrangements). I taught the lesson so as to make that broader range of marriage and family part of the positive discussion of marriage and family. Fewer people would feel marginalized or offended if LDS manuals would adopt the same broader approach.

2. In praising temple marriage, Mormon lessons often implicitly denigrate regular civil marriage. Even the lesson says “marriage and family are ordained of God,” not “temple marriage is ordained of God.” In 2017, there are a lot of civil marriages in the Church. A lot of older Mormon couples (pillar of the ward types) have civilly married children. We really need to learn to say nicer things about civil marriage.

3. Stop telling kids that sexual activity makes them “morally dirty.” The manual has this statement: “What can parents do to help children understand the importance of moral cleanliness?” I suggested that what they should NOT do is teach children or youth the avoidance of moral dirtiness because the way this is generally done in LDS settings tends to deny the possibility of repentance (chewed bubble gum never becomes clean new bubble gum) and omits any consideration of capacity or consent. I noted how some bishops are reliably reported as telling young women who have been the victims of sexual assault that they need to repent. Everyone seems to get that this is wrong except the bishops who do it, which suggests how heavily the title “Judge in Israel” weighs on otherwise decent men and sometimes makes them do or say stupid things (because some of them apparently think it’s their job to judge people, regardless of facts, law, or culpability). A class member conveniently volunteered the experience of Elizabeth Smart and her excellent work to educate the general public and Mormons in particular about this problem.

4. I avoided quoting the Proclamation on the Family. First, because I promised to not offend people and it is a potentially offensive document. Second, because as a teacher I avoid presenting false or misleading material, whether in the manual or whatever. LDS manuals consistently omit any discussion of the origins or context of the Proclamation. Knowing that the document was drafted and adopted as part of LDS participation in Baehr v. Miike, a Hawaii same-sex marriage case from the 1990s, does not really detract from it as a statement of LDS policy and doctrine circa 1995. Quite the opposite. But presenting the Proclamation as some sort of uncanonized revelation out of the blue that President Hinckley just decided to deliver to the Relief Society in 1995 in one of their meetings misrepresents it. Why do they do this?

On a positive note, a lot of Mormon marriages and families are successful and stand the test of time. Regularly discussing in LDS classes how to be a better parent or how to have a stronger marriage is a good thing. It just seems like the LDS curriculum could make a good thing into a better thing by acknowledging the diversity of actual families represented in LDS wards and branches, and offering counsel and encouragement to all, whatever their family or marital circumstances.