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A Traditional Unit That Comes in Many Different Forms

AMERICAN FAMILY: On the road with the Sipchens. * Thursday: On the boat to Juneau.

September 09, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — I just had to ask Anndee Hochman: Did dating our friend Barry push you over the edge?

The question was a joke--lame and probably insensitive. But in an odd way, it cuts to a fundamental issue.

My wife, Pam, and I and our three children are spending the summer touring the United States, reporting on the state of the American family. After almost three months on the road, Alaska, our last stop, is drawing near. And, like the salmon leaping in the rivers we pass, the most basic questions finally are breaking the calm surface of our inquiry:

* How to define family.

* Whom to include in the definition.

* What to do about those who fall short of our standards.

Hochman has written a book advocating nontraditional family arrangements. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among those organizations that have dug in their heels in support of traditional patriarchal families. Our itinerary juxtaposed these apparent opposites, so the Book of Mormon and Hochman's book collided.

Four days before hitting Portland, we drove our RV into Salt Lake City and strolled downtown. A purple and pink sunset tinted the modern skyline and the looming mountains like God's own stained glass. Gesturing skyward, I yelped to my children: "Look! Look!" It no longer struck me as odd that Brigham Young declared this desert basin to be the prophesied Zion.

I'd been to Utah before in my single, scruffy days--to ski, to bum around--and each time I'd felt like a misfit. I'd sensed disapproval at every turn. I toured Temple Square with my family this time, and Pam and I felt as if we basked in a glow of welcome and acceptance.

We sat in the Tabernacle and traced what we could find of our genealogy at the church's Family Search Center. The highlight for the kids, though, was the church's officially sanctioned, super big-screen 70-millimeter film, "Legacy," a moving story of the Latter-day Saints' migration after facing violent persecution in Missouri and Illinois.

Romanticized and sanitized (there's no mention of the church's early support of polygamy, for instance), the movie is nevertheless a gritty portrayal of pioneer life, a tale of faith, family and determination--told, interestingly, from a woman's perspective.

*

The role of family in the church is unique, at least in part because Mormons believe that marriage and family are eternal, beginning with a person's "premortal" state and continuing forever in the hereafter.

As the 20th century has unfolded, though, Mormon families have faced some of the same forces fraying families nationwide. Early on, the church took the lead in attempting to counter familial disintegration.

In 1964, the church president issued an admonition that probably tweaked consciences of every faith: "No other success can compensate for failure in the home." In 1970, the church created Family Home Evening, a prescribed time of prayer and togetherness away from outside influences. And soon thereafter, the church began broadcasting its award-winning TV and radio ads, low-key nudges to take family matters seriously.

Today, the church is among the fastest-growing religions, and I suspect its campaign in support of strong families is one reason why. But, like other conservative religious groups, it remains concerned with the continued unraveling of traditional families.

In 1995, the president, a prophet according to church doctrine, issued a "Proclamation to the World" on the family. It leaves no room for gender bending, hanky-panky or the switching of traditional roles.

My family's final stop in Salt Lake was at the office of Richard G. Scott, one of the faith's 12 Apostles. Scott, a father of seven, greeted us warmly. Pam and the kids chatted with him awhile about our trip. Then they ducked out, and I pressed him on the church's rigid stand concerning gender roles, which is at the heart of the great family debate rocking society.

Scott did not give ground: "A woman and a man have different basic characteristics. They form a wondrous whole when they are combined," he said. And a man and woman uniting in marriage and raising children is the never-altering essence of God's plan.

There, perhaps inevitably, the conversation looped from the abstract back to the personal. Praising my children, Scott went on: "I'm sure that your dream for them is an emulation of your own pattern of life with Pam--have a home, be loyal to each other. You strengthen your children so they'll have those same ideals."

Indeed, Pam has stayed home since Robert was born because she decided that raising our children was more important than her work as a public health nurse or the fulfillment she got from that career.

But we chose our traditional family arrangement on our own, not because of religious dictates. We are not as certain as Scott about where to draw other lines--or what we would do if our children decided to cross them.

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