Guest post: the Family and Social Science in General Conference

This is a guest post by Huston.

In his remarks at the April 2015 General Conference, Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “The social science case for marriage and for families headed by a married man and woman is compelling.”
He’s not the first to draw support for this area of doctrine from the secular realm. Citing summaries of social science research to bolster statements about marriage and family has practically become de rigeur in talks by general authorities these days.

Below is a list of all such citations that I could find in General Conference in the last five years. This list doesn’t have every citation from a social science study—just the ones where the research was clearly meant to back up a doctrinal principle or recommended practice.

I don’t know of any other subject that’s regularly preached from the pulpit with peer-reviewed, academic references like this. Have there been sermons about tithing or chastity that increase their persuasive strength by quoting scientists, much less a spate of such sermons? Have church leaders settled controversial matters like priesthood ordination with appeals to secular social science? So why just the issue of marriage and family?

Here’s a theory: because this issue is so critical to the success of society, and to our success as a church, that our leaders feel inspired to defend it by every means reasonable. It’s so important that urging ourselves and our friends to consider our view as an article of faith may not be enough—we should be ready to make a difference in our homes and communities equipped with an array of information that should reach any open-minded acquaintance.

If I’ve missed any relevant citations, please note it in the comments.

1. April 2015: “Why Marriage, Why Family,” By Elder D. Todd Christofferson
Family-related idea or counsel: “The social science case for marriage and for families headed by a married man and woman is compelling.”
Social science cited in support: “Nicholas Eberstadt catalogs the worldwide declines in marriage and childbearing and the trends regarding fatherless homes and divorce and observes: ‘The deleterious impact on the hardly inconsequential numbers of children disadvantaged by the flight from the family is already plain enough. So too the damaging role of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing in exacerbating income disparities and wealth gaps—for society as a whole, but especially for children. Yes, children are resilient and all that. But the flight from family most assuredly comes at the expense of the vulnerable young. That same flight also has unforgiving implications for the vulnerable old.’ (See ‘The Global Flight from the Family,’ Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2015,”

2. October 2013: “Decisions for Eternity,” By Elder Russell M. Nelson
Family-related idea or counsel: “In our day civil governments have a vested interest in protecting marriage because strong families constitute the best way of providing for the health, education, welfare, and prosperity of rising generations.”
Social science cited in support: “Dr. Patrick F. Fagan wrote: ‘The indispensable building block upon which the fortunes of the economy depends [is] the married-parent household—especially the child-rich family that worships weekly. … Every marriage creates a new household, an independent economic unit that generates income, spends, saves, and invests’ (‘The Family GDP: How Marriage and Fertility Drive the Economy,’ The Family in America, vol. 24, no. 2 [Spring 2010], 136).”

3. October 2013: “No Other Gods,” By Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Family-related idea or counsel: “Our knowledge of God’s plan for His children explains why we are distressed that more and more children are born outside of marriage—currently 41 percent of all births in the United States—and that the number of couples living together without marriage has increased dramatically in the past half century. Five decades ago, only a tiny percentage of first marriages were preceded by cohabitation. Now cohabitation precedes 60 percent of marriages. And this is increasingly accepted, especially among teenagers. Recent survey data found about 50 percent of teenagers stating that out-of-wedlock childbearing was a ‘worthwhile lifestyle.’”
Social science cited in support: “See The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America, 2012 (2012), 76… 101, 102.” []

4. October 2012: “Protect the Children,” By Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Family-related idea or counsel: “Parents or other caregivers or teachers or peers who demean, bully, or humiliate children or youth can inflict harm more permanent than physical injury. Making a child or youth feel worthless, unloved, or unwanted can inflict serious and long-lasting injury on his or her emotional well-being and development.”
Social science cited in support: “See Kim Painter, ‘Parents Can Inflict Deep Emotional Harm,’ USA Today, July 30, 2012, B8; Rachel Lowry, ‘Mental Abuse as Injurious as Other Forms of Child Abuse, Study Shows,’ Deseret News, Aug. 5, 2012, A3.”
Family-related idea or counsel: “Of utmost importance to the well-being of children is whether their parents were married, the nature and duration of the marriage, and, more broadly, the culture and expectations of marriage and child care where they live.”
Social science cited in support: “Two scholars of the family explain: ‘Throughout history, marriage has first and foremost been an institution for procreation and raising children. It has provided the cultural tie that seeks to connect the father to his children by binding him to the mother of his children. Yet in recent times, children have increasingly been pushed from center stage.’ W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt, eds., The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America (2011), 82.”
Family-related idea or counsel: “Children are the first victims of current laws permitting so-called “no-fault divorce.” From the standpoint of children, divorce is too easy.”
Social science cited in support: “Summarizing decades of social science research, a careful scholar concluded that ‘the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married.’ Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012), 158.”
Family-related idea or counsel: “A New York Times writer noted ‘the striking fact that even as traditional marriage has declined in the United States … the evidence has mounted for the institution’s importance to the well-being of children.’”
Social science cited in support: “Ross Douthat, ‘Gay Parents and the Marriage Debate,’ New York Times, June 11, 2012,” [This Op-Ed cites several studies from social science.]
Family-related idea or counsel: “Unmarried mothers have massive challenges, and the evidence is clear that their children are at a significant disadvantage when compared with children raised by married parents. Most of the children born to unmarried mothers—58 percent—were born to couples who were cohabitating. Whatever we may say about these couples’ forgoing marriage, studies show that their children suffer significant comparative disadvantages. For children, the relative stability of marriage matters.”
Social science cited in support: “See William J. Doherty and others, Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions from the Social Sciences (2002); W. Bradford Wilcox and others, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, 3rd ed. (2011).”
Family-related idea or counsel: “We should assume the same disadvantages for children raised by couples of the same gender. The social science literature is controversial and politically charged on the long-term effect of this on children, principally because, as a New York Times writer observed, ‘same-sex marriage is a social experiment, and like most experiments it will take time to understand its consequences.’”
Social science cited in support: “Douthat, ‘Gay Parents and the Marriage Debate.’ The latest and most thorough study finds significant disadvantages reported by young adults with a parent who had same-sex relationships prior to the child’s turning age 18 (see Mark Regnerus, ‘How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,’ Social Science Research, vol. 41 [2012], 752–70).”

5. April 2012: “That the Lost May Be Found,” By Elder M. Russell Ballard
Family-related idea or counsel: “Equally worrisome is the ever-growing gap between the rich and poor and between those who strive to preserve family values and commitments and those who have given up on doing so. Statistically, those who have less education and consequently lower incomes are less likely to marry and to go to church and much more likely to be involved in crime and to have children outside of marriage. And these trends are also troubling in much of the rest of the world.”
Social science cited in support: “See W. Bradford Wilcox and others, ‘No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life among the White Working Class,’ available at” [Note: URL now defunct. Available here:]

11 thoughts on “Guest post: the Family and Social Science in General Conference

  1. Loved this. I think using social science in doctrinal talks is really valuable for the rising generation. They seem to really want to know how the doctrine is backed up by social science. I’m all for it. Naturally, whatever study any of us use to support doctrine and God’s laws of morality will be picked apart and attacked by those who produce their own studies that are biased to their benefit. I find it really, really important to get our side of the studies out there as to show there isn’t just one side to everything. For instance, that oft-repeated phrase by those supporting same gender marriage always goes something like this: “Studies show that kids raised by same sex couples do just as good if not better than those raised by hetero couples.” Really? Whose studies? Not the ones that have come out lately 😉 I’m glad that the Church leaders are using studies in their talks to counteract the other studies that the very vocal minority paint as the gospel truth 🙂

  2. When some say we shouldn’t enforce our view of family morality on society, we reply with some science based arguments for traditional families. Makes sense.

    I do tend to see such claims as unpersuasive though. As Elder Anderson once said in a talk about those who leave the church over seemingly credible but later proven faulty information, there is all ways more information coming from researchers. So we can be absolutely certain that as society changes we will see social science biased (was it ever not corrupted?) to demonstrate how normal it is to be amoral and how depraved it is to raise your family with a belief in traditional morality.

  3. I don’t mind the occasional reference to social science. Sort of like the “freakonomics” genre, things aren’t always as they seem, and sometimes things are counter intuitive. I think we should cite such studies with caution and care, and vet the sources and extent of surveys and studies so we don’t come across as biased.

  4. Two British and American sociologists have written about the relation between the traditional family and the health of civilizations:

    Marriage reflects the natural moral and social law evidenced the world over. As the late British social anthropologist Joseph Daniel Unwin noted in his study of world civilizations, any society that devalued the nuclear family soon lost what he called “expansive energy,” which might best be summarized as society’s will to make things better for the next generation. In fact, no society that has loosened sexual morality outside of man-woman marriage has survived.

    Analyzing studies of cultures spanning several thousands of years on several continents, Chairman of Harvard University’s sociology department, Pitirim Sorokin. found that virtually all political revolutions that brought about societal collapse were preceded by a sexual revolution in which marriage and family were devalued by the culture’s acceptance of homosexuality.

  5. Yes it is interesting that social science’s support is sought, while ‘hard’ science is disregarded or dismissed (age of earth, evolution, when death began after creation, etc).

    My concern with this is not that social science’s latest understandings or theories are used, it’s that they are subject to misinterpretation and misuse by the layperson. This is particularly true byopponents of gay marriage or gay rights. The comment above by Bot illustrates this. Doing a search on his point, I came across several entries, word for word what’s reposted here. Two points, in brief: Unwin held homosexuality is a ‘habit.’ Probably not an uncommon view for someone who was born in the 19th century. Sorokin’s views were misstated and a false impression given. He went to Harvard – in 1930. That’s 85 years ago, folks, several lifetimes in the social sciences. His thoughts did not imply what Bot represented – his work was on a much more general, materialistic vs nonmaterialistic level. To use either person’s work as valid in today’s context of discussion is an error. If one wants to use social science to take an anti-gay stance, find some current peer-reviewed studies and make a case. Good luck with that.

    So saying that children and societies generally do better in a home with two parents is one thing. Saying that children do better in homes with higher economic activity is one thing. Saying that children do better in homes with a stable adult relationship is one thing. Taking any of those statements and extrapolating that the sexual orientation of the parents is what is ‘really’ being discussed is not accurate.

  6. I always pepper my church talks with lots of social science statistics, as they frequently bear out LDS views on social life. Any time the authority of the church can enlist the authority of science, it strengthens its position from a rational perspective. The religious experience is not by nature scientific, i. e. measurable and quantifiable, but as humans we have a very strong rational dimension of our psyche which seeks to understand and circumscribe the earth and all things in it. Our God should include the God of Science as much as is currently possible, and I think its time to embrace things like evolution too. But that may have to wait…

  7. I agree with Dq above. I think using social science might not be the most time-proven method of conveying truths. Hopefully we’ve learned lessons from our own history when we’ve used social science to justify behaviors or even doctrines that ultimately proved to not be correct. That said, I love the study of social sciences, especially as they relate to LDS conversion and retention. Rodney Stark is one of my favorite social scientists – his book “The Triumph of Christianity” is an excellent expose on early Christian growth.

  8. Hi PA,

    To date, we don’t yet have solid statistics that indicate that committed, stable families headed by two rational adults who are not opposite gendered do as well as committed, stable families headed by two rational adults who are opposite gendered.

    The challenge with same-gendered couples is that their children cannot be the biological kin of at least one of the two parents. While this resembles adoptive heterosexual families or heterosexual families with step-children, etc. it goes beyond to a place where children are either avoided (same-gendered couples having the most reliable form of birth control) or are acquired (presuming a couple starts as same-gendered rather than being formed from formerly heterosexual individuals).

    We decry the way women of the past were sometimes viewed as commodities rather than people. Yet with same-gender marriages, we are creating a situation where children are necessarily commodities. To equalize all laws to avoid discriminating between opposite-gendered couples and same-gendered couples would necessarily extend this commodity concept of child acquisition to all children.

    So I repeat that the science does not yet appear to support the assertion that same-gendered parentage is “just as good as” opposite-gendered parentage. Also, the nature of same-gendered parentage necessitates a commodity view of children, if the lowest common denominator is to become the default standard in order to avoid discrimination.

  9. Hello Ms Stout

    Thanks for the response. The first paragraph indicates my post may have been misunderstood by many. The point I was trying to make is that there are NO peer-reviewed studies indicating family differences between families headed by same-gendered vs opposite-gendered adults (papers have been generated, funded by special-interest advocacy groups seeking ‘support’ for their preconceived positions). I have read and heard many who take studies or statements extolling the benefits of marriage on society and somehow conclude this means opposite-gendered only. That is the conclusion I meant was an improper use of data.

    I do not accept the premise of the “While this resembles adoptive heterosexual families or heterosexual families with step-children, etc. it goes beyond to a place…” reasoning. It goes no further than what heterosexual families encounter. Infertile couples make the choice to either not have children or to adopt. That puts them in precisely the same category as same-sex families. It also puts them in precisely the same category as older couples who marry, wherein the female is past child-bearing age and there is the decision to adopt or not adopt.

    The argument strikes me as a variation of the arguments made by Mr. Bursch before the Supreme Court in the same-sex marriage case (Obergefell v Hodges) in which he attempted to assert same-sex marriage bans were for the benefit of children and not for couples seeking companionship. He did not receive a positive reception. In fact, Justice Kennedy noted the points he raised effectively ‘cuts quite against you.”

Comments are closed.