Census Data and Utah Court Case Force American Family to Take Center Stage


New census figures and a Utah court case shoved the American family into center stage last week, if only for a few minutes of fleeting national attention.

The 2000 census figures gave evidence of the declining nature of the Ozzie and Harriet model of family. The Utah court case offered a reminder of the historic reality of alternative family arrangements.

Only 23.5 percent of American households are traditional nuclear families--families composed of married couples with their children, according to 2000 census data. In 1990, the figure was 25.6 percent, compared with 45 percent in 1960.

Nuclear families now trail the number of Americans who live alone (26 percent). The number of households where fathers raise children without a mother increased dramatically, as did the percentage of unmarried couples.

As the country considered the changing face of the family, it faced a long renounced family model.

In Utah, a jury found Tom Green guilty on four counts of bigamy, placing polygamy on the national radar for the first time in half a century. Green, 52, has five wives and 30 children.

Various news articles estimated that the number of people who are part of plural marriage units range from 30,000 to 50,000.

According to Green, his Mormon faith mandated plural marriage. Indeed, early Mormon leaders justified polygamy based on the biblical record of Old Testament leaders who had multiple wives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed the practice in 1896, due to federal pressure.

Defending her husband, Green's fifth wife said after the verdict, "He's guilty of spending his entire life living for his family and everything he can do, it's just not right." 

"We're just a family," another wife had said earlier. "A big family."

Across the cultural divide, a spokesperson for the Family Research Council said with alarm about the census data, "marriage must be promoted for the well-being of Americans."

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas warned, "the American nuclear family has exploded and the traditional families of the past are becoming more difficult to locate in the debris."

The intersection of the 2000 census figures and the Utah verdict offers congregational leaders a platform for social commentary and organizational evaluation. 

First, both the new data and the court decision drew an anxious response from those who feel more comfortable with tradition than with change. They see tradition as the conduit to moral rightness. Tradition, albeit valuable, is not synonymous with moral rightness. And change is not always evidence of moral decay.

Second, religious traditionalists often justify their position based on their reading of the Bible. Mormons who advocate polygamy point to Old Testament heroes to defend their marital practice. Christians claim the nuclear family is based on the biblical family. Rather than use the Bible as a shield for tradition, let's read the Bible carefully and speak more thoughtfully about how biblical values strengthen families.

Third, the census data challenge church leaders to look more closely at congregational and community demographics in order to shape ministry and sharpen the choice of preaching texts and sermon topics. Good information can advance more effective ministry, providing real help to real families.

Census figures and court cases supply additional road markers for congregational leaders about where the American families are and where they may be headed.

Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.

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