The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
A recent item in The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian satire site, hit me with unexpected poignancy: “Parents Baffled That 1 Hour Of Youth Group A Week Not Effectively Combating Teen’s 30 Hours On TikTok.” The article sends a sharp message to parents who don’t regularly take their children to church, who don’t curtail their children’s media consumption, and especially who don’t take seriously the Biblical mandate to “train up [their children] in the way [they] should go.” I think few believing Christians would disagree it’s crucially important for parents to teach their children the gospel, especially as our culture grows ever more hostile toward traditional religious beliefs.
The poignancy I felt was relief and gratitude; unlike the Babylon Bee’s hapless fictional pastors, my church has given me an easy, comprehensive curriculum for daily gospel study with my children. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ introduced the “Come Follow Me” program in 2018, explaining it’s a “home-centered and Church-supported plan for members to learn doctrine, fortify faith, and foster heartfelt worship.”
“Indoctrination” is an ugly word in our culture, used to insinuate brainwashing, unrighteous dominion, and anti-intellectualism. Some people oppose the religious indoctrination of children on grounds that it restricts their individuality or ability to think critically. (Sometimes they use the motte of opposing truly abusive parenting practices to argue for the bailey of opposing any religious teaching at all.) Ironically, they’ve been indoctrinated into that conviction, because “doctrine” does not just mean formal religious teaching; it’s any assertion of truth. Indoctrination can be done well—with reasoned arguments, respect for opposing points of view, and gentle persuasion—or badly—with propaganda, fallacy, and abuse.
All decent parents indoctrinate their children with the importance of kindness and honesty. Most parents also indoctrinate their children with their political views. Even parents who might say they oppose all indoctrination, and instead teach their children solely to be open-minded toward all ideas, are actually indoctrinating their children in the belief that open-mindedness is the highest value. There’s no escaping indoctrination, and when people disparage it as something only fanatics and bigots do, they’re actually trying to discredit a specific doctrine being taught without actually making a case against it.
Indoctrination isn’t solely up to parents or pastors, either. It is any attempt to shape another person’s worldview with authoritative claims. That commonplace examples are more subtle than a Sunday sermon does not change the fact that they’re still indoctrination. Someone whose thirty hours on TikTok has convinced them biological sex is an arbitrary social construct has been indoctrinated just as surely as someone whose thirty hours in the scriptures (or a biology textbook) has convinced them it’s not. The fact that one has been indoctrinated with an idea has nothing to do with whether the idea is true or false. Truth can be taught by indoctrination just as much as falsehood can.
No matter what, your kids will be indoctrinated. The question is, by whom? And with what doctrine?
By you? By the Church? By their friends? By the media and social media?
With the truth? Or with popular philosophies that subtly undermine truth?
“Better not go there.” There’s a trend right now, among Latter-day Saint influencers and activists, to persuade members of the Church to keep quiet about the doctrines of chastity and marriage. This isn’t as bad as teaching straight-up false doctrine, but it’s as dangerous because it’s more likely to be accepted by the unwary. Activist members condemn any mention of the teaching that homosexual orientation is a trial in mortality that will not persist beyond death.1
They instruct: “don’t repeat the doctrine,” because it’s (supposedly) already well known. They claim lessons or talks about marriage and chastity just drive people away, so they’re not worth it. They insist that straightforwardly teaching and testifying of the doctrine is failing to be gentle and Christlike to people who are struggling with sexuality and identity.
This doesn’t deny the justified concern that extremists in the other direction might use the doctrine to bludgeon and ostracize LGBT+ members; there are potential problems on both sides. Yet church leaders constantly show us how to chart a loving course that welcomes all and forthrightly teaches all our doctrine. The far greater danger in many congregations is opposition to any teaching about marriage and chastity at all. Activists may do this out of sincere concern, but the consequences of suppressing the truth will be dire no matter the motive.
Activism is increasing the social and emotional cost of teaching and testifying. An activist climate induces those who are orthodox, kind, and concerned about others’ well-being, to fearfully introspect: am I failing to be gentle and Christlike? Am I just clinging to hateful, outdated ideas that revelation will soon overturn? (Of note: no, the doctrine of marriage and chastity will not be overturned.) Is it really necessary to teach this when it might cause discomfort? Will my friends and fellow congregants criticize me for being insensitive?
When you raise the social and emotional cost of something, you get less of it.
“Everyone already understands that.” Some like to pretend this doctrinal drought has no downside—“hey, the teaching about marriage and family is well-known among the Church so there’s no need to teach it over and over again.”
There are many reasons why that’s wrong. First, what’s at issue here is not simply a matter of knowing that a doctrine exists. It’s a matter of receiving one’s own confirmation from the Holy Ghost that it is true and of God. Some church members may need to hear the doctrine taught dozens of times before they receive that confirmation. Some may need repeated confirmation in order to be strengthened against the withering opposition. As is the case with every aspect of the gospel message, we all need repeated confirmations that build upon each other in order to help us understand more deeply and completely. And rather than discouraging that repetition, we should all be testifying to and strengthening each other.
Second, if activism within a particular congregation succeeds in problematizing the doctrine— making it solely a matter of private study, not to be brought up in Christlike company—that’s essentially as effective as a sermon proclaiming it isn’t true. This will take a particular toll on the youth and new members, who will certainly notice that people shift in their chairs and awkwardly study their toes whenever teachings about family and marriage come up. They’ll be subtly persuaded not to believe the “controversial” doctrine.
Third, we should not think of teachings about marriage and chastity as being somehow separate from teachings that are presently more popular, such as the love of God and the mission of Jesus Christ. For Latter-day Saints, the doctrinal connections are profound. As Adam and Eve understood, the joy of redemption through Christ is inseparably connected with the joy of marriage and children. God did not sacrifice His Son merely to overcome death and sin. His work and glory are to exalt us in eternally increasing families.
Fourth, when some insist we should focus on Christ instead of marriage and chastity, they wrongly imply we can have a relationship with Christ on our own terms. Rejecting core teachings about life’s purpose and refusing the fulness of knowledge and exaltation He offers us does not result in a stronger, more focused relationship with Him. Christ loves each of us, especially the sinful and rebellious, and He will give us what we are willing to receive, but grieves when we refuse to accept all. He cannot unilaterally build a full relationship with one who insists on using only hammers and never nails.
A fifth reason we must prevent a culture of “don’t mention the doctrine” is because even for those who do believe strongly in the truth about marriage and chastity, this conviction may come to feel like an uncomfortable burden instead of a beautiful and exciting truth. In Elder Jeffrey Holland’s metaphor, the truth starts to taste like broccoli when we no longer recognize it as filet mignon. This impoverishes our understanding of God’s magnificent plan of exaltation, wherein Christ saves and resurrects us not just to be good, but to be gods. The doctrine of marriage between a man and a woman should not feel like a millstone to us.
Sixth, the children are listening.
The crucial reinforcement between church and home. I hope all children in the Church are being persuasively taught—yes, indoctrinated—by their parents. The Come, Follow Me program of home-centered gospel study should help enormously with that goal. But not all parents are on the ball. Not all parents have a strong testimony of all gospel teachings yet. Not all parents are wise enough to restrict their children from drowning out the gospel with thirty weekly hours of TikTok. Even children being skillfully taught at home need other trusted teachers to confirm their parents’ teaching. Children need faithful church leaders and teachers to explain and testify of the doctrines of the gospel—indoctrinating them in the beautiful reality of Christ’s message. The more unpopular the doctrine is with the secular world and some confused (but vocal) believers, the more important it is that leaders and teachers preach it enthusiastically and often. Otherwise, we’ll have a generation of children who don’t believe church teachings on chastity and marriage, or whose belief is only superficial, and liable to crumble. In that case, we won’t be shocked to see the indoctrination they receive from many others around them drowning out the inadequate indoctrination they received from the Church. And even the children who have been carefully taught at home will face intense pressure from their peers at church, along with the rest of the world.
Three decades ago, I never came away from watching Saturday morning cartoons wondering why some kids have two mommies or Jack became Jill. It was normative, and utterly pervasive, that a family starts with a man and a woman; biological sex was obviously unchanging. I never heard in church that our core doctrines are painful to an already oppressed minority. I simply drank in the doctrine of eternal marriage and found it delicious. I valued it, wanted it to be true, and so acted as though I knew it was true until I did know it for myself, through the power of the Holy Ghost and the joyful blessing of creating my own family. Later, I was able to broaden my understanding of others’ challenges and learn how to love and help them from within my framework of faith. I continue to try to do so.
No child in the western world today has that luxury. Even children of committed, believing Christians don’t have that luxury. Today’s children’s worldviews must be purposefully shaped, or else they will simply adopt the surrounding views that are most popular, possibly grafting them awkwardly onto the gospel, or possibly rejecting the gospel altogether. We have to carefully teach our children that gender and sex are eternal and precious, not malleable and oppressive. We have to carefully teach our children that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. We have to carefully teach our children to live peaceably in a world where many don’t understand or accept the beautiful truths that we love. We have to teach our children that we must be not only kind and tolerant but also a light to others.
Home-centered, church-supported indoctrination is an excellent—in fact, revelatory—plan. After I spend all week discussing a given scripture passage with my children, they’ll ideally go to church on Sunday to hear other adults provide reinforcing teaching and witness of the same truths. Together, we’ll build for my children, and their peers, a scripturally-based worldview, fortified against the world’s spiritually toxic philosophy of expressive individualism. But I’m concerned about a hitch in this plan. I see increasing evidence that home-centered efforts are being undermined by congregations that have developed a culture of “don’t repeat the doctrine.”
Every time a Bishop shies away from assigning a speaker to preach the doctrine of marriage and chastity, children are deprived of an important spiritual opportunity. Every time a Primary teacher shies away from testifying that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, children are deprived of needed spiritual nourishment. Every time a Sunday speaker complains that LGBT+ church members are suffering from our doctrine, children are misled. Every time a speaker enthusiastically testifies of the doctrine of marriage and chastity, but the tension in the room mounts and members frown at their shoes, children are taught to constrain their faith. Every time a children’s activity leader preaches we must only “listen” and “validate” and “hold space for” LGBT+ dissenters but never stand up for the doctrine of marriage and chastity, children’s light is extinguished. And when children from activism-oriented homes indoctrinate their peers with the cleverly disguised Gospel of Instagram, faithful parents may not immediately realize their task has become even more difficult.
God emphasized repeatedly to Adam and Eve how important it is to teach their children. He commanded them to “teach these things freely unto your children,” because when sin conceives in their hearts (and it will), they’ll recognize the stark contrast between sin’s bitterness and the good we’ve already taught them to prize. The prophet Nephi taught us to not only talk and preach, but to rejoice, in Christ and His doctrine, so that our children will know how to find salvation—salvation that comes from aligning our hearts and lives with the laws of God, not the fashions of Instagram. We aren’t merely teaching our children essential doctrine. We are equipping them to teach these principles to others and to stand up for them when they will be challenged, mocked, criticized, and even punished for their beliefs. We can’t be half-hearted in our teaching, or arrogant enough to suppose we can pick the doctrines we like and deride the rest.
Please teach these doctrines freely to your children, and to mine. Truth never belongs under a bushel.
1. From General Leadership Meetings (October 2019): “We do not know why same-sex attraction and confusion about sexual identity occur,” he continued. “They are among the challenges that persons can experience in mortality, which is only a tiny fraction of our eternal existence.”↩
From Elder Jeffrey Holland Interview (2007): “I do know that this [experiencing same sex attraction] will not be a post-mortal condition. It will not be a post-mortal difficulty. I have a niece who cannot bear children. That is the sorrow and the tragedy of her life. She who was born to give birth will never give birth, and I cry with her. … I just say to her what I say to people struggling with gender identity: ‘Hang on, and hope on, and pray on, and this will be resolved in eternity.’ These conditions will not exist post-mortality.”
From Interview With Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Lance B. Wickman (2006): ELDER WICKMAN: “One question that might be asked by somebody who is struggling with same-gender attraction is, ‘Is this something I’m stuck with forever? What bearing does this have on eternal life? If I can somehow make it through this life, when I appear on the other side, what will I be like?’ Gratefully, the answer is that same-gender attraction did not exist in the pre-earth life and neither will it exist in the next life. It is a circumstance that for whatever reason or reasons seems to apply right now in mortality, in this nano-second of our eternal existence. The good news for somebody who is struggling with same-gender attraction is this: 1) It is that ‘I’m not stuck with it forever.’ It’s just now. Admittedly, for each one of us, it’s hard to look beyond the ‘now’ sometimes. But nonetheless, if you see mortality as now, it’s only during this season. 2) If I can keep myself worthy here, if I can be true to gospel commandments, if I can keep covenants that I have made, the blessings of exaltation and eternal life that Heavenly Father holds out to all of His children apply to me. Every blessing—including eternal marriage—is and will be mine in due course.”
ELDER OAKS: “Let me just add a thought to that. There is no fullness of joy in the next life without a family unit, including a husband, a wife, and posterity. Further, men are that they might have joy. In the eternal perspective, same-gender activity will only bring sorrow and grief and the loss of eternal opportunities.”