The Advent of Polygamy

Elizabeth Marquardt, writing in the Huffington Post, explains why changes to how our society regards marriage will almost certainly lead to the official recognition of polygamous or polyamorous marriages:

The debate about legal recognition of polyamorous relationships is already well underway. A major report issued in 2001 by the Law Commission of Canada asked whether marriages should be “limited to two people.” Its conclusion: probably not. A British law professor wrote in an Oxford-published textbook that the idea that marriage meaning two people is a “traditional” and perhaps outdated way of thinking. Elizabeth Emens of the University of Chicago Law School published a substantial legal defense of polyamory in a legal journal. She suggested that “we view this historical moment, when same-sex couples begin to enter the institution of marriage, as a unique opportunity to question the mandate of compulsory monogamy.”

Mainstream cultural leaders have also hinted at or actively campaigned for polyamory. Roger Rubin, former vice-president of the National Council on Family Relations–one of the main organizations for family therapists and scholars in the United States–believes the debate about same-sex marriage has “set the stage for broader discussion over which relationships should be legally recognized.” The Alternatives to Marriage Project, whose leaders are featured by national news organizations in stories on cohabitation and same-sex marriage, includes polyamory among its important “hot topics” for advocacy. The Unitarian Universalists for Polyamorous Awareness hope to make their faith tradition the first to recognize and bless polyamorous relationships. Meanwhile, a July 2009 Newsweek story estimates that there are more than half a million “open polyamorous families” living in America. Nearly every major city in the U.S. has a polyamory social group of some kind.

What is interesting about this is that it goes to the claim by gay marriage advocates that Christians are merely engaging in a slippery-slope fallacy when they claim the sanction of gay marriage will make any number of human relationships open to official recognition. Such an argument misses the essential claim of traditional marriage advocates – namely that there is an ideal or preferable familial relationship based on biology, history, sociology and moral and religious calculations. That ideal is that of one woman and one man joined together in a monogamous relationship. This arrangement has proven to be consistent with human flourishing, whether we consider that from the perspective of child rearing, health, wealth or the stability of consistency of human communities.

Insomuch as this is true, the rejection of this ideal by gay marriage advocates constitutes a fundamental evisceration of our society’s ability to promote human flourishing and argue against inherently unstable human relationships of the sort Marquardt writes about here. As she notes in her conclusion:

All of which begs questions: How do children feel when they are raised by three or more persons called their parents, especially when those people disagree? If their three-plus parents break up, how many homes do we expect these children to travel between? And why would anyone watching news coverage of arrests at polygamist compounds in Texas or British Columbia — seeing hundreds of pale women wearing identical ankle-length dresses and braided hair amid reports of widespread abuse of and pregnancy among girls — think that polygamy is compatible with a society that values women’s rights and children’s safety?

Why indeed. It seems fairly obvious advocates of sanctioning non-traditional marriages can’t even begin to answer these questions.

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5 Responses to The Advent of Polygamy

  1. On what basis do you condemn polygamy? Scripture? Most of the patriarchs were polygamous (including Abraham who married his half-sister). It’s perhaps not the biblical ideal, but nowhere is it condemned. In fact, it was at times commanded in the form of levirate marriage (which demanded a man marry his deceased brother’s widow whether he was married already or not).

    No. The condemnation of polygamy arises out of our post-Enlightenment standards which finds the practice misogynistic (which in most cases, it is, even if the women engage in it willingly).

    In any rate, gay marriage doesn’t “lead to” polygamy any more than allowing a man to marry one woman means we must allow him to marry twenty. What I think you mean is that re-conceptualizing marriage to allow gays to marry opens the door to other accepting configurations like polygamy. That would be true. However, the concept of marriage has always morphed along with the culture, anyhow.

    Marriage in many cultures has been (and still is in some places) an arranged affair: romance has little to do with it (in strong contrast to our culture where eros is a key component — at least initially). Colonial-era marriage meant a woman forfeited her right to sign any legal contracts: she became the property of her husband. Contrast that to today where marriage implies a “partnership” (do even churches still use the word “obey” in reference to the woman’s relationship to her spouse?).

    Most people are heterosexuals. So, they’ve created civil contracts which reflect their understanding of what these relationships with the opposite sex entail. Other than that, I see little in it that’s constant here.

  2. By the way, your questions regarding the well-being of children in polygamous environments are good and valid ones. The irony is that these problems seem to fester in ultra-religious environments (very similar to how female sexual abuse is a serious problem in some Amish communities).

    Realize, too, that some of these issues (aside from the abuse) are seen in families where parents have divorced and remarried. Dad and wife #2 get the kids one weekend, Mom and new boyfriend get them the next ….

  3. JesusSaves says:

    As one commenter so effectively stated, it is very possible that the fact that the majority of polygamous families are composed of religious, fundamentalist nutbags who think that the earth is 6000 years old, is what actually raises concern for the treatment of children within these families. The teaching that women are to be submissive to men is still common in some Christian denominations and children are raised to believe this Stone Age gibberish.

    If polygamists want to make their case for the legalization of that arrangement, then by all means do it and let’s debate the merits/faults of that argument.

    Children who grow up with a white mother/black father(or vise versa) are probably at times exposed to significant harassment and bullying by other children and adults. But should we as a society try to outlaw mixed marriages simply because of the difficulty that it may sometimes impose on children? This seems to be the absurd argument that Mr. Hudson tries to use in his post regarding gay marriage.

    And Mr. Hudson offers no evidence to support his assertion that biology or history should be our guide when it comes to the issue of gay marriage. How did history do with that slavery thing? Or women’s rights?

    I’m still waiting for a rational reason to oppose same sex marriage that doesn’t involve blatant bigotry, intolerance or homophobia.
    Mr. Hudson hasn’t offered one here. Perhaps he can pull some other ridiculous, irrational, non-sensical “reason” to oppose gay marriage out of the butt-hole that he got this absurd post of his.

  4. jackhudson says:

    As one commenter so effectively stated, it is very possible that the fact that the majority of polygamous families are composed of religious, fundamentalist nutbags who think that the earth is 6000 years old, is what actually raises concern for the treatment of children within these families. The teaching that women are to be submissive to men is still common in some Christian denominations and children are raised to believe this Stone Age gibberish.

    Actually, there is no evidence that most polygamous families are in any way orthodox Christian families –obviously most of them globally are Muslim, and historically the few that have been in the US were fundamentalist Mormon strains. But advocates like The Alternatives to Marriage Project and Elizabeth Emens of the University of Chicago Law School could hardly be described as religious fundamentalists.

    If polygamists want to make their case for the legalization of that arrangement, then by all means do it and let’s debate the merits/faults of that argument.

    The gay marriage debate undermined any discussion of marriage based on ‘merit’ – given the marriage has been reduced down to merely a legal arrangement between consenting adults, there is no longer any basis to argue against polygamous relationships.

    Children who grow up with a white mother/black father(or vise versa) are probably at times exposed to significant harassment and bullying by other children and adults. But should we as a society try to outlaw mixed marriages simply because of the difficulty that it may sometimes impose on children? This seems to be the absurd argument that Mr. Hudson tries to use in his post regarding gay marriage.

    I never made any such argument.

    And Mr. Hudson offers no evidence to support his assertion that biology or history should be our guide when it comes to the issue of gay marriage. How did history do with that slavery thing? Or women’s rights?

    This is an odd argument for a number of reasons. First off war was the ultimate determiner of the slavery question; are you suggesting we decide the marriage question via a massive civil war?

    And the question of women’s rights certainly has been considered from biological and historical perspectives, on both sides of the question. Obviously there are legal considerations as well, but legal questions always take into consideration history and biology as well as sociology and morality. So I am not sure what your point would be here.

    I’m still waiting for a rational reason to oppose same sex marriage that doesn’t involve blatant bigotry, intolerance or homophobia.

    Mr. Hudson hasn’t offered one here. Perhaps he can pull some other ridiculous, irrational, non-sensical “reason” to oppose gay marriage out of the butt-hole that he got this absurd post of his.

    Well the argument here hasn’t been against gay marriage per se so much as it has been that the reduction of marriage to a mere legal arrangement as gay marriage advocates are wont to do leaves the door wide open for other sort of marriages, which are obviously detrimental to the well being of children.

  5. jackhudson says:

    On what basis do you condemn polygamy? Scripture? Most of the patriarchs were polygamous (including Abraham who married his half-sister). It’s perhaps not the biblical ideal, but nowhere is it condemned. In fact, it was at times commanded in the form of levirate marriage (which demanded a man marry his deceased brother’s widow whether he was married already or not).

    First off I am not ‘condemning’ polygamy, I am saying it is not the ideal familial relationship – and I explained why. I didn’t even mention the Scriptural view off it. While God did not prohibit polygamy, he certainly didn’t command it’s general practice, for example when He warns about the problems of having multiple wives, specifically concerning kings when He says In Deut. 17, “And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.”

    And I don’t know that there could be a stronger argument against polygamy than the consistent and pernicious problems it presents as meticulously detailed in the Old Testament.

    In fact he basic formulation for monogamous marriage has been consistent from Genesis to the Gospels as made clear when in His discussion of marriage Jesus quotes Genesis; “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. It’s fairly clearly about the relationship between a single man and woman.
    This is further confirmed in the New Testament when Paul writes Timothy and again to Titus that church leaders will be “the husband of one wife”. So the ideal proffered by Scripture appears to be monogamy.

    But my argument didn’t even refer to the Bible – so I am not sure why you brought it up.

    No. The condemnation of polygamy arises out of our post-Enlightenment standards which finds the practice misogynistic (which in most cases, it is, even if the women engage in it willingly).

    The church has had a well-articulated stance against polygamy since Augustine – the idea that this began with the Enlightenment is utterly absurd.

    In any rate, gay marriage doesn’t “lead to” polygamy any more than allowing a man to marry one woman means we must allow him to marry twenty. What I think you mean is that re-conceptualizing marriage to allow gays to marry opens the door to other accepting configurations like polygamy. That would be true. However, the concept of marriage has always morphed along with the culture, anyhow.

    The gay marriage argument that reduces marriage down to a mere legal arrangement lays the groundwork for the legal argument for polygamy – that isn’t theoretical, as I made clear it’s already happening.

    Marriage in many cultures has been (and still is in some places) an arranged affair: romance has little to do with it (in strong contrast to our culture where eros is a key component — at least initially). Colonial-era marriage meant a woman forfeited her right to sign any legal contracts: she became the property of her husband. Contrast that to today where marriage implies a “partnership” (do even churches still use the word “obey” in reference to the woman’s relationship to her spouse?).

    Perhaps this is the case but it is irrelevant to the current discussion about the relationship between the arguments for gay marriage and their relationship to the acceptance of polygamy.

    Most people are heterosexuals. So, they’ve created civil contracts which reflect their understanding of what these relationships with the opposite sex entail. Other than that, I see little in it that’s constant here.

    If that is all marriage is, then there is no reason why we wouldn’t allow polygamous marriages, which is my point.

    By the way, your questions regarding the well-being of children in polygamous environments are good and valid ones. The irony is that these problems seem to fester in ultra-religious environments (very similar to how female sexual abuse is a serious problem in some Amish communities).

    I disagree; I would say such arrangements are actually quite rare. I would say the greatest push against monogamy is coming from the secular left.

    Realize, too, that some of these issues (aside from the abuse) are seen in families where parents have divorced and remarried. Dad and wife #2 get the kids one weekend, Mom and new boyfriend get them the next ….

    Oh sure, but that is largely the result of policies pushed in the 60’s and 70’s by progressives. They assured us then easy divorce wouldn’t be harmful to kids, just as they are assuring us now that the latest re-arrangements of traditional marriage will be healthy.

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