Now that gay marriage is legal in many jurisdictions and broadly accepted, activists are taking up the cause of polygamy. The liberal Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller is sympathetic:
This week, in one of his first public statements since this past summer’s anti-gay-marriage remarks, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy told an Atlanta television reporter that he supports “Biblical families.” This comment immediately gave rise to jokes questioning his familiarity with the Old Testament, where, as any Mormon elder can tell you, patriarchs such as Abraham, Jacob and David all practiced polygamy.
John Witte Jr., however, thinks it isn’t so funny. A scholar of religion and law at Emory University in Atlanta, Witte is working on a lengthy history of polygamy due out next year. He believes that polygamy is the next frontier in marriage and family law. If states are able to dismantle traditional or conventional views of marriage by allowing two men or two women to wed, then why should they not go further and sanction, or at least decriminalize, marriages between one man and several women?
This is the argument that Kody Brown and his wives, the stars of the reality television show “Sister Wives,” are making in a civil suit against the state of Utah. They are claiming that Utah’s anti-polygamy laws violate their privacy and their religious freedom. “The Browns want to be allowed to create a loving family according to the values of their faith,” Jonathan Turley, the family’s lawyer, wrote in an op-ed this summer.
Beneath the sensationalism, there lies a real question. If Americans increasingly value their rights to privacy and liberty above historical social norms, then why should the state not legally approve other unconventional domestic set-ups? In his first chapter, Witte presents the problem this way. “After all,” he writes, “American states today, viewed together, already offer several models of state-sanctioned domestic life for their citizens: straight and gay marriage, contract and covenant marriage, civil union and domestic partnership. Each of these off-the-rack models of domestic life has built-in rights and duties that the parties have to each other and their children and other dependents. And the parties can further tailor these built-in rights and duties through private prenuptial contracts. With so much marital pluralism and private ordering already available, why not add a further option — that of polygamous marriage?”
This is an argument that makes defenders of individual liberties sweat, for few people like to be put in the spot of having to uphold a social taboo. But really. If the purpose of marriage is to preserve personal happiness, protect and raise children, and create social stability through shared property and mutual obligation, then why is polygamy so problematic if it occurs among consenting adults? The two-parent household may be an ideal, but real life is far messier than that. Children are raised all the time by groups of adults: there are exes and steps, adoptive parents and biological, mistresses and wives. Didn’t someone say it takes a village?
Witte is worried about this line of thinking. He sees the “sexual liberty for all” folks increasingly pressing their cases in law reviews, saying “those that oppose polygamy are just like the homophobes and the patriarchs.”
Is there any Biblical reason why polygamy should not be legalized? That is, set aside natural law arguments, what’s best for women, the needs of children, etc., and just focus on the Bible. Clearly, the New Testament demands monogamy for church leaders, but that requirement doesn’t seem to be binding on everyone. And, of course, polygamy was almost the norm in the Old Testament, in particular for leaders of the magnitude of Abraham and King David.
The defining texts for marriage, on the other hand, are those that refer to Adam and Eve, and Christ and the Church, and to “the two” becoming “one flesh.” Those would argue against polygamy. (Jesus doesn’t have more than one bride, contrary to the gnostic manuscripts being circulated, and the applications of this relationship to the vocation of the marriage in Ephesians 5 don’t really work for more than one spouse.)
And yet we cannot say that Jacob was sinning or defying God’s will when he took many wives whose progeny created the Twelve Tribes of Israel, can we? The practice of Christian missionaries when a polygamist converts has been to make him put away all but one of his wives. How can that be a good practice? Doesn’t that do great harm to the wives who are abandoned? And doesn’t this violate the definite Biblical prohibitions against divorce?
If we cannot make a Bible-only case against polygamy, does this mean that extra-Biblical reasoning is necessary, if in this case, also in other moral and legal issues?