Is it Bigotry?

A friend of mine, Mike Bird, from Australia, recently posted on a bit of a dust-up in Australia. The issue becomes this question: if same sex marriage is legitimated/legalized why not polyamory? Another way of framing it: What constitutes marriage? Intention and commitment or intention-within-constraints of man and woman?

Mike’s comment:

If you are going to regard marriage as nothing more than a legal fiction whereby the state recognizes a relationship between two persons so that said persons can have certain legal rights and recognitions, then to be honest, you have evacuated yourself of any moral or legal argument against polyamory. This issue has recently come up in the gay marriage debate in Australia.

Here’s my contention:

In the course of history marriage has been constituted by a society’s fundamental understandings, and those understandings have not always been debated theoretically. Still, most societies think marriage is between a man and woman. Some societies have (and are) comfortable with polygamy or polyamory. These have been traditional “constraints” for what kind of relationships are legitimate.

But if marriage, as is the case with same-sex marriage, is legitimated not by the tradition of man and woman or by one’s religious texts, but instead by a commitment that is then legitimated and protected by a society’s laws, then that society needs laws that distinguish same-sex marriage from polygamy and polyamory.

If the foundation is the intention and commitment of the persons involved, then the law needs to aim at intention and commitment.  Hence, while “legal fiction” is not how I’d express it, I would agree that Mike Bird’s argument deserves consideration and discussion.

Just in case you want to know, I’m not suggesting one bit that this is a “slippery slope” toward legalization of nonsense but instead a legal ground issue: what constitutes marriage? The intention of the people involved or gender/sex constraints, etc? So, this post is not so much an argument against same-sex or polyamory but for discussing what constitutes a legitimate marriage — both legally and in a Christian sense.

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  • Eric

    If it is to be assumed that same-sex marriage becomes legitimized/legalized, I’m curious what issues similar to the ones raised in this article will come to the surface.

    Apart from slippery slope arguments, do you believe there will be further significant implications from legalization in the United States or does a look around the globe to countries that have endorsed same-sex marriage seem to imply that the changes will not be so great?

    Additionally, what about those whose denomination or faith leans on religious texts as legitimacy for same-sex (or polygamous) marriage rather than mere commitment as outlined above?

  • RobS

    I’m not sure why the state cannot recognize a “common law” union and still provide similar legal rights. If we’re talking about John’s retirement plan going to Bob when John dies, that’s a simple document that’s available now. There is no need for the history of marriage to be re-defined to do estate planning.

    I think the state & same-sex proponents could push for common-law concepts and structure and it would probably be accepted over time (despite Biblical or moral concerns). I think the challenge really hits when the idea of historical marriage is overrun.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    The simplest difference is that recognizing same-sex marriage requires no greater change than gender-neutral licences, while recognizing polygamous marriages requires significant restructuring of all the things that make marriage so useful to the state in the first place. Every combination and permutation of family group- and every time that group changes by addition or subtraction- will require reworking the chain of inheritance, custody, power of attorney, etc. Not to mention the way taxes are filed and health plans structured. Same-sex marriage has none of these beauracratic issues. It is functionally indistinguishable from the marriages already recognized.

  • Adam Hildebrandt

    I have always seen it as the cunning of the devil, he has convinced mainstream heterosexuals that they do not need the institute of marriage, and homosexuals that they do.
    I also have always agreed with C.S. Lewis’ separation of state and church marriage, and ask the same question as Robb #2, why can’t common law hold the same rights?

  • DRT

    I’m not very good at housework, so my wife would regularly say “Boy, I need a wife!” I agree 🙂

  • DRT

    I don’t understand the distinction you are making Scot.

    There are two components

    1. Man and Woman
    2. 1 and 1

    We can change one without changing the other. They are independent. What is the problem?

    From a legal standpoint I would imagine that it greatly simplifies things to have it be gender neutral. There was just a news story last week about some middle aged guy that just found out he is a woman. His family is fully supportive.

    To me they look like totally different issues

  • scotmcknight

    DRT, what are the grounds for limiting marriage to two people? What is marriage?

  • Tim

    Good comments Scot. I’d say the word bigotry can occupy a range of meanings. To some, hate and ignorance are intrinsic to the concept of bigotry. To others, it may simply mean a failure to see as failure to recognize and apply equal treatment and consideration to those who are entitled to receive it. For me, I believe that LGBT couples are deserving of equal treatment and consideration civilly, morally, and personally. I think on the softer end of the spectrum anyone who denies them this is in a sense a “bigot”, but not necessarily in a way that carries all the negative connotations normally ascribed to the term – nor do I think it shoul define their whole person. I do recognize that others disagree who disagree with me are entitled to their opinion, and I’m not trying to denigrate anyone here. But I do think some decades from now history will not favor those who took a stand against equal rights for LGBT couples.

  • I guess I don’t understand what’s so controversial. Why shouldn’t a group of consenting adults willingly engage in a consensual household relationship that confers rights on each member of the group they could not receive individually?

    In other words, why fear the slippery slope? If people want to be polygamous, and no one’s being abused (a big “if” in some polygamous communities), then let them marry. Why is it our business, as Christians, Americans or any other -ans?

    Besides which, polygamy has the added benefit of being biblically sanctioned, right? It’s certainly nowhere condemned like homosexuality is. Perhaps the slippery slope should actually be in the other direction. 😉

  • DRT

    Frankly, as I sit, I am surprised at the lack of biblical basis for my belief in marriage. But, that is not because it is not discussed in the bible, more so it is used as part of the context….

    Until you teach me otherwise, I believe that marriage is a social contract between two people that they will support and join the other at (almost) all costs. In mutual return for this support and sharing, these people will strive to share their inner selves with the other.

    At its core, marriage is a commitment between two people.

    Having said that, I frankly don’t see why there is an moral problem with polygamy under certain extenuating circumstances. In other words, I think that polygamy is wrong only because it hurts society under normal situations.

    It is surprising the total lack of biblical basis for my belief……

  • I’d love to jump in on the discussion, but all I can think of when I hear Mike Bird’s name is “A Bird’s Eye View of Paul” – great book and clever title.

    but I digress…..

  • DRT

    Paul A#9,

    I believe that polygamous marriage (I am only going to consider the multiple female kind, is there a name for that?), is inherently discriminatory and bad for the weaker folks. We end up with much division in society because the powerful males, like me, would end up with all of the women! 😉

    At a deeper level it becomes obvious that the deepest relationship between two people will most likely come from only two people and not 50. But I am willing to bet that I could have an even deeper relationship with say 3 or 4. I am not just joking here, the dynamics of having multiple people are quite different. But that is why we have commities and friends. They don’t need to be married for that.

  • DRT

    er, “communities” in the last line…

  • DRT

    There is an interesting side conversation to all of this. I have heard it over and over recently that the church should get out of the marriage business. But I view it exactly the opposite. The state should get out of the marriage business.

    Why is the state involved at all? This really goes back to the definition, where we here in the US feel that there is some intrinsic benefit to the state that we should finance. We are giving married people money to be married and I think that is quite wrong.

    Marriage is a social contract. The folks getting married always have the option to draw up some pre-nups or other things that allow for adequate compensation in the event of something bad happening. But why should we the people, the government, give special financial incentives to the marriage.

    I believe the government should have mechanisms in place that allow for things like power of attorney and medical permissions, and leave it up to the people/church to decide what is right for a marriage.

    Now I am not arguing for an anything goes attitude, no, polygamy is not in the interest of the state in the same way that it is not in the interest of the state for the rich to get even richer at the expense of the poor.

    But same sex or different sex? Makes no difference.

  • Joe Canner

    RobS #2: You are correct, but there are a multitude of similar issues (tax filing, hospital visitation, end-of-life, adoption, custody, etc.), all of which require a different “simple document.” It’s just common sense decency and love of neighbor to offer all couples a one-stop procedure to obtain all of these rights at the same time.

    That said, we don’t necessarily have to redefine marriage to do so. A well-crafted civil union system (European model) would suffice. As DRT suggests in #14, the state would take of the legal issues and the church would take care of the moral issues.

  • Cal

    Well as a Christian, trying to live in the best possible situation, one man and one woman is what constitutes a marriage in the eyes of God. It acts also a symbol of the covenantal faithfulness of God to His Ekklessia.

    Yet, marriage has been defined by society with all sorts of restrictions here and there and permissions here and there. There is polygamy, homosexual, pederastic, and polyamorous concubinage. It may hurt society but very minorly compared to all the other damage done in the “city” by all sorts of governmental policies. If the Church is to get involved and speak up, it ought to be for those broken and crushed, not because we feel our definition of marriage is threatened. The State cannot define what is holy, to attempt is folly.

    What hath Washington to do with Jerusalem?

  • Right now what we have is…

    Marriage = One man + woman + woman + woman +as many women as he’d like

    Its just that he has to divorce each woman before he marries the next.
    Isn’t this a form of polygamy already?

  • Tom F.

    I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. Would be interesting to hear what the current legal definition of marriage is, than maybe it would be easier to compare what would change with gay marriage.

    I’m really not that interested in the gay marriage issue anyway. It seems to me that you could have everyone do civil unions (thus not discriminatory) and leave religious marriage to the different faiths. As civil unions would not be marriages, I suppose that people could enter into unions with more than one person. But there would be much less to care about that. Poly-unionizing just doesn’t offend the moral sensibilities like polyamory. Statutory rape laws can make sure that underage women are not forced into polygamous marriage just as easily as outright outlawing polygamy between men and younger women.

  • DRT

    Jennifer,….Jennifer,…..oh, come on now, Jennifer……

    Should I laugh or cry at that one Jennifer?

  • EricW


    Polygamy = marriage to more than one partner
    Polyandry = one woman + more than one man
    Polygyny = one man + more than one woman
    polus = many
    gamos = marriage
    anēr, andros = man
    gynē, gynaikos = woman

  • EricG

    The decision by Judge Vaughn Walker on gay marriage was based in large part on the absence of *any* evidence admitted in that case that suggested a rational basis for the claim that gay marriage is harmful. I’m not interested in getting into a debate on that question generally (although I do find the overwhelming weakness of the evidence submitted by supporters of the ban on gay marriage telling) — I’m just making the point that the evidence that was actually considered in the case – i.e., what proponents of the law presented – was exceedingly weak and easy for the Court to reject. If you doubt this, just read the decision and get copies of the public record.

    In contrast, if laws against polygamy were challenged, I suspect the States could marshall some pretty powerful evidence that it is very harmful. Heck, just look at Warren Jeffs — and otherwise the common abuse of women in places where this is still practiced. It also isn’t the political hot potato that gay marriage is, and would not generate the same support. This is a red herring issue.

  • DRT,

    What? 😉

    You dont think serial polygamy is still a form of polygamy?

  • DRT

    EricW, thanks sir. I took 2 years of german in HS and that is all the foreign language I ever had. Likewise my schools’ felt that the advanced students should go directly to literature instead of spending lots of time on words and sentence structure so I never really had that either. Then I went to engineering school in college and they don’t care if you can speak correctly, at least they used to not care. It’s amazing I can communicate at all!

    My daughter and her friends have been taking latin for years, they love it. One of the friends is going to go to a Catholic school, and that school does not teach Latin. Imagine that, a Roman Catholic school not even offer Latin to the students.

  • DRT

    polyamory marriage

    poly – many
    armory – place where weapons are stored

  • EricG

    DRT – that is a funny thing to vizualize!

  • DRT – LOL!!! Love it.

  • EricW


    A couple years of New Testament Greek will not only significantly improve your Bible study and understanding of the Scriptures, but will also help with your understanding of English words and grammar, as it did for me.

  • Kim

    I’m wondering why the state is interested in marriage at all these days? Formerly, the state did not hand out marriage certificates b/c it wanted to affirm certain types relationships (this may have been a side effect, but was not the primary concern), but because marriage produced children (ie. citizens) which led to inheritance rights. The state is interested in property, and the issues of who gets what and owns what. Polygamy greatly complicates these issues, and gay marriage doesn’t have them (let’s bracket the issue of gay adoption). Marriage as a badge of societal approval seems to me to be a recent development.

  • John Inglis

    The state has a necessary interest in marraige because it is a social contract.

    People want their contracts enforced, without having to resort to vigilante justice or mob/gangster rule. Hence they want access to courts and sherrifs and police to enforce their contracts, or to dispute unreasonable interpretations of their contracts.

    Furthermore, every society / nation has an interest in its own self-perpetuation. Children are necessary to this; children require families. The state needs stable families that can raise the next generation of citizens. This requires via laws to promote and control stable families, including marriage laws.

    Otherwise, we’d live in an anarchy where a husband leaves his wife and takes the assets with him and she can do nothing to get support, or to prevent a bigamist marriage by him that would affect her suppport. So she calls on her brothers and father and, without laws, they go beat the tar out of the husband and retrieve the assets.

    That’s why the state has an interest in marriage, and why I want the state to have an interest in marriage.

  • The state has a necessary interest in marraige because it is a social contract.

    So make it purely a social contract, and let churches handle whatever religious dimensions the contractees want acknowledged. Why should only one kind of social contract be legally allowed?

    I mean, there’s already a distinction betwen civil marriage and religious marriage in practice. There are people remarried in civil fashion, and the state treats them as married – but the Catholic church considers them to be cohabitating, their previous marriage not having been anulled.

  • francisbeckwith

    For the record, it is not a slippery slope argument to suggest that a conceptual commitment on X requires that one accept Y as well unless one has a good countervailing reason not to do so that is consistent with one’s initial conceptual commitment. Thus, for example, if I offer a libertarian principle to defend the legalization of marijuana–“citizens ought to be able to make choices about what they do to their own bodies without government interference short of harming others”–it is perfectly legitimate for someone to ask me why I am not supporting the legalization of suicide, heroine use, prostitution, or the right to amputate one’s own healthy limbs. The query is not suggesting that I believe these things or that these things will in fact happen. It is in fact to raise a question of principle: On what grounds do you reject these entailments of the principle you now offer to defend marijuana legalization? Consequently, it is simply wrong to say that the conceptual questions about SS”M”‘s grounds are “slippery slope” arguments.