Monday, March 13, 2006

Big surprise (not)

From this week's issue of Newsweek:

After Gay Marriage, Polygamy Activism Rises

Marlyne Hammon knows what it's like to feel hated and hunted. In 1953, when she was an infant, her father, along with dozens of other men in her tiny community of Short Creek, Ariz., was arrested and sent to jail on charges of polygamy. She, her mother and siblings were forcibly exiled from the community and sent to live with a family in a nearby city...

...Hammon, who's involved in a polygamous relationship, is a founding member of the Centennial Park Action Committee, a group that lobbies for decriminalization of the practice. She's among a new wave of polygamy activists emerging in the wake of the gay-marriage movement, just as a federal lawsuit challenging anti-polygamy laws makes its way through the courts and a new show about polygamy debuts on HBO. "Polygamy rights is the next civil-rights battle," says Mark Henkel, who, as founder of the Christian evangelical polygamy organization, is at the forefront of the movement. His argument: if Heather can have two mommies, she should also be able to have two mommies and a daddy. Henkel and Hammon have been joined by other activist groups like Principle Voices, a Utah-based group run by wives from polygamous marriages. Activists point to Canada, where, in January, a report commissioned by the Justice Department recommended decriminalizing polygamy.

Here's The Question, to which I've never heard a good answer. If gay marriage should be legal, why not polygamous marriage? If the government doesn't have the right to regulate the gender of the participants, isn't it even more arbitrary to regulate the number?

So why shouldn't polygamy legal? Because it would be contrary to the historical practice of humanity? Because it would introduce a great deal of social instability? Because it's just plain wrong?

Oh, but those are all arguments frequently employed against gay marriage, and we are insistently told that they are invalid. Because of x, y, and z.

In fact, polygamy is much less contrary to the historical practice of humanity than gay marriage is. Polygamy existed in the North American continent as early as the 19th century. Gay marriage has absolutely no precedent in the post-Renaissance West. Unless you count the last 18 months of the Massachusetts legal code.

Oh but, you say, the ancient Greeks and Romans et. al. did, in fact, take teenage boys as lovers. Behold! An historical precedent. Alas for the argument, our classical forbears did not actually marry their young male friends. Nor did they ever imagine granting the relationships any kind of status similar to marriage, which, it seemed obvious to them, was for men and women.

Incidentally: I'm always perplexed by the "but the Greeks did it" line. Do its promoters really want to identify the practice of sleeping with adolescent boys with homosexuality? After all, if one examines the sordid history of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, one finds that statistically the overwhelming majority of crimes involved the abuse of a teenage boy. Surely our "the Greeks did it!" friends are not suggesting that these seductions were perfectly legitimate homosexual relationships.

Now, obviously, I'm not arguing in favor of polygamy. I'm pointing out that you can't really be for gay marriage and against polygamy, and be consistent. The one angle you might be able to work is in terms of the metaphysical meaning of two people as opposed to three, four, or eleven partners. Then again, I've never really seen a metaphysical argument where the Catholic ethic failed to mop the floor with its opponents. The vast majority of people on both sides of the debate have probably never even heard of the word "metaphysics." Of course, the argument will probably never take place, anyway, as "consistency" is not, and never has been, a major concern of many Americans - we are the people, after all, who for 90 years tolerated both the institution of slavery and a Declaration of Independence that opened with the phrase "all men are created equal."

So, here's the question again, to paraphrase: If Heather can have two mommies, why can't she have two mommies and a daddy, too?

I hope I haven't inadvertently converted anyone to the pro-polygamous position ;) although I don't imagine anybody would be except hard-core members of the radical left and radical Mormon right.


  1. From the religious perspective, perhaps one of the most sacred practices has been poligamy. And I am not just speaking of 19th Century Mormon practice which was obviously very sacred to them. In the old testament, Abraham was offered a second wife even by his first wife. His son, Jacob, married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. In the early Christian days poligamy was still the norm. Some even go as far as to affirm Jesus was a poligamist. So, what is so wrong about polygamy? Let them be happy and live according to the dictates of their own conscience.

  2. I think the problem with the 'can't Hannah have two mommies and a daddy?' question is that it really isn't as simple as that. Apart from the whole instinctive feeling that many people have that marks it as wrong, there are also the horror stories of polygamy that speak of incest, abuse, etc.

    The bottom line, for me, is that yes, we should fight for the freedom to live our lives without unreasonable intervention from from the state, but we should also consider whether living our lives exactly as we want them, whether with two daddies or three mommies and one daddy or with none at all, is really going to benefit us in the long term. Freedom is not freedom when it hurts you physically, emotionally or spiritually, and we would all do better to remember that.

  3. Personally I'd like to see who these interesting people are who claim that Our Lord was a polygamist. Probably the same gentlefolk who make the ridiculous claim that He was wed to the Magdalene?