July 23, 2024

Polygamy 2007

Reuters says that fundamentalist Mormons are pushing for legalization of their polygamous ways:

Polygamy, once hidden in the shadows of Utah and Arizona, is breaking into the open as fundamentalist Mormons push to decriminalize it on religious grounds, while at the same time stamping out abuses such as forced marriages of underage brides.

The growing confidence of polygamists and their willingness to go public come at an awkward moment for mainstream Mormons, who are now in the spotlight as Republican Mitt Romney, a prominent Mormon, seeks the U.S. presidency.

This is undoubtedly mortifying to Romney because he needs to broaden his appeal to mainstream conservatives and Christians alike. Neither group is likely to accept the lifestyle choices of the 40,000 Mormons who practice multiple marriages and Romney will have to distance himself from the fringes of his religion to be a viable candidate.

But does the right’s disapproval mean that polygamy is wrong?

Certainly polygamy was an accepted practice in historical times and is featured prominently in the Bible. These references are primarily in the Old Testament. In fact polygamy had nearly died out in Jewish society by this time and was not practiced by Greeks or Romans. From a Christian perspective it is generally accepted that Jesus taught that polygamy is unacceptable, as in Matthew 19.8-9:

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

While this is not an absolutely definitive statement, it’s pretty clear that monogamy was seen by Jesus as the correct way for men and women to live together.

While I accept that judgment for myself and my own family, does it follow that those who believe otherwise deserve to spend time in jail because of their decision?

Marci Hamilton’s 2004 article on the subject makes some interesting points about the legal standards that block the legalization of polygamous relationships:

The basis of this argument is a historical fact: When Congress outlawed polygamy in the Territories in the Nineteenth Century, its motive in part was to suppress the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — which at that time believed in the sanctity of polygamous marriages. Modern anti-polygamy statutes…continue to bear this taint.

The problem, though, is that motive is not generally relevant to the interpretation of a statute. The anti-polygamy laws were – and are — facially neutral: They apply equally to secular and religious polygamists. That facial neutrality makes it clear that Congress was not focused solely on eradicating religious polygamists in the West, but also intent on preserving the long tradition of marriage between one man and one woman.

Hamilton goes on to explain that one powerful rationale for banning polygamy in fact was (and is) the tendency for such men to marry underage girls and/or close relatives, including their own daughers.

As disgusting as this behavior is, existing statuatory rape and incest laws already cover this territory in a more rational fashion. As such, the basis for banning polygamy is diminished to the extent that it is intended to cure these evils.

Instead the focus should be on the civil definition of marriage rather than on the possible use or misuse of the institution by a few deviants. Historically America has supported the one man-one woman standard of marriage. This should continue to be so.

It makes sense to treat polygamous relationships as we do homosexual relationships: they are tolerated from a civil perspective but not legally acknowledged as meeting the standard of accepted social practice.

Hamilton says that states have the right to define their own individual standards for marriage. As we’ve seen in recent years some have elected to allow homosexual unions. Polygamy may not be that far behind. Indeed, the slope is rather slippery in a country that is unable to define and enforce a difference between what is legal and what is right.

It’s exactly that elusive difference that matters most in these sorts of questions. For many people, myself included, there is nothing particularly offensive about polygamy. It doesn’t carry the same disgust factor as male homosexuality, for instance. But it simply isn’t the way that Americans live. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it’s not how we do things here.
Because it is so fundamental to the American way of life, the definition of traditional marriage should be held to a higher standard that what is merely legal.

What this means to Mitt Romney remains to be seen. I doubt that it means anything. It is, after all, a fringe issue and I think most voters understand that.

But if Romney wins the Republican nomination the question will keep popping up. The media will make sure of that, whether for the titillation effect on ratings and profits or for the sake of their ideology.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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