Polygamy: the next marriage battle?

By Staff
May 1, 2013

While the battle over same-sex marriage still rages, it is hard to imagine what the next battle might be. However, astute observers of the marriage debate have already seen the newest challenge to the definition of marriage — polygamy.

In a recent article on Slate.com, Jillian Keenan proposes that the legalization of polygamous marriage is a desired result of the current marriage debate. She argues:

“While the Supreme Court and the rest of us are all focused on the human right of marriage equality, let’s not forget that the fight doesn’t end with same-sex marriage. We need to legalize polygamy, too. Legalized polygamy in the United States is the constitutional, feminist, and sex-positive choice. More importantly, it would actually help protect, empower, and strengthen women, children, and families.”

Keenan is not playing the “same-sex marriage is a slippery slope” card to argue against same-sex marriage. In fact, she ridicules that argument as a “tired refrain.” Instead, she brands herself as a feminist who believes polygamy is in the best interest of women and society and perfectly in keeping with the arguments for same-sex marriage.

Besides the 2011 lawsuit to decriminalize bigamy and polygamy in Utah filed by the stars of TLC’s “Sister Wives,” the discussion of polygamy and its connection to the same-sex marriage debate has been fairly silent. Keenan, however, wishes to end that silence.

While admitting that the argument against polygamy has generally been that it hurts women and children, Keenan believes legalization would actually benefit them. She claims that polygamists live in the shadows and fear the authorities. If they were allowed to live in the open, they would be more likely to report instances of abuse.

In addition, she believes feminists should support polygamy because it empowers women. She states:

“Finally, prohibiting polygamy on ‘feminist’ grounds — that these marriages are inherently degrading to the women involved — is misguided. The case for polygamy is, in fact, a feminist one and shows women the respect we deserve. Here’s the thing: As women, we really can make our own choices. We just might choose things people don’t like. If a woman wants to marry a man, that’s great. If she wants to marry another woman, that’s great too. If she wants to marry a hipster, well — I suppose that’s the price of freedom. And if she wants to marry a man with three other wives, that’s her … choice.”

At the end of her article, she gets down to the fundamental argument for why polygamy ought to be legalized. On this point, her logic is sound — I just disagree with her first premise. She declares:

“The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less ‘correct’ than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults. Though polygamists are a minority — a tiny minority, in fact — freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us. So let’s fight for marriage equality until it extends to every same-sex couple in the United States — and then let’s keep fighting. We’re not done yet.”

Keenan’s entire argument is built upon the idea that the definition of marriage is plastic. She believes it is constantly changing and must always expand to include the newest idea.

This is the clear connection to the same-sex marriage debate.

The current battle over marriage involves the definition of marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage (and supporters of polygamy) consider marriage to be an intimate, emotional relationship between individuals. They offer no basis for discrimination according to gender or number. Thus, the “new” definition of marriage would allow for same-sex marriage and polygamy. If culture, and specifically the government, adopts this new definition of marriage, then Keenan is right. There will be no choice but to legalize polygamy as well as same-sex marriage. However, Keenan does not go far enough. Incest is the next step of progression. We could add to her argument above: “If a woman wants to marry a man, that’s great. If she wants to marry another woman, that’s great too. If she wants to marry a hipster, well — I suppose that’s the price of freedom.” The next line should read: “If she even wants to marry her brother, that’s her choice.”

This is the direction of the debate. Keenan has opened the door and publicly stated what others have been ridiculed for saying. The definition of marriage matters. A redefinition of marriage will undermine the entire concept of marriage that has been recognized throughout human history. As Chief Justice John Roberts stated during oral arguments before the Supreme Court: “If you tell a child that somebody has to be their friend, I suppose you can force the child to say, ‘This is my friend.’ But it changes the definition of what it means to be a friend.” If we tell people they can marry whomever they wish no matter the gender, number, or blood relationship, I suppose we could call that marriage. However, it changes the definition of what it means to be married.

This article, written by Evan Lenow, originally appeared in Baptist Press May 1, 2013.

Evan Lenow is a Research Institute Fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He also serves as Associate Director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement and as assistant professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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