Polygamy in America

Polygamy is the slippery slope of what will be allowed after we finish debating same-sex marriage. Jonathan Turley, a constitutional legal scholar, has already set the groundwork for the legalization of polygamy. Turley contends, “For polygamists, it is simply a matter of unequal treatment under the law…Individuals have a recognized constitutional right to engage in any form of consensual sexual relationship with any number of partners. Thus, a person can live with multiple partners and even sire children from different partners so long as they do not marry. However, when that same person accepts a legal commitment for those partners 'as a spouse,' we jail them.”

Turley goes beyond equal treatment under the law as he adds, “The difference between a polygamist and the follower of an 'alternative lifestyle' is often religion. In addition to protecting privacy, the Constitution is supposed to protect the free exercise of religion unless the religious practice injures a third party or causes some public danger.”

Turley's target is the 1878 Supreme Court decision Reynolds vs. United States in which the Courts declared polygamy not a legitimate religious practice. Turley added, “Contrary to the court's statements, the practice of polygamy is actually one of the common threads between Christians, Jews and Muslims.” While many have denied that there is a slippery slope between the legalization of same-sex marriage and the legalization of polygamy, Turley is already using the case for same-sex marriage to aid in his overturning laws against polygamy, and he can state that there is a cultural and religious case to be made for polygamy that can’t be made for same-sex relations. Turley's point is that 78% of world cultures accept polygamy, and there are an estimated 50,000 polygamists in the United Sates. Turley can use religious freedom as a basis to get laws against polygamists overturned as he observed, “Given this history and the long religious traditions, it cannot be seriously denied that polygamy is a legitimate religious belief.” The one point that I have made in past essays is that not all relationships are equal.

The case against polygamy is based simply because it will be a cultural disaster if accepted as equal to a two parent household. Slate magazine writer Linda Copeland noted that the one reason that society moved away from polygamy is because of the social problems it created. It could be said that a two parent household is the best of all imperfect relationships designed by humans. Copeland noted that researchers found that monogamous marriages reduced crime since polygamous societies create large number of unmarried men with little to no investment in family or children. The results of polygamous societies are increased rapes, thefts, murders and substance abuse. Copeland added reference from marriage historian Stephanie Coontz who concluded that polygamy is less about love than about power. Copeland noted, “Rich old guys with lots of wives win twice: They have more women to bear them babies and do household work, and they also gain an advantage over other men. After all, in such societies a young man in want of a wife cannot simply woo her. There is too much competition, and he probably has too little to offer. So he winds up having to do work for a more powerful, polygynous man, bringing him gifts and tributes, in hopes of someday being rewarded with one of that man’s many daughters.” Coontz added, “Often the subordination of women is in fact also a way of controlling men.”

Societies, who are polygamous, tend to be patriarchy societies in which men control women. (There will be many readers who may not view modern day America as utopia for women, but in a polygamy society, women's rights will be non-existent. You can’t be a true feminist and support polygamy.) Copeland noted, “But historically, polygamy has proved to be yet another setup that screws the XX set. Because there are never enough of them to go around, they wind up being married off younger. Brothers and fathers, realizing how valuable their female relations are, tend to control them more.”

What about the children? In polygamous societies, children don’t benefit from being part of polygamy families compared to traditional two parent households. Researcher Joe Henrich found in studies of 19th century Mormon families that children raised by poorer two parent families were more likely to survive to the age of 15 compared to wealthy Mormon polygamy families. Copeland concedes this was a small survey but added, “But it’s consistent with other studies, including one from Africa showing that the children of monogamous households tend to do better than those from polygynous households in the same communities.” Copeland added that in polygamous societies, few men not only hoard many of the women, but wealth as well. For those interested in income equality and gender equity, polygamy encourages wider inequality of wealth and less equality among genders.

Copeland sums up the case against polygamy, “Polygamy may actually exacerbate inequities in wealth and gender that hurt societies, even if the institution itself appears neutral. Crime and chaos are threatening. Christianity may have brought monogamy to Europe and many other places, but those cultures succeeded because monogamy happened to suit them. In other words, as far as social evolution is concerned, the best form of marriage for a given society isn’t really about what’s moral, but what works.”

This brings us to asking ourselves where do we go from here? A few years back, I asked gay friends, would you prefer that the issue be decided democratically through the legislature or by the Courts. Not one stated that they wanted it decided by the Courts (even though I don’t think they would object if the Court would decide in favor of same-sex marriage, but they would prefer to convince their neighbors that same-sex marriage is good for society as opposed to imposing it by fiat by the Court.) One gay friend asked the question, why does the State have to be involved to begin with?

There is one reality; marriage predates government and not the other way around. Government does not approve marriage, but merely is reinforcing the decision that two people make and is similar to allowing other contract volunteering to be made. Government does not create rights, they are to protect rights. So there are those like National Review John Fund calling for making marriage a totally private thing and get the state out of the marriage all together. Interesting concept as John Fund wrote, “Marriage scholar Lawrence Stone has noted that in the Middle Ages it was treated as a private contract between two families . . . For those without property, it was a private contract between two individuals enforced by the community sense of what was right. Indeed, marriage wasn’t even regulated by law in Britain until the Marriage Acts of 1754 and 1835. Common-law unions in early America were long recognized before each state imposed a one-size-fits-all set of marriage laws.”

I would be willing to view ideas submitted by Fund and others that maybe government should not be in the marriage business, but for me, the real key is greater Society has a right to determine what family is and is not. The structure of family matters to the health of the greater Society.



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