The BLOG: Faith and Law

Polygamy: New life for a dead relic of barbarism?

Cultural markers pointing to plural marriage, from Sister Wives to the throuple, have sprung up among us over the last few years, fascinating “normal” Americans. Polygamy was, of course, one of the twin relics of barbarism (along with slavery) that the Republican Party promised to abolish in 1856. It took longer to abolish legalized polygamy than legalized slavery. But with the Supreme Court’s 1878 decision in Reynolds v. United States, plural marriage met its final demise in American law.

Well, maybe not so final. Plural marriage is back. And some influential thinkers want to see it become not just legal but also normal.

My good friend Micah Watson, who holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar Chair in Political Science at Calvin College, has published an engaging and thought-provoking review of the academic book, “In Defense of Plural Marriage,” by Cal Poly political science professor Ronald C. Den Otter. Den Otter makes the case that the same argument in justice for redefining marriage to include same-sex couples logically entails redefining it further to include plural groups—“throuples” and “moresomes.” (I’ve not read the book, but it seems from publicly-available excerpts and summaries of its contents that polyandry, polygamy, and other plural marital arrangements that involve opposite-sex mixtures are also included.)

Micah points out that proponents of natural marriage predicted that advocacy for and legalization of plural marriage would follow close on the heels of legal recognition of same-sex “marriage.” And this is not a cultural slippery slope as much as a logical entailment. “[I]t bears noting,” Micah says:

that Den Otter argues in earnest what traditional defenders of conjugal marriage have been predicting for some time. If revisionists succeed in redefining legal marriage so government no longer recognizes the complementarity of one man and one woman, then there will be no principle in theory or obstacle in practice to confine “marriage” to two persons. One person’s slippery slope is, for Den Otter, a welcome waterslide.

Yet this is not an I-told-you-so book review, and Micah’s tone is not at all triumphalist. The collapse of marriage’s predicates and legal supports is not cause for people of faith to celebrate. Indeed, it is cause to lament the harm that the breakdown of our marriage culture will cause to the vulnerable among us. “If Den Otter’s vision becomes a reality, what should truly concern us is the pain and suffering it will bring its victims on account of government-sanctioned libertinism.”

Nevertheless, Micah ends on a hopeful note.

Faithful witness in the face of such a prospect requires a long-term and ultimately eschatological perspective—a posture calling for the careful tending of our own families, compassionate and welcoming friendships with neighbors who don’t share our convictions, and a reliance on a redeeming God who not only authored our nature, but took it upon himself.

The whole review is worth the read.

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod is a member of the Maine and Massachusetts (inactive) bars and an Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He is the author of “Property and Practical Reason” (Cambridge University Press) and dozens of articles in journals in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, many of which can be accessed at his website.