Polygamy (or Something Like It) Rises
This essay was originally published on April 19, 2023 by Public Discourse.
Reconceiving of marriage in terms of “self-expression” has been a terrible, value-laden mistake, betraying the pretensions to liberal neutrality. Plural marriage is inferior for raising children and for maintaining marital harmony; but most of all, in today’s climate, it creates a culture dedicated to adult sexual self-expression rather than the good of children and deep love.
Public support for polygamy increases inexorably. According to Gallup, nearly a quarter of Americans now think it is morally acceptable when a married person has more than one spouse at the same time, up from 5 percent in 2006. These changes track others chipping away at public support for enduring, man–woman, procreative marriage. Moral approval of sex outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, same-sex sex, divorce, having children outside of marriage, and long-term unmarried cohabitation have risen sharply in recent years. One of the only dams that has not yet broken is the importance of fidelity, which nearly nine in ten respondents claim to support.
From one angle, it is surprising that public disapproval of polygamy has endured so long. Polygamy has a far deeper and better historical track record than same-sex marriage, and with good reason. Great polygamous civilizations have existed. Polygamous relations emphasize duties binding sex, procreation, marriage, and parenthood into an enduring relation. Biblical injunctions against sodomy and lesbianism abound; the New Testament has no explicit injunction against polygamy for laymen, and the Old Testament has more than a little legitimate polygamy. Polygamous marriages have their problems, to be sure, but they are secondary problems, in a way.
Same-sex marriage (SSM) is in every way more of an affront to civilization than polygamy. SSM reconceives the institution away from duties and children and toward adult self-expression. Most civilizations have, in one way or another, stigmatized and proscribed the same-sex sex at the heart of SSM; SSM blesses same-sex sex. Most civilizations point human sexuality toward enduring, procreative man–woman marriage; SSM requires alternatives to procreative sexuality like surrogacy, adoption, and turkey-basters. No wonder no civilization has ever adopted, much less celebrated, same-sex marriage before our global empire has.
Revolutionaries instead first sought public approval of SSM. This is revealing. Revolutionaries planted sex-centered, self-expressive, duty-free “pure relationships” (as British sociologist Anthony Giddens calls them) within our old marital arrangements and allowed that seed to grow. Transforming sex became the means of transforming the goals of marriage in law and opinion. By the time they got to polygamy, revolutionaries were actually advocating polyamory. (Polygamy is where a man or a woman has more than one spouse—the most common kind of polygamy is polygyny, where one man has several wives; polyamory is a group of people sexually involved, with or without marriage.)
The crucial shift from polygamy to polyamory reveals that what now matters is the love, not the form. The United States Supreme Court allowed laws against polygamy to stand in the late 1800s. Mormons claimed polygamy was an expression of their protected First Amendment freedom of religious practice. The Supreme Court upheld restrictions on polygamy because it was a patriarchal form of marriage that violated the principles of equality at the heart of republican citizenship. Condemning polygamy was part of defending monogamy.
Revolutionaries have undermined any justification for limiting the number of spouses in a marriage. What they have in mind is polyamory, in which so-called spouses of whatever number enter into group living and loving arrangements. The legal justifications are not based on the freedom of religious practice like the Mormon arguments, but on the sanctity of freely chosen relationships, a principle derived from Obergefell. As a New York judge recently ruled, “the time has arrived” to consider blessing “other relational constructs” besides the typical marital dyad. “Why does the relationship have to be characterized by ‘exclusivity’?” asked the judge. Only the willfully blind did not see this coming.
States have moved, gingerly but inexorably, in the direction of recognizing polyamorous relations as equivalent to marriage. Utah changed bigamy from a felony to a misdemeanor in February 2020. A Massachusetts city passed an ordinance extending domestic partnership rights to three or more people who “consider themselves to be a family.” Children can have more than two parents in many states, and judicial opinions are almost universally based on that principle. Polyamorous arrangements are promoted generally in law (see the Uniform Law Commission, for instance) and in elite opinion. Public support for polyamorous relations is today where support for SSM was in the early 1990s.
It is tempting to see this revolution as working out contemporary liberalism’s logic, which calls for state neutrality in the recognition of such arrangements. Certainly the New York judge, the Uniform Law Commission, and our regime propaganda dismantle the monogamous marital regime, plank by plank, in the name of neutrality.
Opponents of extending rights to polyamory will be tempted to try to preserve two-person marriage while respecting the legal framework of neutrality. They will be forced to identify a “compelling state interest” that is served by preserving two-person marriage, and to show that limiting marriage to two is “narrowly tailored” to achieve that interest. This is a trap—what I elsewhere call the liberal wringer—for opponents of polyamory. They will be tempted to argue that polygamy or polyamory is illiberal and abusive; that it is connected with crimes like incest, spousal abuse, and human trafficking; or that its relations tend to be insular and abusive. No matter. To every argument, contemporary liberals answer that it is not necessarily so. Blessing these relations with public recognition makes them much, much better, they will say. Bringing them out of the shadows will tame them, they will assert. This liberal wringer puts opponents of polygamy or polyamory in a no-win situation.
Legally, therefore, opponents of plural marriage should not even bother arguing within this framework—no argument for monogamy or traditional marriage can ever withstand judicial scrutiny from within the framework. If we lose by making these arguments, we were going to lose anyway. We should instead make the real arguments against polygamy and plural marriage—and win or lose with them. To wit, reconceiving of marriage in terms of “self-expression” has been a terrible, value-laden mistake, betraying the pretensions to liberal neutrality. Our laws shape our culture. Our culture should favor two-person, man–woman marriage because marriage is above all concerned with having children and raising them as reflections of the unified love between a man and a woman. Plural marriage is inferior for raising children and for maintaining marital harmony, but most of all it promotes adult sexual self-expression rather than the good of children.
This legal argument complements the moral one. Legalizing means blessing and promoting. Before America blessed SSM with legal recognition, fewer than 5 percent of Americans identified as LGBTQ. That number has risen dramatically, especially among young women. Presumably, the public relations campaign on behalf of polyamory will also raise the number of polyamorous people as well.
If Gay Pride affects girls especially, polyamory may affect guys more. Our blessing of Gay Pride has moved more men to sodomy, but fewer than one might expect. Blessing polyamory will prove a bit more attractive to more men than sodomy since it promises to give attractive men more sex with more women without overmuch responsibility. Polyamory thus will be tolerated and even promoted especially as an option for successful men, giving us a more polygamous reality under the cover of egalitarian values.
The public blessing of polyamory, well underway, will probably lay bare fundamental realities of human life. Men will not accept one woman–many men relations. Elite men will promote their interests. Polyamorous relations may crowd out many same-sex relations, while encouraging others.
That monogamous marriage deals with these fundamental human sex differences better than polyamory must be at the center of all our arguments against this degenerate form.