Sunday, November 15, 2015

Is Legalized Polygamy Next?

The Bible reading at the first church service June and I attended in Tucson last month (at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship) was Genesis 32:22-32. That passage begins, “Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water.”
Those verses go on to tell how Jacob had his name changed to Israel. Thus, he became the patriarch of “the children of Israel” in the Old Testament—and the progenitor of the modern nation of Israel.
Conservative Christians, among others, are strong supporters and defenders of modern Israel, for they are considered the people uniquely chosen by God.
But what about Jacob’s (Israel’s) two wives and two “women servants” who also bore him children?
Since, as is claimed, Jacob/Israel was especially chosen by God, along with the twelve tribes of Israel (descendants of Jacob’s/Israel’s sons born by his four wives/servants), is this not ample biblical justification for polygamy?
So, can’t the Old Testament be legitimately used to support legalization of polygamy?
Moreover, doesn’t the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage suggest that the legalization of polygamy may be coming down the pike?
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler has just authored a new book, published late last month. Under the title “We Cannot Be Silent,” Mohler writes how it is imperative for Christians to speak out against same-sex marriage and other related LBGT issues.
In the second chapter of his book Mohler writes:
Once marriage can mean anything other than a heterosexual union, it can and must eventually mean everything—from polygamy to any number of other deviations from traditional marriage (p. 31).
In commenting on observations made by Chief Justice Roberts concerning the recent legalizing of same-sex marriage by the SCOTUS, Mohler contends that that decision “opens wide a door that basically invites looming demands for the legalization of polygamy and polyamory” (p. 181).
He also avers, “You can count on the fact that advocates for legalized polygamy found great encouragement in this decision” (ibid.).
It seems a bit odd, however, for someone who because of his literal interpretation of the Bible takes such a strong stance against same-sex marriage and full acceptance of LGBT to be so strongly opposed to polygamy.
At the top of the home page of their website, says that they are, “A resource for proving that Polygamy really IS Biblical.” And Jacob, “father of the twelve patriarchs of the tribes of Israel,” is given as one of the prime examples of “polygamists in the Bible.”
The Old Testament argument for polygamy is far stronger than the argument of Mohler and others against same-sex marriage. Other than being related to sex, there is little similarity between being a gay/lesbian and choosing to be in a polygamist relationship.
Homosexuality (in distinction from some homosexual activity) seems clearly to be an innate orientation, a way some people are “hardwired.”
But while there may be strong sexual drives toward having multiple wives (or husbands, in some cases)—just as there are such drives for some, evidently, toward engaging in adultery or pedophilia—there is no way polygamy can be considered an innate orientation.
As I wrote a year and a half ago in a prior article about this subject (here), I am not in the least advocating polygamy. But I do think there is far more biblical support for polygamy than there is for opposition to sexual relations between same-sex adults.
And the legalization of the latter in no way leads logically to the legalization of polygamy.


  1. Given this age of cultural change, including with Christendom, this topic probably does need to be addressed. Certainly the practice of polygamy is still seen around the world - including the United States. (In an official capacity, a polygamist group requested that I come to their gated community in Independence, Missouri, several years ago, to be of assistance to their youth.) I have also seen the practice in other parts of the world - some as a means of displaying wealth, others as a means of caring for widows. Many also take wives at a very young age - pre-menstrual. If a man refused, he would be executed.

    The traditional Church has not accepted this practice from the beginning, and states so dogmatically. This has been an issue of conversion for those who already have multiple wives/ husbands.

    Once one starts to push for cultural or dogmatic change, one must be prepared to embrace all. One tribe with which worked (refugees resettlement) had no definition of marriage. Know one knew who their father was, only their mother, grandmother, and aunts. They lived and worked as a unit. This was one of the most difficult groups to help adapt to our culture.

    There is a good argument for leaving well enough alone, especially within the Church.

    1. The matter of polygamy in Africa, or in Muslim countries, is quite different, I think, from polygamy in the U.S., which is what I was writing about in this article.

      Concerning the former, here is the link to an academic paper on polygamy in Africa written by an African who has a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Theological School:

    2. A good article. Thank you.

  2. Leroy, I think you are mistaken when you say ". . . there is no way polygamy can be considered an innate orientation." I think humans, the male species at least, are "innately" polygamous. We are wired to want to perpetuate our line with as many offspring as possible. And our possibility is far greater with multiple sex partners. I think we have societally somewhat "tamed" that characteristic. Notice I said somewhat. I think monogamy societally is much better practice. Notice that many of our leaders have not been monogamous: FDR, Eisenhower (who had a mistress in England and HST told him to knock it off), JFK who apparently had numerous affairs and told an aide who warned him of possible political consequences that he just couldn't help it; Clinton; and going way back to our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. I would oppose legalizing polygamy/polyamory, but not on biblical grounds. Legalizing polygamy would put poor males at a disadvantage, and would probably increase the incidence of male on male murder. Polygamy was common among the patriarchs as you have pointed out, but also among the kings. We know David and Solomon had multiple sex partners. If later kings were polygamous we don't know about it. At least I don't. The NT is mostly silent about it. Paul did say, I don't remember where, that church leaders should be "the husband of one wife." My Bible professor in college interpreted that, I think but am not sure, in jest. But we know that much of our monogamy is serial monogamy. I wonder how Al Mohler deals with that?

    1. Charles, thanks for your thought-provoking response. I appreciate counter-arguments from intelligent people like you.

      I think that strong sexual drives, of course, are innate--and perhaps this can justify saying that having multiple sex partners is, consequently, innate. But it could also be argued that theft, taking that which one wants, or even murder, killing those whom one dislikes or is angry with, are also innate. So, just because something is "innate" in this sense doesn't mean it should be legalized, especially if it is something harmful to society as a whole or to other people. And this sort of innateness seems to me to be different than considering sexual orientation to being innate.

      I find it unconvincing to say that FDR, Eisenhower, and JFK having extra-marital relationships is due to the innate desire of males "to perpetuate our line with as many offspring as possible."

      Some time ago I read an article by a Muslim about polygamy as practiced in Islam, saying that it was more responsible than monogamy in Christian countries where there was common extra-marital affairs. Perhaps that is a legitimate viewpoint.

      And certainly the matter of "serial monogamy" is a major issue in this country, and it seems to me that Mohler and other conservative Christians need to address that problem far more than they do--and more than the "problem" of same-sex marriage.

    2. I should have said my bible professor in college interpreted "husband of one wife" as "one wife at a time." I think it was in jest, in response to the common serial monogamy. I think my response was pretty clear that I don't think legalized polygamy would be good, societally. But biblically polygamy was one form of "biblical marriage." My reference to FDR, JFK et. al., while it may not "prove" an innate polygamous trait in human males, certainly shows that strict monogamy is not and never has been the rule in American life. Oh, I should have mentioned Henry VIII in that regard. And I'm sure crowned heads in Europe were not universally strictly monogamous. Thanks for the conversation.

    3. Charles, thanks for clarifying what your Bible professor said. What I remember hearing in seminary is that those words were in opposition to polygamy. This was at the time many were using that verse to oppose women in ministry. When I heard people argue that, I used to say that it also must mean that single men couldn't be pastors either. No one seemed to agree with that idea, though.

      "Strict monogamy" as you call it has never been universally practiced in any society. That certainly doesn't mean there is an innate orientation toward polygamy, though. It means that there are strong sexual desires (lust) that have been satisfied rather widely--especially by those men with power, prestige, and possessions. And I am thinking here not only of the Presidents you mentioned, but also of slave-holding men who had sexual relations with their slaves and fathered so many children through the years. The "gamy" part of polygamy was never considered; that is, there was no sense they were, or would ever have been, considered wives. They were only objects to be used for sex. Among men of prestige, the relations were not so crass. But, again, having more than one wife was never considered--and would probably never have been even if it had been legal.

  3. Here are meaningful comments, along with some humor, from Thinking Friend Erik Dollard in Chicago. (He wrote before seeing the comments by Charles posted above.)

    "Any man who wants more than one wife should have his head examined. I can barely handle one wife; how would I be able to handle two or three?

    "I agree that a homosexual orientation is something innate in a small percentage of the population, so why should homosexual persons be denied the right (or privilege) of marriage simply because of a fairly rare trait with which they are born?

    "On the other hand, male primates (including humans), unlike many species of birds, are not particularly monogamous; there is an innate desire by males to spread their genes as far and wide as possible. And female primates may have similar tendencies as wayward men seem to have no problem finding willing partners. Marriage is the institution used to keep these tendencies in check and to provide social stability.

    "Contrary to what some conservatives argue, same-sex marriage, and marriage generally, contributes to social stability. I do not think that this is true of polygamy. Plus these same conservatives seem disingenuous; they are worked up about allowing five percent of the population to marry, but say relatively little about the 50 percent who end up divorced.

    "Polygamy in the OT was actually polygyny, something still allowed in Islam. Although polygyny is allowed by the Torah, I am not aware that polygyny is practiced by any Jews today. Most married men in Islam have just one wife because they cannot afford any more. (Many of us cannot even afford just one.)

    "I doubt that polygamy will ever be legalized, where it is now illegal, because women everywhere will strongly oppose it."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric.

      I think you are right when you make the important statement that marriage "contributes to social stability"--and I think that is particularly true of monogamous marriage, including that of same-sex couples.

      The main reason I would not approve of legalizing polygamy (polygyny) is because I don't think it is good for society as a whole and because I think it is particularly detrimental to the women involved, at least in most cases.

  4. If by your claim that homosexuality is "hardwired" and by Eric's that it's "innate," you mean that sexual orientation is not freely chosen and that one cannot simply choose to change one's orientation, that's certainly true. If you mean it's genetic, we really don't know enough at this point about links between genes and sexual orientation to make that case. It's quite possible that sexual orientation is a consequence of experience, a consequence of some interaction between experience and genes, a consequence entirely of genetic predisposition, or even all the above. My suspicion is that it's either not genetic at all or, at best, involves a genetic predisposition in concert with experience. Psychological and anthropological research has long established that human sexuality is incredibly varied and, without a doubt, heavily influenced by culture.

    There is some problem with identifying monogamy and polygamy entirely with sexual practice. I would agree with those who have suggested polygamy is innate, but I think it's more accurate to say that the drive for multiple sexual partners is innate. Monogamy and polygamy are ways that societies have organized intimate relationships (the institution of marriage) to serve social order. The anthropological records show that most human societies have practiced polygamy of some sort--polygyny or polyandry, although precious few of the latter. As I recall, the anthropological research documented even a couple of societies in which homosexuality was the preferred practice (the dominant cultural norm).

    I would have no objection to legalizing polygamy for consenting adults. It would be a social headache of financial and legal organization, albeit not all that different from the complexity we have now with serial monogamy and blended families.

    1. One other thing: How social institutions were organized in biblical times and places should have, at best, only an indirect effect on how we organize our lives today, and then only in the sense that it's historical fodder for information and reflection. Government, marriage, education, economics--there is no reason to take the practices of biblical times and places as normative for other times and places. All institutional arrangements need to be studied and evaluated for how they serve the welfare of individuals and societies. This point might have been made by him who said, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath."

    2. Anton, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, as usual.

      Certainly, human sexuality and gender identity is a very complex matter, but as you recognized, my point is that "sexual orientation is not freely chosen and that one cannot simply choose to change one's orientation."

      As I just wrote in my response to Eric, I cannot see any reason why we should legalize polygamy in this country--unless, perhaps, it would make men more responsible for their mistresses.

  5. I believe the experience of the extreme polygamy of the FLDS group provides ample ground for opposing that type of polygamy. It is unequal, with young girls married off to older men. It is patriarchal in that one man rules many wives. It is detrimental to the rest of society in that these groups expel numbers of unwanted adolescent boys, even as it marries off the adolescent girls, all the while filing for and frequently collecting welfare for the largely unemployed family members. This does not, however, address the case of small-scale polygamy, as is hinted at in the Islamic limit of five wives, and the fact that Jewish scriptures only show a limited number of plural marriages even in the time frames when they were most frequently happening.

    I believe a case can be made for a careful review of how a system of small scale polygamy might be allowed for those so choosing. I think the Islamic limit of six persons would be a good starting point. This would have the advantage of creating a way for Islamic immigrants to integrate into American society who came in plural marriages. It would also allow the United States to borrow the wisdom of Islam as to an appropriate upper limit. For marriages performed in the United States, the marriages would still require consenting and eligible adults, although allowing for any mix of male and female, which obviously would not be so Islamic! This means the guy with two families in different towns would still be out of bounds if the two families did not know and approve of the arrangement. That is, if a marriage group of three wanted to add a fourth, all four adults would need to contract in the new relationship. If someone(s) wanted out, a formal divorce process would be needed. No doubt lawyers would be happy to facilitate. The state would have to develop rules concerning how financial and welfare aspects would work, so as to not unfairly disadvantage either the polygamists or the rest of society. Parental rules would have to be worked out. Would all parties in the marriage be considered equal parents of any children? Would special consideration be given to biological parents within the marriage? How would custody issues be settled in case of divorce or separation? I suspect all this would be daunting enough that not too many people would want to actually try this, even among those who did not have a theological revulsion to it.

    Now as for polyamory, since this is just a fancy work for relationships outside of marriage, is this not already widely legal? Most people just call it "affairs" instead of "polyamory." Now polyamory is not actually synonymous with affairs, since it assumes informed consent all around, which is exactly what is usually avoided with an affair. In a modern world where marriage as a whole is in considerable decline, it is quite possible to have polyamorous groups where no one involved is married. This all sounds rather complicated and unstable to me, but that is hardly a reason to use the power of government to unduly restrict or regulate it. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne considered it rather old-fashioned to hand out scarlet letters!

    These subjects are more prone to causing hyperventilation than thinking, which is actually a good reason to try thinking about them. What we cannot think about rationally, is , well, what we cannot think about rationally. From Adam and Eve, to Jacob and Rachel, to Romeo and Juliet, the heterosexual pair has been the romantic ideal, and trap, since the dawn of history. The ups and downs of these pairs are not going to leave us. Most of us are there, for the whole roller coaster ride. That does not mean we cannot consider allowing room for those who might want to try the ferris wheel or the bumper cars instead.

    1. Craig, I always appreciate your substantial comments on my blog articles, and you have done so again here. But I am a bit troubled by your conclusion--at least by how I understand it.

      You seem to suggest that polygamous or polyamorous relationships might be just alternative "rides" in the human amusement park. Certainly, many sexual relationships in contemporary society seemed to be based far more on recreational sex than on meaningful relationship. But I can't see that this is beneficial for society--or even for individuals in the long run.

      In spite of the ups and downs of romantic relationships--straight or gay--that lead, or sometimes don't lead, to a marriage commitment, I still think that the commitment of two lovers to each other is basic for a stable society, for healthy homes, and for individual happiness.

    2. Since this blog is about "legalization," we are talking about government policy, even if from a religious point of view. The broad trend of government policy has been, and should be, in the direction of civil liberties. I do think that government should tread lightly on the regulation of personal relationships. For that reason, I am in favor of a broad scope for marriage and quasi-marital relationships within governmental regulations.

      From the point of view of the religious community, I see no problem with holding up the ideal of committed marriage, as long as it is applied fairly and equally. The church in recent American history has a habit of being quite arbitrary and restrictive in most destructive ways. In other times and places it frequently has been as well. Two great steps forward in my lifetime were ending bans on interracial marriage and on gay marriage. Unfortunately, the church has lagged the government on these. One unfortunate side effect is that the rising generation has become cynical about marriage as a whole. We have a lot to repair.

    3. Thanks for your additional comments, Craig. I especially like what you wrote in the second paragraph.

      I have some question about the "libertarian" slant of the first paragraph, though. I do place a lot of emphasis on liberty. (After all, the 4 Ls I stress are Life, Love, Light, and Liberty.) But at the same time, I think that the government does have a right to make regulations that make for the most stable society possible--and as I wrote above, I strongly think monogamous marriage is best for a stable society.

  6. Local Thinking Friend Will Adams sent these comments by email:

    "Thanks for those observations. Whenever I hear people aver that we should stick to "the Biblical model of marriage," I always want to ask: Which one? Maybe King Solomon, with his 300 wives? Or any of the many others found in scriptures.

    "My brother tells me that there are 27 models of marriage in the Bible. While I haven't counted them, there certainly is more than one."

  7. A related comment (to the one above) was made by Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "A convincing reply to Mohler, Leroy. So much depends on how we use sacred scriptures!"

  8. I submit that there is zero historical evidence that monogamy is related to the stability of societies. For that claim, I must say, "I'm from Missouri." I'll have to be shone the evidence. I would suggest also that the argument that monogamy makes for a more stable society is a modern rationalization of a traditional Christian bias, not unlike the "modern" arguments against gender equality and same-sex marriage. In addition, to frame the argument in only polygynous terms is to stack the deck. Any allowance of polygamy in a modern society would have to be gender neutral.

    1. Anton, surely you jest!

      Certainly, I agree with your last point. Allowance for polygamy would have to be the same for both genders. In reality, though--and the reason I wrote mainly about polygyny--plural wives have been greatly more common than have plural husbands. I know there are some small ethnic groups that have practiced polyandry, but my guess is (and I don't have any data to back this up) that, considering Islam through the centuries and the Mormons for the first several decades of their existence, for every case of polyandry there have been 100, or maybe even a thousand or more, cases of polygamy.

      But do you really think emphasis on monogamy is just "a modern rationalization of a traditional Christian bias"?! And because of my stress on the importance of monogamy I am the same as those who believe in male supremacy or who bash same-sex marriage? Come on, be serious.

      I don't have any historical evidence from sociological studies (I though you would, though), but from observation and (should I say it?) from common sense, surely society is better off, more stable, when children are raised in a home with two parents committed to each other in love and working together for the nurture of their children.

      It seems to me that we see the problems of far too many children being reared by single mothers (or single fathers in some cases) who are struggling financially as well as emotionally to suggest that society is just as well off, just as stable, with children who are living with one parent, perhaps not even knowing who their father is, as it is with children living in homes of parents living in a committed monogamous relationship.

      Sure, there are examples of kids from "broken homes," kids from poor homes (both financially and emotionally) who buck the odds and grow to be strong contributing members to society. And there are kids from "good" homes that turn out bad. But for the sake of society at large and for the well-being of the bulk of the children in our nation, I'll put my money on those from monogamous homes.

    2. I don't jest. :-) What I said is that the argument that monogamy makes for a more stable society seems to me to be a rationalization of a traditional Christian bias. Certainly you're right when you observe that children who grow up in stable and financially secure families tend to fare better than those who grow up in unstable and financially insecure families, but that doesn't say anything about monogamy or polygamy. It only says something about stable versus unstable families. And insofar as stable families contribute to the stability of society--which is questionable since some of the most family-traditional societies in the world are far from stable, some even currently in great upheaval--it is at best an indirect effect, all other things being equal. (By the way, there is a lot of research comparing stable and unstable families and the consequences for children, and most of it finds family stability and harmony to be the key factors, more so than whether it's a situation of divorce, single-parent, two-parent, or whatever.)

      I don't mean to suggest that you're the same as anybody else. I'm talking only about the empirical argument that monogamy serves society better than other marital arrangements. It seems to be isomorphic with the empirical claims by conservative Christians in our society that same-sex marriage, children raised by same-sex couples, and gender equality will threaten the stability of society. Behind these empirical arguments the real motivation is to defend traditional beliefs viewed as biblical. So we have modern rationalizations for traditional beliefs/practices.

      Their arguments are plausible because sometimes they contain some truth. Social change is frequently a destabilization. It is certainly "felt" as a destabilization, at first in any case. The freeing of America's slaves was destabilizing for the South, although the Civil War had already done plenty of it. Cracking Jim Crow has been destabilizing, as has the liberalization of divorce. I can imagine that gender equality has made its own contribution to our higher divorce rates. The "darling little slaves" (C. Wright Mills' phrase) acquired options, and so needed no longer stay under the domination of a jerk of a husband. There are some cases, though, where it's plausible that the influence will go in the other direction. I suspect that same-sex marriage, for example, will contribute to social stability because it brings a large segment of society into legitimacy, whereas they had been defined as deviant. [Enough of my rambling!]