Polygamy Versus Democracy
You can't have both.
Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By STANLEY KURTZ
So there is increasing recognition among legal professionals that, along the way to achieving the full-fledged deconstruction of marriage promised by free-form polyamory, it is necessary to make a case for "patriarchal" polygamy as well. Big Love is a product of this line of thinking. As long as traditional polygamy is illegal, the way is also barred to postmodern polyamory. And although Lawrence v. Texas may have opened the door to polygamy, one great legal obstacle to the slide down the slippery slope remains: Reynolds v. United States, the 1878 Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of antipolygamy laws. That is why Reynolds is target number one of the new wave of advocacy for legalized polygamy/polyamory. Reynolds has long been in the crosshairs of an older wave of polygamy advocacy as well. Harvard's Laurence Tribe is only the most prominent of a group of old-line liberal legal scholars who have long called for constitutional protection of polygamy on libertarian grounds.
Reynolds v. United States is a landmark decision. It was the first Supreme Court case to clarify the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom by limiting that freedom to beliefs, rather than social practices (like polygamy or suttee, the former Hindu custom of burning widows alive on their husband's funeral pyre). Interestingly, Reynolds also defends the idea that American democracy rests upon specific family structures, which are legitimately protected by law. Chief Justice Morrison Waite, writing for a unanimous Court in Reynolds, quotes Francis Lieber, the most respected American legal authority of the day: "Professor Lieber says, polygamy leads to the patriarchal principle, . . . which, when applied to large communities, fetters the people in stationary despotism, while that principle cannot long exist in connection with monogamy."
Although Reynolds justifies prohibitions of polygamy by grounding them in a compelling state interest in protecting the social preconditions of democracy, Reynolds is nowadays dismissed as mere bigotry. Writers like Turley single out the following passage as evidence of the Reynolds Court's racism: "Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and . . . was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. . . . [F]rom the earliest history of England polygamy has been treated as an offense against society." Critics like Yale historian Nancy Cott point out that Francis Lieber owned slaves. Thus, Lieber's arguments, and Chief Justice Waite's invocation of "odious" African polygamy, are used as proof that Reynolds was motivated by racial animus, rather than social utility. And if shown to be based on racial animus and moral opprobrium, rather than rational state interest, Reynolds would be swept aside by Lawrence, thus making way for polygamy, polyamory, and full-fledged marriage diversity in the United States.
Yet the critics are wrong. There is a deep connection between monogamy and democracy, a link easily separated from nineteenth-century racial attitudes. Even the presumed prejudice of the period is less than meets the eye. The Reynolds Court carefully reviewed jury selection procedures in the polygamy case to make sure that passions and prejudice had been screened out. And Francis Lieber's antislavery views eventually led him to move to the North, where he spoke and wrote as an abolitionist.
Francis Lieber's idea that certain social practices "fetter a people in stationary despotism" was widely shared at the time, and resonates with our contemporary interest in democracy promotion. The great liberal political philosopher John Stuart Mill (whose mentor, Jeremy Bentham, was part of Lieber's European circle) frequently contrasts the "improving" (today we'd say "developed") character of Western democracies with the "stationary states" of Africa and Asia. In On Liberty, Mill explicitly attributes this difference to social structure, rather than racial inheritance.
In short, Reynolds v. United States was rightly decided. While America's Founders took it for granted that marriage was a monogamous, heterosexual institution, the Reynolds Court, under pressure from nineteenth-century polygamy, wisely created constitutional doctrine allowing the state to defend a specific family form. Confirming and building on the insights of Reynolds, we shall see why polygamy and polyamory alike are inimical to American democracy, and how non-Western marital practices hamper democratization, even today.
The Mormon Question
Modern Mormonism's success is certified by the emergence of Mitt Romney, a Mormon governor from Massachusetts--heartland of nineteenth-century antipolygamy sentiment--as a presidential contender. A glance at Mormonism's largely forgotten history reveals the magnitude of the transformation. The Reynolds Court was not speaking theoretically when it declared that polygamy could "fetter a people in stationary despotism." Prior to statehood, Utah was a de facto theocracy. For all their differences, Brigham Young and Chief Justice Waite would have agreed that monogamy and polygamy give rise to divergent governing principles.
Brigham Young was simultaneously head of the church, governor of the Utah Territory, and a member of the boards of major businesses. Young decided where his followers lived, the crops they grew, where they shopped, the professions they chose--and who they married. There was little government beyond the church's structure. Religious leaders schooled their families privately, while most of the territory's children remained illiterate. Elections were understood not as forums for debate and decision, but as occasions for popular acclamation of God's choice.
Underlying all this was a deeply communal ethic: Men and women were willing to defer to the church's leadership for the sake of the broader Mormon society, even in so personal a matter as marriage--within which, of course, wives deferred to husbands. To antipolygamists, this was neither capitalism nor democracy, but a substitution of the rule of men for the rule of laws. Indeed, the ability of church leaders to command personal sacrifice and disobedience to U.S. law fueled resistance to federal enforcement of Reynolds.
The 12-year federal drive to enforce Reynolds was far more than a quest to root out polygamy. In effect, the fight against polygamy was a slow, frustrating, expensive, ultimately successful campaign to democratize Utah. (The parallels to the war on terror are eerie.) As federal agents descended on Utah, the Mormon leadership went underground, sleeping in hay ricks, hiding under floorboards, dispersing to remote mountain valleys, communicating in code, and depending on early warnings from a sympathetic populace.
Given the demonstration effect of the Civil War, polygamists knew that armed resistance was futile. Yet by evading capture and withholding the evidence needed for conviction, the Mormon leadership hoped to win a legal war of attrition. Still, Mormon resistance was limited by the fear of provoking a full-fledged military occupation, and by the thirst for statehood.
For the better part of a decade, polygamist resistance seemed unbreakable. The railroads were supposed to bring civilization (a nineteenth-century version of globalization and the Internet). Instead they brought more Mormon converts. Elections and the female franchise were supposed to sweep polygamy aside. Instead, pious women and unlettered men voted to solidify the church's power. Then the outlines of a demographic nightmare emerged. With a fertility boom fueled by four decades of polygamy, Utah's population was spilling into Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Mormons bragged that, with the admission of the territories, they would hold the balance of power in a politically divided America.
Back East, these threats provoked a tougher line. Attending to the social and economic foundations of Mormon power, Congress set out to break polygamist rule. By 1833, the disestablishment of churches in the American states was complete, and it had been accomplished partly by state legislatures' setting limits to the churches' business and property holdings. Congress now applied these standards to the Utah Territory, modeling its legislation on the original "mortmain" laws that had curbed church power in England. In this way, church control of Utah's economy was dissolved, and erstwhile church property was used to fund public education, with a curriculum designed around democratic values.
The result was capitulation. With the economic and social foundations of theocracy destroyed, a shooting war unwinnable, and the quest for statehood hanging in the balance, the Mormons renounced polygamy and set themselves on the path to democracy.
While the broader battle with the Mormons was over democracy, both sides were largely driven by the polygamy controversy. We forget how big this issue was. Antipolygamy sentiment helped found the Republican party in 1854. Republicans called slavery and polygamy "twin relics of barbarism," and Lincoln attacked Douglas over both issues in the campaign of 1860. Today we watch polygamy on TV, but in the mid-1800s, antipolygamy novels were all the rage. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rode the wave in 1887, when his first story about the detective Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, featured an antipolygamy twist.
Why were Americans outraged by polygamy? In a word, because of love. The idea of love as central to marriage, by no means common in the world at large, has a long history in the West, going back to the Bible, notably the letters of Paul. Even so, romantic love as the fundamental pillar of marriage (alongside parenthood, of course) truly came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century. Polygamy was an offense against love, the structural glue of American marriage. To those who valued companionate love, polygamy seemed little better than slavery.
Far from denying this, Mormon theorists openly attacked the romantic sensibility. Polygamist leaders called on Mormons to sacrifice selfish and disruptive romantic desires, building marriages instead on simple friendship and piety. Women who embraced polygamy understood this sacrifice of love as a trial to be endured, if a noble one. Like Muslims today, Mormons touted polygamy as an alternative to prostitution and out-of-wedlock births, and a boon to women facing a dearth of truly marriageable men. And like today's proponents of same-sex marriage, polygamists and their apologists chided opponents as hypocrites bent on the "consecutive polygamy" of divorce and remarriage.
Yet these arguments fell flat with most Americans, for whom romantic and companionate love was a cardinal aspiration. The Civil War had proven the dangers of fundamental moral differences between regions, and the threat of polygamy was clear. So long as multipartner marriage was deemed legitimate, the ethos of monogamous companionate marriage was at risk.
The problem was neither theoretical nor confined to the Utah Territory. Today we take monogamy for granted. Yet for much of the nineteenth century, monogamy was questioned by "free lovers" on the cultural left, as well as by Mormons on the cultural right. While the Mormon kingdom was growing out west, an array of proto-socialist communal experiments in "free love" were cropping up in other parts of the country. These ventures were widely and heatedly debated. Virtually all free love communities were evanescent. Yet the experiments continued for decades, so that in nineteenth-century America, it was not taken for granted that monogamous marriage would retain its cultural preeminence.
Free love was clearly on the minds of the antipolygamy novelists. And some scholars think a passage in the Reynolds decision may have alluded to the famous Oneida community's quasi-socialist experiment in "complex marriage." (Complex marriage involved varied sexual parings, sometimes arranged by request, with the help of third parties, but often assigned by the community's leader. As a birth control measure, men had to have special permission from the leader to ejaculate during intercourse. Steady pairing within the group was strongly discouraged.) Reynolds had the effect of ending both Mormon polygamy and free love experiments in the rest of the country. It emboldened Oneida's opponents, and soon after Reynolds the Oneida community itself voted to end complex marriage.
Reynolds resolved America's monogamy question for a century. Yet it is worth remembering that the issue has been undecided for much of our history. Today's emerging alternatives of monogamy, "patriarchal" polygamy, and polyamory largely recreate the options of democratic monogamy, theocratic Mormon polygamy, and quasi-socialist free love that warred for decades in the nineteenth century, until the Reynolds court resolved the conflict.
The question is: Did Reynolds actually safeguard the structure of American marriage, and with it our democratic culture? Or--as is so often argued today--was the court's opposition to multipartner marriage mere bigotry? Consider our best account of the polygamy controversy, Sarah Barringer Gordon's The Mormon Question (on which I've drawn here). Gordon is torn between the impulse to attribute opposition to polygamy to mere prejudice, and a grudging acknowledgment that much of what the critics of polygamy had to say about the old Mormon system was true. The problem is that neither Gordon nor the law professors are inclined to treat arguments about marriage and social structure as anything but rhetoric. The Reynolds Court knew better. And contemporary experience suggests they were right.
Africa in Paris
Perhaps between 200,000 and 400,000 of France's five-million-plus Muslims live in polygamous families. When workers were needed to stoke Europe's post-World War II economic boom, France freely granted visas to family members of polygamous immigrants. Problems of assimilation and delinquency developed and eventually prompted France to ban polygamy in 1993. Yet the law has been only intermittently enforced, and many polygamous wives continue to enter the country illegally. Polygamous immigrants come largely from sub-Saharan countries like Mali, Senegal, and Gambia. Most settle in ethnic enclaves in the poorer suburbs of Paris.
Polygamous husbands long resident in France still fetch young wives from rural African villages. These women have little formal education or command of French, and often live isolated lives, leaving home only to shop, visit their children's schools, or seek medical care. In Africa, co-wives and their children generally live in separate houses or huts. But housing costs in France force families of 20 or more to share tiny apartments, where tensions between co-wives run high. Child supervision is limited and delinquency is common. In extreme cases, children sleep in shifts, making school attendance all but impossible.
Like the early Mormons, transplanted African polygamists frown on romantic love. If a man favors a barren wife over one who's produced children, the barren woman may be suspected of seducing her husband through sorcery. In Africa, accusations of witchcraft concentrate in polygamous families living under the same roof. This carries over to France, where life in cramped apartments often leads women to interpret stomach pains as antifertility sorcery by a co-wife.
Despite the 1993 ban, by the time of the Paris riots in the fall of 2005, polygamy had become a taboo topic for mainstream French politicians. Raising questions about the real-world effects of family structure was stigmatized as bigotry by civil rights advocates and French Muslims alike. Yet after riots broke out in the suburban enclaves where polygamous families concentrate, Bernard Accoyer, parliamentary leader of President Jacques Chirac's party, gingerly pointed to polygamy as one of several causes of the disturbances. Various prominent politicians and scholars followed suit.
No sooner had the taboo on discussion of polygamy been broken than a furor ensued. "Antiracism" groups called the comments "sickening and irresponsible." "These accusations shame the nation," said the powerful MRAP (French Movement against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples). MRAP threatened to bring legal action against the historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, permanent secretary of the prestigious French Academy, for her suggestion that large families with little parental supervision crammed into small apartments had played a role in the disturbances. (Hate-speech lawsuits are a favorite device of the French left for shutting down public debate.)
The attack from the left, and pressure from France's allies in Africa (where public anger at the polygamy remarks ran high), quickly forced President Chirac, through a spokesman, to distance his government from the controversy. When Chirac arrived in Mali for a December 2005 summit, he personally ruled out any connection between polygamy and the riots. Yet Chirac's government has proposed a law that would make it more difficult for French residents to bring in foreign spouses and children. And Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy have issued repeated calls for stricter enforcement of the polygamy ban.
Post-World War II France was not about to imitate nineteenth-century America's outrage at polygamy. Intentionally turning a blind eye to the practice, the French assumed that any social implications would be trivial. Yet France's most respected leaders now find it difficult even to speak openly about what has obviously become a serious social problem. And the legal ban has lost its bite. With a critical mass of practitioners on French soil and able to vote (or riot), and with the left seizing on polygamy as a civil rights issue, enforcement of the ban is in doubt, no matter how it's strengthened on paper.
Ever since the attacks 40 years ago on the Moynihan Report, with its prophetic warning over the collapsing black family in America, it has been difficult to raise questions about the social implications of family structure without being excoriated for bigotry. This hinders the debate over gay marriage in the United States as well as the controversy over polygamy in France. Yet among immigrants across Europe, polygamy has proven itself incompatible with democratic values. The Reynolds Court is being vindicated again before our eyes.
But why? What exactly is it about polygamy that militates against democracy? And can the problem really be solved, as the radical law professors argue, by transforming patriarchal polygamy into postmodern polyamory? On this matter, experience in Canada is relevant.
The Canadian Debate
Amidst the Canadian government's push for same-sex marriage in 2005, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler famously declared, "We don't see any connection, I repeat, any connection, between the issue of polygamy and the issue of same-sex marriage." To prove it, Cotler commissioned four separate studies of polygamy by legal scholars and civil rights groups. Cotler got his comeuppance in January 2006, when a freedom of information request forced release of the four studies in the middle of an election campaign. To the embarrassment of Canada's ruling Liberal party, a firestorm erupted over a report advocating the decriminalization and regulation of polygamy. Actually, the press missed half the story, since two of the four studies favored decriminalization. A look at one report on each side of the controversy will help unravel the mystery of the antagonism between polygamy and democracy.
The first report is the work of an opponent of polygamy, Queen's University law professor Nicholas Bala (and his associates). Bala draws on the social science literature to support his claim that polygamy is inherently harmful to women and children. Trouble is, the literature is divided on this question.
Bala relies heavily on the work of Alean Al-Krenawi, an Israeli professor of clinical social work who's conducted numerous studies of polygamy among the Bedouin Arabs of Israel's Negev desert. Al-Krenawi makes a powerful case that, among the Bedouin, senior wives and their children suffer when junior wives enter polygamous families. First marriages among the Bedouin are parentally arranged alliances, often between cousins or other relatives. Second marriages are self-arranged, and more likely to reflect the husband's choice. So it's particularly difficult for a senior wife when a new wife comes on board. Senior wives have high incidences of depression and anxiety, and their children do poorly in school. In general, Al-Krenawi's data show Bedouin wives and children in polygamous families to be worse off than those in monogamous families.
Yet it's tough to generalize from Al-Krenawi's findings. There are plenty of societies where co-wives are friendly (if also jealous), happily collaborating on chores and child-rearing. In some cultures, senior wives help choose junior wives, and welcome them for the household help they bring. Recent studies by Al-Krenawi and others show that the negative effects of Bedouin polygamy on children disappear by adolescence, as older children and extended family members step in as surrogate parents. Bala downplays all this.
Around the time she signed a public letter from Canadian law professors in support of same-sex marriage, McGill University law professor Angela Campbell submitted her report to the Canadian government recommending the decriminalization of polygamy. Campbell has read the same social science research as Bala, yet she turns it to radically different purposes. Campbell highlights the problems with generalizing from Al-Krenawi's work, while noting that the anthropological literature makes it tough to characterize polygamy as either all good or all bad. So don't go after polygamy itself, says Campbell. Target individual abuses.
Campbell builds her case on an article by University of Colorado research associate Sangeetha Madhavan. Madhavan worked in Mali, among some of the same groups that send polygamous immigrants to the suburbs of Paris. By comparing two nearby societies, the Fulbe and the Bamanan, Madhavan shows that the experience of women in polygamy differs, depending on context. The Fulbe structure families in a way that increases competition among co-wives. But among the Bamanan, families are organized to minimize jealousy and encourage collaboration. For Campbell, this proves that polygamy itself is not the problem.
Yet Campbell never stops to ask what it takes to make polygamy work. The answer: a set of rules and attitudes that could never be imported to North America, except in the few closed, authoritarian communities where "patriarchal" polygamy actually flourishes today. The Bamanan deflect jealousy by deemphasizing love. Bamanan marriages are arranged by families, and a sleep-rotation schedule damps down individual attachments. Economic success depends on having a large family labor force, and jealousy over newcomers is countered by apprenticing junior wives to senior wives, who closely supervise their daily work.
This same emphasis on rules and hierarchy within a tightly bound group explains why the Bedouin children studied by Al-Krenawi turn out all right. Things get better when Bedouin kids grow up and receive surrogate parenting from their extended kin. But that depends on giving up what Al-Krenawi calls "the Western liberal conception of individual autonomy." To get all that surrogate parenting, the Bedouin adopt an "authoritarian and group-oriented" identification with an extended family and tribe. And consider "sororal polygamy," easily the most emotionally successful variant of polygamy world-wide. In sororal polygamy, a man marries a set of sisters, minimizing jealousy. It's a clever strategy, but just try adapting such kin-based preferences and arranged marriages to the United States.
Alexis de Tocqueville, that great nineteenth-century student of America, pointed to the abolition of primogeniture (exclusive property inheritance by first-born sons) as the social key to American democracy. Once American children inherited equally, said Tocqueville, landed estates were dispersed, and the ethos of kin unity and hierarchy was replaced by a spirit of democratic equality. Yet America's abolition of primogeniture was only the culmination of a process begun centuries earlier by the Christian Church. Muslim families arrange marriages to cousins and other kin, thereby reinforcing couples' identification with family and tribe. But from the fourth century through the Middle Ages, the Church fought to protect individual choice in marriage, while prohibiting marriage between cousins and other relatives. That undercut social forms based on kinship and collective identity, ultimately leading to the triumph of democratic individualism in the West.
Yet the weakening or even disappearance of extended kinship groups from family life in the West poses a problem. If families aren't going to be held together by collective honor, mutual obligation, and shared economic interest, how will they cohere? The answer is love. Exclusive affection for a unique individual is the structural foundation on which Western families are built. In polygamous societies, where marriages are arranged and wives and children live collectively, too much individualized love (for spouses or children) endangers group solidarity. Yet in a democratic society, individualized love is praised and cultivated as the foundation of family stability. So take your pick. You can have a love-based democratic culture of monogamy, or an authority-based hierarchical culture of polygamy. But--as the Reynolds Court knew--you can't have both.
Far from offering a democratic solution to the problem of multipartner unions, egalitarian polyamory simply reveals another face of the polygamy dilemma. It is inherently difficult to keep multipartner unions together. The traditional solution is to rely on rules, clear lines of authority, the suppression of emotion, and a sense of obligation to kin. Collective solidarity is the material and spiritual payoff for all the sacrifice. Yet the polyamorists cultivate love, resist authority, dispense with organizational rules, and try to wish jealousy away. Once all the stability-inducing sacrifices have been dispensed with, impermanence is the inevitable result.
Polyamory is a cover-all term for a bewildering variety of relationship forms--everything from open marriage, to bisexual triads, to a man with multiple women, to a woman with multiple men, to large sexual groups, and many more. The "rules" governing these arrangements are entirely flexible. There might be three "primary" partners who actually live together, and several additional "secondary" partners (collectively shared or not) to whom the three "primaries" are less committed. The levels of commitment, and the range of partnership and mutual involvement, are subject to continual change and renegotiation. Open and honest communication is the only rule. Polyamorists emphasize that multipartner unions take intense and constant work. Yet this need for a higher level of monitoring and negotiation only highlights the forces pushing against stability.
The contrast between postmodern polyamory and the patriarchal polygamy of Muslim fundamentalists resembles the nineteenth-century duality of "free love" and Mormon polygamy. Mormon plural unions were authoritarian and relatively stable (although even in the nineteenth century they had very high divorce rates). The free love experiments nearly all collapsed after a few short months or years, although new experiments were generated continually for decades. That record of instability was repeated when the hippie communes of the 1960s and 70s fell apart.
This might not matter were it not for the problem of children. Family stability is highly desirable for children. Not only would legally recognized polyamory be unstable, but the legitimization of polyamory would also be incompatible with one of our core reasons for giving marriage the backing of law at all: to reinforce monogamy as a cultural value.
You can't send the message that marriage means fidelity when even a small portion of recognized marriages are polyamorous. The reliance of Western marriage systems on monogamous companionate love for stability is all but ignored by the advocates of polyamory, who have little or nothing to say about children. Over and above prevention of individual abuses, protection of the broader cultural ethos of monogamy is the reason both polygamy and polyamory must go unrecognized in America. Democratic culture depends on monogamous marriage. The alternatives are either too authoritarian to be adapted to our society or so hyper-individualist that they cannot perform the work of families. And recognition of either alternative would undermine the monogamy on which the stability of American marriage depends.
But if democracy depends on monogamy, what does that tell us about introducing democracy to non-Western cultures?
Marriage and Terror
The long, frustrating, yet spectacularly successful campaign to democratize the Utah Territory by changing its marriage practices holds lessons for us still. Elections and the threat or use of force are only part of what it takes to turn an authoritarian society around. Over time, the social and economic foundations of undemocratic rule must be weakened or circumvented. An actual desire to join the democratic universe must take root.
Many of the Muslim immigrants drawn to Europe after World War II by what, for them, were spectacularly high-paying jobs had no intention of becoming Europeans. Their plan was to remit a portion of their salaries to family in Asia or Africa and eventually return home. When, instead, these workers imported their families to Europe, their mindset barely changed. We know something about how religious belief, satellite television from the Middle East and North Africa, and the seclusion of women have walled off Europe's Muslims from their cultural surroundings. Yet few realize the extent to which marriage practices organize and explain this larger pattern of isolation.
Muslim polygamy in France is a dramatic illustration of the broader link between non-Western marriage practices and failed assimilation. Partners for polygamous marriages are easy to find in Africa, where young women who accept polygamy seize the opportunity to reach Europe via marriage. Over time, the Africa-France conveyor belt prevents resident immigrants from assimilating through intermarriage, while simultaneously importing a continuous supply of immigrants unfamiliar with European language and culture. Secluded indoors, with limited knowledge of the society around them, polygamous wives can barely supervise their French-born children. Naturally, unassimilated immigrants gravitate to the more culturally familiar world portrayed by entertainment from abroad.
Tocqueville and the Reynolds Court understood that particular family structures yield "habits of the heart" compatible or at odds with democracy. Yet the connection is complex. India is home to a lively democracy, but is also a land of marriages arranged through kin and caste. The British planted the seeds of Indian democracy by creating a small but powerful professional class whose advancement depended on education and merit, rather than kin ties. Democratization in the Middle East, and Muslim assimilation in Europe, are going to require that kind of attention to the underlying barriers to change--none more powerful than kin ties and marriage practices. Yet seeing family issues through the prism of individual civil rights, we've forgotten that marriage practices have real-world consequences.
An End Game
The new wave of Big Love-inspired talk about polygamy is directly attributable to the campaign for same-sex marriage. Big Love was created by a pair of gay-marriage advocates, who use the show to highlight the analogy between same-sex unions and polygamy. And Big Love is merely a hint of things to come. Radicals have long seen same-sex marriage as a lever with which to break the grip of monogamy. Should gay marriage be safely legalized, the radicals will emerge in force. Mainstream liberals like Sanford Levinson (who has a soft spot for experiments in multipartner marriage) openly advise the gay marriage movement to distance itself from marriage radicalism until after gay marriage is legalized. Big Love notwithstanding, that advice is largely heeded.
A few same-sex marriage advocates pretend that by simply offering rational reasons to oppose polygamy, they can neutralize the dangers of the slippery-slope. Multi-partner unions breed jealousy and marital instability, says Slate's William Saletan. True, but that hasn't stopped polyamorists from mimicking the argument of gay marriage advocates: Take away the stigma of nonrecognition, and our unions will be as stable as yours. Polygamy deprives men of marriage partners, says National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch. Potentially, yes, especially in small closed communities. But in a huge country where growing numbers of men don't marry, and many are unmarriageable, polygamists will make their usual claim to have solved the dilemma of the unmarried woman. Polyamorists will add that unions of one woman and multiple men will help balance out sex ratios. Rauch points to the historical dearth of polyandry (one woman with multiple men) to argue that this won't happen, but how can he when the gay marriages he favors are themselves historically unprecedented?
More important, by training us to see marriage as a civil rights issue, gay marriage advocates have largely defanged all of these structural arguments. Redefining the family is increasingly seen as a fundamental right. And the courts are beginning to agree. In his prize-winning law review essay "Polygamist Eye for the Monogamist Guy," Michael Myers argues that if the Supreme Court interprets Lawrence v. Texas the way the Massachusetts Supreme Court did in its decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the right to polygamy will logically follow.
The solution is to treat marriage as a social institution whose fundamental purpose is to encourage mothers and fathers to build stable families for the children they create. Same-sex marriage breaks this understanding, thus encouraging the sort of unstable parental cohabitation we see in Europe, where cohabiting parents break up at two to three times the rate of married parents. And polygamy undercuts companionate monogamy, the only form of marriage that can function in a modern liberal society. What's needed, then, is the revitalization of a richer understanding of marriage as a culturally specific social form--precisely the approach taken in Reynolds v. United States.
Unfortunately, movement is now in the opposite direction. Jonathan Turley's latest opinion piece for USA Today signals an all-too-plausible scenario for the final slide down the slippery slope. In 2004, Turley defended the right to polygamy. Now, in 2006, Turley is calling for the abolition of marriage as a legal status and its replacement by a system of infinitely flexible "civil union" contracts. This general disestablishment of marriage may be the most likely route from here to polygamy.
For now, the taboo on polygamy/polyamory makes it difficult for practitioners to defend themselves publicly. They must rely instead on advocacy by mainstream liberals like Turley. Those who scoff at fear of the slippery slope argue that, whatever the logic of the law, without an active advocacy movement, polygamy and polyamory will never be recognized. Turley himself conceded, a mere year-and-a-half before Big Love's debut, that polygamists would never gain the kind of social acceptance that comes from a sympathetic television show. That spectacularly mistaken prediction underestimated the extent to which polygamists and polyamorists can depend upon help from civil rights advocates, libertarians, lifestyle radicals, and the Hollywood left, all of whom would like to "get the state out of the marriage business."
But Turley's greatest ally may be religious traditionalists themselves, who will push to separate marriage and state once same-sex marriage gains a foothold. With same-sex marriage nationalized, and the emergence of an open polyamorists'-rights movement, traditionalists will demand that the state get out of the marriage business. That might temporarily protect a few traditionalist enclaves, but it would also effectively remove the broader social supports for stable, monogamous, parenthood-focused marriage. If that happens, intentional single-motherhood and European-style parental cohabitation are likely to proliferate, as are a raft of experiments in open marriage, polygamy, and polyamory. Family variety will markedly increase, while family stability will continue to erode. The precipitous decline of marriage already seen in parts of Europe and the African-American community will take hold in mainstream America. Welcome to the bottom of the slope.
Marriage, as its ultramodern critics would like to say, is indeed about choosing one's partner, and about freedom in a society that values freedom. But that's not the only thing it is about. As the Supreme Court justices who unanimously decided Reynolds in 1878 understood, marriage is also about sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive. Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family.
Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a frequent contributor on the controversy over redefining marriage.