The Fascinating Politics of Polygamy

Originally at:

by Ross Douthat

There have been a number of interesting comments related to the new Gallup data showing America’s socially-liberal shift continuing apace, but before I get to them I want to offer one more word on the data point I plucked out for my Sunday column: The appreciable increase in public acceptance of polygamy.

In my column, I argued that this (still on the margins) shift was of a piece with other liberalizing trends, not only on same-sex marriage but also on divorce and unwed childbearing and assisted suicide and more, while also noting that polygamy is distinctive within that issue set because its most famous practitioners often belong to deeply illiberal religious communities. This last point was picked up by Mark Silk at Religion News, who used it to reach for a “gotcha” against what he apparently sees as my right-wing fearmongering:

I’d have thought the principled position for Douthat would be to support a right to polygamy, along the religious freedom lines that he thinks are necessary to enable traditionalist believers to maintain their codes of conduct. Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many of those new supporters of polygamy are frequent churchgoers and how many not, or how many are Republicans and how many Democrats. Crosstabs, Gallup?

What’s certain is that the federal judge who threw out a hunk of Utah’s anti-polygamy law is a born-and-bred Mormon whose decision turned on the constitutional right of free exercise. If polygamy is to achieve legal recognition in 21st-century America, it won’t be because of what Douthat calls “the now-ascendant model of marriage as a gender-neutral and easily-dissolved romantic contract.” It will be because of the increasingly robust view of religious liberty now being embraced by him and his kind.

So, a few thoughts (speaking for myself and not necessarily for my “kind”). First, I agree with Silk that there’s a reasonable religious liberty case against prosecuting and otherwise harassing polygamists, especially if and when the laws being enforced are still-on-the-books prohibitions against adultery or cohabitation that would never be enforced except to target religiously-motivated plural marriages. In point of fact, anti-polygamy laws are already mostly only enforced in cases where prosecutors are trying to break up a cult, but even with figures like Warren Jeffs you could argue that existing laws against sexual assault, statutory rape, human trafficking and so on should suffice without bringing polygamy into it. And then from a political-legal perspective it’s certainly possible that as religious conservatives find themselves more marginalized they’ll end up accepting fundamentalist Mormons as strange bedfellows in “leave-us-alone” arguments; at the very least, social conservatives may end up with more sympathy for the position of 19th century Mormons vis-a-vis that era’s social consensus once today’s consensus has finished settling into place.

All of this is part of what makes the issue of polygamy so distinctive and interesting, and my limited agreement with Silk reflects the fact that I really was writing (believe it or not!) about polygamy’s prospects in a spirit of curiosity rather than sky-is-falling polemic. On the list of cultural indicators I’m concerned about, the mainstreaming of polygamy is just a small part of the pantomime, not some uniquely Terrifying Destination to be invoked against liberalism’s intended path. Frankly, we’re well past that kind of invocation; now it’s just time to see how the pantomime plays out.

However: With all of that said, Silk’s argument elides the important distinction between legal tolerance of polygamy and legalrecognition — “marriage equality” for the plurally-inclined. The former might indeed be furthered, as he suggests, by religious liberty arguments, but the latter possibility is only likely to be realized if current progressive arguments about marriage’s elastic, affection-based definition are more comprehensively applied. That is, a court decision striking down Utah’s polygamy statute can rely on religious-liberty arguments, sure … but if we ever get a court decision ordering states to issue marriage licenses with space for three or four or five names, that decision will almost-inevitably rely on whatever language the Supreme Court ends up issuing in this year’s same-sex marriage case. There’s a religious liberty argument for tolerance, but the road to recognition (if we take it) runs through the new model or marriage, not the old.

And then relatedly, I would hoist an eyebrow at Silk’s suggestion that polygamy’s current progress toward social acceptance might be happening primarily or even partially among Republicans and churchgoers. Maybe the crosstabs would prove me wrong, but the Gallup movement tracks so closely with the broader leftward movement on a range of social issues (including other outlier issueslike human cloning) that it’s very hard to imagine it representing some of religious-liberty-oriented reaction rather than just another manifestation of expressive individualism’s progress. It’s equally hard to imagine if you actually know any churchgoers or Republicans, if you ponder the longstanding evangelical hostility to both Mormonism and Islam, if you pay attention to where recent pro-polygamy arguments tend to appear and who tends to make them (hint: not social conservatives), and so on. Religious conservatives may not end up marshaling much effective opposition to the recognition of polygamy if it becomes a live debate, but they aren’t likely to be the people who actually support it.

Again, this is part of why polygamy’s politics are interesting: Because it’s found (limited, for now) public support in libertarian and left-wing circles despite being practiced in some of the least left-libertarian circles imaginable. And this unusual bridging of deep-fundamentalist sectarian practice and further-left ideology is part of why the future trend on this issue is so hard to predict. Will the constituency for a secular, liberal polygamy gradually increase, as it has to some modest (though perhaps sometimes overhyped) extent already? Put another way, will the growing acceptance of polyamory as a model for nonmarital relationships — I have at least one friend in an explicitly “polyamorous” dating situation, and I’m not even a millennial! — eventually translate into more experiments in actual plural marriage, and thus more demand for legal recognition? Or will institutional polygamy always remain too fringe (and too associated with patriarchal exploitation and abuse) to have the constituency needed to push liberal courts into action?

As I said in the column, I can see it playing out both ways: I’m sure we’ll have more legal and social tolerance for plural marriage, but I can argue both sides of the legal recognition point. It seems like a case, if you’ll forgive my revising a cliche, of a resistible force facing an extremely moveable object: The percentage of Americans personally invested in recognizing polygamy is likely to remain smaller than the percentage invested in recognizing same-sex marriage, but the current majority coalition against the recognition of polygamy doesn’t look particularly strong or well-entrenched, since its centrist element is trending libertarian and its religious-conservative element is facing increasing marginalization. Hence my suggestion that the recognition of polygamy could happen mostly through indifference, or as a necessarily corollary of somelarger leftward push on marriage and family law. Not with a bang, in other words, but with a shrug.

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