Where marriage is headed next

Originally at: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/joeljmiller/where-marriage-is-headed-next/

by Joel J Miller

most immediately after the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision, a Montana man came forward to tidy up the paperwork on his second wife. “It’s about marriage equality,” he explained. “You can’t have [gay marriage] without polygamy.”

Others have said the same thing. Fredrik deBoer, for instance, made the case for polygamy in a widely read and much-discussed article for Politico.

Most pundits have argued against plural marriage, but what’s curious is how. The arguments come down to policy concerns: crime, gender imbalances among the marriageable young, and so on. But aren’t all these reasons beside the point?

Why polygamy is definitely next, maybe

The Supreme Court opened up marriage to same-sex couples on the grounds that individual autonomy demanded it. “[T]he right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy,” said the court, adding:

Choices about marriage shape an individual’s destiny. As the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has explained, because “it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.” . . . The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.

But isn’t that also true whatever their number?

We’re still talking about the free and self-defining choices of individuals. By these lights, there’s no stopping polygamy, least of all for public policy considerations. How can bureaucratic headaches trump human rights? How are two more endowed with rights than three or four or whatever? It’s the same issue.

Is the state denying you a right to autonomy and self-expression? If so, lift the ban. Society will just have to adjust. To do otherwise is to blaspheme the gospel of self-fulfillment, the one creed to which we all hold.

This is not to argue for polygamy but merely point out the court already did so, something Chief Justice Roberts said in his dissent. So that prompts the question: Is polygamy next? There’s no significant push so far, but the court’s rationale for gay marriage shows there is no levy in place to slow the wave if it comes.

And the truth is we’ve been dismantling the levy for a long time.

The gospel of self-fulfillment

The debate about gay marriage was, to my mind, essentially over by 1950when the gospel of self-fulfillment swept the culture. By then traditional marriage had already suffered greatly from the change.

Writing in the August 1947 issue of the Atlantic, David L. Cohn tried explaining an upsurge in failed marriages.

It may be that in this era of revaluation of values, we are slowly abandoning our ancient concepts of marriage and the family as we move toward new forms whose shapes are still inchoate. Man’s relation to God, the state, the family, and marriage have all come under increasingly sharp scrutiny. . . . Two hundred years ago there began the gradual dechristianization of the West, in the sense that man, not God, was enthroned at the center of the universe. The consequences are necessarily profound and all-pervasive.

Again, that was 1947.

Cohn called easy divorce “individualism gone mad,” “an orgy of the ego,” and “anarchy.” As society bought into the gospel of self-fulfillment and was progressively restructured around individual preference, marriages, families, and communities suffered. And it was (and is) a self-perpetuating problem.

We’re all polygamists now

If you wed with self-fulfillment primarily in view and then discover to your surprise that marriage and family life are actually demanding and sometimes discouraging, you’ll not only tend to marry the wrong person for the wrong reasons, you’ll also need an out.

The gospel of self-fulfillment necessitates no-fault divorce. And the “revaluation of values” Cohn described moved that direction in the decades that followed, undermining marriage all the more. California (under Ronald Reagan) led the way in 1970. In less than twenty years almost every state had no-fault divorce.

But it’s not like we try marriage once and quit. We’ve been, as Cohn argued, functional polygamists for a long time. Unhappy in one marriage, we run to another. As believers in the gospel of self-fulfillment, we can’t help ourselves. “Few people pursue happiness with such demonaic energy as we,” said Cohn, “briefly pausing at one roadside stand of illusion before rushing to another.”

I didn’t exactly rush into my second marriage, and I learned a lot of hard lessons in between, but the point sticks for me and for many. The only significant difference is that we split more often and bother with nuptials much less than we did in Cohn’s day.

We may not want to marry two or three spouses. But we take two or three partners in succession, married or not. There’s really no difference when you realize the reasons for the harem and the hookup are identical—the supposedly sacred right of self-fulfillment the Supreme Court just enshrined as law.

Where the real issue lies

All of this points to the real direction of marriage in this country. Polygamy as such is a carnival sideshow that will amount to very little, even if it does become legal. We shouldn’t be looking to multiplication as the source of our concern, but subtraction.


Cohn talked about marriage “mov[ing] toward new forms whose shapes are still inchoate.” Whatever forms marriage takes next, what will remain constant is the autonomous individual to whose self-fashioning choices the court appealed.

The central issue diagnosed by Cohn in 1947—radical individualism—has metastasized throughout our society. The orgy of the ego is more fevered today than ever. It’s reinforced in our entertainment, politics, economy, churches, and now our Constitution.

The future of marriage does not turn on questions of gender or number. It turns on what it already has for the last sixty or seventy years: the solitary self, pursuing its passions in whatever ways it can manage.

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