Who’s Scared of Polygamy? A Restrained Case for the “Slippery Slope” Argument

Painting of King Solomon and his wives by Giovanni Venanzi di Pesaro (1627-1705).

Many rejoiced after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-same marriage nationally in late June. Others jeered. But whatever a person’s take on the Court’s ruling, Americans at this historical moment need to think about what, if anything, comes next for marriage.

Among other things, this is an opportunity to revisit the old slippery slope argument that some have pushed for so many years. In other words, now that same-sex marriage is legal, what’s next? According to a number of pundits, such as Fredrik DeBoer at Politico, it’s polygamy. I count myself among this group.

This question is pressing in light of the fact that support for polygamy has risen rapidly (from 7% to 16%) among Americans over the past few years.

Some liberal commentators, understandably, have been quick to insist that legalizing polygamy isn’t on the horizon.

Writing a few weeks before the Supreme Court ruling, Matt Baume at The Huffington Post pro-actively argued against the slippery-slope hypothesis because revising marital laws to include polygamy would be hard. In the wake of Obergefell, Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon points to polygamists’ apparently inalienable “fringe” status as a bulwark against the slippery slope. More recently, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic (and in response to DeBoer) makes a rather careful three-tiered case against polygamy, arguing that advocating for polygamy would be untimely for the international fight for same-sex marriage rights, that there are compelling state interests in not legalizing it (e.g. staving off practical issues around things such as visas for spouses), and that polygamy is essentially and damagingly patriarchal in a way that monogamy is not (or so we are to believe).

I must confess that I do not find these apologetics for monogamy convincing. I buy, in other words, a limited version of the slippery-slope position (and I’m not the only one—see this and this). But I would contend (similar to DeBoer) that the standard slippery-slope ends well before the plunge to bestiality or other “pro-family” bogeymen. And I do so, in part, for several reasons not currently being considered in discussions around the consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Increasingly polygamy is being considered independently of things like bestiality (here is a recent example). In some of these newer discussions, noticeably, the key question is no longer about whether the legalization of same-sex marriage will lead to polygamy, but whether a national debate on it will come to pass and, if so, who will be responsible for this development.

These recent accounts of a possible polygamy debate do not seem to recognize that we’re in what I would call a reformation period of marriage. Nor do they seem to know that during the Protestant Reformation, which dramatically redefined marriage, polygamy was on the table. And, to me at least, it’s likely that (eventual) support from some branches of American Protestantism, drawing in part on this older Protestant debate, will complicate certain pundits’ models for how a debate around the legalization of polygamy will come to pass.

Intriguingly, both sides want to lay blame for this development on the other. Ross Douthat argues, in a surprisingly sympathetic and nuanced piece in the New York Times from a person opposed to polygamy, that the “new permissive consensus” built over the years by social liberals, most strikingly around same-sex marriage, is the primary driver for this uptick of support for polygamy. Douthat points to cultural developments such as the airing of certain TV shows (e.g. Big Love and Sister Wives), the growing polyamory movement, and the “logic of expressive individualism” to buttress his case. By 2040, he speculates, polygamy will be the law of the land, and it will be all the liberals’ fault.

Mark Silk, on his Religion News Service blog, responded by arguing that the uptick in support is actually due “the increasingly robust view of religious liberty being embraced [by conservatives].” Silk points to a federal judge’s 2013 decision, in favor of the Brown family (of Sister Wives fame), that weakened Utah’s bigamy statute as evidence—a position Silk elaborates on here.

In his reply, Douthat performs an interesting misreading of Silk’s position. Silk’s case rests on the extension of the legal logic of conservative religious freedom efforts to religious claims made by polygamist Mormons and Muslims (although the problem posed by the nineteenth-century Reynolds case is oddly missing). Douthat, however, takes Silk to mean that “Republicans and churchgoers” (with churchgoers overtly coded as Evangelicals) are  supporting polygamy in larger numbers, a strawman Douthat then refutes.

Unlike Silk and Douthat, I welcome this nascent debate—one that really has already begun (see this and this)—and I think there’s enough praise to go around for why we’ve begun to have it. Both point to important contributing factors, yet both are mistaken in focusing, when it comes to religious groups, only on polygamist Mormons and Muslims in the United States. Part of their error lies in taking what currently is for what will be, an interpretive move that Ed Simon has thoughtfully cautioned against.

Let’s think for a minute about how same-sex marriage went from novel idea to law-of-the-land in just a few short decades. The ascent of same-sex marriage in the United States gained much (but not all) of its initial support from churches.

Many local Universalist Unitarian (UU), Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations, and some Episcopal churches, for example, started blessing same-sex unions as far back as the 1970s, as work by Heather White and Mark Jordan has shown. Over the years the debate and activism by Christians continued to push the conversation until the national bodies of the UCC and Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) approved same-sex marriages in 2005 and 2015, respectively. The debate has been robust and increasingly supportive in other denominations. Some Evangelical Christians have even begun to embrace same-sex marriage. And this is not to even mention the ever LGBT-supportive Metropolitan Community Church.

This brief and incomplete recap of the rise of same-sex marriage among Protestant Christians in the United States reveals something important. Even though almost no American Christians support it (outside of some smaller LDS sects that currently practice polygamy), there is no reason to think they could not come to do so, and to do so as rapidly as they did with same-sex marriage.

One of the non-religious reasons these churches may embrace polygamy as they did same-sex marriage is that Americans, as a culture, may come to view polyamory (i.e. consensual, simultaneous sexual relationships with more than one partner) as a sexual orientation. Some of the implications of studies by evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden and psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá certainly point in that direction, and other studies have found their way into popular media. To use Douthat’s timeline and term, it would be rather interesting to see what the state of polyamory will be among “churchgoers” in 2040.

Furthermore, the rise of same-sex marriage inside American Protestant Christianity is but a part (though a very crucial one) of a larger overhaul of marriage. Feminist developments have greatly changed the theological visions and practices of many Christian communities around marriage. And it’s easy to forget that laws preventing interracial marriage (which was often opposed on religious grounds), were only invalidated in the U.S. with Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

In other words, marriage has changed substantially and consistently over the past 70 or so years in the United States. Of course these changes have occurred both inside and outside of religious communities, but not necessarily in spite of them. There’s no reason to believe that this trajectory will suddenly change in the wake of the same-sex marriage debate.

And this is hardly the first time marriage has undergone a simultaneously rapid yet sustained change in history. In particular I see the Protestants’ reformation of marriage during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a particularly relevant historical analog. That reformation is important for, among other things, planting seeds inside the Christian tradition that may bear fruit in the form of pro-polygamy theology and practice.

The Protestant Reformation is famous for, in theory, leveling the spiritual playing field between marriage and celibacy while, in practice, giving marriage primacy. These Reformers permitted priests, monks, and nuns to marry, overhauled the Catholic system of marital impediments and kinship (dramatically reducing the number of people a person was related to in a way that barred marriage), and cracked open the door to divorce.

But as historian Lyndal Roper has taught us, these Reformers, by questioning the nature of marriage so thoroughly, helped to make more radical marital experiments possible. Roper points to both the short-lived polygamous city-state of Münster and, in much more depth, the Dreamers—both of whom were violently crushed during the early years of the Reformation. Intriguingly, the Dreamers, who claimed the Holy Spirit directed them, although already married, to enter into new marriages, might provide grist for a polyamorist theology of polygamy.

But neither was the end of thinking and doing polygamy during this period. Two prominent theologians penned pro-polygamy works under the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. Bernardino Ochino, the former head of the Capuchin Order and a famous Protestant convert, wrote a dialogue making a biblical case for polygamy (though he was subsequently exiled from most of Western and Central Europe for publishing it). About a hundred years later, John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame, composed his own case for polygamy in his De doctrina christiana.

Yet even these hardly exhaust the options. Philip of Hesse, a major Protestant nobleman, married a second wife. He did so, moreover, only after getting the approval of a number of important Protestant theologians, including Martin Luther. This case and other developments around polygamy in the 16th and 17th centuries are chronicled by John Cairncross.

What Lyndal Roper has said about experimenting with marriage in the Reformation holds true for our time too. We have been busy overhauling our marital system at least as thoroughly as happened in the Protestant Reformation so we must ready ourselves for a debate on polygamy, as they had to. And the Reformation debates on, and experiments with, polygamy could be valuable resources—indeed, richer in this vein than they were for same-sex marriage. All of which is to say nothing of the easy biblical case that can be made for polygamy.

There already seems to be a very small (and possibly conservative evangelical) non-Mormon Christian effort to promote polygamy as a religious practice, as well as an active UU polyamory movement. If the polyamory/polygamy cause does indeed spread among Christians in the United States, the Reformation can provide resources to advance the cause.

Polygamy may well make for a coalition of strange bedfellows drawn from across the religious and non-religious spectrum in the United States. If the so-called “mainline” churches repeat their same-sex marriage trajectory, they could well provide polygamy some hefty cultural and political ballast (though the impact of that support may not be quite as big as it was for same-sex marriage in light of the continued demographic decline of these denominations).

These Christians would, of course, also need to square their religious heritage around polygamy with the kinds of feminist critiques that informed the overhaul of monogamy during the past 50 or so years. The Reformation proponents of polygamy, after all, only had polygyny in mind, and a very male-dominated version at that. Protestants today would almost certainly need to consider polyandry and, to use a clunky term, polygynandry.

I agree with Douthat and Silk that Americans are going to need to think seriously about polygamy. Douthat is probably right in arguing that many of the arguments liberals put forth on behalf of same-sex marriage will be deployed on behalf of polygamy, but Silk is probably also correct that religious freedom claims will play a role as well. In any case, rather than let fear guide the conversation, perhaps we should embrace an honest, thorough, and thoughtful debate that will likely generate a new set of pro- and con- alliances from a diverse range of people and groups in the United States. It wouldn’t be a reformation of marriage without one.