Christianity,  Politics,  Theology/Bible

Does gay marriage lead to polygamy?

Doug Wilson gives his post-mortem on his debate with Andrew Sullivan over gay marriage. The audio and video have not been released yet, but apparently there was quite a row over Wilson’s contention that the legalization of gay marriage will lead to the legalization of polygamous marriage. The arguments for the one are identical to those in favor of the other. Thus if you accept those arguments with respect to gay marriage, it will be impossible to deny them for polygamous marriage. Wilson elaborates on why Sullivan so vigorously opposed the point:

The reason that Andrew was so adamant about rejecting the logical consequence of polygamy is that it would wreck the very thing he has wanted to possess for so long. Hetero marriage has been the great house on the hill, bright lights shining whenever there was a great party, to which Andrew had never been invited and where he desperately wanted to be. But he doesn’t want to finally pull into the driveway of that house for the big event only to see a bunch of trailers for the new polygamous compound scattered over the great lawn. He wants the house to be the house it always has been, only with him there now. So if I point out that the riff raff might want to use all of his arguments verbatim in order to crash the party also, he has a deep emotional need to deny it. But nobody wants them to come, he might protest. This is quite true, but nobody wanted him to come either. It is hard to wax indignant about the third wave of party crashers if you were in the first wave.

Wilson says that video of the debate will be available soon and that he will link to it when it is. In the meantime, read the rest of Wilson’s post. It’s really good.


  • frankturk

    Denny —

    I think what Doug said here is utterly true, utterly without any logical or rational rebuttal. And I think it’s where he loses the argument without any question. Before God, Doug has made an utterly-sound morally-suitable argument, and he has turned out the lights of everyone listening.

    Pressing home the point that Sullivan “had never been invited” is utterly devoid of the Gospel solution to Sullivan’s problem. Let me propose something here: Sullivan is utterly welcome to come to “the party” by virtue of the created order. He is utterly welcome by virtue of being born alive to become one flesh with a woman and to bring, with her, new life into this world, and to suffer through with her every moment of joy and every sorrow. Marriage welcomes men and women to be joined in away which makes friendship look half-baked and makes mere emotions look juvenile.

    But that union — even among those who do not know it or can admit it — is embroidered into creation as a pattern of the love of God for those who love Him. It is meant to be a picture of the One for whom all things were made — by demonstrating that love is only love if it brings life and defeats death through sacrifice.

    Let Sullivan come to that, and not some aping of that. Let the church be ashamed that we have taught him that marriage is only a contract and only a disembodied ideal which has nothing to do with life and death. And let us repent of who we are when we say that, somehow, people are not called to the Gospel and its necessary consequences. What have we become when we can frame all of the law exactly right, and forget the good news of God — especially in marriage?

  • David Thomas

    I think the real issue here is not just polygamy (in the sense that it is typically understood), but polyamory–open relationships between several people. This is not one man married to two women (polygamy), or one woman married to two men (polyandry), but three (or more) people married equally to each other.

    I agree that gay “marriage” does open the door for this practice and the chaos that goes with it. Effectively what we are dealing with is the abolition of marriage.

  • Paula Bolyard (@pbolyard)

    Whether Sullivan wants to admit it or not, the polygamists are already at the party. Kody Brown (of Sister Wives fame) and his “wives” are in federal court this month asking a judge to throw out the state’s polygamy ban based on their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association. If successful, it could make its way to the Supreme Court where it could very well end up however the current gay marriage cases end up.

  • alastairjroberts

    I really think that connecting the gay marriage case with polygamy is unhelpful. Polygamy really is quite a different beast from gay marriage on a number of fronts. Here are a few:

    1. Polygamy is characterized by a fairly extreme gender differentiation. The current trend is in precisely the opposite direction.

    2. Polygamy has male-female bonds at its heart. It is worth remembering that polygamy is not one man entering into one marriage within many wives, but one man entering into many marriages with many wives. The wives are never married to each other. There is an essential affirmation of sexual dimorphism and the fact that a marriage is built around the committed sexual relationship between a single man and a single woman at the heart of polygamy, even if those relationships aren’t exclusive.

    3. Polygamous groups tend to be highly procreative and polygamous families tend to place a lot of emphasis on children. Marriage is oriented towards the production of a new generation, not mere sexual gratification or romantic companionship. Once again, this is directly contrary to the current trend.

    4. Polygamous marriages tend to challenge the sentimental nuclear ideal of the family, expanding the family beyond a unitary bond of affection.and making it far more of a public and communal reality that transcends and limits the will and entitlement of those within it.

    5. Polygamy tends to be de-individualizing – particularly for women and children – and stresses roles, limitations, and one’s ‘place’ within a greater order, not hinging upon and affirming the choices of sovereign individuals.

    6. Polygamy typically relies upon a vision of marriage that is neither companionate nor romantic in character. The entire reason for gay marriage’s plausibility to contemporary society rests upon such a notion of marriage.

    7. Being procreative in orientation, polygamy would typically stress the connection between sex and marriage, ironically strongly maintaining many of the values that we associate with ‘monogamy’. Polygamous marriages are not typically ‘open’, ‘non-monogamous’, or ‘monogamish’ marriages in the sense that many more modern relationships are.

    It is worth remembering that polygamy is typically practised in more conservative religious communities. This really isn’t an accident. Polygamy is in many respects the antithesis of gay marriage. While polygamists could exploit the current inclarity concerning marriage for their ends, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that polygamy is the direction that things are heading. Polyamory, being romantically driven, gender neutral, oriented towards the satisfaction of individual desires, non-stable, more sexually open to outsiders, and typically non-procreative, might be a different matter.

    • David Thomas

      While some of your observations regarding the respective phenomenologies of gay “marriage” and polygamy are undeniable, I believe you are missing the whole point, viz., that once one group gets their way in the courts based on individual “rights” rather than natural law regarding a departure from traditional marriage, then the flood gates are opened. Precedent is set.

      You make some points, but similar /kinds/ of arguments have been made and are being made regarding gay “marriage,” and they are all as so many waves upon a sea wall–they all fail in the face of the all-powerful “personal rights” trump card. Gay marriage and polygamy are different in many ways (some of which you mention) but similar in this: They are both bad for society as an aberration of natural law. If the courts refuse to consider natural law, it is merely a question of time. That is Wilson’s argument.

      I might also add, on another note, that polyamory is NOT merely one person being married to others who are not married to each other. The link I provided above shows a marriage /between/ three people. The kind of polyamory that is coming will be a different animal altogether than what we see in Mormon sects.

      • alastairjroberts


        If you reread my comment, you should see that I distinguish between polyamory and polygamy. They aren’t the same thing.

        If you look, you should also see that I acknowledge that polygamists could exploit our inclarity over marriage for their ends. My point is that the reasons for one are most definitely not the same as the reasons for the other, even though our cultural inability to resist gay marriage could give occasion to polygamists. Polygamy is not the way that the culture is headed and even if it is allowed, it wouldn’t be widely used. Also, to be frank, polygamy would be rather better than what we have at the moment.

        • David Thomas

          Technically, then, we don’t disagree.

          For me, however, it is the chaos and the free-for-all that I find so poisonous. In raw numbers, gay “marriage” does not and will not be substantial as a percentage of the population. But a little leaven works through the whole loaf, eh?

          • alastairjroberts

            How many same sex couples get married is really of secondary importance. It is not the existence of many same sex couples that represents the chief threat to marriage. This debate is about public meaning and the institutional ends of marriage, which are distinct from the private ends and meaning of particular marriages (I discuss some of this here). Same sex marriage arguments are typically persuasive because people have largely dismissed or forgotten the idea of marriage as public meaning (save for public affirmation of private romantic meaning) and institution. When marriage is deinstitutionalized and becomes about individual choice, private meaning, and lifestyle consumerism same sex marriage is the most natural thing in the world.

    • Rick Patrick

      “Polygamy really is quite a different BEAST from gay marriage…”

      I realize this was only a metaphor, but man’s depravity can sadly extend the logic of marital licentiousness even further than a same gender partner or multiple partners of either gender. If every man is free to do what is right in his own eyes, by what moral imperative do we even insist that the marriage partner must be human?

      This definition of marriage argument is a very slippery slope.

      • alastairjroberts

        I think that we need to distinguish between two different developments here. The first is the movement in the direction of a social constructivism, decoupled from any sense of natural telos, which would place limits upon a self-asserting human will. The second is the movement in the direction of a very particular view of marriage, one that is deinstitutionalized, built around such things as romantic and sentimental ideals, sexual gratification, gender neutrality, and shared lifestyle consumption (‘consumption’ being a very important word here – the modern marriage is increasingly ordered primarily around shared consumption practices and habits).

        Now, the first movement allows for a radical reinvention and reorientation of society, its institutions, and ourselves according to whatever we will. There is no ‘natural’ or divinely instituted order. This movement allows for all sorts of things, from same sex marriage, to polygamy, to bestiality, to institutionalized paedophilia, etc., etc. However, while allowing for the possibility of our willing such things into social reality, the first movement is only an impotent potential in and of itself: it needs the second movement to produce an actual social reality.

        The problem that I have here is the conflation and confusion of these two things, the over-emphasizing of the former, and the shallow analysis of the latter. If we want to know what actually will become a social reality, if current trends continue unarrested, it will be by analyzing the latter that we will discover it.

        Same sex marriage acts on these two levels. On the first level it affirms faith in and commitment to constructivist will over the concept of natural or divinely instituted order. On the second level it institutionalizes a particular vision (involving institutional norms and public meaning) of the sort of thing that marriage is, not just for same sex couples, but for all couples.

        • Rick Patrick

          The latter development seems to have no reservations in letting the former development do whatever it wants. It draws no boundaries and sets no limits, thus liberating the “impotent potential” of the first movement to “produce an actual social reality” in which anything goes.

          Distinguish between them if you wish, but they are clearly operating in tandem to deconstruct our social order, without providing any logical boundaries to keep us from social chaos. You might as well throw incest in the works, and for that matter, why insist on the “til death do us part” clause? What if someone wants to remain married to their dead spouse?

          I realize that sounds absurd, which is kind of my point. As long as we are reorganizing society here, would someone care to explain the new rules?

          • alastairjroberts

            The problem is that far too many people are saying that polygamy, bestiality, incest, and the like are just around the corner if we accept gay marriage, and that the legalization of the one will lead to the legalization of the others. It really won’t.

            Our society still has boundaries. Those boundaries are the boundaries established by social will, grounded in social constructivism, and implemented by social engineering. It isn’t really true that ‘anything goes’ in practice, although in principle it might be the case that nothing can be ruled out absolutely on such a basis.

            If we forget this fact we will end up making arguments that confuse opposition to and criticism of theories grounded in a radical social voluntarism with the belief that that voluntarism will want to realize every possibility that it renders possible in principle. It won’t, which is one of many reasons why arguments about same-sex marriage leading to polygamy are flawed and deeply unpersuasive.

            Besides, such arguments are akin to arguing that permitting heroin use might lead to people smoking marijuana. There is considerably less to object to in polygamy than in same sex marriage. I would even argue that under certain very extreme conditions (the loss of the vast majority of the male population in war being such a case) it might be appropriate to permit its practice as an accommodation to a reality broken by sin and death (like divorce, not sinful in itself, but a profoundly undesirable departure from God’s ideal for human relations).

  • Jerry Corbaley

    When marriage becomes merely a social contract, then individuals within the society will enter into mutual contracts with any combination of individuals that is allowed by the society.

    The United States is abandoning “both” Christian tradition “and” past secular tradition. This means that there is “no” basis for the definition of marriage from the past. It will only be a social contract.

    Bible believing Christians would do well to adopt a better definition of marriage than the American Cultural-Christian definition of the past, and begin a serious emphasis upon teaching the next generation what God says about “blessed” marriages between Christian disciples.

  • James Stanton

    I think an important distinction is that you could at least make an argument for polygamy based on some reading of the Bible, if however flawed. At some point in Biblical history it was at least considered legitimate as some of the revered heroes of the Bible had multiple wives and concubines.

    Polygamy is certainly not new to American history or culture either. I tend to that think that polygamy is no better or worse than gay marriage or gay relationships and heterosexual promiscuity and polyamory.

    That being said, I’d say Sullivan is more defensive about this line of argument because current American society is largely agreed that polygamy is something abnormal whereas homosexuality is trending towards broader acceptance.

    And that is ultimately the point. This isn’t a winning argument because there is no significant constituency at present that desires legalized polygamy and therefore most supporters of homosexual marriage will reject the connection. Homosexuals are as self-obsessed as any other societal group. Why should they care about polygamists as long as they get theirs?

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    The problem is that neither Christians nor Christian marriage appears to outsiders to have any moral advantage. Christian spouses beat each other up, have affairs, get divorced, cause their children much anguish just like everybody else and sometimes more so. It does not appeal to outsiders at all.

    Also, Christians do immoral things in public like argue and backbite against each other in ways that seems very dishonest to outsiders. I just don’t think that non- Christians see Christianity as having any value. Therefore, Christian arguments are empty.

    My neighbours think that going to the press to make one evangelical bible translation triumph over another, and drag Christian colleagues through the mud, is despicable, and Christianity should be highly discouraged for such typical behaviour. Personally, the bible wars have made us all look like unpleasant fools, and our morality all nonsense. Some people are rightly disgusted and could not care less what Christians think about marriage laws.

    • alastairjroberts

      This has certainly not been my experience. I know several non-Christians who have asked about why relationships and marriages in the Christian contexts in which I have found myself have been so secure, happy, faithful, and loving, have asked how they can have similar relationships, and wondered at a context where divorce is virtually unknown.

      • Suzanne McCarthy

        I believe you, Alastair but that is anecdotal evidence, as is mine. So it probably evens up, some see Christians as having negative relationships, and some don’t.

        But in terms of how Christians as a whole treat each other, the bible wars are just plain despicable. There is no justification or excuse. I refuse to remain in a church where men say the things they do about each other’s bible translation. Since I was a little girl, I have been through 3 major church splits. I find the way Christian women are treated, can be, sometimes is, not very nice. But the way some Christian men treat each other in public, accusing each other of this and that, is incomprehensible.

        If Denny Burk will organize a full apology from the CBMW to the translators of the TNIV, I will modify my view.

        • Suzanne McCarthy

          I guess what I am trying to say is that you cannot assume that non-Christians view Christians as moral people. Sometimes they just don’t see that at all.

          • Suzanne McCarthy


            I can provide evidence from 1871, that adelphoi always meant “brothers and sisters” which those who drew up the statement against the TNIV were not aware of. Likewise, the other terms referred to parents and children of both genders as well. So, in fact, the evidence comes down on the side of the TNIV.

            But regardless of this, some non-Christians only see that Christians are irrational and unpleasant with each other, and do not recognize basic facts and honesty. Therefore some non-Christians have the view that Christians are immoral.

            This then affects their response to the Christian position on gay marriage.

            Basically, some non-christians argue that –

            Christians believe in hierarchy in sexual relations.
            Christians do not accept scientific evidence on various matters
            Christians squabble endlessly about the correct interpretation of scripture
            Christians say nasty things about each other

            Therefore, Christians have a questionable moral position, and the Christian view on gay marriage is irrelevant.

  • James Bradshaw

    Jerry writes: “When marriage becomes merely a social contract, then individuals within the society will enter into mutual contracts with any combination of individuals that is allowed by the society.”

    I’m doubting that. It takes a certain kind of relationship to exist for one to be willing to put one’s assets, credit and income on the line for another person. People are reluctant to do it for blood relatives, let alone mere friends

    Rick writes: “by what moral imperative do we even insist that the marriage partner must be human”

    For the same reason we don’t grant powers-of-attorney to blenders or cats or vehicles. Animals and inanimate objects are unable to enter into a contractual legal agreement of any kind. Mutual consent is the cornerstone of all legal contracts.

  • Brad Hutter

    The legal argument for forcing states to adopt gay marriage probably would not support forcing states to adopt polygamy.

    Supporters of gay marriage make an equal protection argument which goes as follows: If state governments are in the civil marriage business, they may not discriminate based on sexual orientation. That’s class-based discrimination violates the 14th Amendment, which requires states to treat people the same under the law.

    Equal protection doesn’t mean that all laws have to treat all people the same. It means that a state law which discriminates against a class of people must have a REALLY good reason to exist. Such laws are automatically suspect.

    But laws which don’t discriminate against one class of people are presumptively constitutional. As long as there’s a “rational” reason for the law to treat people differently, the Court won’t strike it down.

    Restricting marriage to two people almost certainly falls in the second category, not the first. Two-person marriage doesn’t discriminate against a class of people. It incidentally discriminates against any person who wants to be the third person in a marriage, but that third person could be anyone – black or white, male or female, gay or straight, etc. So the law would almost certainly get the lower level of scrutiny. Then, the Court would uphold it as long as the state could find some “rational” reason for its existence.

    There are a few “rational” reasons why a state would want to restrict marriage to two people. It could say it wants to simplify the division of marital estates. Or it could say it wants to protect spouses – it’s easy to imagine that a man’s first wife could get sucked into a marriage without thinking another woman would ever get asked into it. In short, rational basis scrutiny almost always upholds the law.

    Mormons can always sue that polygamy bans violate their First Amendment rights, but that has nothing to do with gay marriage.

  • Dan Levin


    All of you are wrong. Your marriages may be what you want it to be, but each marriage is its own institution with its own rules among the parties. Sex, love, children, identity and anything else which is among the parties has nothing to do with the state-recognized institution of marriage. None are prerequisites to either enter a marriage OR maintain it.All of that is among the parties to the individual consensual marriages.

    Marriage — as far as the state is concerned — is a contract. People decide they want to be considered as a union AND as individuals. It’s no different in that regard than a business partnership. There are some administrative shortcuts in the law for married parties, but that’s it. The same is true of a business partnership.

    Any other argument is easily destroyed. You wouldn’t last five minutes on cross-examination. How do you stop people from calling themselves married? Having a ceremony? Inviting their friends? Hiring a caterer?

    A clever lawyer could develop a contract that would produce exactly the same power-of-attorney as nearly everything in the law for a married couple. And the state would have to recognize that contract and give it the same equal protection under the law.

    What would be your problem with two 70-year-old widows wanting the comfort and security of a marriage? Why couldn’t the state recognize that union? Isn’t it more reasonable than a marriage between 90-year-old man and a 16-year-old woman?

    Society or the state does not get to decide what a marriage is. None of you gets to decide what anybody else’s marriage is. The majority of people, even an overwhelming majority, does not get to decide what marriage is for anyone else. The parties decide, all must give consent, and all are joined equally in the union (subject to any consensual prenuptial agreement, of course). The rest of it is none of your business and none of the state’s business either.

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