Skip to comments.Polygamy Ascendant -
Posted on 09/08/2006 10:20:49 AM PDT by UnklGene
Polygamy Ascendant? - Rumbles in our marriage debate
September 25, 2006
The dissolution of behavioral boundaries with the consequent extension of individual choice has long seemed to many intellectuals to be the most urgent or important task confronting them. Since few social boundaries can be defended with entire philosophical consistency, a world without any such boundaries has seemed to those intellectuals to be not only intellectually honest but also desirable: for only then will mans natural goodness be able to emerge from the dross of the past, with all its inherited petty prejudices, compromises, and hypocrisies.
It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that supporters of polygamy should now come forward to claim their rights, their place in the sun of non-discrimination. Those harmless folk the necrophiliacs will probably be next. After all, the object of their affections cannot complain or have its interests damaged, for by definition it can have no feelings or interests; and as John Stuart Mill so powerfully argued, the mere disgust of the majority, be it ever so large, is not a good enough reason to prohibit a practice. If someone wished, say, to eat live earthworms in public, assuming that such creatures are not sufficiently conscious to experience suffering, and eating them does not endanger the public health, on what consistent grounds could we stop him?
The arrest on August 28 of Warren Jeffs, the polygamous leader of a religious faction over which he appears to have exercised a droit du seigneur that makes the feudal conduct of old French aristocrats seem positively self-denying, will not much harm the polygamist cause. His habit of conferring underage girls on members of his sect will no doubt rouse the public against him, especially as that public has not been entirely rock-solid in its protection of children from premature sexualization, and therefore may well have a guilty conscience, but his harem-scale polygamy will upset no one very deeply.
A week or so before his arrest, in fact, some teenagers in Utah staged a demonstration in favor of polygamy. They were themselves the children of polygamous unions, and had not been abused or otherwise maltreated; they were properly educated, lacked for nothing, and were altogether normal, healthy, and happy. Apparently they loved all their mothers: That is to say, each of them loved all the women to whom his father was married. They were angry at the state, not their parents. As one of them said, Because of our beliefs, many of our people have been incarcerated and had their basic human rights stripped of them, namely liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I didnt come today to ask for your permission to live my beliefs. I shouldnt have to.
AN INTRICATE CASE When a belief in the concept of homosexual marriage has gone within a few short years from being an object of ridicule and satire to being a touchstone of a persons political and moral rectitude, the young mans argument is bound to be received sympathetically in some quarters. Indeed, if the chief justice of Utah, Christine Durham, does not exactly agree with it, she appears to sympathize with it. She dissented from the judgment of her fellow justices when a man called Rodney Holm appealed his conviction in Utah on a charge of polygamy.
Holm was married legally in 1986 to a woman called Suzie Stubbs. He then took unto him Wendy Holm, marrying her in a religious ceremony according to the rites of his church. Finally, he took Suzie Stubbss 16-year-old sister, Ruth, as a wife, marrying her in a ceremony presided over by none other than Warren Jeffs. By the time she was 18, Ruth had given birth to two children by Holm, a fact that proved he was guilty of having had sexual intercourse with her when she was under Utahs legal age of consent. Chief Justice Durham upheld his conviction on this count.
But she did not think he was guilty of polygamy. The Utah statute says that anyone who purports to marry while being legally married to anyone else is guilty of bigamy or polygamy. The question turned on what purports to marry actually means. The majority opinion held that, since at the ceremony presided over by Warren Jeffs, marriage was invoked, the wording being not very dissimilar to that used in more orthodox marriage ceremonies, Holm did purport to marry the woman. By contrast, Chief Justice Durham held that, since neither Holm nor either of his two alternate wives, or concubines, ever claimed to be married in the legal sense, and never claimed the legal privileges of man and wife or wives, he had not purported to marry.
A second question was whether Holms constitutional right to religious freedom had been violated. The majority of the judges, pointing out that religious freedom does not authorize practices that are otherwise outlawed, such as polygamy, said that it had not; but Chief Justice Durham said that it had. She argued that since he had not committed the crime of polygamy in the first place, his conviction for having lived with two women besides his wife amounted to an assault on his right to freedom of religious belief, and to act upon his belief insofar as it did not contradict any law. In her view, besides, the law had no business to tell consenting adults how to organize their domestic arrangements; this was the slippery slope to tyranny.
In the opinion of the majority of judges, who upheld Holms guilt, the term marriage included de facto liaisons, while in Chief Justice Durhams view, marriage meant a formal, legal arrangement, recognized by the state in a way in which no other form of liaison between man and woman was recognized. Thus, bigamy or polygamy could take place only where the husband claimed dishonestly to be marrying according to law, in the knowledge that he was entitled to do no such thing.
If the majority of the justices were right, then any man who, though married, kept a mistress, and supported her as he would have done if he were married to her, was a bigamist. The justices might say in retort that if such a mistress did not actually live in the same house as the wife, the man was not a bigamist; but this would make the domicile of the mistress, not the mans conduct towards her, the test of the legality of the relationship (such a test does in fact exist in Utah). The legality of concubinage would then depend upon where the concubine lived, a moral principle whose validity is at the least dubious.
If, on the other hand, the chief justice was right, the tendency in many jurisdictions increasingly to recognize the rights of participants in de facto relationships, and to reduce the difference between these rights and those of married couples, must be wrong. It has long been the case in Britain, for example, that a kept woman has a claim on a mans estate that is superior to that of his legitimate children. In many places, where the difference between a de facto liaison and a marriage has been drastically reduced, and divorce made irresistibly easy, the act of marriage is almost purely symbolic.
Of course, symbols can be powerful, and even retain their power, at least for a time, when they are without much legal force. Years ago, in my medical practice, I had a patient who tried to commit suicide, and nearly succeeded. Her lover of many years refused to marry her and her mother said that she ought to leave him unless he did. I asked her lover why he refused marriage, to which he replied that it meant nothing, it was only a piece of paper. I then asked him why, if it was only a piece of paper, he refused to sign it. He could not answer, but he did not change his mind. A residual symbolic meaning had triumphed over a real one. But the fact remains that legislators and judges have increasingly emptied the institution of marriage of real content.
FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS If the tendency to recognize the rights of participants in de facto relationships were to prevail, certain consequences might soon follow. If, after the death of a man such as Mr. Holm, one of his religiously sanctioned concubines went to law to claim a right to part of his estate, having lived with him for many years and borne him several children, she might very well win her case in the name of compassion. The same might happen if a religiously sanctioned concubine left such a one as Mr. Holm on account of his cruel or unreasonable conduct. After all, it would be hard upon her and her children to be without any means of support, if either he or his estate were able to provide it. But a legal recognition of the rights of a polygamous de facto wife would, in effect, confer considerable status upon the kind of relationship in which she had been involved; and those who do not agree with Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds would then start to press for a law to overcome what would be seen as an anomaly. After all, the fact that many homosexuals lived together as if married led in the end to a demand for the certificate of marriage itself. The only way to remove the anomaly of the disadvantageous legal position of de facto polygamous wives would be to make honest women of them: But if three wives were permitted, why not four, or 400? And why not polyandry?
Then, of course, the Muslims would demand the same rights as the fundamentalist Mormons. On what grounds could they be denied? And if they were able to demonstrate, as probably many of them soon would, that they had three wives back home waiting to join them, would it not be discriminatory to refuse those wives permission to do so?
Even Holms conviction for sexual crime is open to moral, if not legal, criticism. The age of consent to sexual relations in Utah is different from that in other states, and therefore is arbitrary (just like every other jurisdictions). Every man must surely oppose laws that are not only arbitrary in themselves but arbitrarily enforced, as the law against underage sexual relations undoubtedly is. Besides, for Holm to have been guilty of the sexual crime of which he was accused, he had to be ten years older than the girl with whom he had sexual relations. Where is the natural justice in that? Why ten years and not nine or eight, or 29 or 28? Why is a man of 26 who has sex with a girl aged 17 not guilty of a crime, while a man aged 27 who has sex with her is?
It is clear that our society has difficulty in holding the line about any moral matter because it increasingly examines every question from abstract principles, most of which are themselves matters of dispute. And since the world is full of gradations, any dividing line between the permissible and the impermissible is bound to be arbitrary and therefore open to criticism, and each advance in permissiveness is used as a justification for the next. Why should the age of consent be 18 or 17 or 16, or any particular age? Every dividing line will be unjust to someone, indeed to many.
It wouldnt be difficult to construct a justification for polygamy. It is not enough for those who wish to ban it to show that it has bad consequences: It must have worse consequences than any legally permitted alternative arrangement between the sexes, failing which prohibition is mere prejudice and discrimination smuggled in as benevolence. In fact, it is unlikely that the polygamy of fundamentalist Mormons has worse consequences than, for example, the perfectly legal sexual disarray of the ghetto. And in a world whose sole binding principle is John Stuart Mills argument that the only justification for prohibiting an act is that it harms others, who can object to a relationship entered into freely by consenting adults, such as polygamous marriage?
These days, our society cannot just say no to almost anything short of robbery and murder. That is why, from the outside, it appears so deeply decadent. Its strength, however, derives from the same ultimate source, namely free enquiry.
>Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.
To see this argument illustrated, just check out any FReeRepublic thread about a sexual issue. The porn threads are especially rich.
At least polygamy makes biological sense. Gay marriage makes no sense at all.
FYI, I hope polygamy is never legalized. I think it must be extremely hard on the wives.
Having said that, my great-great grandfather, a Mormon pioneer, had four wives. Three of them were from England, and he married them in the same year, 1867. The fact that he married all at roughly the same time suggests that he was asked to do so. Two were in their 40's, like he was at the time. One was 24, and she was the niece of one of the older wives. In those days, she was approaching spinsterhood at the age of 24.
All the plural wives were recent immigrants to the US, with no ties and no means of support. I'm fairly sure the older women were wives in name only. There were no children. He had a large family with the young wife, in addition to a large family -- already grown -- that he had had with his first wife, my great-great grandmother, who had immigrated with him to Utah.
I think A lot of the early Mormon polygamous marriages were arrangements by which women in this isolated place, with no prospects for monogamous marriage and no legitimate way to support themselves, were given a place in society.
It wasn't at all like today, in some of the modern sects, where young teens are pressured into marriage, and the wives live on welfare. In the early days, men with the means to support plural wives were often asked to marry some of the "excess" women who were immigrating into Utah from all over Europe. The percentage of men who actually entered into plural marriages was in the single digits.
But I wouldn't want to see it return. I wouldn't want my sons and daughters to have to deal with it.
Something a lot of men might want to keep in mind....
Oscar Wilde said something along these lines:
"Bigamy is when you have one wife to many, so arguably at times is monogamy."
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing a bit of your family history. I'm 1st generation LDS, no pioneer ancestors at all. To me, the polygamy stories just seem completely foreign--I was in the church nearly a year before I heard anything about polygamy.
It's always interesting to hear real stories about real people who engaged in plural marriage out of real necessity.
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