Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Is it time to reconsider polygamy?

PolygamyA federal judge in Utah ruled last week that a part (but not all) of the state’s anti-polygamy law is unconstitutional. As Joe Carter of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission writes:

“The ruling appears to say that a person who is legally married to one spouse cannot legally marry a second spouse (or third, or fourth, etc.). However, they are allowed to cohabitate with and claim to be married to additional people as long as they don’t attempt to obtain a state-issued marriage license.”

In other words, a man can, in real-life practice, have a multiple number of wives, but he just can’t “make it legal.”

Since the Utah ruling, some voices have argued that “It’s time to reconsider polygamy” on purely pragmatic lines. Mark Goldfeder writes:

“What competing narratives about polygamy in American reveal is that whether or not a white-washed, clean-cut version of plural marriage could in theory legally exist, in practice it does not, and what states like Utah, Arizona and Texas actually have is an unregulated, dangerous and harmful situation, where the strong prey upon the weak and helpless.”

Goldfeder argues that “polygamy might not be inherently evil,” although there are some dangers inherent and abuses can occur. His solution is to decriminalize polygamy in order to push the abusive forms out into the light where they can be marginalized.

This is not just a legal chess game. Nor should polygamy be a carnival freak show, such as it must seem to viewers of the TLC reality TV show “Sister Wives.” Let’s not forget that, legal technicalities and morbid curiosity aside, these are real people involved in the families created here.

But that’s just the thing. No “family” has been created where polygamy exists. Sure, there are meals around a tables, stories before bedtime, and trips to the mall to get new shoes. Sociologists, psychologists, and even economists may speak a word in defense of polygamy as being acceptable from one utilitarian viewpoint or the other.

But speaking as Christians, we cannot lose focus that there is a created design and the created order for the family. How did God intend the family to be structured and organized? Not polygamy. Not homosexual union. Not serial monogamy. Not “no-fault” divorce. Not cohabitation, with children. Genesis 1 and 2 establishes the divinely created design: one man and one woman, for life.

God’s vision gets distorted in the reality of the post-Genesis 3 fallen world we live in, but we must not celebrate brokenness. The reality of God’s grace to forgive past mistakes is no license for redefining something as basic as “family.”

We should not continue to recalibrate our collective moral gauge to the depravity de jour. Our compass of right and wrong must not simply point in the direction of what happens to be the most recent and trending popular.


About the author: Carmen Fowler LaBerge

Carmen Fowler LaBerge heads the ministry of the Presbyterian Lay Committee as its President and Executive Editor of its publications, including The Layman.

1 comment

  1. Peggy M. says:

    Polygamy as experienced in the Bible was a disaster. Remember Abraham with Hagar and the resulting Ishmaelites? Jacob and the dysfunction with Leah, Rachel, and the 12 sons? David and his nine wives with the rape of Tamar, Absalom’s murder of his brother and rebellion against his father? Solomon and the trouble he was led into by his 300 wives?
    I have talked with two people who have grown up in families with polygamy. One was a Hong Kong woman whose grandfather had several wives; she said visits to that family were always unhappy with lots of fighting. (Remember the dysfunction of the family in Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth?” Polygamy was outlawed in Hong Kong only in the 1970′s.) The other woman was a Muslim whose husband’s father had two wives–she just shook her head and said “very bad.”
    In the Old Testament, many Jews practiced polygamy, and a major manifestation of the Jews’ sin then was adding other gods to their worship of the LORD, which God several times graphically likens to adultery. By the time of Jesus, it seems that the Jews worshiped only God and practiced monogamy (although with easy divorce that Jesus condemned. Is there a connection?
    Polygamy results in horrible distortions of marital and family life–for the men, the wives, and the children. That is why it was never part of God’s plan.

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