Firebrand on Polygamy

Elise has posted her promised piece on polygamy, which is part of a series she has kindly named after me.  At least, I hope she is intending to be kind.

She ends this way:

"I do not object to gay marriage. However, I do not consider those who do object to it to be stupid, ignorant, bigoted, shortsighted, ridiculous, not worthy of response, or crazy. Instead I respect their position, acknowledge the validity of their concerns, and couch my position in terms of my own preferences and my opinion that legalizing gay marriage will not undermine the role marriage plays - or should play - in holding society together. This leaves me free to oppose legalizing polygamy when the time comes. I realize full well that when I do argue against legalizing polygamy, I will be denounced as stupid, ignorant, bigoted, shortsighted, ridiculous, not worthy of response, or crazy. I’ll have to put up with that but I don’t plan to give anyone grounds to also denounce me as inconsistent."

I guess it's good to avoid inconsistency, exceptis excipiendis.  I do not support "gay marriage," for reasons explored in great detail in the comments here, but which largely boil down to my sense that marriage is wrongly thought of as a contract, and rightly thought of as a kinship bond.  The idea that any two people should be free to marry is part and parcel of the idea that marriage is just a contract between two individuals, which exists for their pleasure and convenience and can be dissolved for the same reasons.  Only when we see marriage as the institution that it really is -- the formation of a kinship bond that unites bloodlines across generations -- can we correctly account for the duties arising from it that are owed to both previous and subsequent generations.  These begin with not divorcing, but certainly include structuring marriage so that it has at least the theoretical potential of producing a subsequent generation.

So, I have never been a supporter of this concept called "gay marriage."  However, one argument against it that I never found convincing was the slippery slope argument that gay marriage might lead to polygamy.

The problem wasn't that the argument might not be in some sense accurate, but that the argument was unprincipled.  By this I mean that it did not have a grounding principle for marriage that could explain what the institution was, or what it was for.  All it was doing was trying to use a less-popular change to undermine support for a more-popular change.

If marriage really is -- as Elise says -- just whatever we decide to call by that name, then there is no foundation for the institution at all.  If it is, as I say it is, a kinship bond that unites bloodlines across generations, then polygamy at least preserves the core of the institution in a way that "gay marriage" does not and cannot.  The slippery slope argument doesn't work, because "gay marriage" is already the bottom of the slope.

Which, I suppose, is reason for hope in a sense; once one has reached the bottom, at least things won't get worse.

I've been reading St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject, whose arguments are sometimes very good and sometimes quite dodgy; we'll take a look at his lengthy piece on the subject in a bit.  Let's talk about Elise's ideas first.


Eric said...

"a kinship bond that unites bloodlines across generations",

My widowed mother married my widower stepfather in her 50's. He was in his 60's.

There was no uniting of bloodlines across generations. And since his children were all grown, and my siblings mostly so, and no one lives near anyone, so no kinship bonding either.

Their marriage was for them, alone, from what I saw of it.

What this exactly means for your argument I'm not sure, other than that it seems that marriage may mean more than one thing.

OldSoldier54 said...

"The slippery slope argument doesn't work, because "gay marriage" is already the bottom of the slope. "

Alas, I cannot agree. The hour will arrive when the likes of NAMBLA clamor for "legitimacy," with the same arguments.

As a society, we've already demonstrated our moral decay by not crushing this gay marriage bologna.

This is a black and white issue. There is not a lot that God refers to as an abomination, but homosexuality is one of them. Polygamy is minor compared to that, whatever anyone says. As a society, we have effectively spit in His face.

He is very slow to anger and His longsuffering is legendary, offering many chances for repentance. But there IS an end to it and when that happens, He will act.

It will not be pleasant.

Grim said...


A case such as you describe is traditionally said to be a case in which 'one might hope for a miracle.' They might, of course, not have been hoping for one in earnest; but the form is maintained. (Nor is a miracle impossible; indeed, this is one of the canonical miracles, "and Sarah laughed.")

In other words, a marriage of that type is not a problem for the model. We can celebrate it, even if we accept that children are not a very great possibility (and indeed, at that stage of life, may not even be greatly desired).

douglas said...

Also to Eric, the individual situation that may or may not be able to yield fruit does not argue against the institution of marriage as a device to bond generations- and in fact, produce the next one. That in some cases it may not do so is non sequitur.

Grim, while I agree that much of the anti-gay marriage argument was anti-gay marriage, I think it's unfair to say there was no thoughtful argument in support of marriage that was against gay marriage on the basis it damaged the institution of marriage, rather than simply being against gay marriage.

I disagree with Elise about gay marriage, but she's spot on with regards to polygamy being next, and who knows who will want to be next in line. Eventually, people will wake up and realize they blew it and we'll pass a marriage amendment. I don't like the idea, but I think there will be little choice.

Grim said...

Old Soldier,

You're probably familiar with the argument I sometimes make about the Old Testament, for example the Book of Joshua. There we are told that God commanded the killing of women and children, and the extermination of whole peoples. "You shall not leave alive anything that breathes," is one command.

I have grave suspicion that the Jewish religious class in those days manipulated their position for their own benefit, and to curry favor with the kings by claiming the mantle of divine authority where it was not warranted. Indeed, we know from the Bible that this happened sometimes, because Jesus spends a lot of time chiding the Jewish religious classes for their self-interested manipulation of their position as God's spokesmen. This is the point of the thrashing of the moneychangers, for example.

Nor is this the only such example; the Book of Ezekiel is also devoted to God's vengeance on occasion when the priests and the people had gone badly astray. Even today, we frequently see a certain amount of perfidy flying under the flag of religious doctrines.

The question is whether the several prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are of that type, or if they are reliable. In general the rule I would use is to ask if there is some advantage to the priests to be had from the rule; if not, then it is more likely that they are faithfully conveying the tradition, and less likely that they are manipulating it.

As you know, the Leviticus and Deuteronomy periods came at a time when there was intense competition from a nearby religion. The 600+ laws that arise from that time -- including things like a prohibition against eating shellfish, which is another thing described as an abomination -- strike me as methods for the priests to control the people, more than things that God likely honestly passed to us. The intimate nature of the things controlled gave the religious authorities license to pry into the workings of every household on the most intimate terms.

In addition, I am suspicious of the rules from that period because the dietary rules seem to violate a more basic feature of creation:

"Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

The usual way of interpreting the distinction is that God said it; then He changed His mind; then He changed His mind again, with Christ's relief of the prohibitions from Leviticus, etc.

My mode of interpretation suggests that the Genesis quote -- because it offers no benefit to the ruling or religious class -- is more likely to be genuine than the Leviticus quote: and therefore God's mind 'did not change with the rising and setting of a few suns' (as Tolkien put it). The prohibition was always human, not divine, and Jesus' stripping it was thus not a change to God's law, but a restoration of the truth.

So the question would be: is there anything in the prohibition of homosexuality that would exist to benefit the priests and increase their power? Even if so, the law may be legitimate; but if so, we have reason to think carefully about whether it is really from God, or if it is instead from men pretending to speak with God's voice.

Grim said...


I meant to allow for that point in the original argument. When I wrote that "the problem wasn't that the argument might not be in some sense accurate," I meant to agree that it is accurate that we will go from the one thing to the other.

What I object to about the argument is that it follows the form: "If we allow murder, sooner or later people may sleep shamefully late in the mornings." It's not even a proper slippery slope argument, because with the first step you're already at the bottom of the slope. At that point, the ship has sailed on the whole sleeping-late thing.

Grim said...

All of which doesn't change the fact that Old Soldier may be right, and me wrong, about this being the bottom of the slope. If we get to the point that NAMBLA's claims are licensed, though, we will have left civilization behind; the law cannot license the slavery and sexual abuse of children. It will be our duty to pull down and destroy such a nation as we have then become, rather than to preserve it.

Dad29 said...

The idea that any two people should be free to marry is part and parcel of the idea that marriage is just a contract between two individuals, which exists for their pleasure and convenience and can be dissolved for the same reasons

That 'contract' theory was first espoused by Luther and is one of the evils of "positive law."

Dad29 said...

So the question would be: is there anything in the prohibition of homosexuality that would exist to benefit the priests and increase their power?

Maybe. But there is a difference between the dietary laws and the homosex prohibition. Dietary laws are 'process'. Homosex relations are of 'nature.'

Texan99 said...

I'm naturally drawn to the idea that marriage is best confined to situations that might theoretically produce children, but I always have to stop and consider the experience of my own clan.

My marriage is childless. My widowed father, with three children in the home, obtained a vasectomy before re-marrying in 1960. My grandfather and his sister were orphaned as young children and were adopted by friends of the family. I have been conditioned to see marriage as a means of establishing a safe home for a group of adults and/or minors who may or may not be joined by blood. The faithfulness of the bond is more important to me than the genetic ties.

I still suspect that Grim may be right in supposing that any attempt to treat these arrangements as anything but necessary but regrettable exceptions to the usual rule is a recipe for trouble.

Grim said...


But there is a difference between the dietary laws and the homosex prohibition. Dietary laws are 'process'. Homosex relations are of 'nature.'

Homosexuality also comes up again in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, where the apparent condemnation isn't of obvious benefit to the priesthood. I have heard it argued that Jesus' remarks on the subject suggest that the real failure of Sodom, from God's perspective, was the violation of hospitality; but I'm not sure I find that at all persuasive.

In any case, I only mean to suggest a mode of interpretation for the Old Testament, not to convey a truth. I'd be glad to hear what others think.

Elise said...

In order to leave marriage between homosexuals out of the kinship bond definition, don't we have to rule both adoption and surrogate parenthood out of our definition of kin? Homosexual couples adopt children; so do heterosexual couples. Homosexual couples can have a child that shares the DNA of at least one parent via surrogacy; so can homosexual couples. Heterosexual couples can have children and be widowed or divorced and form new families with their existing children; assuming bisexuality, so can homosexual couples.

Elise said...

I did intend to be kind in naming my series. And, given my dislike of polygamy, a little punny.

Grim said...


Yes, we do have to show that adoption is not the same as child-bearing. And indeed it is quite different, for a whole host of reasons: one of them being that adoption, etc., requires the intervention of a court to create what is a purely legal bond.

A child has a natural claim on his parents -- or, in America today, has a natural claim on his father, and his mother if and only if she chooses to accept it. The child has no such natural claim on people who are unrelated to it. It may sometimes take a court to enforce this claim, but it does not take a court to create it.

Adoption is certainly a social good, and I have no problem with the idea that we might need to do more than we have done to support it. However, two people adopting a child does not create a marriage between them; and an adopted son, though he has a family in the legal sense, is not actually kin to his adopted parents.

douglas said...

Ah, yes, re-reading it, I do see what you were getting at, Grim. The problem I think is that in your rigor to be logical, you miss the point of resorting to the slippery slope argument- it wasn't that those using it wanted to stop gay marriage only to avoid 'greater' degradations of marriage, but to illustrate to those who they understood would be against polygamy, even though they were not against gay marriage (because they had no grounding principle about marriage- they just liked gay people and not polygamists. I see the use of the argument in this case is to demonstrate to those supporting gay marriage the precise principle and logic you are using. Therefore, I see it's use as principled.

douglas said...

Elise and Grim, as to adoption, I think that kin may be a biological function in a strict sense, but it can also be a sociological function- and I would grant that an adoptive parent and child are kin functionally- emotionally, legally, practically speaking. I still wouldn't see it as a justification of gay marriage, even though some have/adopt children, as while it may be possible, it isn't the nature of or purpose of such a union to do so. They are also of such a small number, that I would caution against using the anecdotal case to support an argument.

Single people that adopt or use a surrogate to have a child can prove that- it's more of a satisfaction of a singular desire. The only union, even in the case of surrogate or adoptive children, that can produce a child is a male-female relationship.

I also think that some of the prohibitions against homosexuality are at least partly due to the fact that on a societal level, men with men creates a great deal more unrestrained male behavior, and women with women also creates certain kinds of unrestrained female behaviors (though they are less obvious in the context of our post-feminist society). The healthiest and most productive union comes from the balance achieved in the union of the two very different but equal parts of a male-female partnership, committed for life. Anything else is yielding to lesser parts of our natures.

OldSoldier54 said...

Hmmmmm. Problemas ... ok

Part 1:

I don't have a lot of time, but I do wish to address some issues you bring up. Before I begin though, let me preface them with a couple of points wrt how I see things. The human race is in a millenia long war with an enemy who never rests, can't be seen with physical eyes, and who loves to pull out of his frighteningly large bag of tricks anything and everything that will call into question the accuracy and/or truth of the Word of God. This being so because if the accuracy can be called into question, then the Authority inherent in that accuracy can be questioned. It literally is an all or none proposition. Otherwise, soon or late, war breaks out over who is right, about which parts.

With respect to the Levite corruption issue. This is why I am diametrically opposed to ANY form of Theocracy. Men are corruptible, even the very best of men. I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. I do not say that lightly, nor do I say that any man of integrity will absolutely fall if the Evil One is granted enough access time ( please see Job 1 and Luke 22:31 - the Lord's warning to Peter). Some buckle and recover like Simon Peter and some never buckle, like Job. But that they do buckle over generations has been conclusively demonstrated in all of human history - and it apparently matters not as to which version of godliness it is. All one needs to do is look at Iran and how many beautiful young women have been stoned to death for unchastity - after some Mullah's bully boy saw a pretty face and had his way with her. And Christ's church is not innocent, either. Anyway:

1. The accuracy of the Scriptures. I would suggest reading some books by a man named Josh McDowell. His most famous one I believe is The Evidence Demands a Verdict, of which I believe there is at least one sequel. He has a lot to say about the accuracy question. I recall my homey telling me about a computer analysis that was done on the entire Bible and all I can recall of the algorithm was about the weighting given to things like what was written, how it was written, word choice and internal consistency. It was amazing in that the result was that it was written by one author. This is anecdotal though because I can't remember who and where it was done.

2. I can't see any way that the priests would benefit from an edict such as the "Homosexuality is an Abomination" issue if one were disposed to wonder about that possibility. Difficult to say this far away in time.

OldSoldier54 said...


3.The "Oh, that's Old Testament" argument:

25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,
27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,
29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,
30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;
32 and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Rom 1:25-32 NASB

This is where a large portion of the population is, I fear.

Grim said...

Paul's comments are well known to me. The phrasing that interests me is this:

"For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions..."

There are several translations of this, but they all seem to point to the same thing. Homosexuality, here, is not a sin in the mind of St. Paul; it's a punishment.

That seems significant to me. "Vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord." What does that imply for us, where he has taken his vengeance? You mention Job; think of those who came to console Job. They rebuked him while he suffered, and God said they were wrong according to the book. Were they wrong simply because Job was really innocent, or were they wrong to refuse kindness and mercy to a suffering creature?

Texan99 said...

I have to say, though, that this doesn't seem anything like the experience of my several good friends, one a very long-term committed lesbian couple, and the other a very long-term committed gay male couple. They just act like regular couples who've made a home for each other. Nothing tortured about it. If they're being punished, they're getting off easier than a lot of heterosexual married couples of my acquaintance.

I continue to be a lot more concerned about divorce than about homosexuality.

Grim said...

I agree with you about divorce, T99. The contract theory is the source of the breakdown of the family; but divorce is by far its most damaging consequence. (To return to the earlier metaphor, gay marriage is at the bottom of the slope, but it isn't the steepest part of the slope.)

I think Paul may have viewed all forms of intense sexuality as a kind of torture or punishment. In this he was somewhat like W. H. Auden, who remarked that the decline of his sexuality with age was "like being allowed to get off a wild horse."

In any case, that leaves us with three options for interpretation:

1) Paul was right, and homosexuality is itself a terrible sin in the eyes of God. I think it's fair to admit that this is the most natural reading, since to avoid it one must also find a way to dismiss the remarks in Leviticus, and also accept the alternative interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. However, a consequence of this reading is that you have to accept 99 other "abominations" from that part of the Bible, some of which -- like the prohibitions on eating shellfish or snakes -- are out of order with other parts of the Bible, and for which there is no obvious logos accessible to our reason.

2) Paul was right, but a careful reading of the passage show that the sin he is talking about is idolatry according to the broad reading of putting things of this world before divine things (which isn't incompatible with your example). Homosexuality is just one kind of punishment that may be visited for this kind of idolatry; and since whatever sins they have committed are already being divinely punished, it's not our place to intervene to make it better or worse.

3) Paul was just wrong about this, which is acceptable because Paul was a human being writing from his own reason; even a very virtuous and good man will be wrong sometimes. This is a mode of interpretation my mother often uses with St. Paul.