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Big Love
The Next Civil Rights Frontier?

Now that same sex marriage is here to stay, a new front in the marriage wars seems ready to open. A George W. Bush-appointed judge in Utah has struck down important parts of the state’s anti-polygamy law, though for now at least it is still illegal to have more than one valid marriage license at the same time. The New York Times reports:

Judge Clark Waddoups of United States District Court in Utah ruled late Friday that part of the state’s law prohibiting “cohabitation” — the language used in the law to restrict polygamous relationships — violates the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion, as well as constitutional due process. He left standing the state’s ability to prohibit multiple marriages “in the literal sense” of having two or more valid marriage licenses. […]

“To state the obvious,” Judge Waddoups wrote, “the intervening years have witnessed a significant strengthening of numerous provisions of the Bill of Rights.” They include, he wrote, enhancements of the right to privacy and a shift in the Supreme Court’s posture “that is less inclined to allow majoritarian coercion of unpopular or disliked minority groups,” especially when “religious prejudice,” racism or “some other constitutionally suspect motivation can be discovered behind such legislation.”

During the controversy over gay marriage, activists pooh-poohed the idea that the same arguments that would allow gay marriage would open the door to other redefinitions of the institution. That position seems a little less tenable today. If the state doesn’t have the right to regulate the gender of the partners in a marital relationship, what gives it the right to regulate the number of freely consenting partners (or their genders) in such a relationship? And doesn’t limiting legal sanction to only one marriage discriminate against religions which regard plural marriage as a sacred bond?

We don’t know where this is going to come out, and it appears to us that American society is launching into unknown waters. Marriage is the foundation of any society; it will be interesting, and perhaps from time to time alarming, to see how America changes as we tinker with the basic framework of our social life.

Frankly, we’d feel much better about the whole thing if old fashioned marriage and the traditional family were in good shape. They are not, at least for increasing numbers of the people in the socio-economic zone where stable family life makes the biggest difference between poverty and insecurity on the one hand and a shot at a better life for mothers and their kids in particular on the other.

As a society we seem to suffer from what CS Lewis called the “horror and neglect of the obvious,” rushing around frantically to paint the trim on our ship while ignoring the tedious iceberg looming straight ahead.

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  • Anthony

    “…at least for increasing numbers of the people in the socio-economic zone where stable family life makes the biggest difference between poverty and insecurity….” Two observations: another Feed underscoring one of Francis Fukuyama’s assertions; secondly, causal chain of exogenous event (redefinition of marriage) not only references CS Lewis but also reveals a social consequence of fixating on what is present (expansion of marriage) at expense of ignoring what is absent (successful marriages).

  • free_agent

    You write, “We don’t know where this is going to come out, and it appears to us that American society is launching into unknown waters.”

    I have a quote from Kent Paul Dolan, “We must live with the fact, true throughout recorded history, that our artifacts are sometimes flawed and cause us to die in novel and unexpected ways, and we can only do our human best to minimize the problems.”

    This parallels VM’s observation “Technological change has never been moving faster or with greater force than it is today […] Yet somehow many of us believe that the western world is an end state”

    However, the same thing is true of our social systems as well. In the case of marriage, we’ve stopped marriage from being primarily a system for providing one’s parents with grandchildren and (for affluent people) accumulating a dynastic estate. So we’ve rearchitected it to the point that it would be unrecognizable to people from a few centuries ago: marriage for love, divorce on request, now same-sex marriage. Polygamy? Maybe that’s next…

    Amusingly, conservatives are generally more comfortable with unstable technology, while liberals are more comfortable with unstable social systems.

    (If you want to see what traditional marriage was like, read Bocaccio’s Decameron. I particularly remember one tale in which I had to read the first paragraph three times before I figured out that the reader would *automatically know* that the three lovely maidens’ lovers were not the same young men as their fiancees.)

    • mgoodfel

      Once you decide marriage is about love, not security for women and children, and not for economic reasons, then the rest follows. If marriage is for love, why shouldn’t gays get married? They are in love.

      And if the marriage is for love, why shouldn’t the marriage end when the romance is over? I’m not sure there’s much reason for an official marriage at all if it’s just about the relationship.

    • rheddles

      What makes you say conservatives are more comfortable (than liberals?) with unstable technology. What is unstable technology?

      • free_agent

        What I mean is that conservatives generally seem to be more comfortable with the sorts of economic change and concommittant social change that are caused by technological change.

  • TheCynical1

    The Old Testament patriarchs were fine with polygamy.

    • free_agent

      A fascinating historical study would be the outlawing of polygamy (strictly, polygyny). Go back a few thousand years, and it seems that polygyny was allowed everywhere. The Romans are the first big-name people to introduce monogyny that I know of. But over the intervening centuries, polygyny has been outlawed pretty much everywhere, and there isn’t much political pressure to allow it, excepting in the last decade or two. What is the underlying dynamic of that huge change in humanity’s most conservative institution?

  • rheddles

    This is easy to fix, but hard to implement.

    1. Eliminate no-fault divorce.
    2. Require all women to name the father on the birth certificate. Get blood samples from the mother and child for DNA confirmation. Make the father pay support. Let the IRS handle collections.
    3. Cut out programs to provide government assistance to unwed mothers.

  • Jim__L

    If it were possible to make money off of “Haec locutus sum vobis” briefs to various courts, Justice Scalia would be a very, very rich man.

    This could go one of two ways…

    Either, biological reality combines with traditional mores (and perhaps even self-inflicted Western demographic irrelevance), and the pendulum swings back away from this steep and slippery slope of redefined “marriage”.

    Or, we could see a not-too-distant future where someone seriously (successfully!) argues in an American court that if a dog humps your leg that qualifies as consent.

    • lhfry

      The move to separate sex from procreation (artificial contraception, abortion, artificial reproductive technology) and the attacks on marriage and the kinship structure it creates (no fault divorce, elimination of
      gender, number, consanguinity, and age requirements for marriage) must be placed in what I believe to be their proper context: the decades long campaign by the left to establish powerful central states and against which intact families generally related by blood are the best defense.

      Abolishing the family comes directly from Marx, Engels, and their 19th century associates. No one would deny that their goals included
      establishing a powerful welfare state that would plan and supervise economic activity, provide various benefits to individuals (not families) such as housing, health care, education, etc. They described marriage in their writings much the way the articles that today advocate “open marriage.” They describe it as exploitive patriarchy, sexually boring over the long haul, and an impediment to the establishment of a communist
      state. Marriage, if it existed in the new communist utopia, would be a private affair (let’s get the state out of the marriage business), divorce would be easy, and sexual freedom would be facilitated by the communal raising of children.

      If anyone has any doubt where this is going, one has only to look at This group of academics, social activists, and celebrities advocates legal recognition of almost any relationship among any number of people, for the purpose of obtaining economic benefits. When everything is a marriage, nothing is a marriage, and the institution will disappear. Mission accomplished.

      • TheCynical1

        Ironically, some have suggested that monogamous heterosexual marriage itself — enforced by state coercion — is truly a “socialist” institution, insofar as it more equitably “redistributes” (through 1:1 pairings) a “scarce resource” (attractive females), from the “haves” (privileged alpha males who could maintain harems), to the “have-nots” (males who are less competitive in the sexual marketplace).

        Before I’m attacked, let me say that personally, I’m undecided about this provocative notion. I mention this merely to suggest that traditional marriage could be characterized as either “left” or “right,” even though we all reflexively associate it more closely with the right than the left. What should really matter is the underlying reality and merits, more than the labels.

        • Jim__L

          I’m more inclined to use the word “egalitarian” than “socialist”.

          The clincher for me is again biological reality — physical jealousy is real, it is unavoidable, discounting it can be deadly, and lifelong monogamous relationships are the best way to avoid the problems it causes. Moreover, It has been stable, productive, and helpful for centuries, going on millennia.

          The fact that we’re experimenting with alternatives to a cultural asset of incomparable value like that is decadence, pure and simple — the belief that we’re so rich we can afford any number of utterly stupid decisions.

          That’s just not so.

          • lhfry

            The New York Times is hosting a discussion about “marriage

            Those who have supported SSM have denigrated the slippery slope argument, but now those same people are making it, so if indeed a permanent, exclusive, and monogamous legal arrangement for homosexual couples
            was not the goal of SSM, and the arguments used to justify it are now being used to justify legalizing virtually any relationship, then the original justifications seem suspect to me. Were these lies to hoodwink the public like “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” because if the public knew the truth, they would not have bought the sentimental argument?
            There may be a few homosexuals who do desire a permanent relationship, but should these people exist then they too will be harmed by the disappearance of marriage. Yet I see few homosexuals or other advocates of “social change” standing up and arguing for, say, limiting legal relationships to two unrelated people over the age of consent.

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