The Spectator, a British weekly which claims uninterrupted publication since 1828, covers cultural and political topics with a moderately conservative bias. (It also cultivates excellent writing, sometimes spiced with the distinctive nastiness that is the product of higher education in Britain.) In its issue of August 8, 2015, The Speccie, as its fans call it, published a story by Owen Matthews, “Putin and the Polygamists”. The story deals with an episode in Chechnya, which was brutally reconquered by Russia from an Islamist insurgency. It is ruled by Ramzan Kadynov, a mini-dictator installed by Putin and closely allied with him; the province is described as “a self-ruling sharia state within Russia”. Thus polygamy is legal in Chechnya, illegal in the Russian Federation.
What happened recently in the Islamist enclave is that a middle-aged police chief forced a family to hand over their daughter Khedia to become his second wife. Kadyrov, who apparently practices what he preaches, has called polygamy “a part of traditional Muslim culture”; he hailed the rape of Khedia “a wedding of the millennium”. The state-controlled Russian media also celebrated the event. Putin’s domestic policy toward Chechnya has a parallel in his foreign policy: In a recent session of the UN Human Rights Council Russia and Muslim states introduced a resolution in favor of “traditional marriage” (which seems to mean marriage between heterosexuals—never mind how many—as against same-sex marriage). In reaction to American and European sanctions, Russia has on other occasions made nice to Muslim states. There is obviously some tension between these policies and the icon of Vladimir Putin as the champion of Orthodox tradition and Christian values in opposition to the decadent culture of Western democracies. At the end of his article Matthews asks whether political expendiency trumps all of Putin’s alleged beliefs and values. I assume that the question is asked rhetorically. (Perhaps Putin is not aware that there may be a possibility of justifying polygamy in terms of Orthodox tradition: Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who brought Orthodox Christianity to Russia, is reputed to have had a harem of hundreds of concubines, and was described in a twelfth-century chronicle as “insatiable in fornication”.)
As far as I know, the one earlier time that polygamy was given public attention in America was in the debate over statehood for Utah, which was granted by Congress in 1896. The problem then was, precisely, the Mormon peculiar institution of what they called “plural marriage”. This had been described as a divine commandment by Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith, and enthusiastically practiced by Brigham Young, who led the faithful on the famous trek to the New Zion out west. (It has been asserted, I think with some exaggeration, that all those claiming descent from Young could fit into the huge Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.)
Fortunately for Utah statehood, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has had since its early days a ruling body capable of receiving new divine revelations. Well in time before the Congressional vote on statehood such an amendment was received, rescinding the mandate of “plural marriage” in favor of the monogamy clearly endorsed (then) by the great majority of Americans. Since then the LDS Church has been in the forefront of opposition to same-sex marriage in defense of “traditional marriage” (as understood, say, by the Southern Baptist Convention—better not quibble about just whose “tradition” is meant).
Insofar as news about polygamy has bubbled up in the American media in recent years, it has typically been about some dissident Mormon group who, in defiance of the official LDS position, have been practicing the banned form of kinship in some remote area, and have gotten into trouble with state authorities (often over alleged mistreatment or neglect of children). Recently Mormonism has gained much more favorable public attention. Two very popular television series have shown Mormon polygamy (dissident, of course) in a favorable light: “Big Love”, first shown in 2006, about a caring husband of three wives; and “Sister Wives”, a 2010 documentary about one Kody Brown with four wives and seventeen children.
In 2011 a successful Broadway musical had mild fun in depicting Mormon missionaries sent to Africa (Salt Lake City also reacted mildly, and someone pointed out that a religion has really made it in America if Broadway or Hollywood can make fun of it in a friendly way). Of course the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012 also drew attention to his Mormon faith (none hostile, except for some by preachers in the fever-swamps of Protestant fundamentalism). Survey data up to and including the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage show beyond dispute how public opinion has changed on all aspects of homosexuality. It is an interesting question how much the media reflect this change and/or how much they have helped cause it. Probably it is a matter of mutual interaction. In any case, for some time now one television sitcom after another featured a sympathetic gay character, who gives wise romantic advice to the women who befriend him. (How much television do Supreme Court justices watch?!)
The “slippery slope” argument has long been made by American conservative opponents of same-sex marriage. Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2006 in The Washington Post: “If, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender imperative is nothing but prejudice, exclusive and arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choice, on what grounds do you insist upon the traditional, arbitrary and exclusionary number of two?” In other words, the “slope” is from polygamy to polyandry to what is now called “polyamory”—the mutual commitment to love one another by any number of consenting adults. (Perhaps then slipping further to polyspecies—“Jack and Jill and their puppy Pluto”) There now exists an association for the promotion of polyamory (its logo is the mathematical symbol of infinity superimposed upon a heart). Apparently Unitarians, ever in the forefront of progressive causes, have shown particular interest in this new sexual ideology, but the official Unitarian Universalist Church (its headquarters is on Beacon Hill in Boston) has stated its disapproval. However, polyamory is not limited to the metropolitan centers of sophistication: On August 15, 2015, a newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky, reported that a local married couple had declared (I’m not clear to whom) their intention to open up to a polyamory arrangement.
If monogamy is mandated by either God’s will or by natural law, polygamy and its alleged slippery consequences can be confidently rejected. If God’s will is deduced from the legal portions of the Hebrew Bible, there is the problem of all the rather troubling provisions there, leaving aside the fact that the Tenth Commandment considers a wife to be her husband’s property. If one turns to the New Testament, Jesus had little to say about marriage (other than that its provisions do not extend to the hereafter), while the Apostle Paul wrote that it’s better to be married than “to burn” (not much of an endorsement). The problem with natural law is that the enormous variety of kinship arrangements collected by anthropologists make it difficult to decide which one is somehow universally inscribed in human hearts. Turn to natural science: If one takes a look at the two genders’ genitalia, it seems rather clear that they fit quite neatly into each other. But if the so-called “selfish gene” is assumed to determine behavior, then it is unclear what it would demand after at least one ovum had been fertilized. Or could it be the polygamous maxim “the more, the better”? Or alternatively would we have the option of ignoring the shrieks of the “selfish gene”? Perhaps the basic problem in all of this is the phrase “traditional marriage”, whether bandied about by either its advocates or its critics. Yes, there is a “tradition”—that of the modern bourgeois marriage (one man, one woman, and their offspring residing in a household separate from the extended family): It is about as old as the steam engine. Perhaps it is best to ask what makes this “tradition” so unique—the particular linkage of a sexual act with the sequence of generations. Perhaps grandparents can supply relevant evidence: As they look at a newborn infant and look for physical resemblances to themselves!
In a society that is both pluralist and democratic different beliefs and values will have to co-exist. There will also be an overarching value system (Emile Durkheim’s “collective conscience”) to which at least the great majority of citizens will adhere and for which they will be ready to sacrifice (be it in treasure or in blood). It is probably helpful if this “conscience” is theologically neutral, but inevitably it will be explained differently by different faith communities. The first article of the German constitution, the Grundgesetz instituted in 1949 by the new Federal Republic: Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar/”The dignity of man is inviolate”. This sentence would not have been placed where it was if it were not for the monstrous violations of human dignity by the recent Nazi regime and, slightly less monstrously, committed even then by the Communists regimes in the Soviet empire. Christians could and did base their assent to the sentence on the belief of man as the image of God. But non-Christians, including those without religious faith, could assent on the basis of their perception of the human condition. Very often such a clear and compelling moral perception comes from confrontation with its opposite (as it did in Germany in 1949). Back to the “marriage wars” of our own time: Religious believers and non-religious humanists can agree in their moral revulsion against the regime of sexual slavery set up by ISIS; such revulsion can change the tone in which the debate over the nature of marriage is discussed—and suggest ways of understanding it with reference to the core value of human dignity,
What is avoided in such a discussion is demonization of all who disagree with one’s own views. If at all possible, democracy seeks reasonable compromises. I think that one can learn from the reaction of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after the British Parliament legalized same-sex marriage. Although he has been conducting a very respectful dialogue with Rome on various issues, he said that he would not follow the Roman example of fighting same-sex marriage without compromise. Rather, Parliament has acted, in accordance with a new consensus in the public. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and one should accept this fact. However, the Church of England continues to believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. If you want to be married in an Anglican service you better be such a couple. If not, there are plenty of other churches in the country where same-sex couples can be married. Beyond that, in fidelity to the basic right of religious freedom, there must be strong provisions defending Anglican clergy who refuse to conduct same-sex weddings and defending anyone’s right to disapprove of this practice. (I understand that there are such provisions.)
It seems that one can still have confidence in the old British tradition of practical compromise. And, I suppose, also in the related sense of humor. I recently saw a cartoon in another British publication (I forget which). It shows two middle-aged men sitting side by side, apparently distressed. A tearful little boy is addressing them. The caption reads: “Dads, I’m homophobic!”