It didn’t take long.
Four days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal 5-4 decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide, a Montana threesome applied for a polygamous marriage license. If denied, the trio intends to file suit to topple the law against bigamy. Husband Nathan Collier was featured on “Sister Wives,” so “reality TV” now meets legal and political reality.
More significant was a July 21 op-ed piece in The New York Times, that influential arbiter of acceptable discourse and the future agenda for America's cultural left. University of Chicago law professor William Baude, a “contributing opinion writer” for the paper, wrote, “If there is no magic power in opposite sexes when it comes to marriage, is there any magic power in the number two?” To him, “there is a very good argument” that “polyamorous relationships should be next.”
Baude was a former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, who warned against precisely that possibility in his opinion for the court’s four dissenters. Baude observes that tacticians needed to downplay the polygamy aspect that could have harmed the same-sex marriage cause, but with the Supreme Court victory this next step can be proposed candidly.
The savvy Washington Post had a solid polygamy analysis soon after the Court’s ruling. As Godbeat veterans are well aware, polygamy was practiced in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). So it's now time to ask Jewish and Christian thinkers why it became so abhorrent and whether and why it should remain so as the post-biblical West sets out to redefine marriage.
Opponents fear powerful and wealthy male polygamists might scoop up too many marriageable women, Baude says, but in these unbuttoned times a woman may also take several husbands. Also, “plural relationships could well be (and in some circles today are) between multiple people of both sexes, not all of whom are strictly heterosexual.”
Last year the Unitarian Universalist Association rewrote its non-discrimination policy to add tolerance toward varied “family and relationship structures.” The denominational directory includes a 15-year-old “polyamory awareness” caucus, which says the liberal faith has thereby recognized “polyamorous families and relationships” as well as “a variety of family and relationship structures different from polyamory.”
Montana’s Collier is a dropout from so-called “Mormon fundamentalism” who has no current religious affiliation. Today the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “Mormon” church vigorously oppose polygamy. But in the 19th Century the faith suffered severe persecution for enshrining that practice as taught by its much-married founder Joseph Smith Jr. The first platform of the newborn Republican Party (1856) famously denounced “those twin relics of barbarism -- Polygamy and Slavery.” Later anti-polygamy rulings were the Supreme Court’s first major restrictions on the Constitution’s religious freedom guarantee, and led the LDS church to officially halt polygamy in 1890.
The Religion Guy addressed some biblical aspects in a “Religion Q & A” blog post of November 17, 2014. As with other issues, a pivotal aspect of interpretation is whether the Scriptures endorsed this practice, merely reported its existence among ruling classes, or implicitly criticized it. Regarding the latter, passages often linked multi marriages with evil, envy, family strife, moral decline, and spiritual apostasy.
Later biblical prophets hailed monogamy to symbolize union with God, and eventually Judaism eliminated polygamy altogether. Christianity upheld monogamy in line with Jesus’ teaching on God’s original design of marriage found in Genesis 2:24 (see Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7-8). In Islam, the holy Quran (4:3) allows men to wed up to four wives if they can be treated justly, and Muslims see this as a religious right and identity marker. (The Prophet Muhammad himself had 10 or 11 wives simultaneously, some of them taken for political or charitable reasons.)