In public policy debates, when opponents of homosexual marriage warn that one redefinition of marriage will lead to otherssuch as polygamythe advocates of same-sex marriage usually scoff. Marriage is about two people, they insistalbeit with much less explanation than we social conservatives offer for the claim that marriage is about one man and one woman.
Neither academia nor the media are so reticent to talk about polygamy, however. The latest example was a piece by Lisa Miller (Newsweeks Religion Editor) on the Washington Posts On Faith page on Saturday, October 6. (Note: this Lisa Miller is not to be confused with the Christian former lesbian of the same name, who has been in a long-running battle with her former partner to keep custody of her own child.)
The headline in the print edition was, In marriage, three or more is still a crowd, scholar says. The scholar in question is John Witte, Jr., a scholar of religion and law at Emory University in Atlanta. Witte is writing a lengthy history of polygamya practice which he opposes.
Headline notwithstanding, the piece is not mostly about Witte. The online version of the article bears a different headline: Polygamy may be hot, but in marriage threes still a crowd. Reading the piece, however, one gets the sense that Miller is far more enamored with how hot polygamy is than she is impressed with Wittes threes a crowd critique.
A little content analysis is in order. The article is eleven paragraphs long. Arguments often used in support of polygamy can be found in eight of the eleven paragraphs. Arguments against polygamy can be found in only one.
Miller not only cites the legalization of same-sex marriage as a precedent for legalizing polygamy, but she becomes downright redundant in doing so. The piece is filled with rhetorical questions, all of which conclude with some variant of, Why not polygamy?
If states are able to dismantle traditional or conventional views of marriage by allowing two men or two women to wed, . . .
If Americans increasingly value their rights to privacy and liberty above historical social norms, . . .
Quoting Witte: With so much marital pluralism and private ordering already available, …
Miller even sounds exasperated at one point:
But really. If the purpose of marriage is to preserve personal happiness, protect and raise children, and create social stability through shared property and mutual obligation, …
Witte summarizes the arguments some make for polygamy more bluntly:
[T]hose that oppose polygamy are just like the homophobes and the patriarchs.
Here is the lone paragraph in which Miller summarizes Wittes rebuttal of this argument:
Same-sex marriage does not open the door to polygamy because what matters in marriage is not who but how many. According to his research of civil law and religious tradition, the meaningful number is two. Polygamy creates competition and rivalries; it can foster insularity and religious zealotry; at its worst, it can subordinate women and children. Two has moral resonance, for it forces a couple to seriously consider their vows for better and worse; it shows children an example of mutual love and respect.
Note that even here, only a single sentence actually critiques polygamy: Polygamy creates competition and rivalries; it can foster insularity and religious zealotry; at its worst, it can subordinate women and children.
The rest of the paragraph makes the case that the political advocates of same-sex marriage makeSame-sex marriage does not open the door to polygamy, because the meaningful number is two.
I was ready to end this post by pointing out that the reason marriage has been a union of two people is not for such vague reasons as that two has moral resonance, that it forces a couple to seriously consider their vows, or that it shows children an example of mutual love and respect. I am sure that Kody Brown, the polygamous reality TV star from Sister Wives, or the other people … living nice, quiet lives with their multiple, simultaneous partners cited by Miller, would argue they are just as moral, serious, loving, and respectful as any monogamous couple.
No, the reason marriage has (usually) been a union of two is simpletwo is the exact number of people (and the number of sexes) required to make a baby. And it is only because marriage fosters responsible procreation that we treat it as a public institution at all. The central argument against polygamy is thus the same as the central argument against same-sex marriage.
However, as Paul Harvey would say, you need to know the rest of the story. I was going to direct this critique at both Miller and Witte, since Miller seems to present the entire paragraph quoted above as a summary of Wittes views. However, it is notat least, not an accurate one.
I discovered this almost by accident, when I clicked on the hotlink in the words, Two has moral resonance. This brought me to another piece that appeared on the Posts website just a few days earlier. Lo and behold, it was an extensive commentary, nearly a thousand words long, by Witte himselfunder the title, Why monogamy is natural.
Witte does not say that what matters in marriage is not who gets married. He does not speak of the need for couples to seriously consider their vows. He puts no emphasis on mutual love and respect. And he does not say that the meaningful number is two because [t]wo has moral resonance (whatever that means).
Here is what Witte actually says about the meaningful number of two:
[M]odern evolutionary scientists, from Claude Levi-Strauss to Bernard Chapais, have concluded the same [thing as Christians and post-Christian liberals]: that pair-bonding is part of the deep structure of human reproduction that humans have evolved as their best strategy for survival and success.
It is not about Lisa Millers vague, touchy-feely moral resonance. It is about the deep structure of human reproduction.
Witte goes on to say, Both traditional theorists and modern scientists point to four facts of human nature that commend monogamy. They are:
First, unlike most other animals, humans crave sex all the time . . .
Second, unlike most other animals, human babies are born weak, fragile, and utterly dependent for many years… .
Third, however, most fathers will bond and help with a child only if they are certain of their paternity… .
Fourth, unlike virtually all other animals, humans have the freedom and the capacity to engage in species-destructive behavior in pursuit of their own sexual gratification … yielding a perennial underclass of children with single parents who have rarely fared well in any culture.
What conclusion does Witte draw from these facts of human nature?
Given these four factors, nature has strongly inclined rational human persons to develop enduring and exclusive sexual relationships, called marriages, as the best form and forum of sexual bonding and reproductive success. Faithful and healthy monogamous marriages are designed to provide for the sexual needs and desires of a husband and wife. They ensure that both fathers and mothers are certain that a baby born to them is theirs. They ensure that husband and wife will together care for, nurture, and educate their children until they mature. And they deter both spouses from destructive sexual behavior outside the home.
Advocates of homosexual marriage reject any argument for a one-man-one-woman definition of marriage based on the belief that marriage is about procreation. After all, they reason, married couples are not required to procreate. No, they argueonly religion and bigotry toward homosexuals can explain opposition to same-sex marriage.
Wittes article neither endorses nor condemns, explicitly, the legalization of same-sex marriage. However, the public purposes he cites so eloquently for marriageincluding reproductive success, the importance of a husband and wife and fathers and mothers, and the certainty that a baby born to them is theirsall apply only to opposite-sex unions.
So, I will modify my critique of the Post for plugging polygamy, and offer qualified kudos to them for running Wittes thoughtful piece.
Shame on Lisa Miller, however, for distorting Wittes argument by omitting the heart of it.