My friend Dan Kimball recently asked a question on his blog that I thought was pretty interesting:
“If someone is voting for and believes in defining marriage beyond one man and one woman, then why wouldn’t they also believe in the allowance of polygamous marriages provided those wanting to get married also love each other and are committed to each other?”
First let me say that I think the world of Dan and consider him an extremely wise voice in the greater Christian community. I’ve had to chance to hang out with on a few occasions and I have a great respect for the man. Additionally, I don’t want to assume Dan’s position on SSM as it relates to Prop 8 or civil rights. I’m just addressing this question and not Dan’s overall position, whatever that may be…..and I’ll leave that up to him to communicate.
So with that said, and before I try to answer Dan’s questions, I want to point out that I think the question leaves some pretty big stones unturned. First, our society as a whole (Christians included) has already accepted that marriage today is not the same as marriage was when the bible was written. For example, we’ve already discarded polygamy as a valid form of marriage, which was not prohibited, across the board, for all members of the church in the NT. Another example would be that divorce has become commonplace and increasingly accepted, even within the Christian community. So if one is to say that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman, forever, they have come to that conclusion while relying largely on their own rationale derived from experience and cultural understanding, not from a strict adherence to what the scriptures say on these various matters. If this isn’t the case, then why aren’t proponents of this view doing all they can to legislate an end to the entire concept of divorce, along with banning same-sex marriage. If one shares the view of “one man, one woman” but doesn’t fight to eliminate any kind of marital practice that deviates from that formula, then “definitions” obviously don’t matter a whole lot…..at least when it comes to heterosexual, post-biblical marriage practices. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s as simple as gay sexual relations being perceived as inherently “naughtier” than heterosexuals who commits adultery by entering into multiple marriages (or the more snappier name, “polygamy in intervals”). If definitions were that important, that battle would have been fought a long time ago.
Another issue this question doesn’t consider is the way in which consensus forms our understandings of what constitutes valid marriage practices. Polygamy as an issue has been around a very long time. We’ve come to the place we are today because of a consensus that has been built over thousands of years. As the status of women in the world has risen, the practice of polygamy has plummeted. There has been a pretty overwhelming sense that polygamy is not a healthy marital practice and that consensus has maintained itself for hundreds of years, proving to be very sturdy. On the other hand, it seems that the consensus on same-sex marriage is in serious trouble, and I don’t think it’s shakiness is any kind of fluke. Even within the different generations of Christians today, we can find pretty significant differences on the various perspectives with the younger generations being more affirming than their elders.
So to answer Dan’s question, in my opinion, it’s very reasonable to deny the validity of polygamy while affirming the validity of SSM. Polygamy, as it stands in the mainstream culture of marriage, is already dead and buried and it’s not coming back. You can put together the most effective and convincing argument for polygamy and spend billions of dollars promoting your argument and it wouldn’t change a damn thing. It’s been rejected because whatever argument you come up with can’t breakthrough the negative, demeaning experiences of human beings that polygamy has left in its wake. On the other hand, SSM isn’t facing the same stiff opposition. Yeah, it confronts the dogma and certainty of many, but those certainties are sinking in the face of experience and empathy for our gay brothers and sisters who want to be accepted and have their relationships honored like everyone elses. The success of the opponents to SSM won’t hinge on whether they can convince you it’s inherently wrong. Their success will come from the ability to show that the overwhelming majority of experiences of those involved in or touched by SSM have proven to be hurtful and devaluing.
(Update: It seems that Dan’s post that I referenced has been taken down. Sorry for the dead link.)