June 18, 2008

Polygamy, the next frontier

As we all know, same-sex marriages commenced in California this week. I've been struggling to come up with a blog posting about the subject that isn't the length of a magazine article, because there are so many aspects that are worth talking about. My personal feeling is that this is just the beginning of a major shift, and that we will eventually see normative marriage redefined to include polygamy. I believe this to be true not only because in many cases there are issues of religious freedom involved, but because some of the same arguments that are used in favor of gay marriage can be used in favor of plural marriage--which, for what it's worth, has more historical precedent behind it than gay marriage does.

This morning, I was listening to the podcast of Bill Handel's KFI morning show from yesterday, and he got frustrated with someone who suggested that polygamy was next. Dismissing the notion as ridiculous, he said, "that's simply where we draw the line."

Sorry, Bill, but you're going to have to do better than that. For all of the recorded history of western civilization, the acceptable definition of marriage has been limited to one man and one woman. That's simply where we drew the line. Now, the line has shifted, and having shifted once, there is no reason why it cannot shift again.

In fact, it may be shifting already. Prosecutors in Utah and Arizona have, for the most part, stopped prosecuting polygamy cases except where issues of child abuse exist, a tacit recognition that polygamy (at least the religiously-based variety) cannot be stamped out by legal means. Public reaction in the wake of the 1953 Short Creek raid sent a clear message that there was no support for heavy-handed police action against polygamists, and permitted polygamy to flourish for decades in the area of Short Creek, which was renamed Colorado City. The aftermath of the raids on the FLDS compound in Texas seem to confirm this lack of public will to confront the issue; the children of sect members have been returned to their parents, and there are no polygamy prosecutions forthcoming. The church's spokesman has stated that they will discontinue the practice of underage marriage, which seems to have satisfied the authorities for now.

This, of course, stops well short of legalizing the practice of plural marriage, but it is unquestionably a step towards toleration. So when can we expect it to be taken to its logical conclusion?

That's easy. Homosexual marriage became thinkable to society at large when gays and lesbians began to be seen not as bizarre creatures of unnatural habits, but as normal people who loved each other and wanted the same benefits as other couples. When the face of polygamy ceases to be the strange women with unibrows and homemade prairie dresses who inhabit isolated compounds in remote areas, and begins to be jeans-wearing, Tahoe-driving soccer moms in extra-large houses in suburban Salt Lake City (and yes, they do exist), then legalized polygamy will surely not be far off.