Reconceiving of marriage in terms of “self-expression” has been a terrible, value-laden mistake, betraying the pretensions to liberal neutrality. Plural marriage is inferior for raising children and for maintaining marital harmony; but most of all, in today’s climate, it creates a culture dedicated to adult sexual self-expression rather than the good of children and deep love.
Public support for polygamy increases inexorably. According to Gallup, nearly a quarter of Americans now think it is morally acceptable when a married person has more than one spouse at the same time, up from 5 percent in 2006. These changes track others chipping away at public support for enduring, man–woman, procreative marriage. Moral approval of sex outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, same-sex sex, divorce, having children outside of marriage, and long-term unmarried cohabitation have risen sharply in recent years. One of the only dams that has not yet broken is the importance of fidelity, which nearly nine in ten respondents claim to support.
From one angle, it is surprising that public disapproval of polygamy has endured so long. Polygamy has a far deeper and better historical track record than same-sex marriage, and with good reason. Great polygamous civilizations have existed. Polygamous relations emphasize duties binding sex, procreation, marriage, and parenthood into an enduring relation. Biblical injunctions against sodomy and lesbianism abound; the New Testament has no explicit injunction against polygamy for laymen, and the Old Testament has more than a little legitimate polygamy. Polygamous marriages have their problems, to be sure, but they are secondary problems, in a way.
Same-sex marriage (SSM) is in every way more of an affront to civilization than polygamy. SSM reconceives the institution away from duties and children and toward adult self-expression. Most civilizations have, in one way or another, stigmatized and proscribed the same-sex sex at the heart of SSM; SSM blesses same-sex sex. Most civilizations point human sexuality toward enduring, procreative man–woman marriage; SSM requires alternatives to procreative sexuality like surrogacy, adoption, and turkey-basters. No wonder no civilization has ever adopted, much less celebrated, same-sex marriage before our global empire has.
Revolutionaries instead first sought public approval of SSM. This is revealing. Revolutionaries planted sex-centered, self-expressive, duty-free “pure relationships” (as British sociologist Anthony Giddens calls them) within our old marital arrangements and allowed that seed to grow. Transforming sex became the means of transforming the goals of marriage in law and opinion. By the time they got to polygamy, revolutionaries were actually advocating polyamory. (Polygamy is where a man or a woman has more than one spouse—the most common kind of polygamy is polygyny, where one man has several wives; polyamory is a group of people sexually involved, with or without marriage.)
The crucial shift from polygamy to polyamory reveals that what now matters is the love, not the form. The United States Supreme Court allowed laws against polygamy to stand in the late 1800s. Mormons claimed polygamy was an expression of their protected First Amendment freedom of religious practice. The Supreme Court upheld restrictions on polygamy because it was a patriarchal form of marriage that violated the principles of equality at the heart of republican citizenship. Condemning polygamy was part of defending monogamy.