Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Is Polygamy Wrong?

He calls it marriage, the state calls it illegal

Last week, a jury in Texas convicted Warren Jeffs of child sexual assault by having intercourse with a 15-year-old girl and aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old. This wasn't the first time Jeffs was involved in a sex crime. The Supreme Court overturned Jeffs' earlier conviction of accomplice to rape on a technicality.

It isn't merely that Jeffs had sexual relations with minors that grabbed the headlines but that the girls he abused were his wives. His church calls these unions "spiritual marriages." The state calls it polygamy and illegal.

Jeffs is the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which claims at least 10,000 members and believes that polygamy is the key to heaven.

Defending himself at trial, Jeffs claimed the religious right to marry as many wives as he wished. The state countered that he was on trial for sexually assaulting children and no religious claim can make that legal.
Jeffs joins seven other FLDS men who had been previously convicted of sexual assault and bigamy.

The court is right: there is no defense for sexual assault, whether it is with a spouse or stranger, someone of legal age or a minor. So the conviction is valid and there is no standing behind the defense of freedom of religion. Religious freedom only goes so far; it doesn't cover assault.

But what about polygamy, the aspect of the case that made it headline-worthy, which has been banned in the United States by a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1878? The FLDS is not alone in wanting to legalize polygamy here. The Libertarian Party wants to decriminalize it in the name of freedom.

It is difficult to think clearly about polygamy, as the ideal of monogamy in marriage is so deeply embedded in our culture. Most believe that passion should serve as the basis of marriage. But there is a different kind of love that holds a family together. This love is more like the love between parents and child in so far as it isn't dependent upon feelings as such. Rather it is love that is ever present, although its intensity may ebb and flow. It is not a feeling or mood as much as an attitude combined with actions that express concern and care. It is a love that doesn't question responsibilities and obligations.

The Western, modern world assumes that personal intimacy is a necessary condition for a good marriage. I learned differently in Kenya, in 1975, the second time I lived there. My friend Luke, who is about ten years younger than I am, invited Lyn and me to his house for afternoon tea. I had been to his house several times but Lyn hadn't. Luke wanted her to meet his wife. Four of us sat around a table chatting, while a woman replenished our tea boiled with milk and sugar. Lyn and I found the conversation spirited and good-natured.

As we walked home Lyn said that this was the first time she had seen much open display of warmth between a Kenyan couple. Our hosts so much enjoyed each other's company, unlike other marriages we had witnessed where roles were clearly delineated and spouses shared the work of families but not displayed fondness in front of others.

"Did you think that the woman sitting with us was his wife?"

"Wasn't she?"

"No, that was his sister. His wife was the woman serving snacks."

Over the next thirty years, Luke and Elizabeth's marriage changed, as the world changed around them. Today they enjoy each other's company and see each other as much as companions as partners in parenthood. But as the earlier stages of their marriage had shown, the need for closeness and familiarity is a human one, but it needn't be fulfilled in marriage.

For many of my Kenyan friends these needs were once met by brothers and sisters or with age-mates. Marriage was for rearing children, nothing more. In traditional settings, intimacy needs can easily be met outside of marriage. The extended family lives nearby. One measure of the moral nature of my friend's marriage would be the extent to which his wife was free to spend time with her friends and siblings, as was my friend.

The modern model of marriage isn't necessarily ethically superior to the traditional one. Polygamy was still fairly widespread when I lived in Kenya. I knew one man-the wealthiest person in the district-who had thirteen wives. I found nothing inherently wrong with such an arrangement. The problems were practical ones, not theoretical. The questions about polygamy were whether all the wives were treated fairly, whether each was treated with dignity and respect. I didn't know the family well enough to have answers, but the patriarchal nature of marriage in Kisii raised enough issues about the treatment of women in general that I had serious doubts about its moral foundation.

For whatever the cultural assumptions about marriage may be, a happy marriage rests upon each person being treated with dignity.

Lying, deception, promise breaking, physical and psychological abuse, cruelty, humiliating and demeaning treatment, and the use of psychological and physical power by one person over another are unethical. Happiness isn't achievable when people can't count on one another to keep their word or cower out of fear or feel diminished by the other. A happy marriage is one that is based on the opposite qualities of those listed, namely, one that possesses truthfulness, keeping one's word, kindness, and respect.

In the Reynolds decision, the Court said, "Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order."

Given what I know from experience, polygamy would not lead to the furtherance of social duties or contribute to good order. Let the laws against polygamy remain as they stand.

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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