Quodlibet: Of Gay and Plural Marriage

Does the irreversible trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage augur good tidings for proponents of polygamy, especially the reconstruction Mormons (Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints) and other groups who support the practice?

An article in the July 20 New York Times raises the question, and another by Joanna Brooks, who was raised a conservative Mormon, hints at how lively this discussion is going to be—or already is.

Or will the noise stop when the definition of marriage contained in the “Defense of Marriage Act,” which defines a legitimate marriage as a union of one man and one woman is repealed.

Until the twelfth century the Christian church was not very interested in marriage, and when it got interested in it it was mainly because there were financial implications for the Church.

Rome needed to ensure that estates and the financial holdings of lords and barons were legitimately passed on and that anything due to the church came to the church.  Some of these dues (called benefices) were paid to bishop-princes under the feudal regime, so it was to the Church’s advantage to have a trusted priest or bishop as the church’s official “witness” (the term still used in the Catholic protocol for matrimony) on the scene to seal the deal.

“Holy wedlock” was a church-approved contract; whatever else being a bastard meant, it meant primarily that the church did not recognize a boy as the rightful heir of his father’s property, money, or titles.

As for the common people, the Church took on marriage as a sacrament somewhat grudgingly after centuries of being happy to let the peasants do it the way they had done it for ages, on the ruins of the Roman empire: at home, in bed, with relatives drinking and cheering the couple on.

The glamification of marriage is a relatively modern affair.  Without the development of the “romantic theory” of matrimony, it’s hard to imagine anyone picketing for the right to take on the burden of a permanent opposite-sex relationship.

In Judaism and Christianity, and later in Islam, it had been primarily a contractual matter—easier to wriggle out of in Judaism and Islam than in Christianity because of some highly problematical words that were misappropriated to Jesus (Matt. 5:32 ; 19:9;  Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12) about divorce  in the Gospels.  Paul has no use for marriage, and the church fathers regarded it as a necessary evil for people who didn’t have the spiritual stamina for celibacy and virginity.  –If you were wondering about why the Catholic church has maintained its weird two-track system for ministers and ordinary folk, it goes back to the Church’s early contempt for the married state–a contempt that reaches exquisite spasms of intolerance in writers like Tertullian, the most hateful of all Christian writers, and  Augustine.

Wives should be veiled but not pregnant

True, marriage was popular among protestants from the 16th century onward, but it wasn’t a sacrament.  Luther defends it ( Estate of Marriage, 1522) as an “ordinance”—an arrangement—given by God for the production of families.  In fact, Luther’s famous treatise on the subject reminds the Church that for most of its history it regarded marriage as a second class ritual, useful for relieving aches, pains and passion and primarily good for populating the world with new Christians.  He also entertained three reasons for divorce: impotence, adultery, and refusal to fulfill conjugal duty.  In other words, whatever doesn’t lead “naturally” from sex to legitimate offspring.

Which brings me to the point.  A great deal of the same-sex marriage defense has been framed in romantic terms: Why should two people who love each other not be permitted the freedom to be together, sleep together, share lives and income and tragedies and life’s joys together?

The answer is (has to be in the modern, secular sense) No reason at all.  The state has no reason and probably no justification for impeding the pursuit of happiness. To arrive at this answer, however, the state is obliged to redefine marriage in strictly secular terms, and to reject most of the symbolism and above all the “properties” that have been part of the popular understanding of marriage, an understanding heavily tinctured by theological canons and legal thought.

What has been going on in the legislatures of New England, New York and elsewhere is as much a process of rethinking as insisting, but rethinking the definition in historical context needs to be done if we want to avoid the impression that being pro-same sex marriage is simply being iconoclastic towards the “institution” itself.  If something goes, does everything go?

The old, legalistic and Aristotelian thinking behind the “sacrament” of marriage dies hard.  So does its biblical sanction, or justification.   A lot of conservatives will point to the Adam and Eve story as  a tale of the first marriage.  That’s hogwash of course.  God does not marry them, he just “makes” them (in two very different tales) and they do the rest, according to command (Gen 1.28).

But “the rest” is probably what matters most in the biblical context: they have children, lots of children.  When God gets tired of their habits and floods the world, he starts out with a “good family”, Noah and company, whose proficiency at carpentry is only exceeded by a commitment to repopulating the devastated earth.

Noah’s Family: Time for multiplying

When the Hebrews first become aware of their minority status in a hostile environment, they looked to  a patriarch whose preoccupation is with having descendants—the story of Abraham and Sarah and Haggar and Sarah, again, is all about developing the critical mass of Hebrews needed to make God’s name strong among his enemies (Genesis 26.4ff). Increase is everything in threatened or endangered groups.  Ask any anthropologist.

The paradigms of reproductive success, however, are the kings: David with his wives and lovers, and Solomon with his international harem of 1000 women.  No self-respecting Jew aspired to such bounty, but (like Tevye) he could admire it.

Reverence for large families as a symbol of doing your duty for “the people of Israel” emerges as the primary justification for marriage.  It also explains why stories about barrenness and impotence feature so proiminently in Hebrew lore: what could be worse than a father who can’t do his bit for the tribe? What can be more humiliating (think Job) than losing your spawn?  What is more disgraceful than a barren woman, like (at least temporarily) Rebecca or Sarah? The fear of childlessness even sneaks into the New Testament in the pilfered story of Elizabeth (Luke 1.36), mother of John the Baptist.

It’s well known that religious minorities, especially tribal minorities, have always followed similar logic, though not always in clear cut ways.  If Jesus said anything about marriage it was probably forgotten in the eschatological fervor of the early community.  That’s why Paul make so little (or inconsistent) sense when he talks about it.

But by the time the second century rolls around, a man writing in Paul’s name, and against the “heresy” of radical anti-marriage sects like the gnostics and Marcionites, is teaching that”a woman is saved by childbearing” (1 Timothy 2.15). Marriage becomes important, in other words, because the church recognized that its future (almost tribally construed) depended on a stable supply of cradle Christians— something the more puritanitical and perfectionist bishops didn’t provide.  Interestingly, the non-celibate writer of 1 Timothy thinks bishops should be married–to one woman.

In every place where Christianity flourished centuries later, especially in colonial and missionary cultures, the ideal of a large family had everything to do with the “sanctity” of marriage: this was its primary definition. Love had nothing to do with it.

Which explains a great deal about Mormonism.  As an old “new religion,” Mormonism could draw on its own desert and exodus experiences: Ohio, Missouri, Illinois (where Joseph Smith was killed),  Utah.  The myth of a persecuted remnant drove them on; they created their own class of martyrs ( just like the ancient Hebrews and early Christians) and took care of keeping the numbers up through “plural marriages.”

Before it was finally repudiated in 1904, the practice was an “open secret” in the denomination. But there was nothing un-Biblical about it.  We have no idea whether all early Christians were monogamous and some reason to think some weren’t.  What we do know is that when monogamy has become a norm in religion—as in most parts of Islam–it is attached to financial rather than moral considerations.

What we also know is that from Genesis onward, and from the religious traditions that correspond with it, marriage is a fertility covenant. Adam does not love Eve, and we have no idea how Solomon felt about his 700 wives and 300 concubines—in fact, only one, Naamah the Ammonite is given a name. David gets Bathsheva pregnant after arranging her husband’s death, and receives as punishment not forty lashes but this: “Before your very eyes I the Lord will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight (2 Samuel 2.10ff.).


Personally, I think history tells us a lot about human nature but very little about how “institutions” and the definitions that describe them can be transformed.  I doubt there is any logical argument within the current thinking about same-sex marriage that entitles us to think that what’s good for gays is good for Mormons, or others who espouse plural marriage.

The rationale for plural marriage belongs to the sociology of the practice at a time when threatened minorities considered procreation a method of survival.  That rationale is no longer persuasive, no longer needed: religions that are losing members will end with a whimper and will almost certainly not be able to sustain themselves by reformulating their marriage codes.

Having said this, it is no accident that the religion that still extols marriage primarily as a fertility covenant (and has stressed this doctrine in its Gospel of Life theology) is also the one most viciously opposed to same-sex marriage.

The defense of gay marriage is something else: it reflects the development, over time, of love and emotional attachment as the primary criteria for the right [sic] of marriage and at least implicitly rules out fertility and procreation—the old biblical and ecclesiastic rationales—as defining properties or necessary ends.  That is where we are in history.

12 thoughts on “Quodlibet: Of Gay and Plural Marriage

  1. Veeery good post. Rights and rites… Today I think marriage is a ritual about declaration of love. Love between two human beings, and a ceremony which will entitle them to particular legal rights. And whatever Mark’s source (Mark probably being the source for Matthew and Luke) that ‘instruction’ has been inappropriately applied to modern contexts. A plausible reason for it being originally articulated in such a way, might be that it would ensure the protection of women and their children from being cast out with no means of financial support. Nothing endures but change – they all said it in different ways. Just as a woman and her children are protected by law in divorce now, marriage is no longer needed to increase the population. We have an overload crisis. Marriage is for love first. Between two people. How can you love more than one?

    Many wives today, is like open and honest adultery, at best, adultery without deceit and lies. Some people stay together because of ‘the children’. Some people shouldn’t have children, particularly right wing American politicians. Some people just shouldn’t get married. Some priests should get married. Gay couples, should be allowed to get married if they want to because marriage is about love between two human beings. We all need love for spiritual, physical and intellectual fulfillment and companionship. And fun and a future. Love makes people happy. Let gay couples be happy. Let those many wives find one love each… But don’t let that man in a white robe kiss any more babies please.

  2. Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. You can’t have one without the other, so let the gay and merry couple dance down the avenue and raise your glasses and drink to

      • The horse will be a mare or a gelded stallion. Stallions are frisky and temperamental and liable to bolt and upset the carriage. I was employed as a groom and rider on an Appaloosa horse stud a while ago now, in Takapau, near Onga Onga where my sister’s farm was before they moved up to Te Pohue, near Napier. I looked after Bold Warrior, formerly a champion steeplechaser. He was nearly 19 hands tall and I sometimes used a fence to mount him but he never bolted because he was so collosal and overweight I almost did the splits to sit astride him and he was an elderly gentlemen anyway at 17 years old. He’d had his day with mares, poor soul, and had never pulled a carriage. He was incredibly fine and handsome though and had a beautiful sweet and gentle nature.

  3. Funny thing about groups wanting to get back to the Old Testament standards of marriage. Have seen an example of a happy polygamous marriage in it?

    • Good point. The beginning of marriage is the beginning of jealousy, and polygamy doesn’t seem to have reduced the risks.

      • Mum said some people are born jealous and other people don’t have a jealous bone in them. I think she was right. She wasn’t generally wrong about anything that mattered.

  4. Marriage is only the beginning of jealousy if the marriage isn’t a consequence of a couple’s love for each other. Because love isn’t love without trust. But a marriage to a man with more than one wife can’t be a marriage of trust because it’s unbalanced and he can’t love all his wives simultaneously. Therefore it can’t be a marriage of love. I’ve witnessed many marriages without love. Often they end messily or happily in divorce. But I’ve also seen enough meaningful marriages, including in my own family, which are all about love and trust.

  5. Reblogged this on The New Oxonian and commented:

    I am almost alone (maybe Jeremy Irons is with me), but I am still not on board with gay marriage. This makes me a one eyed, probably dead pig. But please understand, I love an argument. Marriage has never been about love; and as divorce rates among gays show, it still isn’t.

  6. Pingback: ingenieurs marocains

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