Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Random thoughts on polygamy...

I’ve been reading Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer’s fascinating study of Mormon history and present-day Mormon Fundamentalism. If you haven’t read it, you really should. Learning about the breakaway Latter Day Saint sects scattered throughout North America, many of which uphold polygamy as a divine imperative, has gotten me thinking about these sorts of multiple marriages. The mainline Mormon church abhors them, pretty much every other religious group in America abhors them, secular people abhor them: it’s pretty safe to say that polygamy won’t be making its way to a subdivision near you anytime soon.

But is it really that bad? In a country based upon religious freedom and tolerance, shouldn’t someone be able to marry as many people as they want to? An argument can be made on these grounds, of course, but this line of thought ignores the way polygamy is actually practiced in fringe religious societies. To be blunt about it, it is not a coming together of freely consenting adults. It is instead the domination and sexual control of women and young girls. As Krakauer’s book points out, many Mormon Fundamentalist girls are forced into marriage at ages as young as fourteen, often becoming the umpteenth bride of someone old enough to be their grandfather. A child cannot consent to such an arrangement. Neither can an adult, for that matter, if she has lived her entire life immersed in a theocratic society that has told her that sexual obedience is the path to heaven and resistance is a one-way ticket to hell. “Consent” as you and I understand it, doesn’t really exist for these women. For the most part, they aren’t at liberty to pick their husbands. Nor can they choose to end the marriage, seeing as their customs and their material condition usually conspire to keep them in their husbands' thrall.

However, is this sort of repression intrinsic to polygamy? I don’t think so. Theoretically, a man could take several wives (or, likewise, a woman could take several husbands) and everyone could be in it of their own free will and completely happy with their decision. Sure, this may not happen very often, but I wouldn’t have any problem with it if it did. But can we really separate the concept from the practice? And, if we did, would that end up having the unintended effect of sanctioning the oppressive sort of polygamous marriages? “Consent”, after all, is an easy word to write but a hard one to pin down. An adult Mormon Fundamentalist woman could argue that she consents to being in some theocrat’s harem, that it is our secular understanding of the world that she doesn’t consent to. Would we then say that true consent is only available to people who haven’t been brainwashed by some outre belief? Where do we draw the line between devotion and “brainwashing”? In a society that has enshrined freedom of religion, can we also enshrine a particular understanding of rational choice?

Understand: I am through-and-through secular humanist. I deplore any religion’s infringement on what I consider a person’s essential rights. One of those rights is the freedom to choose whatever spiritual beliefs one prefers. This becomes a kind of paradox when one freely chooses a worldview which limits their rights and, depressingly often, seeks to limit the rights of others. Balancing this sort of thing is the great challenge of liberal societies. How do we tolerate those who don’t tolerate us? Do we allow behaviors that disgust us so that we may support a supposedly greater liberty? Is the oppression that is willfully chosen the same as oppression that is imposed by fiat? Should a society allow the one while vehemently rejecting the other? By opposing both, does that society itself become oppressive?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of those questions. It’s interesting to ponder, though.