Polygamy: Forbidden Once Again—but for How Much Longer?

One-man-four-wives
Musa Mseleku

My friend and “Context” colleague Lorna Dueck recently set out an eloquent case against the legalization of polygamy in Canada on the grounds of religious freedom. Here’s why I fear that she and I won’t like what’s coming next.

First, and very briefly, religious freedom is increasingly imperilled in Canadian society today. To offer an opinion based on religious conviction contrary to the reigning orthodoxies on LGBTQ+ issues, to refer to the most obvious example, is to invite contempt, not tolerance, and very possibly to incur sanctions that will cost you your job, or worse.

There seems to be little appetite for defending the views of people with whom one strongly disagrees, whether or not based on religious difference. To suggest, then, that religious freedom will provide the grounds on which one could successfully defend something as grotesque as polygamy is, I’m afraid, to spit into the Zeitgeist.

Second, however, Lorna’s listing of the many reasons to hate and resist polygamy doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

Yes, she is certainly right that the way Messrs. Blackmore and Oler abused girls, abused boys, abused women, and abused their communities was awful and deserving of legal punishment. But they were, indeed, manifestly abusing people.

Thus the main point remains: What about consensual relations among adults? And not among weird little communities of fringe religious groups, but among mainstream members of the world’s second largest religion, Islam?

The Qur’an, after all, explicitly allows that a man may take up to four wives (surah 4:3). For observant Muslims, this allowance is not just “what their religion says,” as some of us might like to say about it, but the very speech of God. (“Qur’an” means “Recitation,” as in reciting God’s very words.)

As Islam grows not only around the world, but also here in Canada, on what grounds can we continue to insist that matrimonial law not change to “reasonably accommodate” their religious difference?

I talked about this question with Michael Enright on CBC’s “Sunday Edition” a decade ago. When Canadians were debating the legalization of same-sex marriage, I observed that if we decided to abandon our links to the Christian (and Jewish) restriction of marriage to one man and one woman as authorized in the Bible, we had no grounds left to restrict marriage to a pair. Why not a trio? Or quartet? Or more?

Michael initially pooh-poohed this response as fear-mongering, but (to his credit) he did listen, and came to modulate his own views enough to allow that there was something to this worry—apparently far off (and far out) as it seemed to be at the time.

Well, it’s neither far off nor far out now. Again, Lorna rightly shows how terribly abusive polygamy can be for women and children—and also for young men in the community. And the Bible, while it doesn’t explicitly condemn polygamy, both presents one-man-and-one-woman as the norm for marriage and not a single polygamous family that doesn’t suffer terrible dysfunction.

Yet we Canadians have left ourselves with no obvious grounds on which to forbid polygamy/polyandry/polyamory, have we?

And if we haven’t, then the next lawsuit, brought by a nice, respectable Muslim family of multiple wives (as depicted on a South African reality TV show), a nice, respectable Mormon family (as depicted on the HBO series “Big Love”), or even just by a nice, respectable trio of freethinking secularists (as was depicted more than a decade ago on the TV show “Boston Legal”), may well consign the anti-polygamy law to the dustbin.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).