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Warren Jeffs, Tucker Carlson and Conservatives' Uses of Polygamy

September 5, 2006

With the arrest of fugitive polygamist Warren Jeffs, conservatives have once again returned to one of their favorite lines of attack against same-sex marriage rights. As Tucker Carlson put it during his September 1st MSNBC show, "I'm merely asking the obvious question, why not get rid of the discrimination against polygamists too?"
Call it the right's "Marriage Slippery Slope" argument. For proponents such as Carlson, Senator Rick Santorum ("man-on-dog"), Senator John Cornyn ("man on box turtle") and columnist Charles Krauthammer, gay marriage opens a logical Pandora's Box of unnatural marital arrangements involving incest, bestiality, multiple partners and virtually any other horror the conservative mind can conjure up.
As I wrote back in March following the debut of HBO's polygamy romp, "Big Love" (which was loosely based on Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), the culture warriors as usual have it completely wrong.
For example, in his March 17th column "Pandora and Polygamy," Krauthammer makes the predictably simplistic - and misguided - argument that recognition of marriage for gay couples inevitably entails state sanctioned polygamy.

It is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
This line of argument makes gay activists furious. I can understand why they do not want to be in the same room as polygamists. But I'm not the one who put them there. Their argument does.

No, it doesn't. Same-sex marriage advocates merely argue that the state should recognize the loving relationships that free, autonomous and equal individuals choose to enter into and maintain. And that's where the analogy of gay marriage to polygamy ends.
By definition, polygamy institutionalizes a state of inequality between the spouses engaged in it. Whether involving multiple wives or husbands, the practice enshrines marital disadvantage in family standing, in livelihood, and in, well, consortium. Since the end of the Civil War at least, the United States has not looked kindly on involuntary servitude and has forbid individuals to enter (even freely) contracts that will abridge their freedom and equality in the future. Men and women are not free to be unfree. As John Stuart Mill famously put it, "The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom."
In the United States, governments will similarly not condone contractual relationships that may stem from or result in coercion of one or more of the parties, or that may create health risks for the individuals or society at large. That's why the comical pronouncements regarding the slippery slope from same-sex marriage to polygamy, incest and bestiality by United States Senators including Rick Santorum ("man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be") and John Cornyn ("Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife") were so roundly - and rightly - maligned.
So the growing call for same-sex marriage rights will not, should not and logically does not lead to the legalization of polygamy in the United States. But that won't stop conservative culture crusaders from Warren Jeffs and the specter of legalized polygamy as a big stick in their war against gay Americans.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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