12/20/2013 08:35 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Why I Think Arguing About Gay Marriage as a Slippery Slope to Polygamy Is a Bad Idea

I recently received a challenge of sorts on my Facebook wall from a longtime friend, who wanted me to talk about the “Sister Wives” court ruling in Utah, concerning polygamy.

Turns out, though, that the ruling is favorable less to the prospects of polygamy than to the right to privacy of what amounts to “religious cohabitation.”

Those who oppose same-gender marriage often put forward polygamy as a possible result should we begin down the slippery slope that leads away from “traditional marriage.” Since I have long been an advocate of same-gender marriage, I guess my friend believed that this Utah case about polygamy would reveal the lack of consistency in my argument, showing me to be another one of those crazy libertines whose morality is probably made up on the fly and is tied to nothing more substantial than personal preference.

I get people trying to catch me out on this kind of stuff all the time. So, in contravention of my long held practice of not arguing these kinds of things on social media, I broke down and responded … mostly about why I think this kind of argument isn’t usually very productive.

Here’s what I said:

I will make this one exception to my rule about not engaging in these kinds of Facebook discussions out of respect for our friendship, __________.

One reason I avoid them is because it has been my experience that people want less to discuss an issue with me than to try to goad me into some kind of argument. I will operate in this case on the supposition that your intentions are better than that.

Another reason I avoid this kind of discussion is because of the problem of incommensurability--that is, we start with assumptions that cannot be reconciled. You appear to operate out of the popular Enlightenment assumption that there is such a thing as an absolute truth that is accessible to human beings in some unmediated form, which exists prior to any philosophical or theological commitments--and which is somehow tied to “bedrock principle borne out through centuries of history and embraced by civilization for time immemorial.” (If I read you wrongly here, please correct me.)

I, on the other hand, don’t believe that there is any absolute truth to which human beings have unmediated access--and by unmediated, I mean that all the truths we claim are conditioned by language, culture, tradition, etc., and are therefore subject to human interpretation. (Notice, I didn’t necessarily commit myself to the position that there are no universal truths--only that, to the extent that there are, we are never going to agree on just what they are and on what implications they may have for us. So, as a practical matter, arguing about them quickly deteriorates into assertions of personal preference--though, of course, those engaged in such a discussion would be loathe to admit it. I don’t think that cuts us loose from all moorings, leaving us floating in a vast sea of relativism, but my explanation for that is an essay, not a Facebook post.)

Now, someone might object here by saying, “Yes, but the Bible, isn’t it absolute truth, binding on everyone?” I would respond to that by saying, first, the Bible never makes the claim of absolute truth for itself. Again, let me be careful: the Bible claims to contain the words of God, which--even were I to stipulate that they rise as close to the level of absolute truth as anything else--doesn’t relieve its interpreters of the responsibility of trying to make sense of them. Therefore, second, and needless to say, there is no uncontroversial interpretation of even the words of God--either through the prophets or the words of Jesus himself--let alone the rest of the Bible. As one rabbi said to me, “Y’all do things with our books that even we don’t do.”

My reference to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” not finding polygamy overly objectionable sounds like a flippant throw away line, meant to divert attention away from the fact that I didn’t set down a lengthier argument. However, that little line is my point in a nutshell. You claim a “bedrock principle” that persists from “time immemorial.” The problem with that statement, however, is that there exists a time we can remember when God was apparently much less concerned about polygamy than you appear to be--indicating that there is no enduring “bedrock principle” that withstands the test of time, as you claim. In point of fact, marriage--at least as traced back through the Abrahamic tradition--is a much more fluid set of arrangements than you seem to allow.

So, here’s another reason I generally steer clear of these kinds of encounters: though I tell you why I think easy references to marriage as some sort of historical institutional monolith don’t work, it will not sway you--since you operate from a set of foundational principles I don’t share. I don’t say that as slight, but merely as an observation of how this sort of thing works. You don’t find my arguments compelling, and I don’t find yours compelling because we start with different assumptions about how we arrive at truth. So after this exchange, we will both have spoken our minds at some length, and no one who happens upon this thread will be persuaded from the beliefs that that person brought to this conversation in the first place. (And by this time, I’ve publicly rehearsed my position on this topic enough that I’m not particularly enthusiastic about doing it again.)

The other reason I try not to get baited into having this discussion is because I think for those people who follow Jesus there are more important discussions to have. To rephrase a line from Tony Campolo, I think polygamy is an issue used by comparatively wealthy American Christians to distract themselves from the fact that they drive Mercedes Benzes--an issue about which the prophets and Jesus had a great deal to say. I’m not accusing you of this because, as you say, I don’t want to put myself in the position of “judging [your] motives.” However, it is my experience that slippery slope arguments about things like polygamy and incest and pederasty (aside from being offensive to people who love one another, but who happen to share the same gender) are sufficiently marginal arguments, the practical effect of which is to sidetrack us from issues of poverty and injustice with which we have some reasonable expectation of coming in contact and over which we actually have some agency.

So, I’m happy to talk about our kids, or how your practice is going, or how my goofy life is going--but I’ve discussed this one about as much as I’m going to discuss it.