If You’re for “Marriage Equality” or “Traditional Marriage,” Should You Support Polygamy?

Think again.
May 5 2014 10:45 AM

Kenya’s Polygamy Problem

51601429-steven-mckinley-from-manti-utah-shows-his-support-for
Protesters defending a U.S. polygamist in Provo, Utah, May 18, 2001.

Photo by George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

Americans are accustomed to a marriage debate between traditionalists and egalitarians. The traditionalists say marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The egalitarians say all marriages, gay or straight, should be treated the same. The egalitarians also ground their view in pluralism, arguing that the law should respect different ways of life.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In other parts of the world, however, these ideas aren’t always at odds. Traditionalism, equality, and pluralism sometimes converge. But they don’t converge in the way Americans might expect. What they converge on is polygamy.

Advertisement

That’s what is now happening in Kenya. Last week President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law the Marriage Act 2014, which legalizes simultaneous marriages. According to Kenya’s presidential news agency, the new law stipulates that "marriage is the voluntary union of a man and a woman whether in a monogamous or polygamous union.”

Traditionalists are delighted with the new law. As Agence France-Presse explains, “polygamy is common among traditional communities in Kenya, as well as in the country's Muslim community, which accounts for up to a fifth of the population.” In approving the legislation, lawmakers also quoted the Bible, citing King Solomon’s marriages.

Many egalitarians also favored the bill. "We are happy with the law because finally all marriages are being treated equally," the director of Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers told CNN. "All marriages will be issued with marriage certificates, including customary marriages. Before this, customary marriages were treated as inferior with no marriage certificates. This opened up suffering for the women because they could not legally prove they were married to a particular man. "

Other women objected, particularly because the law doesn’t require a man to notify his first wife when acquiring a second. Some Christian leaders also opposed the bill. But Christian lawmakers helped pass it, in part out of respect for pluralism. "Not all Kenyans are Christians," observed a Christian who represents a Muslim community. "If church leaders want to completely outlaw polygamy, they should propose a bill. [But] that's impossible under our constitution."

Each side in the U.S. marriage debate can claim that the Kenyan experience supports its views. American traditionalists have warned all along that gay marriage will lead to polygamy. Egalitarians can point out that Kenya’s embrace of polygamy actually coincides with a ruthless crackdown on homosexuality, underscoring the moral emptiness of appeals to tradition.

But the real message from Kenya is that all the principles we invoke—tradition, equality, pluralism—are more complicated than we imagine. They go well beyond our favorite contexts, leading to results we may find repellent. Faced with those consequences, we can choose to accept them—embracing polygamy, for example. Or we can rethink the limits of our ideological commitments.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
War Stories
Sept. 23 2014 4:04 PM The Right Target Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.