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

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
Quora
Oct. 1 2014 9:13 AM What Is It Like to Be an Egyptologist?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.