Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Economics and Oikos: Christian Reflections on Polygamy

After reading Augustine’s ‘On the Good of Marriage’ and listening to Dr. Brent Waters wax eloquently on the essay, the question of polygamy in Christianity began to loom. Maybe the topic is currently captivating because of Mitt Romney’s run for President and the anachronistic Mormon polygamy that he engenders, maybe I am fascinated with polygamy because I can barely fathom what monogamy means in society where more than half the marriages end in divorce, maybe I am simply fascinated with it because of a banal and sophomoric interest in the possibility of two wives, and all that might entail… but I digress.

Of all the myriad reasons for interest the real reason is economic.

In Gary Becker’s Treatise on the Family he made an interesting observation about polygamy namely societies that condone polygamy help women and children.

Considering that married women want children (an assumption), women will need resources to support their children and herself. Monogamous societies restrict the supply of possible husbands. As any limited commodity marriageable (monetarily supportive) husbands will be scarce for some women (typically those who are least likely to have qualities to find a spouse). These women may then find themselves making a hard decision: marry the dud who proposed to them, or make it on there own.

If they marry the ‘dud’ they face the possibility of lack of resources to have children or even simply sustain the two-unit family. Further, if they have children they risk not being able to properly provide for them.

If the women choose to live a single life she may have to forgo motherhood in sake of livelihood. Or, as so many women do these days, they have children outside of marriage harrowingly raising the children on their own and on their own salary.

Polygyny – having more than one wife – allows women to have more selection in choosing a husband. Ostensibly this increase in choice will lead to husbands who are better able to support their wives and desired children.

If monogamy falls more in the realm of Christian convention than creed than can the practice of polygyny be acceptable in Christian communities? In most cases the answer will probably be a roaring, ‘No!’ I am sure Christian feminists and moral traditionalists could come up with numerous reasons for why it is a preposterous idea even while conceding that it may, at times, help support destitute women. In the United States the notion could never be entertained, besides nuanced theological, sociological or political arguments (the tax-code would probably have to be augmented, too) it just seems down right un-American. So, perhaps the lasting (yet, still distressed) institution of monogamous marriage is a symbolic vanguard to a culture that is beleaguered by quantitatively squared cost-benefit analyses that seem to forever champion pareto efficiency regardless of the moral costs.


Jimmy Cooper said...

My question is whether this option is still on the table for Christians after the incarnation of Jesus and the Biblical comparison between the monogamous love a husband and wife have for each other and its analogy with the love Christ has for His Church.

Anonymous said...

It may not be as far fetched as you might think. Recently a student at UNCC told Dr. Adams during a question and answer session that the government (State) should stay out of the institution of marriage and we know there is certainly a clamor in this country for the government to do just that. Dr. Adams responded that if the student got his wish then it would be OK for a 50-year-old man to marry a 5-year-old girl.
While the response short cuts around the missing ingredient which in this case is “consent” and it could be argued that a 5-year-old is incapable of “consent” the same can not be said for the polygamist.
States marriage “laws” have always been a “very tricky thing”. People cross state lines to get married all the time because of age, time constraints, paperwork, money and other reasons and always have. In addition they are subject to change depending on the whims and fancies of the politicians.
There are certainly no guarantees that the student in Charlotte won’t get his way as a state could abdicate it’s responsibility for the administration of marriage at any time. When and if this happens we can all go out and gather up a couple more wives, put them to work and cozy down in front of the big screen. (With current wife’s approval of course)

The Catholic Atheist said...


Interesting. What may be important here is to also grapple with the identity of the institution of marriage... is it constituted by the state or by the Church?

The Church can still witness the sacrament of marriage while it was not recognized by the state. Clandestine marriages, too, have been recognized by the Church in the past as well... these may be avenues into religiously sanctioning polygamy in countries were it is legally impermissible. (AND, of course I agree consent is a key factor in any marriage arangement).


It seems to me that this isn't really a problem.

First, Christ loves his Church, and though the Church is understood in the singular it is constituted by the many. If Paul used the words 'monogamous' please tell me, but I think he more simply said, husband and wife, which in that case wouldn't be a problem, why? Because love is not scarce. Christ loves his Church completely and consently no matter how many comprise the Church, and a man, obstensibly, could love his wives not matter how many because is not scarce... Now, if you argue this point, you know I am going to ask why it is different for you and Dr. Long to say that love is not scarce for parents, no matter how many children they have...

However, if Paul does say monogamous we still may have a problem, I concede.

Anonymous said...

The opposite is also true—that marriages can be recognized by the state and not by the church. I guess the short opinion is that those who wish to practice a polygamy marriage really don’t care what the church may or may not think about it. Therein lies my point. Hypothetically if many of these marriages were in fact legally performed without state interference the eventuality would be that these families would want approval of the church at some point in time. Much like the homosexual community of today, while seeking state approval they also want the approval of at least some church or churches at least to some extent. If we follow that model the church at some point must adopt and where in the antiquities will we find that justification?
By the way—your GGG Grandfather left Frederick County, Virginia to get married in Frederick County, Maryland because although he was 18, his bride was only 16 (and presumably pregnant). One family member insists she was actually 15. At any rate I don’t think they could have gotten married in any state today (I may be wrong about that) but it seems to me that over time the state laws have become more strict rather than more liberal (with admittedly a few exceptions).

Rachel=) said...

Polygamy was not a rare occurrence in the ancient world; in fact it was a common occurrence. The reason being that the ancient world was a very war-like place. Since men went off to war, many of them did not return. In a society where "might equals right" and all land and property rights would be secured by the "might" - which in the ancient world was men. Men therefore were the rulers of the house and such being true with a lack of men with a war-like situation, women and children needed protecting and taken care of including widows. Note: There were provisions in ancient laws for marrying widows whose husbands died in battle. At the time, it was simply numbers; either have a lot of homeless women or polygamy. Add to this, when in the ancient world, when you conquer an area, not only was money a tangible asset, but unfortunately so were women & children that could be slaves. Such being true, of course polygamy is a much more frequent occurrence than polyandry or even monogamy.

The Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes the uniqueness of the male-female individual bond (i.e., Adam-Eve, Abraham-Sarah, John-Mary, etc.). The restrictions on monogamy are relaxed due to circumstances. This is not just so a man can “bang a lot of women”, but simply exists because there are several people that needed taken care of; i.e., it’s not a strict issue. Note that through the prophet Nathan, God tells David that he would have given him as many women as he wanted if he would have simply followed God’s law; the issue is not one of pleasure, but simply one of taking care of each other. In a society where there are more men than women, of course polygamy would simply come about. An interesting question would be in a society where there are more women than men, would polyandry be considered acceptable? Nowhere that I personally know of does the Bible addresses this; hypothetically under the same reasoning it would be okay.

Perhaps we should also examine your economic theory on a worldwide perspective, after all, 60% of marriages worldwide are arranged which would Pareto efficiency can be achieved.

By prohibiting polygamy, which by limiting competition of men for women increases the sexual and marital opportunities of younger, less affluent men. In effect, the legal prohibition of polygamy a tax on wealth, for only wealthy men can afford multiple wives. This “tax” does not generate revenue directly, but by reducing the cost of a wife it transfers the wealth from the more affluent to the less affluent. Combining psyhosocial and economic thought, it could be argued that polygamy developed as a strategy for men to gain prestige and power by having many wives, while women could gain the protection of a wealthy man. After all, according to psychological thought, a woman will trade her looks & beauty for a man’s wealth & status and I can be argued that this would occur in either polygamous societies or societies which prohibit polygamy.

The Catholic Atheist said...


I agree that polygamy would 'on-its-face' lead to greater financial support for women. I wasn't disagreeing, I was just saying its a fat-chance that such economic arguments will change how the US understands marriage.

The Catholic Atheist said...


You made claims that must be addressed.

1) Christians may at times believe atheists cannot act morally or love, but this is not accepted teaching. In the Christian faith all are under the inscrutable guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the image of God we all are fashioned in is the hallmark evidence that we all indeed can love.

2) Christians, sadly too many to think, believe that God's sovereignty is 'hard' that there is inevitable luck to God's will that leave us only in a emotional hope, but physical coma. However, this too is not Christian orthodox teaching. Job, even while being persecuted wrestle with being a faithful man who obeyed the laws (which would have been the equivalent of being moral). The prophets were continually persecuted and ignored, but still called for social reform and individual repentance. A Benedictine dictum says, "Work as if everything depends on you, prayer as if everything depends on God." It is this between these two worlds, these two loves, which make for such extraordinary Christians throughout history. Of course some do not properly respond to the message and of course we are all limited creatures. However Christians do not divide their love between God and the world, but know the abundance of Love that does is not diminished by bifurcation, which allows Christians to strive for both to Love God with all their heart, mind and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. Another way to understand this is that Christianity believes we live both in time, but also (as you mentioned outside of it, as part of the eternal). It isn't that one should eschew the other, but to remain in the uncomfortable, but motivating tension that forces Christians to do the almost impossible, to love the other as they do themselves.

Well... so with all of this why do Christians get divorced? Simple, I think, Churches have been co-opted by secular mores. The Church has failed to ensure education (which you mentioned). Formation of Christians too often has been a process that last a few months, and is comprised of weekly meetings that last an hour or two. So too, premarital counseling is a formality rather than a formational experience... an educational experience.

So the answer to your question: education; Christian education and public education, but education nonetheless. This doesn't diminish the importance of the Church, but challenges the Church to take serious what it is called to do.

Michelle Schaeffer said...

"Polygyny – having more than one wife – allows women to have more selection in choosing a husband."

The one mistake you make is that in most (if not all) polygamous societies, the woman doesn't have the choice of who her husband is. It is normally forced upon her by family and finances. When voluntary transactions are no longer allowed, you reduce efficiency in the market.

Jason Gill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Gill said...

Dear Michelle,

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Yes, you are absolutely right. It does diminish the optimal efficiency of the arrangement, and I should have made the important caveat that while the supply of materially wealthy husbands increases under polygyny, it only means increased selection (usually) for the families of the bride) though, one can still presume that families are under great incentive to place their daughter into a marriage with a man who is financially secure).

Again, thanks for catching the oversight. I will change the post shortly.


fredric said...

Whoa! this is mind blogging. Your responses are all interesting. I still believe that Marriage is a sacrament instituted and bonded by God.
Reflexiones Cristianas