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Have A Poly, Jolly Christmas

A modern holiday etiquette question for Slate’s advice columnist:

Dear Prudence,

Our daughter “Amanda” lives in another state and has been married to “Jacob” for several years. Theirs is an open relationship, and I have always known that. My husband, however has kept his head in the sand regarding this. My daughter has a boyfriend, “Tom,” whom Jacob knows about and has a great friendship with. They are all planning to come to our home this Christmas, but my husband insists that Tom (who has visited us previously) is not welcome. Do I tell our daughter, son-in-law, and daughter’s boyfriend to make other holiday plans? My opinion is that they are all consenting adults, there are no children involved, and always behave appropriately in public.

—Stuck in the Middle With Him

Some American Idol graduate whose career is going nowhere needs to write a holiday anthem to encourage polyamorists who are sadly marginalized and excluded from family Christmases. Why not? Why draw the line here, hater?

UPDATE: Though it’s true that yesterday’s two-line Crystal Bowersox post drew three times the comments that my long, comparatively deep post about crime, punishment, murder, and God, I’m not actually click-trolling with this. If the Bowersox “holiday anthem” (her phrase) about coming out to one’s family by bringing one’s same-sex partner home to Christmas is something to be celebrated, what in principle would be wrong with a holiday anthem about coming out to one’s family as a polyamorist by bringing one’s poly partner(s) home to Christmas? Serious question.

UPDATE.2: Actually, these Christmas song questions highlight how confused and confusing our response to the radically changing American sexual and social scene often is. I think relatively few people are entirely consistent on the matter. Would I welcome my adult child’s same-sex partner to the Christmas table? I would, no matter what I thought about the moral status of their relationship. But I would not welcome my child’s polygamous partner(s) to the Christmas table, and would not even consider it.

Toleration is not endorsement, of course. Why is one tolerable to me, but the other not? I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer. I think they are equally sinful, from an Orthodox Christian point of view, and incapable of being squared with the will of God. Yet in the case of the gay family member, I honestly have no problem socializing in good faith, any more than I would have a problem socializing in good faith with straight family members who happened to be living without benefit of clergy with their partners. Why is this acceptable, but polygamy at the Christmas table is absolutely not?

Obviously because polygamy still has about it a strong taboo, one worth preserving. Homosexuality, for better or for worse, has lost that taboo for most people, including people like me, who hold to the standard Christian position on marriage and sexuality. It’s just not worth alienating the affection of my family over. As Sam M. always points out, this is why gay rights have won: when conservatives like me don’t think defending our principles is worth enforcing a taboo that would alienate the affection of those we love, the battle is over.

So why is the anti-polygamy taboo worth drawing a line against? Because, you might say, polygamy is socially destructive in ways that same-sex coupling is not. And I would pretty much agree with that. The thing that leaves me very uneasy is the language and logic used to justify the legitimacy of homosexuality and gay marriage — the language of liberty, liberation, and personal autonomy — leaves us in a weak position against which to resist polygamy. This is what social conservatives have long been saying in the SSM debate: if the moral legitimacy of sexual association and partnering depends only on mutual consent, and if all forms of love have equal moral status, then what is wrong with a polygamous arrangement, freely entered into? By what right does society deny polygamists recognition in law and custom, including a place at the Christmas table? To social conservatives, once the gay taboo has fallen because we have come to believe as a society that there is no intrinsic superiority in male-female marital couplings, the defense against polygamy relies on an arbitrary drawing of the line between dyads and everybody else.

The only people in this matter who are fully consistent are those who would accept everybody, and those who would refuse all but one-male-one-female pairings. My guess is that most of us are neither. This is messy.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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