The reason why I have been devoting as much time and energy to a discussion of multi-partnered relationships has been to publicly engage in the practice of saying 'no' to a group of people who are trying to set our agenda for us. The liberal tolerance of the many, combined with the fervent advocacy of a few, would result in the tail wagging the dog.
A friend comments " You are awfully brave to be banging your head against this particular brick wall, LT. And during your vacation, too!"
One, I am not on vacation, since I my arrangement is that I work in the summer.
Two, this is not a brick wall. I concede that I will probably not change the mind of one of the persons who have been advocating for polyamory. I would not expect that; after all, they have already been pushing for something that is not popular for a while. Why would my disapproval have any real effect on their thinking?
I am really trying to speak to, by presuming to speak for, the many UU's who are concerned that our religious movement will be led, almost against our will, into taking a position on a matter of public policy and social ministry that we don't agree with.
I think that the debate and discussion here has gone long enough to reveal what is at stake with the polyamorists and the reasoning at work.
On the side of the polyamorists, they argue that (1) they exist; (2) they enunciate a fully developed set of ethical principles that are attractive; (3) they suffer from some amount of social disapproval, even in our UU congregations; and (4) they think that UU's should be more welcoming to them.
They do not explicitly ask that UUs adopt a public position affirming their agreements as equivalent to marriages, but that is their what they believe. From here, it is hard to tell what is strategic caution on their part and what is truly the result of not having thought the matter to its logical conclusions.
But once our efforts to make our congregations welcoming to multiple partnered relationships leads us to say that those arrangements ought to be viewed as socially equivalent to 2 person marriages, all the rest of the journey to advocacy of their equal marriage rights is a matter of timing and circumstance. We will pass from the pastoral to territory of public ministry and social policy very quickly.
Whenever a group comes to us and seeks to engage our commitment to a particular position of public policy, we should have the integrity to insist that that request be made explicitly, and we should consider it explicitly. That the UUPA does not ask us to call for equal marriage rights for 3+ person weddings does not mean that we should not consider whether what they do ask to do will lead us to that place.
One of the ways that we have to learn how to say "No" is that we have to learn to be upfront and explicit about social policy implications of the steps that we are being asked to take, even if the issues are presented as pastoral. We have to guard that boundary ourselves, extending ourselves pastorally wherever people look to us in that role, but being clear about when it passes into another realm.
When people ask us to take a stand on social policy, the burden of proof is on them. They need to convince us that the social policy that they advocate is warranted (it addresses a real problem in the world), necessary (that the problem at hand cannot be solved by lesser or more desirable means) and responsible (the proposal does not run a significant risk of creating more problems). Most of us wish that the Congress held President Bush to these standards when he proposed to invade Iraq. (And no, I am not comparing polyamory to the invasion of Iraq!)
In this discussion, many comments accuse me of being unfair in insisting that advocates present arguments for polyamory that meet those criteria, AND demonstrate how that will work in the real world, as we know it. I am accused of holding them to a higher standard than I hold the present system. That''s the breaks, and not just because this is my blog, but because they are asking me (and us) to do something that breaks with a long-standing, and yet, beleaguered social and cultural tradition.
I have specifically rejected the arguments that proceed from a best-case-scenario. I insist that we consider the effects of the legalization of multipartnered marriages as it would actually exist in the broken world that we know. If we affirm the equivalence of 3+ person marriages, then, it follows that we will eventually be legalizing polygamy in all of its forms -- Neopagan Polyamory, Mormon and Muslim Polygamy, and all the newer forms of multipartnered relationships that include gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people.
One of the ways that you say 'No' is to retain the right to make your own judgments about the implications of a position that someone wants you to take. The advocates might want to limit the implications to only that which they approve, but we are responsible for the all of effects of our decisions. The advocates of Polyamory now say that they are quite distinct from the advocates of Open Marriage in the 70's. That is their right to maintain, but we have to retain the power to judge for ourselves what will happen if 3+ relationships are affirmed as equally valid in our congregations. Will that change lead to an environment where open marriage is then also affirmed and then swinging and then a sexualized environment? We have to decide whether we think that is possible or probable -- we are not obligated to let the advocates of polyamory decide that for us.
Finally, saying "no" also includes retaining the right to say "I don't know." One poster predicted a day will come 50 years from now when my concerns will be seen as a petty obstacle to the eventual emergence of a society in which many-partnered relationships are seen as normal. I suppose I will be an object of as much contempt as we have for politicians who denounced race-mixing and feared the mongrelization of the white race in the past. This is a hard thing to imagine about oneself. I am already carrying the burden of eating meat, which I am also told will be considered outrageous a hundred years from now. And I am a trying to be a Christian, too. Talk about quaint.
But as frightening as those possibilities are for my future reputation, I don't think that we know enough to say that multi-partnered relationships are the wave of the future. If they are, it does not depend on UUism affirming them, any more that the hundreds of thousands long-term gay partnerships did. I have been watching for signs that M-PR's are a growing trend that brings health and stability to families and communities -- that they are, indeed, the new thing that will arise to address the epidemic of broken marriages, fatherless children, abandoned single mothers, and sexual acting out that are the symptoms of the crisis of marriage in our culture. If they do appear to be that new thing, then I will change my mind. Those who know me personally know that I am willing to recognize when I am wrong. But I have not seen that yet.
And so I have to say "I don't know" and in the absence of knowing, I think that it is proper to say that we oppose giving up the struggle to challenge people to make commitments of love and fidelity to one person, and to face down the myriad temptations to betray those commitments, and to let deeper love flower in the space and time created by those commitments.
And finally learning how to say no means that you accept the inevitable result that some people will think that you are bigoted, prejudiced, ultra-conservative, the same as Pat Robertson, or James Dobson. They will make historical analogies in which you are compared to some really awful persons in history. This is hard to take, because the great sin in UU circles is to "be on the wrong side of history." But we always face that possibility. It would mean that one could see everything all at once to never make that error, and that is reserved to God. We can only use all of our faculties to do what we are given to see to do.