Nor are such practices necessarily fading away. This year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Marriage Act of 2104, which stated, “Marriage is the voluntary union of a man and a woman whether in a monogamous or polygamous union registered under the Act.” The legislature removed a clause from the bill which would have required that the first wife approve of any subsequent wives her husband took.
Although the debate in the United States is currently focused on whether the institution of marriage properly includes homosexual relationships, the practices of polygamy and child marriage in other parts of the world highlight that a society’s definition of marriage forms the foundation for its values. Societies that accept polygamy and child marriage dehumanize women and children. Societies with “flexible” definitions of marriage also have very malleable definitions of “right” and “wrong.” As Jillian Keenan argued last year in Slate, “The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less “correct” than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults.”
Some critics have scoffed at the notion that redefining marriage will lead to polygamy in the West, noting that places like Kenya still carry strong legal penalties for homosexuality. Since polygamy and child marriage are “traditional” in some parts of Africa, they feel they would be justifiable under the same reasoning that we “traditional marriage” advocates use to defend our cause. But the wonderful thing about denying moral relativism is that I don’t have to pretend that all traditions are equally valid. I can embrace the (largely Western) tradition of marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman, while rejecting the traditions of foot binding, female genital mutilation and polygamy.
The reason I have spent so much of my time and energy fighting for traditional marriage is that I know it to be the best possible way to arrange society. For five thousand years of human civilization, it did not provide the only model for family structure, but it consistently provided the best environment to raise children as well as the most just and humane arrangement for women, which brings out the best in men. That may sound to some like cultural imperialism, but I believe if more societies defined marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman, then men, women and children would all be better off.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.