Columnists > Voices

Startling standards

Toleration is increasing for polygamy, decreasing for theology

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

No one tolerates everything. Some who tolerate the murder of unborn children abhor the killing of some animals. One man's Mede is another man's Persian.

The New York Times on Sept. 10 had a telling story from St. George, Utah, under the headline "In Polygamy Country, Old Divisions Are Fading." St. George was a center of polygamy as well as of opposition to it, but now "an intermingling of cultures has begun to bubble up here, opening hearts and minds in greater understanding."

One example: "Amber Clark, 28, . . . said she thought polygamists should be left alone, so long as no one was under age or coerced into marriage. 'I'm liberal in that respect,' Ms. Clark said. 'If it's legal in some states for people of the same sex to get married, why is it not legal to marry more than one wife?'"

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And why not? Two years ago I spoke with a Princeton political philosopher who supported same-sex marriage but opposed polygamy on grounds of decorum. I kidded him about his being a two-ist: If any combination of two is fine "as long as they love each other," why not be a three-ist or a ten-ist?

Well, pragmatic reasons to oppose polygamy do exist. Utah has numerous "lost boys" who have been thrown out of polygamous communities. About a half dozen have sued the Mormon denomination that broke away from the main Mormon body over polygamy: The plaintiffs allege that they were expelled so that older men wouldn't face competition in their drive to grab more wives.

A partial settlement of the suit earlier this year created a $250,000 fund that will help boys who leave the denomination to gain an education and have decent housing. But the real cost is far higher when selfish men take multiple wives: The civilizing force in the lives of many "naked nomads," to use George Gilder's term for rootless young men, disappears.

So how tolerant should we be? We talk about zero tolerance for drugs. We're moving toward tolerance of the sexual drug known as polygamy. Many cities have zero tolerance for smoking in public buildings. President Bush's faith-based initiative has led to more tolerance for religious viewpoints-or has it?

Curiously, one part of the federal government is showing zero tolerance for any religious books except those on a fed-created list. The Bureau of Prisons has purged from the shelves of prison chapel libraries all books, tapes, CDs and videos not on lists it commissioned of 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions from Christianity to Yoruba.

The rationale, as reported by The New York Times, is anti-terrorism: A 2004 Justice Department report expressed concern that prisons were recruiting grounds for Islamic militants. The Bureau of Prisons responded with a "Standardized Chapel Library Project" that would guard against publications that advocate violence. But instead of removing a few pieces of hatred and emphasizing that prison staffers must vet donated materials to make sure that they don't promote violence, officials destroyed whole libraries.

Among the thousands of books purged, according to a lawsuit brought by two inmates of the Federal Prison Camp in Otisville, N.Y., were Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life and a key Jewish work, the Mishneh Torah Systematic Code of Jewish Law by Maimonides. David Zwiebel of the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel notes that "three-quarters of the Jewish books were taken off the shelves. . . . Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?"

Both the Times and Michael Gerson in The Washington Post reported this nutty bureaucratic zealotry, and usually when those two publications speak others listen. But so far, the intolerance of the prison purgers seems to be exciting little reaction. The Omaha World-Herald, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Concord [New Hampshire] Monitor editorialized against it, but the major networks and many other publications have apparently been silent this time. Nor has the White House this time taken any faith-based initiative to restore broader reading rights.

That silence is not golden. We should be intolerant of Islamic extremism but also intolerant of those who would unnecessarily limit religious liberty. And we should be aware of where tolerance for redefinitions of marriage will lead.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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