What does polyamory have to do with gay marriage? On the surface, not much: polyamory, by definition, is about love, not marriage, and in researching her article on faith and polyamory, ReligionWriter didn’t encounter a single polyamorist either in person or online who advocated changing the laws of their state to allow more than two adults to enter into a marriage or civil union. (In Holland in 2005, however, three polyamorists legally registered a civil union — a step that, ReligionWriter supposes, makes them polygamists rather than polyamorists.)

As Robyn Trask, editor-in-chief of the polyamorist magazine Loving More, put it to ReligionWriter, long-term polyamorist relationships do exist, but many polyamorists see nothing wrong with short-term ones either:

I know people who have been together 30 years, like one woman in [a city in the InterMountain West] who is high up in the educational community, and she’s been in a 28-year triad. Like any other relationship, polyamory is about commitment. But is it harder to make it last? Yes, it can be. If you look at monogamy, how hard it is for two people to stay together, and then you add another person — all three people have to grow together. But longevity is not necessarily a good measure of quality.

[If you don’t know what a polyamorist “triad” is — a relationship involving three adults — then you probably don’t know what a polyamorist “quad” is, and, like ReligionWriter, you’ll probably need to consult some definitions.]

So polyamory is not necessarily about lifetime commitment and “marriage rights” doesn’t seem to be on the agenda of the polyamorous community. Is polyamory then relevant to the gay marriage debate? ReligionWriter believes the answer is yes.

What Unitarian Universalists Have To Do With It

Just as there are a disproportionate number of Pagan polyamorists, so Unitarian Universalists are over-represented in the polyamorous ranks. According to Harlan White, a medical professional in a Western city, a number of people belonging to an email list-serv called “Poly Active” in the late 1990s began to talk about organizing to “foster the civil rights of poly people.” [Note: Polyamorists sometimes refer to themselves as “poly people” or, more commonly, “poly folk.”]

The group discovered that “a fair number” of them identified as Unitarian Universalist (UU), and in 2001, polyamorists UUs held an event at the UU general convention; over the next year, White and others founded the group Unitarian Univeralists for Polyamorous Awareness.

Before the reader grows weary of denominational organizing, let ReligionWriter say: It is the UUPA where, thus far, the issues of polyamory and gay marriage have most overlapped, in large part because the UU church itself has been outspoken in favor of gay marriage. As ReligionWriter described it in her article for the Religion News Service:

For polyamorists in the liberal Unitarian Universalist church, the reception has been mixed, according to Kathleen Reedy (photo left), a cold-weather physiologist who heads the Washington D.C.-area chapter of Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA).

While most leaders at Reedy’s congregation have been respectfully curious about the group, which is not formally affiliated with the national church body, other D.C.-area church leaders have refused to advertise the group’s meetings in their bulletins.


“Ironically, some resistance has come from members of the gay and lesbian community, who have said we are ‘muddying the waters’ and diverting people from the goal of legalizing same-sex marriage,” said Reedy, 71, a divorcée who now has a “primary” male partner in addition to several “secondary” relationships.

The church’s national body, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has no official position on polyamory, according to spokeswoman Janet Hayes. Hayes noted in an emailed statement, however, that the church “support[s] responsible adult relationships based on mutual love and respect.”

Now, the first thing UUPA leaders will tell you is that they are not asking for polyamory marriage rights. Said Valerie White, a UUPA founder (and sister of Harlan White:)

The UUPA is very supportive of marriage equality [for same-sex couples.] We didn’t want to do or say anything that would impeded denominations in pursuing that goal. There may be UU poly[amorist]s who would like to see the legalization of multi-partner marriages, but this is not, I repeat not, a platform plank of UUPA. Our organization is a ministry for [polyamorist] UUs [who need support.] We are principled, ethical, thoughtful intentional people, who practice relationships with scrupulous care and compassion. We are not in the campaigning business.

White’s strong words were in part a reaction to Stanley Kurtz’s 2005 article in the conservative Weekly Standard, where he concluded that the Unitarian church is

holding the polyamorists at arm’s length only until gay marriage has been safely legalized across the nation. At that point, the Unitarian campaign for state-recognized polyamorous marriage will almost certainly begin.

Kurtz and others have argued that opening the legal door to same-sex marriage will lead to a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies polygamy and polyamory. (Question for readers: Is the “slippery slope” philosophical argument inherently conservative? See Leon Kass’ fears over physician-assisted suicide.)

So Who Is Right? Does Multipartner Marriage Follow Logically — and Legally — from Same-Sex Marriage?

While appreciating the current position of the UUPA is not, as (Valerie) White said, about pushing legal rights for polyamorists, it is hard for ReligionWriter to see how polyamory at some point will not become a civil rights issue.

The very fact that so many polyamorists she interviewed wanted to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, their child custody arrangements or their children from bullying demonstrates that open polyamorists in the U.S. today can face, at the very least, some pretty severe discrimination. The case of April Divilbiss, a polyamorist involved with two men who lost custody of her young daughter as a result, certainly demonstrates how polyamory can tangle with the law.

White herself is raising two children in a polyamorous family of three, and sometimes four, adults:

I live in an open quad, and three of us have been together for almost 13 years. About a year ago, we included a fourth primary partner. The first three of us live together and share in raising our five-year-old twin boys.

White already had grown children from one of her previous three marriages, but Judy, the other woman in her “triad,” decided in her late 30s that she wanted to have children as well. Due to infertility issues, the twins were finally conceived via IVF using sperm from Ken, the man in the triad, and eggs from a close relative of White’s; Judy gestated and gave birth to the babies. The children are thus related either genetically or via pregnancy and birth to all three adults.

While Ken and Judy are listed as parents on the birth certificates, White was able to become the twins’ legal guardians as well. She said the legal process was fairly straightforward:

We presented ourselves [to the social worker] as an intentional family of three. She didn’t ask us who slept with whom, and we didn’t volunteer. We did say I was genetically related to the children, and also that I was going to be the primary stay-at-home parent.

White, who is a lawyer by training, remarked that “hardly any family court judge would refuse [such a] request [for legal guardianship] if all the adults agree. After all, it’s an extra pair of hands.”


While parenting as a triad seems to be going smoothly for White and her two partners (plus their fourth partner, who lives separately,) one can easily imagine such legal issues become more heated elsewhere (and it may be more than coincidence that Divilbiss had trouble in a Southern state, Tennessee, while White found less resistance to her family arrangements in Massachusetts.)

Will polyamory be the next same-marriage battle? It may depend on when or if there are any high-profile legal cases that capture the public’s attention. Until then, polyamory remains an “alternative lifestyle” that challenges mainstream norms.

As Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas who studies new religious movements, put it to ReligionWriter: “There is always five percent of people who don’t want to do things the way everyone else does; that’s not new, and it’s not going away. The only difference now is unconventional sexual practices are more socially acceptable.”

Related on ReligionWriter:

Polyamory’s Faith and Family Values,” Oct. 29, 2007

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When James Dobson told U.S. News & World Reports’ Dan Gilgoff he didn’t think GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson was “Christian,” that sparked a have-you-seen-Fred-Thompson-at-church contest and other blogosphere debates over Thompson’s religious beliefs. Though the former Tennessee senator was baptized in the

Church of

Christ, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, at a United Church of Christ, which, confusingly enough, has no relation to the

Church of


So what is the

Church of

? Some quick facts:

  1. Number of adherents in the United States: 1.3 million (2006)
  2. Other famous members: Lawyer and former independent counsel Kenneth Starr; Christian mega-author Max Lucado, and serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer
  3. Former U.S. presidents: James A. Garfield

To find out what the Churches of Christ are all about, ReligionWriter called up Kevin Youngblood, a professor in the

School of

Biblical Studies at Freed-Hardeman University in

Henderson, Tenn.

ReligionWriter: How would you describe the Churches of Christ in one sentence?

Kevin Youngblood: Churches of Christ are a group of Christians striving to be undenominational and as biblical as possible.

RW: So it’s a denomination that is undenominational?

Youngblood: Being undenominational is an ideal we strive toward. Every congregation is self-governing and self-supporting; we have no organizational structure beyond that. We lack the governing body that denominations typically have.

RW: Are the Churches of Christ related in any way to the United Church of Christ?

Youngblood: No, there is no connection whatsoever. We have completely separate histories.

RW: Are the Churches of Christ related to any other denominations?

Youngblood: The Churches of Christ grew out of the American Restoration Movement, which was part of the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s in the

United States. Several people who were disenchanted with their home denominations tried to form a group to be non-denominational. Up until the turn of the 20th century, those groups were united. But in 1901, they split off into two and later three streams: the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ.

RW: The Tennessean reported that Fred Thompson was baptized when he was nine or 10 years old. Is that a normal time to be baptized in the

Church of


Youngblood: We subscribe to the notion of “believers baptism.” A person is not a candidate for baptism until he or she can consciously place faith in Christ and express that faith in a verbal confession, saying, “I am trusting in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for my salvation.” We want it to be an individual choice, not something imposed on a child by parents. We don’t have a set age for baptism; it could be anywhere from eight or nine on up.

RW: What kind of role do women have in the

Church of

? Can they be ordained?

Youngblood: We don’t have formal ordination of any kind. If a person is called by God to preach, that is sufficient. But we don’t believe women are called to preach to a mixed assembly of men and women. The apostle Paul tells us there are two roles women are not permitted to fulfill: one is to serve as preacher or teacher for a mixed congregation, and the other is to serve as spiritual leader over a mixed congregation. Those two roles are exclusively male in the Churches of Christ. There might be a rare congregation breaking away from that, but most Churches of Christ would hold fairly strongly to that New Testament requirement.

RW: How does the church view divorce?

Youngblood: Our church is not entirely theologically uniform; on this issue, you’ll get different views depending on who you ask. In general, however, we believe there are legitimate reasons for getting divorced and illegitimate reasons. The real question is: What kind of divorce gives you the right to remarry? If a spouse is sexually unfaithful, that is a legitimate reason for divorce, and it allows for the right to remarry.

RW: Is there a criteria for membership in the church? Or if you’re baptized in the

Church of

are you then always a member?

Youngblood: There is no criteria for membership in the Churches of Christ beyond what the New Testament itself requires, which is simply faith in Christ and the expression of that faith in baptism. Now, if one chooses to depart from the lifestyle of the New Testament, then a church may withdraw fellowship, which is a way of saying, “You have chosen a lifestyle that is not biblical, and we want to warn you to bring your life back into conformity with New Testament teachings regarding ethics and personal holiness.”

RW: Does that actually happen? Is it common for fellowship to be withdrawn?

Youngblood: It’s hard to say how common it is. Every congregation is responsible for encouraging its members to live a holy life in accordance with biblical teaching. I do know of instances where it has taken place, but it’s always done with love and gentleness. It is not intended to castigate a person; it’s just an attempt to protect the other members of the congregation from the negative influence of those who claim to be Christian but don’t live a Christian lifestyle.

RW: What about abortion and gay marriage?

Youngblood: It’s fair to characterize members of Churches of Christ as being pro-life. We would be opposed to any kind of government-sanctioned same-sex marriage. Most ministers would refuse to conduct a marriage of that kind.

RW: What about having a gay person in the congregation?

Youngblood: It would depend by what you mean by having a “gay person.” We have people within the Churches of Christ who struggle with homosexuality, but the key word there is “struggling.” They are attempting to avoid living an actively homosexual lifestyle, since that would be an illicit form of sexual behavior according to both the Old and New Testaments. We are supportive of people who struggle with it. A person who wants to be actively involved in a homosexual lifestyle, in most churches of Christ, would be dis-fellowshipped, as we call it.

RW: Is it fair to describe members of the Churches of Christ as “evangelicals?”

Youngblood: I would be hesitant to embrace the label “evangelical” hook, line and sinker. We agree with evangelicals that the Bible is the inspired word of God, without error; in that sense we resemble evangelicals a great deal. But typically evangelicals don’t believe baptism is the point at which a person receives the forgiveness of sins and becomes a Christian and we do. In that point, we differ from evangelicals.

RW: Anything else you’d like people to know about the Churches of Christ?

Youngblood: Frequently in the media, the Churches of Christ are portrayed as a cult. That’s not even possible, given our non-hierarchical structure. In fact, I would say Churches of Christ are the furthest thing from a cult because we have an organizational structure that specially discourages a cult-like following. Our structure helps us avoid having dominant personalities in center stage.

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