Monday, June 05, 2006


By Cassandra D

My husband and I watched the season finale of "Big Love" last night, a show we began watching primarily because it's after "The Sopranos." For the HBO-less among you, it is a show about a polygamous family, with one husband, three wives, and a bunch of kids, trying to live a happy and successful life in Utah without having their lifestyle discovered. It took a little bit, but we became hooked on watching it. I had never before thought much about polygamy, but after watching the show and giving it some thought, I'm now wondering this:

What's the big deal about polygamy?

I figure married men have been having affairs and fathering illegitimate children for, well, forever, and they aren't breaking the written law of the land. If consenting adults want to make a life-long commitment to each other and to their children, isn't that better?

You can make the argument that it is better for children to be in a standard two-parent household, but you can also argue that the standard model often doesn't work. Divorce, domestic violence, adultery, child abuse... Traditional families are certainly not immune. And even if you don't like polygamy, should it really be illegal? How about just not legally recognized? Wouldn't that be a good enough way for society to refrain from supporting it?


At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Jordan's grandma said...

The problem with Mormon Fundamentalist polygamy - the type of polygamy normally practiced in Utah, is the patriarchal aspect. You can talk about consenting adults who choose to live plural marriage, but when is a choice not really a choice?

It's when a woman is raised to believe that living the principle of plural marriage is her only avenue to exaltation in heaven. She is raised to believe that if she doesn't keep her covenants and follow the prophet, or her husband she will be subject to blood atonement, or at the very least, will not be able to be with her children in the kingdom of heaven.

It's also when a woman has no education or other resources and must bring a baby into the covenant every year.

This is all Mormon "scripture" even though mainstream Mormons don't practice polygamy any longer.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Cassandra D said...

Thanks, Jordan's grandma, for the interesting comment and link. The situation you describe sounds very miserable. I think that making girls into child brides should definitely be illegal, as should be the enslavement of anyone, including wives by their husbands. The Branch Davidians were a cult, though, and it wasn't illegal to belong to it, even though it clearly was harmful to its members.

There are a lot of beliefs that I find repugnant. I think, for instance, that it is child abuse to raise a child in a white supremacist family, but we don't take those children away. How should the government draw the line?

A lot of people hold religious views that I think would be damaging to them, and I certainly wouldn't want my child raised that way. I can understand your worry for Jordan and I would fight for her, too. Good luck in your struggle.

At 6:05 PM, Anonymous flamewhore said...

I love that show. How did I manage to miss the season finale?! Big Love certainly portrays a positive aspect in having many parents raising children, you know the "it takes a village" concept. It seems the best part is not the husband with many wives but what all the wives do for each other.

At 6:33 PM, Anonymous flamewhore said...

I followed your link to Big Love so I could see when the repeat would happen. What's up with the faux Margene blog. Seems like a wierd show gimmick.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger D. M. Penrose said...

Nice thought ... I agree that forced polygamy or polygyny within Fundamental Mormonism is an extreme. However, one might argue that when society fails to recognize a practice, which is neither condemned or discouraged in the OT/NT Bible, and the only loophole is "in the name of religion" who is at fault?

Men seem to be able to have good, intimate (not necessarily) relationships with multiple women at the same time. Women tend to be more monogamous. In an age of STDs and promiscuity and legalized prostitution (Nevada) in the United States - should we take a more civilized approach?

I am happily married, love my wife, want to spend the rest of my life with her! We are also considering adding to our family ... I want to add a wife that will get along well with her, support her, befriend her, share wonderful times together ... and I know it will be reciprocated.

I had never thought this possible until my wife and I have evolved to the point where we are now. We are both secure in our relationship with each other and know that we will not enter into this without much consideration, discussion and prayer. Is this a good thing? Is it possible? Should it be legal? We have a great life and want to share it with other(s) if they are right for us.

Thanks for starting this discussion Cassandra D!


At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

"How about just not legally recognized? Wouldn't that be a good enough way for society to refrain from supporting it?"

I'm not sure I understand how "not legally recognized" differs from "illegal," but here's my thought. The question you were prompted to ask: "What's the big deal about polygamy?" is the reason that we can't count on society's unofficial restrictions to police itself in things like this.

Some of those restrictions used to treat men who abandoned their families for a younger woman as reprehensible. Now, they get media nicknames like "TomKat" and are the center of endless publicity. That's an extreme case, but such people aren't seen as irresponsible boors anymore. Our society's unofficial restrictions have changed. Probably, many, many single mothers and fatherless children might say, not for the better.

It also doesn't sound like a good idea to institutionalize that same practice of essentially replacing a contemporary with a younger woman. In reality, that happens by our society's practice of serial monogamy, punctuated by divorce. In the show, the newest wife is quite a bit younger -- what kind of "equal" arrangement lets hubby bring in Ms. Hottie while the wife who stuck it out with him for the longest now has to surrender another third of his time and attention? She also gets to pitch in to help raise the younger children he will now father, even though she had no such help in her own early married days.

Yes, it can be equalized if the wives can also marry more than one husband, but I don't know how a plethora of partners really amounts to anything more than "I want to sleep with someone other than you, but I don't want to feel guilty about it."

And whether or not traditional two-parent households work or not, using their failures as a rationale for junking the model overlooks the baby in the bathwater. It could very well be that the same things that cause those households to fail would be present or even magnified in polygamous settings, and it could be that addressing those things could reduce the failure rate of families without turning them into seraglio starter kits.

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Cassandra D said...

Bret, by "not legally recognized" I mean not given legal status as marriage. For instance, I have attended the marriage of a gay couple I know. It was performed here in Oklahoma City at a church and now they consider themselves married, as does their church and as do their friends. Our society doesn't legally recognize their marriage, even though their church does. (And that is the crux of the debate about gay marriage: whether it should be legally recognized so that gay married couples have legal protections and benefits. Gay marriage will continue whether it is recognized or not.)

Even if you feel my gay friends should not have gotten married, even in their own church, do you think they should be jailed? I don't.

I'm not an advocate of polygamy, by any means. I would be extremely worried if my daughter or anyone else I know and love were to choose such a lifestyle.

I am certainly not saying that our society should give polygamous marriage the legal recognition and benefits of standard marriage. I'm just saying that people do a lot worse things and it isn't illegal.

If you can be a neo-Nazi, a member of Heaven's Gate, or a Branch Davidian and not get thrown in jail, or if you can cheat on your spouse and not be arrested, why should you be arrested for being a polygamist?

At 8:49 AM, Anonymous Brett said...

Cassandra, thanks for clarifying; that makes sense.

I don't have a completely thought-out answer as to why I'd maintain legal sanctions against polygamy while not entertaining them against neo-Nazis. But for starters, I would point out that we do have sanctions against neo-Nazis (and others with odious beliefs) when they cross the line from speech into action.

They can spin every hateful racist yarn they want about purging the country of the people they don't like, and we guard their right to say those things, even while the rest of us wish they would shut the heck up. But once they try to implement their policy, through violence or encouraging others to violence, we say, "Stop."

I don't think actual polygamy creates the same amount of harm as putting racist ideology into practice. But I think it does harm our social fabric by diluting one of its most important arenas of demonstrating commitment, self-sacrifice and of helping form children into stable adults. Of course adultery, divorce, domestic violence and different kinds of abuse work that same harm in traditional two-parent households; they're no guarantee of harmony. But they're flaws in the system -- I think polygamy incorporates the damage into its system from the ground up. So I think legal sanctions against it have a place.

I do disapprove of same-sex unions, and I think they also harm the social fabric. But since the core of the practice is a monogamous commitment, I'd bet that damage is far less than that done by polygamy, so outlawing that practice would do a lot more harm than good.

And if we polled the cheaters' spouses, we could probably find broad support for jailing them ;-)

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Dr. Pants said...

I think the argument against polygamy is like many other practices -- we make up reasons, but it's really religous.

That said, as long as the polygamist lifestyle could include one woman with many husbands or a quadruple with two men and two women, even, and all are of legal age, then it sounds like their decision.

But if you really want to know what's the big deal, I suggest you pay attention to our "president." He's pushing (not really, but he says he is) a Constitutional amendment making marriage between one man and one woman.

And if you can find me a real, honest, legal reason for that kind of law, well, bring it. But it seems to me that we're living in an unofficial theocracy where we just pretend that our laws aren't based on Christianity.

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous turtleboi said...

Big Love = Big Bore. Ooooohhh! Daddy's Walmart-style mega business is threatened! Ooooohhh! Wife number three wants a car! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Greta McInerney-Spinoza said...

In most polygamous societies, women have few (if any) rights. In the US, at least some of the polygamous groups do force underage women into marriage. Ironically, girl children are valued since they can be placed in these marriages. On the other hand, boy children can be a threat, as they could quite possibly attract the younger women who then wouldn't want to marry the older men. Seriously, this is a problem in a number of these groups.

Beyond issues of morality, societal values (I'm not sure if the latter even exists), the practical issues are staggering.

Is a single husband supporting a number of wives and children? If he dies, how does it get divvied up? If one of the wives die, does her estate go to her husband (and eventually other wives) and her own children, or is everyone in this together.

Of course, divorce and custody cases could give family lawyers and judges some very interesting work!

If one of the marriage partners becomes ill, who gets to be the next of kin? I can see it now, one wife insists on continuing life support, another says to take the sob off the ventilator but feed him, two others say keep him alive by all means. Do the hospital officials take a vote? This is a difficult struggle when there's only one next of kin designated to make this decision.

Then, we have issues like -- who picks up whose child from school. Most schools have a list of approved people for this. I can see the befuddled teacher trying to figure this out.

It's often hard for two happily married parents to agree on childrearing. I can see the polygamous nightmare unfold. One mother doesn't want her kids to watch certain tv shows, the other draws the line at computer use, another insists on organic food for HER child. They're all under one roof. Who makes the final decision? Daddy? Or do they have family councils and vote?

I admit, I haven't seen the tv show -- and don't have opportunities to watch much tv at all. Maybe this show DOES deal with these real life issues. If it does, I'd probably watch.

There are advantages. You'd always have someone for: babysitting, card games, shopping trips. And if the wives forge a united front, the poor guy could be in serious trouble!


At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Greta McInerney-Spinoza said...

Dr. Pants brought up a good point that I almost ignored -- the "homosexual marriage amendment." The president has nothing real to say or do regarding constitutional amendments. But, like many administration "stand," this is a smokescreen to try to tell his ultra-right base that he stands for their values. After all, that's easier than really doing anything about the problems plaguing the country.

What I do find interesting about the polygamy issue is that there are groups starting to push for its legalization. I fear that the more press this issue gets (especially via mass media), the more people will see this non-issue as a serious threat -- and end up calling the wrong kind of attention to the proposed amendment. The American public frightens easily. The days of "give me liberty or give me death" long ago gave way to: "give me liberty, but make me safe, and above all, keep me comfortable and my lifestyle secure."

The marriage amendment is a desperate attempt of the right to get somebody -- anybody -- on their side.

I'd sure like to see our government turn back to the real issues that are destroying the moral fabric of society. A culture of greed and corruption -- life as a narrative of photo ops and sound bytes -- are the "demons" who threaten.

At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Weekly Standard has a timely cover story for the week of June 5. The piece by Stanley Kurtz makes a case for why polygamy and democracy are incompatible.


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