Critical Commentary: Polygamy

Posted on October 7, 2012 by


On October 5th, an article by Lisa Miller was published in The Washington Post titled “Polygamy may be hot, but in marriage three’s still a crowd.” The premise of this article is that after the recent attention that Gay Rights have obtained through various outlets such as the “Vote No” campaign, that polygamist marriage will prove to be the next frontier in marriage equality. This debate, catalyzed by a television show “Sister Wives,” proves to be melding of religious freedom, cultural stereotypes, and the truth held within these generalizations.

“Sister Wives” is a show that focuses on a Mormon polygamist family originating in Utah. The Brown family, made up of one husband, three wives, and seventeen children is suing the state of Utah over its anti-polygamist laws that recently forced the family to move to the neighboring state of Nevada. In her article, Lisa Miller raises an interesting question. She asks, “If Americans increasingly value their rights to privacy and liberty above historical social norms, then why should the state not legally approve other unconventional domestic set-ups?” The answer to this question is not an easy one. In her article about the legal proceedings surrounding the Brown family, Marci Hamilton frames the legality of polygamy not in terms of religious freedom, but instead in terms of the patriarchal oppression placed on the wives and children in polygamist families. Hamilton argues that polygamy should not be legalized because it leads to both the destabilization of communities as a whole, and it creates a culture in which men are continually looking for younger and younger brides, in turn leading to pedophilia. The feminist approach taken by Hamilton makes the lifestyle of the Brown family seem less benign and certainly much more threatening.

Later in her article, Miller references John Witte Jr., professor of religion at Emory University, to address the freedom of same sex couples to marry in comparison to polygamy. She says “Same-sex marriage does not open the door to polygamy because what matters in marriage is not who but how many.” In his research on the subject, Witte came to the conclusion that “the meaningful number [in marriage] is two.” This means that he believes that the issue is not about “who” gets married, but rather how many. Witte believes that the multiple partners in polygamy not only create jealousy and competition, but can also lead to a mentality where women and children are considered subordinate to their husbands and fathers. In same-sex marriage, two partners are still provided to take care of children; much more of an equal power relationship is created. In polygamy however, the husband can favor one wife or set of children more than others. This can very easily lead to an unequal distribution of resources and place women and children in harm’s way.

After reading the article I was surprised that I had never heard the argument for polygamy phrased in a way relating it to same-sex marriage. Initially it seemed like a very strong argument, but after I thought about it for some time, I would agree with Marci Hamilton. To me, polygamy seems like an environment that would be pleasurable for males, but detrimental to women and children. Even though I believe everyone should have the legal right to practice their religion, I don’t believe that this right should be extended to cases where the practice of religion can possibly harm other people.




by Joey Eikens

Posted in: Uncategorized