On Polygamy


Remember how when anyone who had even a remote thought of how an expansion of marriage’s definition would lead to wider difficulties of when and where we draw lines of exclusion was just simply a dumb paranoid bigot? Worry no more thought criminals, Politico has freed you from prison and expunged your record;

The question presents itself: Where does the next advance come? The answer is going to make nearly everyone uncomfortable: Now that we’ve defined that love and devotion and family isn’t driven by gender alone, why should it be limited to just two individuals? The most natural advance next for marriage lies in legalized polygamy—yet many of the same people who pressed for marriage equality for gay couples oppose it.

That’s one reason why progressives who reject the case for legal polygamy often don’t really appear to have their hearts in it. They seem uncomfortable voicing their objections, clearly unused to being in the position of rejecting the appeals of those who would codify non-traditional relationships in law. They are, without exception, accepting of the right of consenting adults to engage in whatever sexual and romantic relationships they choose, but oppose the formal, legal recognition of those relationships. They’re trapped, I suspect, in prior opposition that they voiced from a standpoint of political pragmatism in order to advance the cause of gay marriage.

In doing so, they do real harm to real people. Marriage is not just a formal codification of informal relationships. It’s also a defensive system designed to protect the interests of people whose material, economic and emotional security depends on the marriage in question. If my liberal friends recognize the legitimacy of free people who choose to form romantic partnerships with multiple partners, how can they deny them the right to the legal protections marriage affords?

It’s not simply an abstract question. It’s a serious one currently before courts in a few different forms. The first case involves a trio of polygamists out in Montana;

On Tuesday, Nathan Collier went to the Yellowstone County Courthouse in his hometown of Billings, Montana, to register to get married to his partner Christine. The problem? Collier has been married to wife Victoria since 2000. And under Montana law, bigamy is outlawed except for faith reasons; Collier is not marrying Christine and Victoria due to his religious beliefs, making his marriage license illegal under bigamy laws.

“Everyday, we have to break the law to exist as a family,” Collier said in an interview with TIME. We’re tired of it.”

The Montana trio argue that under Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage across the country as legal, their polygamous relationship should be legally recognized and guaranteed the same rights as heterosexual and homosexual marriages. “If you read the justice’s statement, it applies to polygamists,” Collier said.

Now Collier is wrong on this, as he is no doubt on a good many other things. Kennedy’s majority opinion explicitly and routinely referred to two individuals throughout. Unless there’s a lower court staffed by a very bold troll, there will not be a radical expansion of marriage. However there will be cases such as the recent case out of Utah, which relies on a very different legal logic.

The Cato Institute is rallying behind a challenge to Utah’s anti-bigamy law from the family that stars in TLC reality series Sister Wives. In an amicus brief filed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the think tank agreed with the polygamous Brown family that prohibiting people not just from legal recognition of plural marriage but from identifying so socially and religiously is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

In Utah, one can promise love to someone in addition to one’s spouse,” the brief states. “One can share one’s home and create a family with someone in addition to one’s spouse. But one cannot, under penalty of criminal law, call this other person one’s wife or husband, or otherwise express that one is religiously or spiritually married to more than one person. This happens because Utah defines criminal bigamy… to include saying ‘I do’ in a wedding ceremony, or saying ‘that’s my wife’ about someone one lives with, even when everyone knows that the marriage is not legally recognized.

This one is interesting and while I have not read the brief nor a history of anti-bigamy laws extending to speech, legally I think they will probably have a partial revision of Utah’s anti-bigamy laws which will spark a wider discussion of polygamy and plural marriage in the US.

Will There Be Polygamy?

I genuinely don’t know. Part of the reason why I think there will not be the kind of social movement that accepts, tolerates, and legalizes polygamy is due to the fact that it’s harder to paint it as “progressive.” Polygamy is something that older societies once did, and thus can be seen as more regressive, not “moving forward” (more on later). Furthermore rarely did societies legally sanction same-sex marriages, or at least certainly not in the Western world. Thus, doing so could fit with the progressive narrative.

In addition it would be harder to coalesce a social movement with wider support in the popular culture around polygamy. For starters polygamists are few and far between. Also the types of people we associate with polygamy, exclusively Mormon fundamentalists, are not the stuff of youthful rebellion and social progress. White, rural religious folks in 19th century prairie clothing will not likely get American Apparel ads or MTV shout outs.

However I do think it is likely that something of a movement for legal toleration will come about, for a few reasons.

The first is that there is increased exposure, with shows like TLC’s Sister Wives. With that exposure comes increased support and toleration for such lifestyles. Gallup notes that in the last 14 years (2001-2015) support for polygamy has increased by over 100%, from 7% to 16%. Gallup explains;

Polygamy and cloning humans have also seen significant upshifts in moral acceptability — but even with these increases, the public largely perceives them as morally wrong, with only 16% and 15% of Americans, respectively, considering them morally acceptable.

While this is a small kernel, this does show a certain trend and one that will likely hold up. It’s not as if society is becoming more strident about drawing social lines right now.

Secondly, demographic trends will make this debate more interesting. Not only has Mormon fundamentalism grown slowly over the years, but the community of people who engage in polygamy also has diversified. Namely the growth of Near Eastern and Sub-Saharan African immigration to the United States in the last few decades has lead to a small, but growing trend of different forms of polygamy. If you think this is just neo-nativist scare mongering, then don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the New York Times and NPR if that makes you sleep better.

No agency is known to collect data on polygamous unions…But the Magassas clearly are not an isolated case. Immigration to New York and other American cities has soared from places where polygamy is lawful and widespread, especially from West African countries like Mali, where demographic surveys show that 43 percent of women are in polygamous marriages.

And the picture that emerges from dozens of interviews with African immigrants, officials and scholars of polygamy is of a clandestine practice that probably involves thousands of New Yorkers.

“It’s difficult, but one accepts it because it’s our religion,” said Doussou Traoré, 52, president of an association of Malian women in New York, who married an older man with two other wives who remain in Mali. “Our mothers accepted it. Our grandmothers accepted it. Why not us?”

The NPR article explains how the estimates of Muslim polygamists in the United States range all the way up to 100,000. While these are small numbers, the double effect of diversifying the community of people who practice polygamy – extending it to those who fit more within the progressive narrative of oppression/liberation – and the growing visibility of that community could be interesting. All three of the communities I just listed (not very familiar with the practice of polygamy within Southeast Asian or indigenous communities, if anyone has that information by all means please share); Mormonism, Islam and Sub-Saharan Africa, are growing in size in the United States. This isn’t some call for a bedroom witch hunt but rather an explanation. As cultures grow in the United States, subcultures, even those that are very small, tend to grow as well. (Nor is this some call to cut ourselves off from African or Near Eastern immigration. Both communities tend to assimilate quite well with few exceptions. The United States, for various reasons, isn’t Europe.)

Thirdly, I do think Kennedy’s opinion and the logic behind Obergefell v. Hodges does crack open the door a bit towards polygamy. By this I do not mean that Collier’s case will win nor will the legal decision create precedent for finding a right to polygamy within the 14th Amendment. But the way in which marriage is described in the case can, I think, lead to a wider re-imagining of what marriage is.

There are two ways in which marriage was debated in the United States. The first is a debate of social utility. Marriage equality advocates argued that there is no social utility behind not recognizing same-sex marriage, and that there could even be social utility in expanding the definition. In short they made a fairly pragmatic, even conservative case for marriage equality. Opponents, though some tried, really couldn’t convincingly make the case that same-sex marriage would lead to a wider trend of making society worse off. When advocates asked, “How does their marriage effect yours,” the average opponent had literally no answer.

Which is why opponents usually relied on the “innate essence” argument. This relied heavily upon religion, which western modern society has very little time for in the public square, and the argument that there is an innate, very real definition of marriage that our public policy ought to line up with.

Problem? Advocates took that logic and ran with it. Kennedy outlined four major criteria that functionally advocated for the latter approach towards arguing about marriage (individual autonomy, affirmation of their union, the vague “safeguards families and children,” and keystone of social order). Advocates took traditionalists’ approach and stood it on its head: Same-sex marriage is marriage because it fits the innate definition of such by fitting a certain number of criteria.

However by adopting the above approach, it does make the social utility argument harder to make against future expansions of the institution. What good is “social utility” versus an innate essence? Furthermore in the aftermath of victory the question of, “What harm does their marriage pose yours,” seems like a purely rhetorical question. As such, as the Politico article points out, progressives could be uniquely disadvantaged at answering that question as the polygamist subculture slowly grows in the United States.

Why Polygamy Doesn’t Pass the Social Utility Test

Polygamist Retreat

I’m not a fan of the “innate essence” argument. Now, sure, I believe there is one, innate definition of marriage. I also think our society is so riven by wider philosophical division on the bigger questions that lead up to that issue, I’d rather have a policy of governmental non-recognition of the word “marriage” and adopt a French style policy (first time I’ve said that) towards civil unions.

I am a fan of the social utility argument, however. The fact is how we arrange societies and the emphases of values we propose matters. If someone tells you culture is relative or it doesn’t really matter how wider societal institutions are arranged in one way or another; ask for their opinions on the patriarchy.

The fact is we should be able to answer the question of, “How does their marriage effects yours,” quite easily. “It doesn’t effect mine personally. It does negatively effect wider society. Quite negatively, in fact.” If marriage is in fact the social institution we say it is, then it seems society ought to have a hand in regulating it to avoid manifestations of it that lead to wider societal harm (ex. laws against coerced marriage, child marriage, regulations on abandonment and divorce).

Polygamy fails the social utility test in a number of ways. First of all, it creates more poverty by how it arranges families and in particular, their wealth. The Croatian Medical Journal in 2007 outlined out how polygamy not only creates more children than the average couple can usually look after (this can also occur with subcultures that have prohibitions against birth control, but even then there is simply a physical limit to how many children one man and one woman can have). Furthermore within the culture examined (Sub-Saharan Africa), the particular polygamist culture creates more economic demands on the original family as it adds brides, leading to more poverty. In fact, religious institutions, both Christian and Islamic, as well as health authorities and governments have begun to prod populations away from polygamy, especially as it has been tied to an increase of STDs, in particular HIV. While in a more affluent American context, a new HIV/AIDS epidemic due to polygamy seems unlikely, it does seem likely that polygamy can create localized cultures of systemic poverty. For instance extreme poverty seems to be the norm in Mormon fundamentalist communities. While part of this has to do probably with their rural isolation, the most common factor seems to be children that simply cannot be provided for. For instance Mexican Mormon communities in Chihuahua became more prosperous after switching to monogamy. An American progressive could argue that the welfare state should and could look after these families but I doubt most find the argument that Americans should pay to subsidize someone else’s dysfunctional family arrangement quite convincing. Nor should they.

Even where there are abundant resources within the family, the effects are incredibly deleterious to the family members. The International Journal of Psychology and Counseling conducted a study in 2013 on Nigerian students, contrasting those raised in monogamous and polygamous households. The results were staggering;

…life in polygamous family can be traumatic and children brought up in such family structure often suffer some emotional problems such as lack of warmth, love despite availability of money and material resources, and disciplinary problems which may hinder their academic performance.

Studies that were conducted that expanded the scope to those in polygamous households in Bedouin culture found the same;

Women in polygamous marriages showed significantly higher psychological distress, and higher levels of somatisation, phobia and other psychological problems. They also had significantly more problems in family functioning, marital relationships and life satisfaction.

Ditto for higher levels of intimate partner violence and wider domestic violence within the family.

In short families, and their extended networks, that practice polygamy suffer higher levels of poverty, violence, abuse, dysfunction and even disease. For instance, most Mormon polygamous communities are not like Sister Wives but rather are filled with anguish, brutality and beggary. Structures matter. Do not expect we can just hermetically seal ourselves off from subcultures that suffer from these symptoms.

Lastly, this arrangement isn’t just dysfunctional. It’s unjust, but then again I repeat myself.

A Victory for Civilization

Before I explain why, it may be helpful to explain what makes America’s different political tribes tick. It comes down to the fact we ask different questions. Libertarians ask, “Does this policy leave us more or less free?” Progressives ask, “Does this make society more or less equal/fair?” Conservatives ask, “Does this make more or less civilized?”

In reality too often conservatives (often through our own fault) get tarred as simply wanting things to be “like the good old days.” In reality conservatives, even reactionaries, ought to have no problem with change. Societies grow, change and even progress. But we differ highly on how that takes place. Rapid change is more likely to be regression. Furthermore we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are not the first people to ask these sort of questions. Societies have been doing so for generations. To simply cast off the collective experiences of the last 10,000 years without any real thought to why we developed the institutions we have is simply modernist arrogance. Call it “chronological snobbery,” as Lewis did. If conservatism truly stood for no change ever, then it would advocate for anarchic, polygamous tribalism. It doesn’t. It realizes that, depending how we structure society, we can make it better. We just simply should be very, very cautious on how we proceed.

On this question of polygamy we have the benefit of thousands of years of experimentation as well as modern studies. The West changed by punishing polygamy and refusing to give it social or legal sanction. Michael Schindler does a great job explaining;

Presently, in the western world, the norm and legal understanding of marriage is, if little else, monogamous in nature. Historically, a vast majority of cultures and peoples have considered polygamy completely acceptable, if not desirable. For any contemporary reader this fact might come as a bit of a surprise. The existence of a contrast between our norms and historical ones is due to far more than random chance alone. The monogamous arrangement of married people, for an assortment of reasons, ethical, economic, and evolutionary, has taken root in a majority of the world’s most economically developed and educated nations.

He ultimately makes the case that such an arrangement is unjust on liberal, Rawlsian grounds.

…a variety of social ills follow the normalization of polygamy such …the virtual guarantee that many men will go their entire lives without finding a partner with whom they could be… fulfilled. [I]t is the last point which shifts the debate against polygamy. As discussed above, behind the “veil,” none of the designers know who they will be once it is lifted and therefore, they will endeavor to make the choice that puts those who are worst off in a position that all agree is, at the very least, acceptable. Knowing that humans by their very nature are, by and large, driven towards carnal, social, and romantic fulfillment and that lacking such fulfillment, commonly encounter great insurmountable sorrow, the designers behind the veil would rationally choose against the institutionalization of polygamy because its investiture would necessarily thrust a sizeable portion of the population into an arrangement where their measure of primary social goods would be lacking to such an extent so as to make such an arrangement unacceptable.

Society began to incentivize against polygamy and was, in most places, rewarded for its efforts. This process, slowly building the institutions of society in a manner that befits all and lines up with who human beings are in an effort to keep us safe and increase our prosperity and happiness, is called civilization. It is cautious, painstaking, even unforgiving work. Why should civilization call it quits in the West on the question of polygamy once we’ve won?

Expect this question to be a wider issue as time goes on. Part of that will be due to the perennial nature of the debate, historic religious phenomenon unique to America and immigration trends. Another part of that will be due to the discussion of when and where to draw the line on the definition of marriage. Currently we’re geared towards expansion. Let’s not forget there is a time for withdrawing that definition.


For those who are interested in the broader discussion of fundamentalist Mormonism, polygamy and whatever else I mentioned, there are a few good sources;

  • “Polygamy-Practicing Mormons” by Martha Sonntag Bradley, in Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. by Jon Krakauer
  • Lifting the Veil of Polygamy.” Documentary on Mormon polygamy from a mainstream Christian perspective. Interviews a number of women who grew up in famous polygamous communities.
  • “Is HIV/AIDS Epidemic Outcome of Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa?” by Noel Dzimnenani Mbirimtengerenji, Croatian Medical Journal, October 2007.
  • “A Comparison of Family Functioning, Life and Marital Satisfaction, and Mental Health of Women in Polygamous and Monogamous Marriages,” by Alean Al-Krenawi and John Graham, International Journal of Social Psychiatry.
  • “An Evolutionary and Rawlsian Evaluation of Polygamy,” by Michael Shindler, The Apollonian Revolt.
  • Cato Institute’s amicus brief in Brown v. Buhman before the 10th Circuit.

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