I didn’t tackle this subject yesterday, so I thought I would give it a go today.

In my Religion and Violence class yesterday we were discussing polygamy in the context of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).  For those of you unfamiliar with the FLDS, it is a Mormon sect that was led by Warren Jeffs (that name ring a bell?) up until he was sentenced to life in prison for being a bad man.  The FLDS was also made famous (and not in a good way) in the popular book, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer.

Recently, polygamy has been given additional notoriety for such TV shows as Big Love and Sister Wives.  I don’t watch either show, but I think I get the gist of what they are about.  Yesterday NPR did a piece on the real people Big Love is based on.  http://www.npr.org/2011/10/26/141729499/one-husband-three-wives-love-and-polygamy.  So I thought this might be an appropriate time to discuss the topic.

What’s wrong with polygamy?  Why is there a stigma attached it?  Why do we think it’s bad?  Is it bad for legal, moral, social, political, or religious reasons (or a combination)?  We are raised in this society to believe that polygamy is not only legally wrong (it is in fact against the law), but socially and morally as well.  But when you actually think about it the arguments against it don’t really make much sense.

Polygamy was first outlawed in America by Congress under President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.  The law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1878.  The Supreme Court’s argument was that laws cannot restrict or condemn religious belief, but they can limit religious practice.  Which makes me wonder why we even have a 1st Amendment if the Supreme Court is going to just ignore it.  They still do today.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Anyway, LDS President Wilford Woodruff (awesome name) finally caved to pressure from the United State Government God and ended the practice in 1890.  In comparison, it took the Church until 1978 to give up racism.

Polygamy was always a divisive issue within the Church.  Joseph Smith wasn’t sure how it would be received, so he kept his own polygamous practices secret.  It divided the Mormon community after his death in 1844.  Some left the Church over the issue, while others split off and formed competing groups.  Polygamy was never really a fully accepted or settled matter in the Mormon Church.  Most Mormons don’t want to talk about it even today.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

There has been a social stigma attached to polygamy for a long time in this country. The practiced has been openly persecuted, prosecuted, and condemned by the government.  People just assume that it’s bad.  But why?  Does the practice inherently lead to physical abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse, financial instability, loss of freedom, emotional trouble, or any number of social ills?  Not any more than monogamous relationships.

Is it condemned in the Bible?  Again, no.  In fact, the Old Testament seems to promote the practice.  Everyone has multiple wives and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere that says you can’t or shouldn’t.  The Bible condemns a whole bunch of other stuff related to marriage though.  Adultery, divorce, not being a virgin before marriage, and God knows what else (pun intended) are condemned and usually punishable by death by stoning  (If you haven’t yet, you really should read Leviticus and Deuteronomy sometime.  It’s just full of good, wholesome, family friendly stuff).

Does it infringe on a woman’s rights?  In some cases it appears so.  In the Warren Jeffs/FLDS case there seems to have been some forced and underage marriages.  But that is not the norm in polygamous marriages, nor is it unique to polygamy.  There are plenty of forced and underage monogamous marriages happening all over this country (I’m guessing mostly in the South.  Those people are weird).

So why does the topic of polygamy make us all squirmy?  Is there a legitimate argument against the practice?  And don’t tell me it’s wrong because it’s illegal.  The ties between legality and justice/morality are tenuous at best.  What if I asked the same questions about polyandry?  Or gay marriage?  Or man and duck marriage? (Pat Robertson might have an issue with that one).

I’m not planning on being in a polygamous relationship any time soon, by the way (not that there’s anything wrong with it).