December 18th, 2013
09:34 AM ET
Opinion by Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN
(CNN) – When I heard a federal judge struck down part of Utah’s polygamy law last week, I gave a little squeal of delight.
To be clear, I'm an Episcopal priest, not a polygamist. But I've met the family who brought the suit, and these people changed how I think about plural marriage.
Before I met the Browns – made famous by the reality television show “Sister Wives” – I had the kind of reaction most modern-day Christians would have to their lifestyle: Polygamy hurts women. It offers girls a skewed perspective of who they can be. It happens on cultish compounds. It’s abusive.
In getting to know Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, and their children, I saw that these parents were extremely invested in raising girls and boys who were empowered to get an education, become independent thinkers and have a moral compass.
Indeed, children were so important to them not because they wanted to create more young polygamists – the Browns want their children to choose their own beliefs – but because their children were the people who would join them in heaven, and they wanted to raise a family kind enough, good enough, to achieve that goal.
The result is four parents equally invested in their children, and a gaggle of young people who are neither spoiled nor timid, entitled nor brainwashed.
The result is also four parents who strive to model what being empowered people of faith looks like in contemporary America.
Since meeting the Browns, I have become a supporter of them and their lifestyle, though I certainly can understand why others remain opposed.
So much negative publicity has been generated – and rightly so – by fundamentalist Mormon Warren Jeffs and his followers that it leaves little room in the American imagination to think that polygamy could be something different.
When I talk about the Browns with my friends and colleagues, most are opposed to my position, believing that the women could not possibly be respected, that the children could not possibly receive the attention they deserve.
But it’s crucial to remember that, when done well, polygamy works because the participants have a different goal for marriage than monogamous couples: Most Americans believe that marriage is for the purpose of cultivating intimacy between two people, both sexual and emotional.
But for the Browns that takes a distant second to the goal of cultivating a community that together can reach heaven. It’s a different way of thinking about marriage and family, but it’s not inherently an abusive one.
Ultimately, I support the decision to loosen restrictions on polygamy because families such as the Browns exist who endeavor every day to live kind, healthy lives that are not harmful, not abusive.
I also believe there are theoretical reasons why, as a Christian, it makes sense to support healthy polygamous practices. It’s a natural extension for those Christians who support same-sex marriage on theological grounds. But even for those opposed to same-sex marriage, polygamy is documented in the Bible, thereby giving its existence warrant.
Some might say that supporting polygamy means supporting the abuse of women. But saying that it is OK for Christians to support plural marriage is not the same as saying that they should condone its abusive practices. Indeed, Christians should not, and cannot, do this.
It does mean, though, that there is room for Christians to support the right of consenting adults to make choices about marriage that align with their religious beliefs in a country that prides itself on religious freedom.
Through their television show, the Browns helped America learn that polygamists are just like the rest of us – they dress like us, go to public school like us, eat at Olive Garden like us – they just have more people committed to one another than the rest of our families do.
Finally, like us, they want to practice their faith. And as long as that practice is in the service of cultivating loving, healthy relationships that strive to honor God and neighbor, I believe it is possible for even nonpolygamous Christians such as myself to support their calling.
Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an Episcopal priest and author of "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom." The views expressed in this column belong to Tumminio.
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