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How I learned to love polygamy
The Browns of reality TV show fame practice polygamy, which they call "plural marriage," for religious reasons.
December 18th, 2013
09:34 AM ET

How I learned to love polygamy

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.


Yet when the Browns' show debuted, I began to question some of those assumptions, and when I had the opportunity to meet them a few years ago, I questioned them further.

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.

MORE: Judge strikes down part of Utah polygamy law in 'Sister Wives' case

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.

MORE ON CNN: It's time to reconsider polygamy

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. 

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Bigamy • Christianity • Ethics • Faith • Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints • gender issues • Opinion • Religious liberty • Sexuality • Women's issues

soundoff (1,209 Responses)
  1. kaiypov

    II
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    April 9, 2014 at 11:56 pm |
  2. codenine75a

    Oka. Who is the maytron and who are the midwives or subordinates? I honestly do not like the concept of polygamy.

    March 3, 2014 at 2:17 am |
  3. Toni Hopkins

    Let's pretend that polygamy was the norm. Historically, the man would support the family, and the wives would stay home and have the babies, right? Well, the ones we see on TV, the women are working and the men are off having fun! The babies continue to come, and the women more and more talk about how jealous they are and how they need to live apart in their own space to stay sane, and have their independence. That is not the historical picture of the practice. Also, if one man was allowed to have however many wives he wants, and all those children, where would the new blood come from? If a town had 50 people, all from the same man, where would his children get their mates from? A society could not sustain such a practice, and it is morally reprehensible to our Creator. In the beginning, their was one woman created from the rib of one man, whose relationship was blessed by God. Other relationships came along, but were not intended by our Creator, and they popped up after the fall from perfection, and after their having been kicked out Eden.

    February 4, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
    • Jen

      ...and it is morally reprehensible to our Creator."
      Really? Did He tell you that Himself? If so, He's clearly changed his mind since Rachael and Leah both married Jacob, to say nothing of Solomon and his 500 – or was it 700? wives.
      In real life, ie, in Islamic countries where a man can have up to four wives, most men only have one. Wives are expensive. The men who do have more than one, generally have only two, and only a very few, very rich men have more than two. So there's really nothing to worry about, genetically speaking.

      February 7, 2014 at 6:48 pm |
  4. joe

    But for the Browns that takes a distant second to the goal of cultivating a community that together can reach heaven.
    -------
    Such absurd notions. If there is a God, it's all powerful and all knowledgeable. An all powerful and all knowledgeable God has everything it wants–by definition of being all powerful and all knowledgeable.

    It wouldn't "want" or "need" anything and certainly not Its upright monkeys reaching heaven.

    February 4, 2014 at 6:23 am |
  5. momofthree

    Well, the data contradict the Browns on every score: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/05/5338/

    January 20, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
  6. Modern Christian

    So many thoughtful, bull**** posts.
    Kody Brown wants what every man wants: as many opportunities to pass on his genes as possible. He certainly has qualities that appeal to his wives, and they are happy to let him be a "father to his nation".
    Every one of us knows that in our heart of hearts, and delude ourselves if we choose to ignore that truth that goes all the way to the brainstem.

    January 17, 2014 at 12:08 am |
  7. Matthew Mueller

    The goal of a marriage is simple. To do our best to represent Christ's relationship with His bride the Church here on Earth, and, if kids are involved, to do our best to be good representations of Our Father in heaven. Period. End of story. You can't do that with multiple wives, or for that matter multiple husbands.

    A Man shall leave his mother and father and be cleaved unto his wife and they will become one flesh. Not wives, plural. Wife singular.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
    • Melissa

      If that is true why does civil marriage exist. I can promise you, my marriage has nothing to do with Jesus or any other sky-friend.

      January 21, 2014 at 5:10 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.