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 Religion 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

soundoff (1,215 Responses)
  1. christiansteve

    Like taken candy from a baby

    January 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
  2. His panic

    No doubt about it! She is in a State of Anxiety about the issue, she may be even panicking about it. If instead of faking it, she would really Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son she wouldn't be in such a State of Anxiety. If she continues like that she will fall victim to Hysteria even Panic.

    In True Christianity there are no priests much less priestesses. That belongs to paganism or in the best case to the Israel of the Old Covenant. Now we have in Christ Jesus one and only one High Priest in the Heavens. This is a fake priestess in a sector of Christendom that has fallen into Apostasy.

    January 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm |
    • GOD of ALL GODS, yes even that one


      January 13, 2014 at 4:14 pm |
  3. Bill

    There is a reason we never hear about a female taking multiple husbands.

    January 5, 2014 at 9:14 am |
    • areopagan

      On the contrary. I've met several triads involving one woman and two men.

      January 5, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
      • Tamooj

        Ditto. I know several plural families where there are 'non-traditional' genders – MMF, MMMF, MFMFM, FMF etc. Ploygamy is not just a lifestyle motivated by belief anymore, and as long as they are ALL consenting adults then it's no one's business unless harm to a child can be demonstrated. In study after study plural and gay families have *exemplary* records for healthy child rearing, correlated to healthy positive outcomes far far out of proportion to the numbers seen in 'traditional' marriages. Until someone can definitively demonstrate harm, I'll be open to extending them the same rights all citizens of our country enjoy. Dependent status for tax reasons is a different issue, and needs to be worked out, but that's a minor detail that doesn't significantly impact the economy yet, and is certainly not worth using to deny equal-protection-under-the-law to people.

        January 10, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
      • Looseleaf

        My own wife, for example...

        January 15, 2014 at 2:33 pm |
  4. 00 00

    not words of a lunatic...further...that guy sai baba did not resurrect himself and ascend into heaven like Jesus did..that was the ultimate miracle...and thousands were to witness that..
    January 5, 2014 at 1:54 am | Report abuse | Reply

    00 00

    worship your god. each to his own way, i don't mind.
    January 5, 2014 at 3:31 am | Report abuse | Reply
    00 00

    i and the father are one
    January 5, 2014 at 3:33 am | Report abuse | Reply
    00 00

    i and the father are one!

    is jesus terrifying?

    January 5, 2014 at 3:44 am |
  5. jfc1

    ...whatever. At a certain point it is about the law, and the law says that you can't be married to more than one person at a time.

    The law, dear priest, regulates many aspects of marriage.
    And having good intentions do not make it legitimate.

    As a priest, you should know that very well.
    Otherwise everyone would violate the law on a regular basis as long as they could find good reasons to do it.

    January 4, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
  6. Bruce

    We've built a society that does not encourage young men to be fathers. I've raised two children to adulthood, believe me, to raise a family you NEED two people. Two is the minimum to give the kids what they need, and anything less puts a huge strain on mom or dad and the kids miss out. Optimally, you have family or friends that can watch them or do things with them. MAYBE the answer is that we need a 3 person family... or some other structure.

    It's not totally clear to me, but I know what it was to be raised by just my mom, and be left alone for days or evenings as she worked or was at the store or grossly overworked in one form or the other. I would have rejected all of this polygamy stuff out of hand, except I see that traditional families and support systems are failing.

    January 4, 2014 at 2:05 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Once upon a time polygamy WAS traditional marriage.

      What we call traditional marriage now is not really all that old. Or traditional.

      January 4, 2014 at 5:52 pm |
  7. christiansteve

    Who discovered ladies? "Bernie!"

    One morning he woke up, "hey, I think there's ladies here." 2,000 yr old man

    January 3, 2014 at 10:35 am |
  8. Renee

    I'll support polygamy as soon as women are allowed to have multiple husbands.

    January 1, 2014 at 11:38 am |
    • myweightinwords

      In a modern society, it would only make sense that if we allow plural marriage, it be between whichever informed adults wanted to be intermarried: gay, straight or bi, men and women, in whatever configuration their relationships dictated.

      January 4, 2014 at 5:54 pm |
    • AJD

      That's where my big problem with it lies as well. I have yet to hear of a polygamous relationship where one woman had multiple husband....peel back the layers of what seems "positive" about this arrangement to the author, and I think what is at the core is a man's desire to have as many women as he wants to have, while the women are NOT allowed the same. At the core is the expression of male ego. You can perfume it any way you want, but that is really what's at the heart of it. It sends the message, even if not in a way that's "in your face" that men are above women. A man can have all these women, but they cannot have other men. These women keep his house for him, bear and raise his children for him, he is the center of it all.

      January 5, 2014 at 3:13 am |
      • AAB

        I have lived the past 10 yrs in a stable and caring polyamorous relationship as a female with two "husbands". There are many different setups for those living an alternative life style so people have a hard time actually grasping it and try to pin it down with some set or rules. You just hear about polygamy more than polyandry.

        January 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
      • Kim

        The term you are looking for is polyandry, the practice of having multiple husbands.

        January 5, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
        • Tamooj

          And the law prohibits both polygamy and polyandry equally.

          January 10, 2014 at 4:15 pm |
        • samsjmail

          "law prohibits"

          Does it prohibit the relationship, or trying to legalize it? The relationship is none of the government's business.

          January 13, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
  9. stanky weed patch

    Where have they taken him?

    December 31, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  10. stanky weed patch

    If god had not filled my heart with love, u no that little demon Sam Bo, she would be recuperating from hurricane me. That is proof god is and that he has great mercy on poisonous little snakes. Trust me!

    December 31, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  11. stanky weed patch

    I am the vine

    December 30, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  12. Mom

    I think that for me, I'd be uncomfortable being the wife of a husband with other wives. But I'm not going to say what others are allowed to do. I wonder how many people will marry in Utah and then seek to have their marriages recognized by other states.

    December 30, 2013 at 7:19 am |
    • Saraswati

      This ruling did not legalize polygamy, just cohabitation.

      December 30, 2013 at 7:31 am |
  13. Douglas

    Trapped in the sin of the world of flesh.

    Polygamy is not a Christian value. It degrades the value of womanhood
    anas seen in the Pastor Jeff scandal.

    Repent from sin and turn away from the trappings of satan.

    Strive for monogamy as Jesus commanded or practice celibacy.

    Your salvation is on the line!

    December 28, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • Dandintac


      Polygamy seems to have been quite common in the Bible. Is God's law (and morality) objective and eternal, or not?

      If polygamy is against your religion, then don't practice it. Your religion is no basis for determining what should or should not be the law of the land.

      My own objections to legal recognition of polygamous marriages are practical. It is already a mess when just two people get divorced. Inheritance, death and military service benefits, property issues, child custody–it would be a mess on a large scale. Perhaps it might be expanded to three people, provided there are certain protections–mandatory prenuptial agreements, laws to ensure the women are not treated like a harem, minimum age of 21, and so on–but for now I don't think our society is ready on a practical, legalistic level.

      What people do in their private lives is their own business though, and not subject to the religious objections of others.

      December 28, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  14. Max

    I think these two look more like brother and sister, myself...maybe that's why it's called "Sister Wives"...

    December 27, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  15. SweetSugarmama

    As long as these people love each other and get along. What is so bad? He is able to take care of his wives and kids then more power to him. We all need to reconsider how we judge people because I think God is just fine with it.

    December 26, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  16. SweetSugarmama

    I am a born again Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ and His teachings. I also can not see anything so wrong with a man having more than one wife. If these adults all get along fine, taking care of the kids and nobody is being forced to do anything against their will then what is so bad. The is an obvious shortage of men to women, polygamy may be the anwser to so many unwed moms and illegitamate children with no fathers. Hell we are in a recession!

    December 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.