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. kfurgeson

    No one should have to "learn" to love their relationship. Especially when that relationship entails marriage.

    June 8, 2014 at 9:39 am |
  2. kaiypov

    My name is Emil Kaiypov. I am a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic, a lawyer, and a father of two children. The proposal for which I am asking your kind support is the suspension of all currently existing hostilities on Earth.

    The main goal of my entire project is to save and improve the lives of children who are suffering from the present conflicts and violence.

    The challenge is to create a moment of "pause" [a technical term from video language] in hostilities now and in the future, as well as to refusal to restart them at all. I believe that in this context, such "pause" in the war action seems do-able and practical, much more effective than the idealistic and utopian pressing of an imaginary "stop" button. In the future the first action will equate to the second: "pause" will become "stop". In order to alert the international community and potential supporters, I made a demonstration of my own at 18 October 2013 on the territory of Syrian embassy in Beirut, with poster "pause the war".

    The purpose of this demonstration, is to show through an example that:

    1) one person has the power to perform an action directed to the benefit of all mankind.

    2) no one should be indifferent, when war is concerned.

    3) war requires us to drop everything else, in order to stop it. Daily activities, against the background of war, look meaningless and empty.

    I believe, that this idea will resonate and supporters will wish to join it. The age of information technologies, will help to spread it around the globe. Definitely there will be supporters among the world's famous celebrities. In the event that a large number of ordinary people and celebrities join this campaign, the dream to stop all military actions on the planet will be realized. This will serve as an occasion to announce the call for volunteers in the "international army of peace". It will consist of unarmed "soldiers" who are ready at any time, to go to the hot spot to "pause" the hostilities with the fact of their presence and to encourage the warring parties to engage in dialogue. Ideally, this army should consist of a world-famous and beloved celebrities from all spheres of human activities.

    I suggest that countries be ready to support my initiative, in solidarity, by placing on the cloth of their national flags, the well-known pause symbol "II". I believe that in the course of implementation of this anti-war action, the reasons for which the suspended armed conflict began, will be resolved or continued in a civilized manner. This anti-war action will bring about a new peaceful reality, when there will be no state left, which "international army of peace" had not visited.

    The termination of all hostilities, will become the point of departure for further continuous progress in all directions.

    We are able to bring about the time, when the world will be fairly managed by a workable international organization which will be trusted by all citizens of the earth. When this happens, all kinds of weapons will be transferred to international United Nations control, the purpose of which, will be the preservation of peace and sustainable development of mankind.

    We live in a world, when the collective effort makes possible the colonizing of other planets in the foreseeable future. I believe, that we have enough strength and resources for the child born tomorrow to see a world, where uniform international standards of education, labor, pension and medical care, will be established everywhere. A world, where the primary human needs will be satisfied for free.

    A world, where nobody talks about freedom, because absolute freedom will accompany each person from the moment of birth, to his last breath. A world, where the happiness and freedom of the individual, will not happen in isolation but will include freedom and happiness of all of humanity. A world without war.

    A world without war is undisputed goal, that sooner or later humanity will definitely reach. It is the primary duty of every adult to fulfill a "world in peace"– everyone’s childhood dream. Every child surrounded by the horrors of war dreams that one day somebody will come and say "It is enough!" and by saying it bring war to an end. Then war will stop. That day has come! It's time to combine our efforts in order to make that dream come true.
    _______________________________________________________pause the WAR

    April 9, 2014 at 11:56 pm |
  3. 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 |
  4. 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 |
  5. 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 |
  6. momofthree

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

    January 20, 2014 at 12:50 pm |
  7. 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 |
  8. 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 |
      • Keith

        neither does mine. My relationship is 45 years on-going and it has changed many times during that time and at no time did it have anything to do with Jesus

        May 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm |
  9. Agnostic Front

    It is all religious mythology and crap anyways. Following an ancient fiction book as a guide to modern life is naive at its best, gross incompetence at its worst. We are evolutionarily stuck as a species until we stop waving our burning sticks at the sky and believing in Space Daddy.

    January 15, 2014 at 1:39 pm |
  10. Mako

    This I don't get at all...why anyone would want to live with more than one woman unless they are a masochist.

    January 14, 2014 at 3:22 pm |
  11. Mary Smith

    Go back and read your bible. Adultery. Hello?

    January 13, 2014 at 6:17 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      Go back and read your bible, all of the patriarchs had multiple wives.

      That isn't the point. We don't govern our country based on the bible. What consenting adults do and how they choose to manage their relationships shouldn't be anyone's business but those involved.

      January 13, 2014 at 6:21 pm |
  12. samsjmail

    I don't know how he does it. 4 wives? How many pairs of shoes a year is that?

    January 13, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
  13. Robert Raulerson

    If two women want to marry the same man it ain't my problemo. Don't think it will go down well with modern feminists tho.

    January 12, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
  14. letmeeatcake

    ...every woman is unique like a snowflake...polygamy values each woman for her individual talents...one woman is the cook...another is the maid...another is the child care specialist...another is the exotic dancer...

    January 12, 2014 at 4:11 am |
  15. chosenbygrace

    Polygamy rules

    January 8, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
  16. huh

    I dont know how he does it. If it were me I would have 3 unsatisfied wives and one semi-satisfied wife

    January 8, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
    • Matt Parks

      One wife is plenty....

      January 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
  17. anchorite

    "When I heard a federal judge struck down part of Utah’s polygamy law last week, I gave a little squeal of delight." Utah also struck down a thousand gay marriages today. So female priests should be able to marry, men should be able to have multiple wives, but gays can't have a private loving relationship, Tumminio?

    January 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm |
  18. Scott Johnston

    Polygamy is just multiple cohabiting. It could eb considered a private arrangement. However, assuming it is decriminalized, the rest of society should not be supporting it with their taxes. That is, the husband cannot claim all of his wives as dependents on his 1040 tax form. Nor should the state give child support on the grounds that the women are unwed mothers.

    January 8, 2014 at 10:46 am |
  19. Jennifer

    I'd like to know which of the five parents is not invested in his or her children and does not represent empowered faith. Ah, the unintended consequences of poor proofreading.

    January 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
  20. christiansteve

    Letching grey is just the kind god is looking for

    January 5, 2014 at 10:00 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.