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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 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. T_Ired

    Why is always one-sided? Let's see how happy they are when a woman tries to marry more than one man.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Epidi

      Why? If you can deal with a 5 yr old, you can deal with most men lol. It takes much emotional maturity, patience, wisdom & understanding of one's self and esteem to do polygamy right wether there are multiple wives or husbands. Not something to be done or taken lightly.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  2. Bunnie Watson

    Polygamy is not plural marriage in any legal sense. Under US law, one is still only allowed a single civil marriage. Anything more is bigamy, unrecognized by the government and subject to prosecution. While their "religion" may allow multiple partner unions (they're in the Old Testament too, remember) that doesn't mean they have any legal standing. This is a guy with one legal wife and a modern harem.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  3. Doc Vestibule

    Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer himself, wrote in a letter to the Saxon Chancellor Gregor Brück that he could not "forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict Scripture."

    December 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Colin

      Luther is one of your heroes isn't he Topher?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • bob

      Well mr mormon, you aren't a protestant your religion isn't even in the same ball park–Number 2 one man,one wife is a western civ concept.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        What makes you think I'm a Mormon?

        December 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
        • Colin

          I've seen you out late at night, when you think nobody is looking, digging furiously in your yard for seer stones.

          December 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  4. Mopery

    So much censorship going on in this blog, I can't even post my argument without it being deleted. Is C N N afraid of angering a bunch of incestuous polygamists now?

    December 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • doobzz

      You probably got caught in the word filter. Someone has a list of the naughty words.

      If you use the word "vague", it will boot you out because it contains "vag" (vagina) or "Constitution" with the very naughty "tit".

      It's a pain, but CNN isn't actually reading and monitoring each post unless someone reports it.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • doobzz

        Obviously there are ways around the filter, the easiest is to type va.gue instead of the real word.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  5. bob

    Mormonism is a sick religion

    December 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • T_Ired

      They aren't Mormons, genius. Stay on topic or go back to the kids' table.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • bob

        They believe the book of mormon, another testament of jesus christ is the word of God-Yes, they are mormons

        December 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
        • Doc Vestibule

          They're "fundamentalist" Mormons.
          The LDS Quorum of 12 Prophets has had to backpedal on a number of church doctrines throughout the years, primarily for monetary and/or political reasons.
          In the case of polygamy, it was all about was all about political expediency.
          Utah was denied statehood over and over again becuase they practiced what the US government called the "twin relics of barbarism," slavery and polygamy.
          In the 1880's, the banning of polygamy became an official requirement for entry into the Union.
          In 1890, Mormon Prophet Willford Woodruff stated that "my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land."
          In 1896, Utah's application for statehood was finally accepted.
          But even in the modern LDS Church, they teach that Mormon men allowed as many "spirit wives" as they wish but a woman can be bound to only one man.

          December 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
        • bob

          Doc–seems to me the mormons in the article are more obedient to the book of mormon then other mormons.

          December 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
        • Doc Vestibule

          The best part of having a rotating group of "prophets" is that you can change pretty much anything about church doctrine whenever you want.
          The early Mormons were painfully and disgustingly racist – if you read Brigham Young's stuff in the Journal of Discourses it'll make your stomach churn.
          It wasn't until 1978 that the then "Prophet' Spencer Kimball finally allowed dark skinned people to serve in the LDS clergy.
          This was, by pure coincidence of course, the same year they opened the first temple in a country full of people with dark skin. Prior to expanding into Brazil, they'd only been to the whitest places they could find (switzerland, england, alberta canada).

          December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  6. Kyle

    I can't wait until I'm able to marry my donkey.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • midwest rail

      If the animal were able to give informed consent, I'm sure it would say no.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Thinker...

      THE SKY IS FALLING!

      December 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Colin

      Why don't you just keep living in sin with it, the way you have been?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        The donkey wants stability.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • dnokc

      If you marry your donkey, people might think you're a democrat!

      December 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • doobzz

      No problemo. A donkey's Latin name is Equus africanus asinus, and Asinus is a subgenus of Equus, that includes the donkey and other asses, so you're staying within your own species.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  7. Colin

    Have you ever noticed that it is always Christian groups who:

    1. Want to keep gays from marrying
    2. Don’t want teenagers immunized against HPV
    3. Opposed gays in the military
    4. Oppose consensual adult $ex in any way that does not conform to their own views.
    5. Want to restrict access to birth control to women in poor countries (Catholics at least)
    6. Would prefer poor Africans to die than have access to condoms (again, Catholics at least)
    7. Want to insist that women carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

    In each case, based not on science, not on good social policy, but based solely and 100% on the $exual desires they attribute to their non existent Bronze Age Palestinian sky-fairy.

    Thank goodness we are already exiting the final years where they have the numbers to have any political clout. Atheism is rising so quickly and the sky-fairy believers numbers are going down so quickly with young people that Christianity should join the ranks of astrology and the like as idle curiosities within a generation or two.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Kyle

      You are a very original thinker. The next Socrates.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • RB

      Young folks can, and often do, drift from their faith as they sow their wild oats. Most are like the prodigal son, when they come to the end of themselves, they return to the father’s house.

      Proverbs 22:6
      Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • igaftr

        RB
        If you try to raise your child according to the bible, it is unlikey any will survive.

        Aren't you supposed to take unruly children to the city guards and stone them?
        And what child was not unruly at some time?

        December 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • theoriginaljames

      Well said.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
      • theoriginaljames

        To clarify, well said to Colin, not the bible thumper.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Atheistic arousals flowing amid the theistic accolades have always been a historic normalcy within socialized humanisms ever ebbing and flowing with mostly humane tidal affluences creating many high-minded pyramids of hierarchal existentialism... Go Figure...

      December 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        Hey Lionly – you should get your immigration papers in order.
        Uganda has become the first country to not only legalize marijuana but also to have the government control the quality, sale and distribution of it like they do with alcohol.
        They've set the price at $1 per gram.

        December 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
        • Colin

          Uruguay

          December 18, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • kjnm

      You are a very funny clown

      December 21, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  8. FrmrMrine

    As if one wife wasn't trouble enough.......

    December 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • T_Ired

      So this guy has to live with and support more than one woman that refuses to sleep with him? That's not my idea of heaven.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  9. Serious Truth

    p.s. If we are going to use "It hurts women because it gives them a skewed perspective on who they can be" as an argument. You better take on the Catholics and Muslims too, because they have the same anti-female slant. "Our father..." really?

    December 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  10. m1

    Sure, polygamy is really popular with pedophiles, so I can bet libs will push for the next great civil rights fight, polygamy.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      "polygamy" is a bit sexist – perhaps polyamorous marriage

      December 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • ??

      Moron.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  11. Amy

    I'm all for it. I'm a single lady and would like to have several husbands. Who's in?

    December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Some men don't have to be a bigamist to have one wife too many.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
      • FrmrMrine

        Well said. Well said.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • TadBad

      Exactly. They're all for multiple wives for a man, but multiple husbands for a woman? We know the drill: "GASP, what a wh*re she is!"

      December 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • HapHazzard

      Not as common in the world, but it does exist. Usually it is the men that do the dying, so they are the limited resource.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Charlie

      AMY..Sounds like too many already have been "in"

      December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  12. sly

    So long as all the chicks put out daily, I suppose it's a good system. I'd require wife 1 to give some goods up before breakfast, wife II at lunch, wife III for an afternoon break, and all 3 after dinner.

    That's how us poly-guys roll, and God is on our side.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • ??

      And a lifetime prescription for the little blue pill.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  13. Margi

    Please, just don't depend on public assistance programs.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  14. Vic

    My take:

    I believe the case at hand is so unique that it is almost surreal. That begs the question: Can you apply that at large and have the same, lets say for now, success?!

    December 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • ??

      As long as the wives can have more than one husband, no harm, no foul?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  15. nomadd

    Is it just me, or do they all kind of look alike?

    December 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Guest234

      2 parents and their daughter – i hope they would look alike

      December 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  16. Tiff

    OMG CNN stop shoving this down our throats trying to make some kind of new civil rights issue. It's not. It's just another stepping stone to the decaying of society just like the report you posted a couple weeks about how now pedophiles shall be referred to as minor attracted person. STOP IT ALREADY. Unless your articles are about how woman and young girls are abused in these situations, young boys grow up to become threats and are expelled. It's no more than a something less than a real man needing to control women to soothe his ego and girls that grow up to think they are less than because they are not good for their hubbies alone.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • ??

      Please post the link where CNN said that. Don't be freaking ridiculous.
      There's a difference between reporting what someone says and saying it themselves.
      You notice this is an opinion piece, or are you just that dim?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Kyle

      I agree completely.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Thinker...

      I personally prefer to judge each situation on its own merits rather than issue a blanket statement that a particular lifestyle is wrong. I would guess that poly relationships can be just as stable and effective as mono relationships. You can't really base a society off of polygamy or polyandry of course but that doesn't mean it can't work for some people. You aren't wrong that there are many abuses involving polygamy in particular, but there are also many abuses in monogamous relationships and we don't outlaw those. Prosecute the abusers and leave the rest to live their lives as they wish.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • b

      Yes, don't post any article that don't align with everyone of my opinions. It offends me to hear other people's opinions. And my web browser only allows me to read this website and so I cannot find another site that doesn't offend me.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  17. Colin

    I know of a particularly offensive, opportunistic and cowardly guy who once made his wife join a polygamous group of women to satisfy the lust of a foreign political leader just to save his own skin and for his own advancement in the society.

    But enough about Abraham, the founder of Judeo-Christianity for now.

    Oh, you Christians, you make me laugh.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Back when men were men and women were chattel.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • doobzz

      I love pointing out what a tool Abraham was. Married his half sister, lied and whored her out to kings to save his own skin, raped his sister/wife's slave, then sent her and his son out into the desert to die because his sister/wife was jealous.

      We shouldn't be surprised that today's televangelists are corrupt hypocritical scam artists. Their founding father showed them all his tricks.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
      • RB

        The human family has a sordid past. What is most surprising is that people haven’t changed much in thousands of years. Go figure.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
      • Bob

        Yes, idiot with a moniker like that, stupids take you seriously.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
        • doobzz

          Perhaps you could point out where I'm wrong about Abraham's behavior.

          No? Then it's not surprising that all you have left is ad hominems.

          December 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
        • Hough

          Ah, that idiot , it lives in a fool's paradise. Leave it alone, Bob! It will continue to wallow in stupidity!

          December 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
        • doobzz

          @ Hough

          Maybe you could show me the errors in my post instead of calling me names. Did Abraham do those things or not?

          Or you could just call me a few names, like a child who can't come up with anything better than, "Yeah, well, you're a big poppyhead!"

          December 18, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • kjnm

      Are you not willing to look at the Darwinist argument against polygamy. You just can't stop making me laugh

      December 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  18. Christy

    Lost Boys
    It can only work in small numbers otherwise there are boys that must be expelled from their own societal group or remain celibate.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • Alias

      Why are you denying the same rights to women?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  19. RB

    Genesis 2:24
    Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

    Notice he didn’t say “wives.”

    December 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Who did not say? Why care?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
      • RB

        I think you know who Tom. He wants what is best for his creation. Polygamy creates jealously and strife.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
        • igaftr

          Nice opinion RB, but that is not true for all. There are many who are quite happy with the situation.

          December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • stina

      Of course not. It would be pretty awkward for a man marry his first wife and still be living at home with his parents when he married his second wife. He should leave the nest when he gets married the first time.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • marcus

      "he" didn't say anything, some ancient writer did. If you want to obey these rules go ahead, but why force your beliefs on others?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
      • RB

        Is my post forcing you to do something.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
        • RB

          ?

          December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Drew

      Remind me again when the Bible became the law of the land? I bet you object to the possibility of Sharia law, but indeed, neither the Bible nor the Koran should define the law.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Clareita

      And yet many men in Genesis had multiple wives.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
      • RB

        Yes, they did and look at the trouble it caused.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • JWT

      It does not matter what you think the bible says.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • sly

      What is a Genesis, and what do those numbers mean? And who is he?

      I think he is referring to a rock and roll star, and I think they often have lots of chicks. I'm confused ...

      December 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Some Antics

      "30 Afterward Lot left Zoar because he was afraid of the people there, and he went to live in a cave in the mountains with his two daughters. 31 One day the older daughter said to her sister, “There are no men left anywhere in this entire area, so we can’t get married like everyone else. And our father will soon be too old to have children. 32 Come, let’s get him drunk with wine, and then we will have s e x with him. That way we will preserve our family line through our father.” Genesis 19:30-38

      So if there aren't enough men to marry it's okay to sleep with your daughters according to the bible...

      December 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
      • RB

        As I told doobz above, the human family has a sordid past. What is most surprising is that people haven’t changed much in thousands of years. Go figure. You think we should repeat every awful example in history?

        December 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
        • Some Antics

          You just quoted Genesis above and pointed out what it doesn't say as if it is some sort of guide to follow so I post a scripture from Genesis and now it's "well, a lot has changed since then".

          Either accept every word of the bible as truth and a guide for every day life with all the good and bad, the owning of slaves, the subservience of women, the polygamy and incest, or admit that it is flawed and should not be followed to the letter and thus is of human origin and only good for cherry picking bits and pieces of ancient wisdom. You cannot have it both ways.

          December 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
        • RB

          You are just stirring the pot. Did God tell those young ladies to do that? If a historical account is included in the bible, does it mean we are to do it also? God created us with superior intelligence.

          December 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
        • doobzz

          It would help if you quit holding up a freak like Abraham as an example of what your deity thinks is a righteous and faithful man.

          December 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
        • Some Antics

          "11 “‘If a man has s e xual relations with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. 12 “‘If a man has s e xual relations with his daughter-in-law, both of them are to be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads." Leviticus 20:11,12

          And yet Lot and his daughters were not punished in any way. Lots wife was supposedly turned into a pillar of salt for longing for the comforts of the city they just escaped, but no punishment for the incest? If that isn't a biblical lesson of a double standard then I must not know what a double standard is...

          It's fun to watch Christians do backflips to defend their flawed book, but it is getting a little old.

          December 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
        • TrueBeliever

          Lot was generations before Levitical Law. Anyone who is Bible literate knows that. They know the Bible has history, poetry and drama. Outside the epistles, it is not a self-help book.

          December 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  20. Ace

    Is three wives trigonometry?

    December 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Thinker...

      Nice one

      For the (large) part of internet that doesn't understand humor: three wives is trigamy.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Tim

      Excellent!

      December 18, 2013 at 1:38 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.