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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. Elizabeth

    How interesting that neither Tumminio or any commenters (male or female) mentionned polyandry as also being OK. If the issue for Tumminio is just whether a commited, loving family group is jointly raising children, why cannot that group be made up of a single woman & multiple men? Maybe because that really isn't the issue . . . . . .

    December 18, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • doobzz

      Actually, this has been brought up several times in the comments.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Bruce

      Good point.

      January 4, 2014 at 2:10 am |
  2. igaftr

    So when I was young, I married a wonderful woman. A few years later, my wife brought a woman into the relationship who had been badly abused, and needed to have a good man, so I married her.....i thought it was pretty big o' me.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • doobzz

      Most men think they're bigger than they actually are.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Has that arrangement continued to work out well for you three?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    the author and the Browns are Christians and they believe they are doing right. Why do you Christians on this blog feel you can use Christianity to tell them what they can and cannot do?

    And don't say they are going against the bible. I can guarantee you have not followed every word of the bible in your life!

    December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • RB

      You may be on to something doG. No one is sinless.

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

        RB
        I am sinless. Since sin is a contsrtuct of religion...religion that I do not subscribe to, there is no such thing as sin, so I am not a sinner.
        That does not mean i cannot or have not done things that are morally wrong...just nothing qualifies as sin.

        If you claim I am a sinner, YOU sin since you believe in sin, and one of your commandments says to not bear false witness....and since you do not KNOW i have sinned, only BELIEVE, you cannot truthfully say I am a sinner. You can honestly say you BELIEVE it, but not that I am.

        December 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
        • RB

          Igaftr,

          Ok, please allow me to rephrase. According to the word of God, no one is without sin. Better?

          December 18, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
        • igaftr

          RB

          almost there...you mean what you BELIEVE to be the word of god.
          There is no evidence that any gods were involved in the bible.

          If there truly was a "word of god" would it not be life....ALL life?
          If there was a written word of god, would it not be DNA....god writes with atoms and molecules.

          December 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
        • Charlie

          IGAFTR; Your false reasoning shows your ignorance of the matter.

          December 18, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
        • igaftr

          Charlie
          Oh by all means, explain it.
          My reasoning is sound. SIn is an affront to god. If no god exists, then sin also does not exist.
          I believe there are no gods, so I cannot be a sinner.
          Men answer to other men for crimes, and "immorality" ( i use quotes since morality is a moving target, depending on where you are brought up in the world)

          December 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Responding to the Pride

      Dog–are you incapable of recognizing the difference between past sin and ongoing unrepentant sin? We have all sinned–the question is whether you're going to continue to sin with a feeling of impunity (pride).

      December 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  4. theoriginaljames

    I've seen the show and it appears to me that the whole thing is to satisfy the husband at the sacrifice of the wives. I see no equality.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Bbg

      I'm not so sure. In a typical marriage where the wife works, and does most of the household chores and child raising, one could argue she is getting taken advantage of. With sister wives, I suspect there is less work for each individual and maybe more family enjoyment time. I believe it depends more on who you are married to than anything else. Plus, many spouses cheat or are serial monogamists. I think it is worthy of consideration for some. I am happily married to one person, but I could see how it could be advantageous and I do not feel threatened by their choices. Live and let live.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  5. Yakman2

    To each there own!!!

    December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  6. BGK245

    Much attention is given to the treatment of women, but lost in all of this is the impact of plural wife culture on sons. These groups must necessarily expel enough boys from their midst for the remaining men to take multiple wives, and communities around them are left to deal with young men, often barely more than kids, who have been sent away with no job skills and no family left to support them. Usually they are told it is because they are insubordinate or troublemakers, but in truth, it is simply because they are surplus, and this supposed joyful focus on reunion in heaven with a large extended family has no place for those who have been declared unmarriageable.

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

      I almost have to wonder sometimes about the basic math skills of the folks who ignore this issue when talking about polygyny...which is really what we are looking at here and what is likely to occur with the most frequency. High rates of polygyny mean that you have excess unmarried males with the corresponding higher rates of crime and violence and fairly obvious disatifaction and isolation. You might argue that these are the less desirable males reproductively, but you better at least be aware that at a societal level this is the very controversial claim.

      If we aren't just talking about polygyny, but true polygamy, we are looking at potential relationships in which the entire world could be intermarried with only a couple of spouses each. These more complex relationsips also tend to end in disagreement over membership fairly frequently with most members going back to single partner relationships.

      I'm not saying you can't have some diversity in relationsips, but as a standard practice I think polygamy is unlikely to make it as the norm in a secular society. But hey, not everyone has to be the norm.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  7. Anthony Crispino

    Not everyones cut out for that kind of thing. I just tried the simple kind like in this video, but I think I keep folding things in the wrong direction.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4L5nDDgEEk

    December 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  8. Bbg

    Don't think it would be for me, but I say live and let live. The women seem intelligent and happy. Why is it anyone else's business? They could each find there own personal husband if they chose to. Thank goodness the world isn't full of identical thinkers.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  9. Rick G

    I'm fine with this. As long as there is no abuse or coercion involved, I have no problem with consenting adults living in whatever manner they so choose. In such situations I am happy to fall back on minding my own business.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  10. truthprevails1

    Who really cares? Anyone who read the article can see that the children are obviously loved and taken care of. How these people choose to live their personal lives is really their business. Not one of us is paying their way and they're really not harming anyone. The wives know each other and that is far better than the shock of being cheated on. I thought christians were all about keeping stable family units together but I guess that only applies when it matches their definition of what a family unit is. The children have their parents together and they will get to know their half siblings....no harm done there.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  11. Pig in a Poke

    A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married. ~ H.L. Mencken

    December 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  12. Robert

    Polygamy has never been associated with successful modern cultures. There is a reason it has been forbidden and monogamous marriages have been the model for Western society for thousands of years – it works, and polygamy does not work for a strong culture. How sad that an Anglican cleric cant even understand the basic influence of HER Christian tradition. Of course, thats to be expected from a tradition that essentially believes that love is simply a warm feeling and that it justifies all manner of sin.

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

      What is sad is that she based her whole opinion on a cheesy TLC show.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • Guest234

        it says in the article that she meet them !

        December 18, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
      • Pig in a Poke

        And the guy is kind of a D Bag, it's like all other reality shows, it's all for show and mostly MONEY!

        December 18, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      the author and the Browns are Christians and they believe they are doing right. Why do you feel you can use Christianity to tell them what they can and cannot do?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • dwight

        Um, the Browns are Mormon, not Christians, as they follow the Book of Mormon as the word of God and not the Bible. The history of the Mormons is not kind to poligamy, as it was decided and added after the Book of Mormon was written as an addendum that was pushed by Brigham Young to Joseph Smith. Joseph smith bought into the concept ousting many husbands and taking their wives and his own wife was not happy with the arraingment.

        December 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • Colin

      Ever noticed that God loves all the same things you do, disapproves of all the same things you do, and has an identical moral outlook to you, Robert? Ever wondered if you made him in your image and not vice-versa?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        well said Colin!

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

      Perhapse you should google 'Saudi Arabia'

      December 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Matthew Grant

      Do you have any evidences that support your claim? I would hardly call the "traditional marriage" as you describe as being successful. It was a 50% failure rate in this country. Regardless of your ideological stance you have no right to enforce your morality upon anyone else.

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

      It has always amazed me when people start discusing a subject that is considered a violation of Christian beliefs the following words are usually used. I think, I believe, could be, maybe, might be, what if, some people think, etc. Christian beliefs are based on the Bible, the written word. When getting into a discussion about Christianity we should first state what we believe about scripture. Personally I believe the Bible is God's instructions to man, is true from cover to cover about all matters regarding faith. Just so we can understand your points you need to tell us if you believe or disbelieve the Bible,

      December 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  13. Vic

    My take:

    I believe the "Adam & Eves" 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, let's say for now, success?!

    ------------------------------------–
    p.s. It is not necessarily an Ecclesiastical issue, it is a practical one:

    1 Corinthians 10:23
    "23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify."

    Scripture Is From:

    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation

    http://www.biblegateway.com/

    December 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  14. Say Whaaaat!

    I think these women decided on this lifestyle because it benefits them more than the "norm" would. If they find themselves mistreated, just walk away, file for child support and go on with life. If they are forced to this standard of life, then that is another story.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Robert

      Not so! That is why laws are so often required against polygamy. Women have time after time been "trapped" in such family structures. That is not to say women cannot be trapped in traditional monogamous relationships, but rather simply because women are in these relationships does NOT mean they are necessarily willingly, let alone happy, members of this type of "marriage".

      December 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
      • G to the T

        Then we should address those potential problems with the system. Doesn't mean the system itself is completely flawed.

        December 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Saraswati

      There are generally going to be a lot less funds for support when a woman and her kids leave a man who had many other children to care for. Certainly there are exceptions where a many is very wealthy, but these are not the norm.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  15. Balthazaar

    About time. Polygamy has very deep historic roots.....way deeper than its association with the mormon cult in the US.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  16. Aubrie

    Makes me want to vomit.... I have SO MUCH pity for these ignorant women....

    December 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Matthew Grant

      So your point of view is that these women are ignorant because they live a lifestyle that you do not agree with. That in itself is showing the true ignorance, as you are under the assumption that everyone needs to live by whatever moral code you decided to live. This type of thinking makes me want to vomit and is quite a shameful way of conducting oneself.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  17. Mopery

    I know, let's put a comment section which only allows praise of polygamy, while any well structured opposing arguments are deleted en masse. Good job C N N, good job.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Maddy

      I doubt it was anything you said...more likely a known troll you may have answered.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  18. Grm

    You had me believing in what you were writing until the Olive Garden comment. Then you lost me.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  19. rizzo

    Well personally I don't want to put up with one woman nevermind multiple ones...good luck to all the guys that do though!

    December 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • bob

      never ate there in my life–i would get lost myself

      December 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Mopery

    P r o s t i t u t i o n

    December 18, 2013 at 1:41 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.