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. bearitstrong

    Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn = fools.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Topher

      Don't forget me.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  2. Mica

    The Brown women are very different then the women who live in "fundamentalist" polygamy sects. At least these women seem to be doing what they want, not what they can't escape. And they are all adults. But many of these "families" are composed of children brides

    December 18, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  3. Live4Him

    @Colin : Have you ever noticed that it is always the Christians (and other theists) who want to dictate to everybody who and how they must love.
    Live4Him: How do you define 'love' in the given context?
    Joey : The same way you would define it when talking about your wife/husband and children.
    Colin : Joey pretty much captured it.

    what he said! This sounds like you don't know what love means. Since Joey never asked how I would define it, then he doesn't know how I would define love. Thus, he can not claim it is the same.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • Holiday Nuts -let's just try to keep them on the playground..

      Joey might have asked, but since you always top-post portions of conversations, I guess we'll never know.... right?

      December 18, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Love isn't a score of 0 in tennis?

      December 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • Shaweet

      Oh, jeez. You asked a question, Joey answered, Colin agreed with that answer....but you're complaining nobody asked YOU??

      Can you read a thread and comprehend it, or don't you know how to start a conversation? You stink at this, Liver, you really do.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • Joey

      He doesn't want to define it that way because then he wouldn't be able to make whatever point it is that he is trying to make. Basically he doesn't want to admit that gay people can feel the same love for their signicant other as he or she feels for theirs.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Holilday Nuts - all free until New Year's


    December 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  5. dave

    people are weird

    December 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  6. RangerDOS

    The world has six billion people and populations will grow till we start dying off due to disease, war, and starvation. This lady really thinks that lots of kids from polygamy is a good idea because it gives this guy a comfortable heaven. I'm going to use a four letter word here so kids "Hide your eyes": DUMB

    December 18, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  7. Ashley

    They say that they need polygamy in order to create a community that can all be together in heaven...why not just invest in your church and/or community around you and help those people get into heaven? I don't think you need to marry multiple people for that goal....sounds like an excuse to me...

    December 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It's part of the religion. You die and become a god with your own planet and the family ruling together.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
      • YT

        To make it bullet proof, all they need to say is that it was revealed to them, just like all the stories in the Bible.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Cloning sounds more like the answer to what they are looking for.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • sam stone

      excuse or not, as long as they are adults, they should have this right

      December 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  8. Reality # 2

    These guys "ain't" no different than their womanizing, adulterating Muslim brothers!!!

    December 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Shaweet

      Or any other group of people who want to play. Get real.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      o Islam gives women almost no rights and treats them like fodder for the male species as so bluntly noted by Aya-an Hi-rsi Ali in her autobiography, In-fidel.

      "Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circu-mcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It's a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hi-rsi Ali escaped – and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women."

      ref: Washington Post book review.

      some excerpts:

      "Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly be-aten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their scre-ams resounded across the courtyards. "No! Please! By Allah!"

      "The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had cas-tes. The Untou-chable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were unt-ouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were tou-chable: we to-uched them see? but also hor-rifying to think of yourself as un-touchable, des-picable to the human race."

      "Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were ki-lled by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exa-ggerating."

      "The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Som-alia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feu-dal mind-set based on tr-ibal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hypro-cricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam".

      More on the treatment of females in Islam:

      Islam’s widespread practice of amputating the cli-to-ris and sometimes part or even all of the vul-va from the ge-n-ita-lia of Muslim women, affirmed in a had-ith by Mohammed himself, most likely also traces back to the founder’s deliberate abuse of se-x to lure pagan males into his cu-lt. The more the male s-ex drive is purposefully aro-used, the more the female s-ex urge may have to be proportionately suppressed, lest org-iastic he-ll begin to spread.

      Consider then what frequently happens when even a modestly clothed young Western woman walks alone in broad daylight down a street in, for example, a non-Westernized area of a city in Pakistan. Muslim men around her can see her face, hair and neck—maybe even her ankles. Some of them perceive that much exposure as intent on her part to a-rouse them. The fact that she is not accompanied by a male relative confirms their susp-icions. Knowing that she, a Western woman, has not been subjected to that cruel amputation which Islam forces upon millions of Muslim women, some males may even imagine that she must feel s-exual desire for them.

      They tend also to perceive themselves as not responsible to exercise decent social restraint. Rather she is responsible not to tempt them! Whatever lewd thing Muslim men around her say, do or feel as a result is regarded as her fault alone. . . .
      During a major upheaval in Indonesia in the late 1990s, s-ex-crazed Muslim men gang-ra-ped dozens of Chinese women in shops, homes and even in the streets, shouting in Arabic, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great!)*


      December 18, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
  9. cebundy

    Nicely written opinion. I can see that plural marriages can serve as a strong foundation in which to raise children. They can get more attention and support than from two parents stretched too thin by modern day demands. It doesn't even necessarily need to be faith-based. And as far and abusing women, there are undoubtedly more women abused in traditional marriages. The type of marriage has nothing to do with the existence of abuse.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • SuZieCoyote

      Actually, it does have everything to do with abuse – everywhere it is legally sanctioned practiced throughout the world. Do you have any counter examples?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It depends on what you mean by abuse. In marriages with one husband and multiple wives normally one or more wife and her children are favored and others and their children are marginalized. Kids know the position of their family from an early age. There isn't enough money for support if one woman leaves because the man is spreading his earnings among multiple women and their kids.

      December 18, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
  10. Michele

    Sorry, but it seems even priests can be so far off base as to not even be in the game. Unless, of course, you are advocating that women may marry as many men as they wish. Polygamous men are beastly pigs with ZERO respect for women. And women who accept polygamy have serious self esteem issues. Let's face it, this all started because a deeply dishonest con man pedophile wanted access to all the little girls he wanted. And a so-called "religion" embraces this sick behavior. Wrong, wrong, wrong and even more wrong.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Ashley

      Completely agree with you.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • andrew

      You go girl.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
    • Live4Him


      December 18, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Bill

      I'm sure you know exactly what is in everyone's heart.

      Kind of like all feminists are man hating, unshaved, bitter women.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • karlotious

      Yes Michele please tell us all how to live. That is what religion forces upon us is it not? Atheist and loving it

      December 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Vince

      Are you inferring the prophet Abraham was a dishonest con man? I think he was an honest man who was doing what he thought God wanted him to,

      December 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
      • Mary

        Actually God told him he had been wrong in having other wives..
        Maybe you should actually read the bible.
        God said though they had taken many wives, he wanted a man to have only one wife..
        This so called religion was made by men for men.. And these women grew up brainwashed.. And are still buying into the idea they must "endure" the hardship of working through normal feelings to live this way..Like loneliness, jealousy anger etc.
        Wow.. I don't think women were born to suffer this way in a marriage.. But in this "religion" the woman has to live a life of becoming better.. ??
        Wow.. And so many here does not see the wrong in that ?

        December 18, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
        • igaftr

          What I see is MARY judging others. And she doesn't seem to see anything wrong with that.
          Must be her "religion" that taught her that.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • sam stone

      "And women who accept polygamy have serious self esteem issues."

      Same thing could be said of anyone who who feels we were "born into sin and death"

      December 18, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
      • bibletruth

        We were all born into a lost race...the race of Adam, that is, the fallen human nature race. Jesus took all humanity's sins to the cross from the foundation of the world, so every person may now choose to which race they want to belong...Adam's race and eternal death, or become a son of God (i.e. Jesus race) and eternal life.
        Always remember, God gives no one free choice regarding sin or not sinning. He gives free choice as to which master you choose, and it is that choice that decides what you think, say, and do, and your destiny.

        December 22, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Vince

      " Polygamous men are beastly pigs with ZERO respect for women. And women who accept polygamy have serious self esteem issues". I felt the same way until I met some polygamous men and women. From those that I met, not one was a beastly pig, and the women are wonderful educated people.(I know about 10 families) Possibly there are some out there who are pigs and have self esteem issues. Have you met them, and spoken with them?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • ALA

      So, polygamous men are 'beastly pigs' but are women who practice polyadry just as beastly?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • SuZieCoyote

      You got it!

      December 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  11. Don Hires

    The last sentence expresses it all...."The views expressed in this column belong to Tumminio." Thank God!!!!

    December 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  12. Chris

    I don't advocate polygamy but if society's moral compass deems a marriage is not just from one man/one woman, but man/man or woman/woman then who's to say that same moral compass will allow polygamy. How can a gay man or lesbian woman fight for their right to marriage and fight against polygamy.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Same se.x marriage is a relatively small change...mostly just updating a few gwnder pronouns on some docu.ments. Polygamy opens up a whole new set of issues. You have relationships that could be complex networks of hundreds of people. Custody issues become enormously complex, as does inheretence, immigration divorce and family law. Additionally, in these conservative models you have very few earners supporting large numbers of children, pushing the tax burden onto others and trapping women in relationships because there will be no financial support if they leave. This isn't to say it can't be done, but it is hundreds of times more complicated.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
      • Live4Him

        @Saraswati : Same se.x marriage is a relatively small change.

        In your mind, yes. But the same could be said from those in the article about polygamy. After all, it was practiced in Utah prior to it joining the Union.

        @Saraswati : Custody issues become enormously complex

        We already see this with Same se.x divorce – Who is the real 'parent', etc.

        @Saraswati : you have very few earners supporting large numbers of children, pushing the tax burden onto others and trapping women in relationships because there will be no financial support if they leave.

        Why would women be trapped due to financial support in this form of 'marriage' than in any other form? They are not. However, I do agree with you that women would be emotionally manipulated and subsequently trapped, to avoid being a community outcast.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • Saraswati


          "In your mind, yes. But the same could be said from those in the article about polygamy. After all, it was practiced in Utah prior to it joining the Union."

          Polygyny was practiced in Utah, not full scale reciprocal polygamy, which raises much larger issues. Additionally, there was little divorce and a much different taxation and benefits system. To reinsti.tute even simple polygyny, which would never happen in our more equal society, would involve complexities that never existed at that time.

          "We already see this with Same se.x divorce – Who is the real 'parent', etc."

          These exact same issues already existed in same se.x divorces. No change. When you have 200 parents, or even only 5 living in different countries, you are talking much greater complexity.

          "Why would women be trapped due to financial support in this form of 'marriage' than in any other form? They are not."

          I was speaking specifically to the more conservative form where most of the women don't bring in money and have several children. If they leave there is far less financial support from the husband who still has other wives and children to support. This means the woman faces greater financial risks by leaving.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  13. andrew

    Afemale Episcopal priest.Pretty much all you need to know.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Shaweet

      Want to elucidate that statement?

      December 18, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  14. Michael Sawyer

    If the same respect can be given to one woman having many husbands, then sure, I will support polygamy. Already its stupid in my opinion to make illegal polygamy when in reality, you can have a polygamous relationship existing without marriage.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I've been in a monogamous relationship for a decade without marriage.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
      • Michele

        BUT, you have no legal liability for your "spouse". If you are not willing to commit to being responsible you do not deserve a relationship.

        December 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
        • Saraswati

          If he isn't willing to commit to what? Having his/her money taken if his wife is sued? I'm not clear on this argument at all?

          December 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
        • doobzz

          "If you are not willing to commit to being responsible you do not deserve a relationship.""

          How do you know what his level of commitment is? Just because you need a marriage certificate to feel secure in your relationships doesn't mean everyone does.

          Pretty arrogant and presumptuous of you.

          December 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
        • Doc Vestibule

          We're raising a family together. We share our lives and a bank account.
          Everybody assumes that we're not married becuase I'm afraid to commit – but the fact of the matter is that SHE is the one who is adamant about it.
          She is tougher, more street smart, and more outspoken and more independent than I am.

          December 18, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
        • sam stone

          Michele: By what authority do you claim to know who deserves what?

          December 18, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
        • sam stone

          True Believers? Arrogant and presumptuous? Say it ain't so

          December 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • elr

      Lord help me, I can't imagine wanting more than one husband. Frankly, there are about 7 billion people on this planet that I wouldn't want to be married to, some are men, some are women and they come from all races and religions. Fining the right compliment to your own ideas of marriage is hard enough, people ought to be able to do it in whatever way works best for them. Perhaps if more people spent time considering what type of marriage works for them and less about others, there would be less divorce.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  15. guest

    The author mentions "four parents equally invested in their children", but she lists 5 names. I don't watch this show, but it sounds like there is 1 guy "married" to 4 women. So which adult in the family is not invested in their children? Is it the dad? Or one of the wives because she doesn't have kids yet? I'm confused...

    December 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  16. Multiple Partners

    Sounds fun to me

    December 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  17. Charles

    CNN laughed conservatives to scorn back when we were saying that opening the marriage definition to include gays would lead to further changing it to include polygamy, incest, bestiality, etc.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Saraswati

      This ruling didn't allow polygamy. It was just a cohabitation law.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • karek40

      Well said and absolutely correct.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • sam stone

        who is suggesting allowing legal beastiality, karek?

        December 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • sam stone

      Why is it you "traditional marriage" people always include bestiality as a end result of allowing gays to marry?

      Animals cannot consent.

      You and your sheep will just have to live in sin

      December 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • JustRigth

      And we are still laughing at yiou

      December 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  18. weRstarstuff

    I`ve always found one wife was More than enough ......

    December 18, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      You've got to find women who have been beaten into submission with the Bible and feel the appropriate shame for condeming mankind to death and who heed Timothy and STFU.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • sam stone

      some people find polygamy to be one wife too many. some find monogamy to be the same

      December 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  19. Jesus' Beloved

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

    While I don't expect an article from a "priest" to be condemning, I expect something that edifies the body of Christ.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • igaftr

      "love never fails"

      Then how do you explain the divorce rate?

      December 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
      • Harvesting

        It was never love to begin with, just like someone saying they are not over weight, they are just big boned. People lie to themselves all the time, to justify their actions.

        December 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
        • igaftr

          so just like religious beliefs.

          And you do not know it was not love in the first place. You presume too much.
          If I fall in love with someone, but then after many years that person changes to the point where we simply drift apart....the love will change. Love is not eternal, love is an emotion, that is backed by chemicals in your brain. Love can change or end.
          It happens all the time.

          What you are referring to is a "perfect"love, which is very rare indeed.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
      • Jesus' Beloved

        That's the point of my post. Love didn't exist... If it did, there wouldn't be divorce.
        Love is not a feeling. Humanity treat it as such. That's the reason for giving the definition of Love as defined by the Bible.
        The ultimate lover is God. God is Love.
        As disciples of His Son Christ Jesus, we're commanded to love each other as Christ Loves us.
        Until we understand the Love Christ has for us, we'll never truly love each other. So it's important to know and to believe how much God loves us, and we in turn can love each other likewise.

        December 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
        • Free Nuts

          uhh... well that's a big bowl of self-validating nuts if I ever saw one!

          December 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
        • sam stone

          The ultimate lover is god?

          "oh, jeeebus, fvck me, fvck me hard.....that's it, oh god, OH GOD!"

          December 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
        • JustRigth

          God is love:
          When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
      • karek40

        Godly love never fails, the love a man has for a woman or a brother can fail, lust always fails with time.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • sam stone

          god's love never fails?

          it is because it is IMAGINARY

          December 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
      • bibletruth

        Love never fails while love remains. Like when one is born again, the relationship never fails, again while the relationship remains. And, by the way, any failure in the Jesus/human being relationship, always is on mans side, never Gods side. It is always man that defaults. Yes, a once born again/converted person can repudiate that relationship. That's why Paul said I die daily.

        December 22, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  20. Sam Yaza

    not just polygamy, polyandry.we as a free county and as a melting pot of culture should take a broad definition of marriage. like; marriage is a union of two or more people.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Actually

      Polygamy includes both polyandry and polygyny.

      December 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Mopery

      Oh boy, wait until the Village People hear about this...

      December 18, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
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About this blog

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.