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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. HotAirAce

    If everyone involved is over the age of legal consent and the relationship is truly consensual, no problem. My only concern would be for children, that they do not suffer as a result of their parent's decisions.

    December 18, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • ME II

      Agreed, although not sure how children would be harmed by too many loving parents, provided they are loving parents of course.

      December 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        Infighting between parents and separation/divorce come to mind. It seems to me these could be even more complicated or difficult than if just two parents were involved. But no reason to say no to all.

        December 18, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
        • Saraswati

          In the situations I've known the kids reported favoritism and jealousy and very unpleasant environments. And in the US we will have far more complex scenarios if these becomes common, where a man marries three women, and two of those have multiple spouses and each of those... or does everyone married to one person have to agree to other marriages? How many agree to a divorce? Are you married to all your spouses spouses?

          December 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
        • Pee

          ......but....but...he said if everyone involved is over the age of legal consent and the relationship is truly consensual, no problem. you found a problem?....you mean...he may be wrong?........

          December 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
        • ME II

          @HotAirAce,
          More complicated sure, but I'm not sure it would be more difficult and/or damaging for the children. If nothing else there would be more support for the children, I would think.

          December 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Saraswati

      The people I've known raised in polygynous households (not in the US) have told horror stories.

      December 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
      • ME II

        Was that due to the culture or the plural marriage? Honestly asking.

        December 19, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Roger that

      I can think of much much worst situations for a child. I feel sorry for the child in the monogamist family that is forced to go to a Catholic church to get ra ped by a priest.

      December 18, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
      • Roger that

        worse

        December 18, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        I feel sorry for the child in the monogamist family that is forced to be a member of any cult.

        December 18, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • bibletruth

      Then you need to be concerned about 1000 things your neighbor and almost every other family with children are doing!!!!!!!!!!!!! Re your neighbors: are you concerned they have alcohol in the house and are drinkers of alcohol....don't care a bit? are you concerned they are smokers?....don't care a bit? are you concerned with the filth they allow their children to feed on in front of the TV?...don't care a bit? and 997 other things...........but your concerned about the children in a 1 husband, 2-4 wives family???????????????????? who probably don't drink alcohol, who probably don't smoke, who probably do not allow tv in the house....sir or madam, we all need to think of what we actually are saying and what we mean.

      December 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  2. myrtlemaylee

    Why is it that, when people start gushing about how wonderful the Kody Browns are & how polygamy can be stellar, no one ever mentions income? Before they started raking in 50K plus per episode of "Sister Wives", where did the money come from? Kody "used to" do something w/advertising, but he doesn't anymore. The "real estate" licenses of 2 sisters aren't being used since they can't sell houses 9-5 M-F. They have a website that sells pricey jewelry "mostly made in the US". and they have an Amway type thing going on.

    but does that generate enough income for 4 houses, over 20 kids, insurance, legal fees etc.? Hey CNN – how about a few tax returns? Financial statements? Any guy can eventually find 4 women that will put up w/each other if they're being supported & living separately. Can he support them?

    Tax returns, please. Government assistance disclosures, please. This article is a joke.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  3. baldwink1

    I'm wondering which group will have the playbook passed on to them next? The genie is definitely out of the bottle.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Yep, all hell broke loose when they started allowing interracial marriage. Or did you mean when women were allowed to choose their own husbands?

      December 18, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • ME II

      Probably all those cats that want to marry dogs.
      /sarcasm

      December 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  4. Portland tony

    Like it or not, morality aside, marriage is a legal contract giving certain legal rights (in the event the contract is broken) to those who are a party to the agreement. While most of society accepts the western notion that this form of contract is limited to two individuals, there is no reason why more than two individuals can't enter into a non marriage contract regarding property division etc should the contract be broken by death or mutual consent. And if these folks happen to cohabitate, so what?

    December 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Ah, but as soon as you bring s3x into the conversation, other laws (concerning prost!tution, pimping, common body houses,, etc.) may kick in to say such a contract is invalid if not a crime.

      December 19, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  5. shawbrooke

    I think that polygamy should be tolerated and not prosecuted, and people who want polygamy should be able to do so without the fear of the law. I also agree that bigamy must continue to be an offense because people must have recourse when someone lies or omits to mention another family when marrying. I agree with the judge.

    I'd like to know the polygamous Mormon community's ideas about legalizing this form of marriage. How can we do that while still protecting people from those who lie or omit to mention?

    In my opinion, polygamy as practiced in a social system where there are rights and expectations, and kids grow up fine, has operated for millennia. Humanity has no experience with gay marriage, and the outcome there is less predictable.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Mopery

      Tell that to all the boys who have been banished when they reached s e x u a l maturity from their polygamous homes in northern Arizona. Overbearing perverts hate compet ition, especially from their own children.

      December 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
      • bibletruth

        This I know for a personal fact: location: Africa people: black Since people are innately the same it could be any country, any race or nationality. However, I am giving fact. Country : a west African nation Religion: muslim (there are other religions too but this experience is in a muslim community) . Situation: polygamy; problem: in many (emphasis MANY) of the polygamy families, there is so much jealousy and wives literally and for real are on the constant out look that their children are not abused or murdered by another wife who wants her own children to be number 1....it is widespread and it is wretched in those families....but it is also the way of life. God knows what he is talking about.

        December 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • ME II

      @shawbrooke,
      While I agree with your distinction between informed consent and omitting a prior marriage, technically I think bigamy is illegal regardless of who knows about it.

      I do however disagree with your view on gay marriage.

      "While it is relatively new to modern history that same-se[]x couples are widely being granted the same form of legal marital recognition as commonly used by mixed-se[]xed couples, there is a long history of recorded same-se[]x unions and marriages around the world.[2]" – wikipedia

      December 18, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  6. bongiojf

    Here is your slippery slope folks. I've been saying all along, once we have gay marriage we have polygiamy next in the cross hairs. What's next? Sibling marriage, Push down the age of consent?

    December 18, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • Mopery

      You're right, this whole marriage thing is way too complicated, just make all marriage illegal and be done with it.

      December 18, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • ME II

      @bongiojf,
      First, 'slipper slope' is a logical fallacy and therefore not a logically valid argument.
      Second, sibling marriages run the risk of producing offspring with genetic abnormalities as well as being an environment where consent is not always freely given. The age of consent argument seems weak, since in some states people as young as 15 can marry today.

      December 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • Saraswati

      That's what southerners said about allowing interracial marriage. But instead the age of consent went up.

      December 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  7. qqq

    Enough of this nonsense. CNN's gay and now polygamist agenda stinks!!!

    December 18, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  8. steve

    Obnoxious religious people and Christopher Hitchens wannabes, START YOUR ENGINES! Hopefully the 500,000th time's the charm and this debate will actually lead somewhere!

    December 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
    • skepticAL

      hitchens ≠ logical

      December 18, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
      • ME II

        not sure Steve said it was

        December 18, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  9. Logical Default

    I don't understand the hate for polygamy. Some compare it to incest / pedophilia. I think people just need to leave em alone. If they are happy and love each other, then that's all that matters. People are scurred by the way Islam practices it and fear monger based on that... Plus more parents to make money for the family or stay at home and help with the house / taking care of the family. Seems logical to me, but for some reason it's totally taboo.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  10. OrmondGeorge

    As with Gay marriage, I'm not gonna do it, but I don't think that CONSENTING ADULTS should be prevented from doing it.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Consensual acceptance in any socialism within its' reaches of partnership(s) should never be allocated by the political governing bodies in their attempts to fence in the very socialness that freedom-lovers of all walks of Life do yearn for...

      December 18, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
  11. woodie

    Let get this straight. If somebody is keeping multiple women in his house, that is what is happening. It isn't marriage. It has nothing to do with marriage. It's just some guy keeping multiple women. And since they aren't married, there is another name for that. You figure it out.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • OrmondGeorge

      IN YOUR OPINION

      December 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • Logical Default

      "Keeping women" isn't the same as loving them. If they aren't in love it's not a real marriage, although this holds true for MANY marriages, regardless of how many men or women are involved. Some people do it just for legal / financial purposes. It's the way of the world right now. I believe love trumps everything, including legal ceremonies. But who cares really? If they are all happy, let em be. I don't polygamists interfering in regular marriages claiming that their way is the only way, so why give them the same grief?

      December 18, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
    • Freddy Krueger

      Hahahahah word.

      December 18, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  12. Mopery

    Since corporations are people(my friend), should corporations be allowed to enter into polygamous marriages?

    December 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I would guess so, as long as corporations can enter into regular marriages now. Can they?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
      • OrmondGeorge

        Only with Government approval – they call it merger.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
    • Yay

      I want to marry a corporation, divorce it and take half of everything it owns

      December 22, 2013 at 6:22 am |
  13. Just another Atheist

    "Some might say that supporting polygamy means supporting the abuse of women."

    Those same people support the Catholic Church, and through them, child abuse. So I don't care what they say.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  14. cnn has moved on to polygamy

    With mission accomplished on gay marriage, it's time to move on to the next big social cause for CNN, polygamy. At this rate everyone who wants to marry a goat will get their turn in 10 years.

    "Why I learned to love being married to five men, four women, , two goats and a transgendered pair of jeans."

    December 18, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • Just another Atheist

      brainless twit.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      The two words "consenting" and "adults" mean nothing to you, I take it?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  15. kgt

    What if someone wants to marry their pet? or better yet, pets?

    December 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • Mopery

      Apples and oranges.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • JRossJohnson

      Apples to oranges...

      December 18, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
      • Mopery

        Bananas!

        December 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • Just another Atheist

      Only religious nuts like you have no concept of "free will".

      dolt.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
      • steve

        How do you know the person you are replying to is religious? Also, the question of free will is an incredibly complicated scientific issue, so I'm not sure why you are acting as though it is a simple concept to understand. There is a strong debate over whether or not we humans even have free will. Your condescension does not reflect well on you, nor does it convince anyone of your intelligence. I'm guessing you're what people call a troll, in which case I'm wasting my time. Oh well.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
        • Saraswati

          There isn't really debate in the scientific world or even much among philosophers any more. Free will is a lay term you won't hear from many biologists, psychologists or neurologists. It's just outdated mythology.

          December 18, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
        • steve

          Saraswati-
          It's true that "free will" is difficult to define and I suppose it can mean different things to different people. I wouldn't say it's an outdated term; the neuroscientist Sam Harris has spoken and written extensively about the subject, and the physicists Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku have also discussed it (and come to different conclusions, it seems to me). This is not a subject I'm an expert in. It may very well be that the majority of scientists and philosophers have dismissed the possibility of free will; I would lean in that direction myself. I guess I didn't think the question was outdated or wholly resolved, but perhaps I was incorrect.

          December 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
    • ME II

      @kgt,
      "What if someone wants to marry their pet? or better yet, pets?"

      Pets cannot legally (nor ethically) consent to marriage.

      December 18, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • E

      what part of 'consenting adults' did you not understand?

      December 18, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  16. cycoblitz

    Sure, it sounds easy enough. Just because the "sisters" swallow their jealousy, their ranking, and their needs, this is supposed to work. How can they even exhibit self esteem? How can they even think that their sweet husband thinks the same way for all of them. How can they tolerate their sleeping schedule to suit the man?

    Again, the man wins, and we all realzie that polygamy is about the selfish needs of the man. that surely have her fooled.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Who are you to d!ctate what other people find suitable for their own living arrangements? There are plenty of couples marriages in horrible shape even though it's jus the two of them.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
      • cycoblitz

        Seen a few of those "happy" plural marriages. Who are you to question what I think. Keep your opinion, let the world know. I respect that for you. You're saying I'm didtating? Not at all. People can do what they want, If you cannot take an opinion different from yours, who are you to even complain? That is called hypocricy.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          The tone of your post was arrogant and judgmental. You declared "the man wins" without really stating the terms but just expecting everyone to buy into that meaningless cliché. If you'll reread, you'll notice that I did no "complaining."

          December 18, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
    • Just another Atheist

      "Sure, it sounds easy enough. Just because the "sisters" swallow their jealousy, their ranking, and their needs, this is supposed to work. How can they even exhibit self esteem? How can they even think that their sweet husband thinks the same way for all of them. How can they tolerate their sleeping schedule to suit the man?

      Again, the man wins, and we all realzie that polygamy is about the selfish needs of the man. that surely have her fooled."

      So you ask a few questions and without waiting for an answer or believing anybody that has already answered them, you just fly off and invent your own garbage. Dolt.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • Charlieo

      cb...there are polygamous/polyamorous relationships with one woman and multiple men.. Does the same logic apply in those relationships? Assuming someone wins and someone loses, as your post intimates, who are the winners and losers in this situation (and why)?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
  17. Matthew

    This is ridiculous who cares what one man does in his home? If he wants all the responsibility of having four families then let him do it who does it hurt. I assume that child welfare has been involved in this and from the few scenes from the show I have seen it looks like the children are happy and healthy as are all the women involved. This is not warren jeffs LDS cult like Mormonism so leave them alone. However I don't believe that having multiple wives gets you to heaven. If we all just stopped worrying about what each other is doing and focused on ourselves and live in our own moments.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • Audrey Nickel

      Uh...this IS Mormonism. Just not mainstream Mormonism

      December 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
      • ME II

        I'd let them decide what is and is not Mormonism. Or can we agree that Mormonism is Christian, just not mainstream Christian.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
  18. Mopery

    I wonder if the author would love it with one woman and 4 husbands?

    December 18, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • YT

      Strange as it is, I don't think one woman would want to be responsible for satisfying four men.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
      • Mopery

        Who says the woman would be the only one doing the satisfying?

        December 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
        • YT

          Hmmm. I guess that could be, but I think it unlikely.

          December 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
      • Just another Atheist

        You would have been more accurate if you stopped at "I don't think."

        December 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      She'd have to be okay with it. She doesn't seem like a hypocrite to me.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  19. Ken knerr

    One wife is difficult as it is. Only a masochist or a lunatic would want two.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  20. seismicsparkle

    and why can my regular marriage, children, and family reach heaven as a goal???? How is that different from a polygamist marriage? As if all regular marriages have the goal of going to hell together.... also... the name of the article says it all- LEARN to love it. Because, it can't inherently be loved. It's idiotic and illogical. If you want a wife, have a wife. If you want more than one wife, why stop at 2 or 3? Why not have 10? Morons.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • bostontola

      The Mormon long range strategy is to out reproduce you and take over politically, that's not idiotic.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
      • IDSpud

        Bostontola, the Browns are not Mormon. They might be part of a splinter group, but not the LDS Church, which discontinued polygamy back around 1904.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:09 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.