Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Polygamy’s becoming more acceptable. Is this the ‘Sister Wives’ effe …

More Americans are seeing polygamy as morally acceptable — and that includes Mormons.

According to a new Gallup poll, 17% now feel this way, up from just 7% back in 2003. The rate has been steadily climbing over the last decade and a half — fueled, suggests Gallup, by the normalization of polygamy in popular culture:

. . . there is little reason to believe that Americans are more likely to know or be polygamists now than at any other time in the past. But there is one way Americans may feel more familiar with or sympathetic to polygamy: television.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, television shows began to feature polygamist characters — though these depictions were not always favorable. The TLC show “Sister Wives” premiered in 2010, and according to The Washington Post, humanized a family of polygamists. The show was successful and remains on the air. Notably, over the time it has been on the air, Gallup has seen support for polygamy rise by nearly 10 percentage points, although it is impossible to establish any direct causality between the show and changing attitudes.

Gallup points out that Mormons’ views are a bit more conservative the nation’s. About 12% of the Mormons Gallup sampled see polygamy as morally OK, which is actually a tad lower than the 17% who approved of it nationally. Gallup notes that some caution is in order here because there were only 167 Mormons in the sample, resulting in a higher margin of error.

But two other studies of Mormons largely confirm Gallup’s findings about Mormon views of polygamy. The upshot of these studies shows that:

  1. Mormons are less approving of polygamy than other Americans (which is not a surprise given that there’s, uh, some history there), but
  2. Mormons, like other Americans, seem to be growing in their tolerance of the practice.

For more on the first finding, see this post about Dave Campbell’s research on Mormons and politics. Basically, Campbell and his colleagues found in 2012 that a whopping 86% of Mormons disapproved of polygamy — more, even, than disapproved of abortion.

And for the second, here’s a teaser from the 2016 Next Mormons Survey: our findings were pretty consistent with Gallup’s. In the NMS, which surveyed 1155 currently-identified Mormons, just under 15% said polygamy was morally acceptable.

But there’s clear generational difference, which suggests to me that it’s not just the “Sister Wives” effect that’s driving the greater acceptability of polygamy now versus four or fourteen years ago. It’s also the fact that younger people, with their broader sexual ethic (yes, even among Mormons) are aging into the survey pool.

Among Mormons of the Boomer/Silent generation, for example, just under 7% said polygamy was OK, compared to 13% of GenXers and 23% of Millennials.

So it will be interesting to see whether Mormons’ acceptance of polygamy continues to rise. In the meantime, we’ll all be catching up on the latest episodes of Sister Wives. What are we in now, Season 8?


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

48 Comments

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  • I am not all that excited about polygamy being legal and accepted. But I still have a HUGE issue with teaching that one must participate in polygamy in order to have salvation.

  • I don’t think it’s entirely attributable to a TV Show, although like how “Star Trek” increased tolerance of diversity, it certainly had some effect. Plus, “Sister Wives” was on a premium cable television and not everyone had access to it.
    Mostly, though, I believe it is human progress. 19th Century Antimormonism was all but entirely attributed to outrage at polygamy. It was an aspect of Victorian squeamishness and went hand in hand with fears of “white slavery” (which at the time referred to pimping of corn-fed Heartland white Protestant girls in the big cities by pimps who were Jewish or of other recent immigrant stock). You can read the historical artifacts and it’s all but entirely salaciousness and programmed outrage on cue. Anti-polygamy ideology was fanned to influence middle class white women, along with the “pedestal” myth. What the mythmakers forgot was the genius of polygamy is that a married woman no longer has to deal with a spouse 24/7/365 – others share the burden.

  • The only people I have ever heard advocating for polygamy are religious conservatives.

    Quran believing Muslims.

    Fundamentalist Mormons.

    Christian polygamists in Africa.

    Religious conservatives in general. After all, when gay people were seeking the right to marry, a constant refrain from religious conservatives was that if gay people are allowed to marry, than we MUST allow polygamy. 99% of the gay community and our organizations said no, the two are not even remotely similar.

    Everywhere and everywhen polygamy has been or is practiced, it is a heterosexual institution. After all, if a man can marry a woman, why can’t he marry three?

    For the record, I am opposed to polygamy, but not because I am shocked by it. Work out the details of how this is going to work in an egalitarian, post patriarchal society, how inheritance, pensions, and child welfare are going to be worked out, and you might get me on board.

  • Same sex marriage and polygamy may not be similar, but the rationale for legalizing each is very similar. That is, government should not be in the business of determining marriage policy based on public morals, and consenting adults should be able to marry whomever they want.

  • Once the definition of marriage was changed there was no logical reason to exclude polygamy from being legal. The gay marriage decision paves the way for plural marriage so said John Roberts Chief Justice.

  • Can you imagine if plural marriages were legal: instead of one “honey do” list you may have 2, 3, 4 or more “honey do” lists. Truly a nightmare on elm street. Lol.

  • It all goes to show that even a Supreme Court justice can be devoid of logic just as easily as anyone else.especailly a conservative catholic.

    So thank you for proving my point, once again. The only people that argue for polygamy are conservative religionists. No one else is.

    And didn’t he write the opinion of the side that lost? even his own colleagues didn’t agree with him. And you can bet the farm that if a polygamy case came before SCROTUS, Roberts would vote against it.

    Your whole argument is nonsense.

  • CJ’s legal reasoning holds pride of place over your’s any day.
    And let me add this: 4 or 5 years ago I discussed this very topic with a gay commenter. He accused me of the slippery slope fallacy. Well it doesn’t look too slippery slope now. As the article states people are more accepting of it now than ever before. I guess they don’t use your kind of logic.
    So when polygamy becomes legal I’ll buy you a crow dinner.

  • Jana, the elephant in the room that you didn’t address (perhaps intentionally since you’re saving it for a longer article or a different discussion) is the difference between “Mormon polygamy” and “secular polygamy.”

    Even if you disregard the crazy Mormon history with polygamy and assume that modern Mormon polygamy would consist of consenting adults (which seems likely since I don’t see modern Mormons resorting to the 1800’s-style theocratic gerontocracy competing for younger women and teenagers), Mormon doctrine still confounds things.

    For Mormons, the word “polygamy” is doctrinally wrapped up with patriarchy and eternal sealings and producing seed “as innumerable as the stars.”

    For regular, secular folk, polygamy is rapidly becoming viewed as just another form of polyamory which involves consenting adults who can do what they want within recognized legal and ethical bounds.

    With its priesthood hierarchy and its doctrinal focus on sealing and marriage and “the new and everlasting covenant” being necessary for top-tier salvation, Mormonism casts a massive shadow over the concept of freely consenting adults entering into polygamous relationships. Thus, I’d argue that the current lower approval rate of polygamy by Mormons is much more a doctrinal issue intersecting with agency than it is a historical one. (Then again, the historical issues are also an outgrowth of doctrinal issues, so there is a bit of circularity here…but I think you get what I’m trying to say).

    Finally, I know you’ve also written quite a bit about the gender/marriage imbalance in the Church (i.e., that 51% of Mormon women are single). This is pure speculation, but I also think it’s fair to honestly wonder if the Mormons will ultimately reinstate polygamy.

    I used to openly laugh at the thought of Mormons reinstating polygamy. However, these days I’m not so sure at least in part because of the following:

    (1) the perfect silence of current Mormon leadership with respect to the increasing rate of divorce when a spouse leaves the faith (most often the husband) over the historical issues that have been causing the exodus of the last 5-7 years;

    (2) the growing gender imbalance (i.e., surplus of females) in the Church spurred by #1 and a number of other cultural and doctrinal outgrowths;

    (3) the fact that E. Nelson and E. Oaks have already publicly shown that they support spiritual polygamy and the fact the E. Bednar (also likely to be Church president at some point) is known to be a doctrinal purist;

    (4) the widening societal acceptance of polygamy; and

    (5) the fact that the Church has made it clear that it intends to keep the doctrine of polygamy in place (i.e., compare the “Race and the Priesthood” essay to the “Polygamy in Kirtland and Nauvoo” essay…one troubling past doctrine was called a “theory” and was discarded while the other was kept in place and defended).

    A lot of interesting questions here. Thanks for the blog post!

  • When polygamy becomes legal, it will be because the heterosexual Christian majority has chosen it.

  • Wrong. A non-christian minority will demand it – like gay marriage – and the prog lib court will have no choice but to be consistent.

  • Polygamy, gay, lesbian, etc. have nothing to do with spirituality but morality. Luke 16v16; Law and Prophets were till John, the Baptist. No more law; no more transgression or sin but blasphemy against your own conscience. Matt. 19 is the marriage between Soul, man and Flesh, wife in the womb of the woman on conception of a child. Abortions are killing innocent Jesus. Rich love to kill Jesus whilst Jesus is honoured among the poor countries. For detailed exposition of Matt 19, visit my Youtube channel nijjhar1.

  • The majority of cultures historically have permitted polygamy based on long held customs and beliefs. It remains common in some parts of Asia and Africa. In the U.S. you can legally be married and have as many affairs as you would like, all at the same time if you would like (bonus–no fault divorce). You can get married and divorced over and over again (and get elected president after boasting about what you will grab, or stay president if you have an affair in the Oval Office–as long she was not a plural wife). You can fornicate with multiple people at the same time or different times or whatever and however. To many in our generation it is all just some game with some puzzling old rules left over from an age that did not understand the high importance of going for it all the time. The bumper-sticker says “Love is Never Wrong.”
    The only rule many people are aiming for seems to have something to do with how old the person must be to give consent because the only morality really left here is something about consent and the magic age number that counts. I am against legalization of polygamy and most of the other stuff I mentioned (consent is good, but I don’t think consent makes a wrong a right, or darkness into light, or automatically equates to wise public policy). A nation’s long-held customs and understanding of divine law should not be so easily abandoned. Our generation is arrogant. But if everything else is going to be legal, polygamy might as will be legal, too. What’s the difference if one more tree burns down in the forest fire of our culture? The line keeps moving.
    We are practically in a relationships dark ages where anger and insults, selfishness, and incivility in home, work, entertainment, and national discourse are the norm. Our families and homes burn down in divorce and custody fights constantly. Marriages are way down. Fertility rates are way down. Entire nations will disappear due to declining birthrates within three generations. We need a total reset on our relationship technology. We may have to go backwards to be able to go forward again.

  • I’ve actually heard a number of feminists speak of the advantages of polygamy. Some see a second stay-at-home wife as the ideal solution to the career-woman’s ever-present problem of child-care and work-family balance.

  • “Polygamy, gay, lesbian, etc. have nothing to do with spirituality but morality.”

    They have nothing to do with morality, either. The claim that it has something to do with morality is just religion appropriating something it does not understand and refuses to understand.

    But if you want to talk about morality, let’s talk about the morality of what has been done to gay people for 1900 years under the Abrahamic faiths: murders, jails, torture, beatings, destroyed careers, destroyed families, deprivation of hope, driving what is perfectly normal to an underground furtive, and dangerous life, collateral deaths (as in don’t ask don’t tell and vital translators getting kicked out of the military), collateral deaths (the Eschezay brothers),…

    and on and on and on and on.

    And for what? Being different?

  • This should be just fine with the “love is never wrong” types.

    Next up: lower the age of consent to 9. But then, that would be discriminating against those who prefer eight-year-olds.

  • I found it interesting that about four years ago, when I asked three female friends from college (we graduated in 1978 and 1980) what they thought of polygamy, all of them thought it had merit. We range in political views from very progressive to pretty conservative. The others are OK with abortion but I am not. We are all in favor of gun control. One is an atheist, one Catholic, one Jewish and one Protestant. We have all been married for more than 30 years. I was surprised, but I can assure you it had nothing to do with “Sister Wives” — although I did watch “Big Love.”

  • There are plenty of Christian clergy and preachers who practice such things whether legal or not.

    If you can’t tell the difference between relationships between consenting adults and child abuse, you have no business speaking about morality or law to anyone.

    “Slippery slope” arguments are a hallmark for an inability to argue a point on its own facts and merits.

  • Despite the directives of the LDS, the reasons polygamy are illegal have zero to do with morality and everything to do with practicalities. Our laws concerning marriage rights and obligations were drafted with binary defaults. Polygamy creates a mess of these laws and application.

    Until polygamists can draft revisions to such laws which provide a fair and just divisions of such rights and obligations for all spouses involved, there is no need to consider it.

  • Big Love was actually a pretty good treatise on why polygamy is a bad thing. The episode concerning wills among the wives alone is a great illustration why it doesn’t work on a practical legal end.

  • I would actually contend that gay marriage and polygamy are the logical conclusions of two wildly opposing views on marriage.

    Gay marriage is the ultimate logical conclusion of gender equality. The legal distinction between husband and wife used to be extreme. In the past, wives were essentially their husband’s property. As wives got more power by gaining the right to own property, the right to their own jobs, the right to refuse intercourse, etc, the legal distinction between husband and wife got a lot fuzzier. Today, there isn’t much difference as a matter of law. Once it didn’t really matter what sex each partner was from a legal perspective, same-sex marriage was the only logical conclusion. Same-sex partnerships have no pre-defined separations based on gender, and thus naturally tend to be egalitarian. Current marriage laws approve of that kind of relationship.

    Polygamy, however, is a very different animal. Polygamous relationships, especially the kind discussed in this post, have one specific person as the head of the household. There’s no real problem adding wives to that kind of situation, because the wife doesn’t have as many rights. The more power that’s concentrated with the man, the easier a polygamous situation becomes. Having multiple people with equal shares of power in a relationship would be a legal nightmare. The civil marriage system isn’t set up to handle something like that. How would a marital dispute ever be worked out if it was taken to court? Majority rule? What about the person who votes against the other members? How could they possibly get a fair deal? There’d be no way to protect the rights of every individual in that relationship equally. An egalitarian relationship would be nearly impossible to maintain.

  • Exactly. That’s why it’s silly to try to use polygamy as an argument against Equal Marriage, that is to say, same-sex marriage. Two men, two women or one of each is still just a binary relationship that can easily be managed under current family law. Make it three, whether two guys and a girl or two girls and a guy or three guys or three girls and the legal issues explode exponentially.

  • Hey if you don’t agree with polygamy don’t marry more than one person. That’s what same sex marriage proponents tell everyone who objects to their so-called marriage.
    Take your own advice.

  • No you missed your own hypocrisy. I cut to the heart of the issue bypassing the dross of your so-called analysis.
    Which by the way is how you ssm advocates treat trad con Christians.
    Get my point?

  • I do. You make sweeping generalizations about the first gay friendly person you see and pay no attention to what he actually said.

  • Sweeping generalizations seems to be the norm from the prog lib side so please forgive me that I mis-read your friendly demeanor. I’ll give a more sober and respectful reply to your post when I can.

  • In Jesus, our Supernatural self Mind is concerned and not the physical body in Yahweh, the Lord of Creation.

    So, Gospel is not applicable to our natureal physical self but abstract “Mind”, which we call Munn or Nafs.

  • I’ll forgive you when you stop doing it. You managed to do it again in your last post.

  • Here’s how it works: you show respect and you’ll get respect. And if you don’t I’ll remind you; if I don’t you remind me.
    Deal?

  • Marital disputes are not taken to court now, except for domestic violence or dissolution.

    A three-way egalitarian relationship is not a bit more difficult to maintain than a two-way one. Majority rule is as good a plan as any, and whoever is dissatisfied with it can always walk, just as they do now.

  • “Sister Wives” and other plural families that have gone public have put a positive, human face on PM. This has done much to counter the opposition’s narrative that all PM is inherently abusive. But I think other things have also contributed to polygamy’s rising acceptability. For instance, among the young or secular polyamory has made great gains in acceptance, and many of the same arguments apply to polygamy. But the biggest help is probably the internet, which has allowed formerly isolated supporters to connect and network. Where a lone supporter of PM formerly had to keep silent or risk being thrown out of church, they now have a web of support. They are learning not only how to do PM better, but also the skills necessary to successfully advocate for change.

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I think PM is somewhere between laugh and fight.

  • We don’t grant or remove rights based on what is convenient to the government. That’s not how rights work. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that if or when PM become legal it will be via court decision, and any existing laws that stand in the way will simply be discarded as unconstitutional. Legislatures will scramble to patch up the holes, and life will go on.

    However, legalization isn’t the first goal; decriminalization is. And that would require hardly any change to current law, only the removal of existing bigamy statutes.

  • Polygamy, when factoring our current laws creates something far less for several of the parties involved than binary marriage rights. The rights and obligations of marriage are a mess with polygamy.

    My attitude toward polygamy is simple. If polygamists can draft workable laws to make it work in an equitable manner, then more power to them. I sincerely wish you them the best of luck if they tried.

  • So this is just another example of that slippery slope society has created as we rush to the bottom where society is now nothing but “do anything you ever wanted to do and no one can do anything about it either”. Brought to by the number 666, the letters S,I,and N, and through the continued contributions of a godless society, and people like you who have no clue.

  • So basically you can’t discuss the topic on its own facts and merits and need to resort to chicken little panic mongering.

  • mATT 19 DOES NOT APPLY TO OUR PHYSICAL MARRIAGE BUT THE SPIRITUAL. Man is soul that leaves his Mother, Holy Spirit and Father God to join with flesh inside the womb of a woman to produce one person, a child. Abortions are killing innocent persons and the doctors get away with such murders.

    Much more on my Youtube channel nijjhar1.

  • But that’s so unfair. There are already thousands of polygamous families with children. Are we to push them back into the shadows… Oh wait that’s the illegal immigration debate…sorry.
    Let me start again: Why should we say their love for each other is any less real and valid…oops! That’s the ssm argument. Sorry again. My bad.
    One more time: If you are against polygamy you hate people of color, transgender folk, LGBQ people, undocumented people, unicorns, puppies and kittens! And you are probably a Southern Baptist.
    They’ll cave. Lol.

  • If you read the linked article, in this community women basically had value only in producing female progeny. These elders had what were harems in essence, There were child brides. Males were kicked out of the community. Females were not apparently free to leave .In other words, many shades of a cult. The big issue at the Supreme Court will have to deal with the issue of freely consenting adults.

  • Having watched “Sister Wives” a few times, it looks like a lot of drama, bickering, and hostility. Anyone who would watch that show, and embrace polygamy is crazy!

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