Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Polygamy’s becoming more acceptable. Is this the ‘Sister Wives’ effect?

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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This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

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

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