You do not read much about polygamy these days but a recent Wall Street Journal article on religion raised the question in a provocative way. Rose McDermott, a professor of political science at Brown University, noted that polygamy may be a popular punch line in some movies but “plural marriage is as serious an issue as it’s ever been.” And it is on the rise in the modern West.

One example can be seen across the border, in Canada. A 1890 polygamy law is being tested by groups that insist it violates religious freedom. The core of their argument is that consenting adults have the right to form families in any way they please.

Polygamy is, of course, not new. It has been a common practice for most of human history. Many religions promote it. Muslim practice encourages it and in new Muslim immigrant enclaves in Paris, London and New York the law against it is being challenged. A 2006 report says that 180,000 people were living in polygamous households in France. When the government banned it in 1993 it tried to support a wife who wanted to move out and live with her children. In Britain immigration has allowed polygamy to enter the country as well. In the U.S. numbers are harder to come by since most polygamists keep their practice secret but the number is growing as immigrants arrive who already have multiple wives.

Dr. McDermott says that her research encompasses more than 170 countries over the past decade and that she has seen the detrimental side effects of the practice. Human rights, for both men and women, suffer where polygamy is allowed. Women in polygamist cultures get married sooner, bear more children, have higher rates of HIV infection than men, sustain more domestic violence, succumb to more female genital mutilation and sex trafficking, and are more likely to die in childbirth. Their life expectancy is shorter than that of their monogamous sisters and their children, both boys and girls, are less likely to receive both primary and secondary education.

There are multiple reasons for these results but clearly polygamy is not good for women and women’s rights. When small numbers of men control larger numbers of women one of the most cherished of modern rights suffers. In this case religious freedom does not outweigh the social and moral consequences of allowing polygamy to spread.

Some fundamentalists argue that polygamy is biblically based since they see it in the Old Testament. This is not the place to debate the ethical norms of the Old Testament and how to interpret them but suffice it to say polygamy is a step backward for women and civilized societies. In this case the convergence of modern thought about women and the broader biblical model of justice and compassion argues against any relaxing of our laws against this practice.

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  1. April 14, 2011 at 6:21 am

    John, You must not watch much TV, because one of the most popular shows on cable is TLC’s “Sister Wives” and HBO had a very popular dramatic series on for multiple seasons called “Big Love”. I see a serious push in light of the gay marriage debate for acceptance of plural marriage.
    Both shows go out of there way to portray plural marriages and normal and they make the characters very lovable. I have no stats to back this up but I’ll bet the acceptance for plural marriage among Americans is close to or perhaps even greater than the acceptance for gay marriage.
    Marriage is obviously a bell weather issue that the church needs to get out in front of, or we risk losing the issue to pop culture (assuming we have not already lost).

  2. Anthony April 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    It seems to me that polygamy is based upon unrealistic masculine egoism. Just from my experience alone, I don’t see how one man can wholly give himself with integrity to multiple women, which is to say, meet their needs emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And this doesn’t even include meeting the needs of the children that such relationships will inevitably bring. Maybe all of this is just a confession of my personal limitations, but it is challenging enough for me to be a good husband to one woman, and a good father to the children I had with that one woman.
    Picking up what I said about unrealistic male egoism, if my experience is normative, then I would say that men who think they can handle such a situation and adequately provide for many women on all levels, and all the children conceived with those women, must imagine themselves as more competent than they actually are. Also, there is a part of me that thinks that at a base level this is just about the pleasure of having diverse sexual partners.

  3. Chris Criminger April 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Hi John,
    Thanks again for raising thought provlking issues. The only time I hear people raising the polygamy issue is by conservatibve Christian men (never women wanting to be married to more than one man at the same time).
    I usually ask these men why they believe this should be?. They usually say the Bible (OT typically) and I am also thinking of behind the rhetoric issues like Anthony brings up. Then I ask them (since all of them are usually married to one woman) if it would be alright for their wife to do this?. Always the answer is a strong no! Forgot about balance and consistency, Hey, let’s get real, often when MEN talk about sexual ethics, its one directional favoring themselves and not the other person. What’s wrong with this picture?

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