Big Love, HBO's series about the "polygamists next door" in Sandy, Utah, ended its five-year run last March, but polygamy is still going strong on American television. TLC's reality series Sister Wives, which features a real-life polygamist family named the Browns, has just been renewed for a third season.
TLC used to be called "The Learning Channel," which prompts the question: What are Americans learning from sympathetic portrayals of polygamy in popular culture?
When Will & Grace debuted in 1998, few could have imagined that scarcely a decade later, same-sex marriage would be regarded by many Americans as a constitutional right. Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was no alarmist when he worried aloud that the next step in the marriage debate would be another redefinition to allow polygamy and infidelity. How did we get to this point?
It began with making what was once marginalized and tolerated seem normal and mainstream by calling into question the very idea of norms. Pop culture excels at perpetuating this kind of relativism: gay characters were depicted as interchangeable with, if not superior to, their heterosexual counterparts. The message was clear: Only a bigot would make a fuss over homosexual behavior.
This approach, while effective, was too slow for some activists. That led to the second part of the "how": the legal strategy. This strategy built on the foundation laid by abortion-rights advocates, especially Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which defined liberty as "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
This notion of liberty as self-definition led to Lawrence v. Texas, which not only overturned Texas's anti-sodomy law, but also put the validity of all morals legislation into doubt. As U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his blistering dissent, the majority opinion would preclude all further morals legislation, opening the door to bigamy, same-sex marriage, and even adult incest and prostitution. He was right, of course. When a federal judge overturned California's Proposition 8 last year, he cited Lawrence. Now the aforementioned Browns have filed suit against Utah, seeking to have its law against polygamy invalidated. Their attorney, Jonathan Turley, argues what gay-rights advocates vehemently deny: "Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest: the right to be left alone as consenting adults." Following Lawrence's logic to exactly where Scalia said it would lead, he adds, "There is no spectrum of private consensual relations—there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others."
What then about evidence that polygamy is bad for women? What about studies linking polygamy to higher rates of domestic violence, an increased chance of dying in childbirth, and abuses such as daughter-swapping? What about intentionally depriving children of the singular devotion of a loving father and mother? Doesn't that constitute "harm"? It is ironic that feminist writers (and even a professor at that bastion of feminism, Brown University) are sounding the alarm about the dangers of polygamy. After all, feminists have always bristled at the idea of government "legislating morality" regarding any kind of "consensual relationship." But now they are ready for government to step in and legislate in the case of "consensual relationships" that harm them.
Shoe, meet other foot.
But, in fact, polygamy violates the equality and personal dignity of men and women. It contradicts the uniqueness and exclusivity of the marital bond. This is why the Christian church has always regarded it as a violation of God's moral law.
The Mormon Church renounced polygamy in 1890, and the estimated 50,000 Mormon polygamists are violating not only civil law but also the teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. True, polygamy was also practiced by some in the Old Testament, but it invariably led to disaster among the people of Israel. God's original marriage plan set forth in Genesis involved an intimate partnership of life and love between one man and one woman.
The Judeo-Christian tradition, as interpreted by Jesus (Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18), defines marriage as the joining of one man and one woman in a lifelong covenantal union that is open to children, the mutual care of husband and wife, and the flourishing of the human community. Christians today are called to model this ideal of marriage in our own families and to reach out in love and forgiveness, as Jesus did, to those within and outside the Christian community who fall short of it. We are also called to renew the marriage culture by opposing practices that undermine and destroy it.
Today, unimaginable though it is, that includes polygamy.
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Previous coverage on polygamy from Christianity Today and its sister publications includes:
What to Do about Unbiblical Unions | African churches seek a better response to polygamy than in years past as western churches address new same-sex marriages. (June 25, 2009)
Can America Still Bar Polygamy? | Much has changed since the late 1800s, and many arguments for keeping the ban aren't very compelling. (May 23, 2008)
How I Learned to Love a Show about Mormon Polygamy | Despite its troubling views on marriage and family, HBO's Big Love always felt like an allegory for real people I know. (Christine A. Scheller, Her.meneutics, March 22, 2011)
Previous "Contra Mundum" columns include:
Real Happiness: Colson and George Bemoan our National Virtue Deficit | Where a people abandons virtue, government steps in. (August 16, 2011)
We Must Not Despair | It's not the time to withdraw from politics. (November 1, 2010)
The Lost Art of Commitment | Why we're afraid of it, and why we shouldn't be. (August 4, 2010)
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