By George R. Compton
George R. Compton Ph.D. (economics, UCLA, 1976) writes on various controversial subjects ranging from U.S. Middle Eastern policy to immigration and education reforms. A frequent presenter at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, he has served in a variety of Church callings and carries a current temple recommend.
Legalized polygamy is coming to the USA. This article describes the cultural, demographic, and judicial trends leading to that eventuality. It also discusses how polygamy’s legalization can be accomplished without the nationally divisive rancor that surrounded the legalizations of abortion and same-sex marriage.
But first, two clarifications: First, the focus of this article’s advocacy is to American society in general, not to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its leadership. Second, I won’t be championing polygamous marriage as some ideal; rather, I’ll be showing how legalized polygamy can serve to ameliorate some of this country’s worsening social ills and shortcomings.
The first trend to note is a cultural one: polygamy is being portrayed more-or-less favorably on television, with programs such as Big Love and Sister Wives. The family documented in Sister Wives has helped to destigmatize polygamy by distancing itself from the FLDS and its despicable leader, Warren Jeffs, who is now serving life in prison for sexual child abuse. In addition, the family’s attorney was successful in getting a U.S. district court in Utah to rule (in Brown v. Buhman, 2013) that Utah’s anti-bigamy law is unconstitutional. While the 10th U.S. Circuit Court in Colorado subsequently over-ruled the Utah decision based on a technicality, it is likely that major litigation on this subject has just begun.
The second trend involves America’s commitment to multiculturalism. Refugees arriving from the Middle East and Africa will undoubtedly include polygamists. That there is nothing unambiguously opposed to polygamy in the Bible1—unlike the case with acts of homosexuality—should soften Christian opposition to the practice.
Academia is contributing its own part to this trend, especially in the field of evolutionary behavioral science where a recent book2 argues that humans, akin to most advanced species, are hard-wired to be polygamous.3
Further, the American imagination has already adapted to same-sex marriage; the same tolerance should encompass polygamy as well. As is the case with gay marriage, percentage-wise very few people are expected to actually engage in plural marriage, but I’m projecting an increasing degree of sympathy for those who would want to, and a growing belief that those people should enjoy the same legal privileges afforded to monogamists.
What are those privileges? Legalization would grant access to spousal government/welfare benefits, including post-divorce protections (e.g., asset distributions), and automatic inheritance entitlements. Bringing polygamy “out of the shadows” would also make way for the institution of such critical regulations as minimum age restrictions and prior wife’s, or wives’, consent requirements. Finally, and probably most importantly, as we saw in the demand for same-sex “marriage” rather than just a “civil union” or “domestic partnership,” legalization bestows the valued imprimatur of social and moral legitimacy.
The final set of trends leading to a broader acceptance of polygamy is demographic in nature. I will describe nine examples. Their polygamous resolution comports with the libertarian value of accommodating mutual consent among responsible adults.
- Men are running away from marriage. Between 1970 and 2012 the share of males, aged 30–50, who are married has dropped from 91% to 64% for median income workers, and from 86% to 50% for the bottom 25-percentile workers.4 “Among never-married adults ages 30–50, men (27 percent) are more likely than women (8 percent) to say they do not want to marry.”5 That mismatch would be remedied to some degree by providing women access to those men who do want to be married and who would be desirous and capable of taking on more than one spouse.
- Twenty percent of women will never have offspring under current conditions.6 Might not some of these women enter into polygamy if such provided the only socially and legally acceptable avenue to motherhood?
- At the age of 85 there are two women for every man7—a prime opportunity for polygyny.8 Engaging in sex may be largely a non-factor here; companionship would probably be the main benefit, or at least having nearby a handyman or provider of other domestic services.
- Forty percent of new births lack a married mother.9 How many of those unmarried mothers would have been willing to enter into a legal polygamous relationship instead of an extra-marital one had the opportunity been available?
- The current norm of two-or-fewer-children per mother means that a husband could have two or three wives and still participate in rearing fewer children than was the rule a little over a century ago.
- Men in our modern economy are falling behind in employment and education. The male labor-force participation rate has dropped from 80% in 1970 to 69% now.10 Simultaneously, more women than men are now attending and graduating from college. Might some educated women accept sharing an educated, well-employed husband if the alternative were exclusive access to an under-educated, under-employed monogamous husband?
- Female participation in the workforce is now the norm. Given laborsaving household appliances, it is feasible for several women to marry a single male. He and/or one of the wives could perform the major housekeeping duties, including caring for the infants of those who choose to have children while keeping their jobs.
- Instead of engaging in serial monogamy (divorcing and moving from one spouse to the next) wouldn’t some couples contemplating divorce prefer to instead enter a polygamous marriage, saving them the travail, expense, and disruption (e.g., of parent-child relationships) of a divorce? Along similar lines, how many extramarital relations would be avoided if the would-be lovers and mistresses possessed a polygamous marriage option?
- The great majority of those on the high end of the increased income/wealth disparity in America are males who would easily be able to adequately support several households-with-children—paying for the multiple offsprings’ college educations, etc.
As you can see from these scenarios, there are a number of aspects of our current condition that leave a little or a lot to be desired. But while the overall affected percentage may be small, not a few Americans—particularly women—might find their circumstances improved by participating in a polygamous household.11 As I said before, I’m not proffering the legalization of polygamy as something that will bring society closer to utopia, but rather as a potential ameliorative to a less-than-perfect world, with males bearing the greater culpability.12
There are good reasons why polygamy is not associated with some ideal world. The most compelling general argument against its legalization is that polygamy is commonly regarded as an obstacle to societal advancement. Having to provide for a wife and children has long been considered the best way to channel males’ energies and talents towards socially productive ends. Large-scale polygamy can generate a large number of males who, unfairly or not, lack any prospect of marriage—leading them toward lives of violence, sloth, poverty, and crime. It is noteworthy that, unlike its neighboring early middle-eastern civilizations, the ascendant Greece and Rome outlawed polygamy for their own citizens.
Another argument against polygamy is that it is degrading to women and therefore contrary to the ideal of equality between the sexes. Polygamy is also seen to be inimical to good child rearing, forcing children to “share” their father with the children of other mothers. Finally, having more than one spouse at the same time simply seems unnatural to an overwhelming majority of Americans. Right now, only 16% accept polygamy as a valid lifestyle, although that is up from 7% in 2001.13
Now to counter those anti-polygamy arguments—bearing in mind our context is a far-from-perfect world. While it is true that children in a polygamous family would have to “share” a father, it is not uncommon now for kids to have to share their mother with kids from several different fathers—all of them absent. Potentially coupling some of those mothers in a polygamous wedlock early on would have spared both the kids and their mothers the fatherless circumstance.
As for society doing better by having almost all of its males working so as to provide for a spouse and children . . . that train left America’s station long ago. Solid blue-collar and sub-blue-collar employment opportunities have been declining in the American economy. This has left us with a vast army of under- or unemployed males, many of whom are also burdened by self-destructive or otherwise pathological habits involving drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, pornography, and street crime. Further, with easy access to welfare benefits, women and children have been somewhat “liberated” from a husband’s/father’s paycheck. Consequently, we have a lot of men in our society who act as if they are economically superfluous. Small-scale polygamy would hardly make matters worse.
As far as polygamy’s current lack of popular support is concerned, all that needs be said is that the public’s tastes and values change over time, and if the recent rate of increase in the acceptance of polygamy is any indication of future trends, this country does not have long to wait. Also, the endorsement rate does not have to be uniform across the country. Polygamy would best be legalized the same way marijuana, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage were originally legalized, i.e., state-by-state over the years. Doing so in this organic fashion would be preferable to turning legalization over to the Supreme Court. If there is any doubt about that, compare the aftermath of the Court’s rulings of Hope v. Wade (nation-wide legalized abortion) and Obergefell v. Hodges (nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage) with the significantly smaller outcries that took place after Oregon and then other states legalized physician-assisted suicide, and similarly when Colorado, and then other states, legalized marijuana. This approach keeps the decisions with elected representatives rather than with an appointed body, allowing each state’s citizenry to retain some power over how quickly their state’s laws are changing. And, if some citizens find themselves too uncomfortable in their present locale, they can move to a state whose laws better reflect their values.
How might the LDS Church fit into this future? Interestingly, I think Utah, with its high male employment and marriage rates, would actually be less likely to see polygamy as an attractive choice for females. And, considering how fresh is the memory of persecution over polygamy, I certainly wouldn’t expect Church leaders to join the early advocacy for legalizing polygamy. Since it will likely be some time before mainline American Christians in particular will be ready to accept polygamy as a morally legitimate way of life, it would be a deeply off-putting move for the Church to advocate for legalization any time soon. The Church will likely be willing to see polygamy become formally de-criminalized and leave it at that.14 Second best would be an expansion of legally recognized civil unions and domestic partnerships to encompass three or more participants.
However, the moral and social stature accompanying the label “marriage” will definitely be sought by polygamists as part of the legal package.15 And when that happens, the Church will face an interesting problem if it attempts to maintain its current tactic of preserving the term “marriage” only for heterosexual monogamy. Such would be tantamount to admitting that plural marriage is intrinsically sinful instead of a sacred practice put on hold. Characterizing plural marriage as immoral in and of itself would constitute a seemingly fatal accusation against the role of polygamy in the early Church as being a key element in the “restoration of all things.” An inability to make a prima facie case for polygamy’s fundamental immorality will render the Church unable to coherently oppose its legalization. Perhaps the Church will simply watch in silence as the marriage practice that threatened to destroy it is gradually accepted and legalized.
- The only scriptural condemnation of polygamy of which I’m aware is found in the Book of Mormon. Jacob 2:28–29 says, “Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women.” Individual Christians and Jews practiced polygamy well after the time of Christ. It was Roman law that came to suppress it—well prior to anti-polygamy becoming Christian orthodoxy.
- David Barash, Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Obviously, employing a multi-partnered male is a more efficient means for passing on superior genes to the next generation than would be utilizing a multi-partnered female.
- Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “The Marriage Gap: The Impact of Economic and Technological Change on Marriage Rates,” Brookings, 3 February 2012, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/jobs/posts/2012/02/03-jobs-greenstone-looney (accessed 14 June 2016).
- Pew Research Center data cited by Candice Madsen, “Love, Marriage and the Single Woman Stuck Writing about It,” Deseret News, 25 December 2015, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865644310/Love-marriage-and-the-single-woman-stuck-writing-about-it.html (accessed 14 June 2016).
- This statistic was cited by Elliot Jager in his book, The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness (The Toby Press, 2015)—as stated by David Wolpe in his book review titled “Unto the Generations,” in Commentary, February 2016.
- U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living, “A Profile of Older Americans: 2011,” page 2, http://www.aoa.gov/Aging_Statistics/Profile/2011/docs/2011profile.pdf (accessed 14 June 2016).
- Polygyny is polygamy with one male, multiple females; polyandry is one female, multiple males.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, updated 3 February 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarried-childbearing.htm (accessed 16 June 2016).
- Economic Research of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, FRED Economic Data, updated 6 May 2016, https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LNS11300001 (accessed 16 June 2016).
- The political pressure to legalize polygamy will likely come more from women seeking access to more husbands than from men seeking access to more wives.
- In his 2012 general conference address, “Brethren, We Have Work to Do,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson cited the following book titles, Why There Are No Good Men Left, The Demise of Guys, The End of Men, Why Boys Fail, and Manning Up, and noted that, “[i]nterestingly, most of these [books] seem to have been written by women.”
- Gallup survey sited in Samantha Allen, “Polygamy Is More Popular Than Ever,” The Daily Beast, 2 June 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/02/polygamy-is-more-popular-than-ever.html (accessed 14 June 2016).
- That would take things one step beyond the current practice of not enforcing the anti-bigamy laws.
- With California’s Proposition 8, the LDS Church and traditional Christians attempted to preserve the term “marriage” exclusively for heterosexual couplings so as to deny homosexual couples the moral imprimatur connected with that term. Along with Utah and many other states, California had already granted gays participating in civil unions and domestic partnerships virtually all of the civil/legal rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.