On August 29th, 2006, a Nevada highway patrolman pulled over a red Cadillac Escalade for the improper use of a temporary license plate. Inside the vehicle, along with disguises, police scanners, and $50,000 in cash, he found Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) and then-member of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. Facing charges of being an accomplice to rape in Utah and Arizona, Jeffs was arrested without incident.
The subsequent trial of Jeffs and several of his high-level leaders was a major news story for many months. He was eventually convicted for the sexual assault of two girls he described as his “spiritual wives,” and he is now seven years into a life sentence. Today, Jeffs’ iconic mugshot stands as a symbol for cults in general, and the bizarre, harmful, and disturbing ways people can be persuaded to secretly live under the influence of a charismatic leader. Jeffs’ image also reminds us of the eerie fact that many of his followers remain loyal to him and continue the practice of polygamy.
(Note: what we commonly refer to as “polygamy” is technically “polygeny”—the marriage of one man to multiple women. The inverse, rarely seen in American society, is “polyandry,” where one woman is married to multiple men. Here, “polygamy” refers to the practice of one man marrying multiple women.)
With the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, and ever-individualized definitions of love, sexuality, and gender identity, one could argue that the redefinition of the American family has been the paramount social movement of the twenty-first century. But as we broaden our definition of family, will we make room for polygamy, a family pattern once considered to be a “twin relic of barbarism,” alongside slavery?
And more importantly: should we?
Celestial Laws and Frontier Brawls
Most polygamist communities today, with the exception of Muslim polygamists, are a legacy of a peculiar and uniquely American religion, Mormonism, which began in upstate New York in 1830 and found its way across the frontier to Utah. Founded by Joseph Smith, the young, charismatic son of a failed farmer, Mormonism’s early days are tainted by historical confirmation of polygamy. Critical Mormon historian Richard Lyman Bushman chronicles Joseph Smith’s life and marriages in his controversial biography Rough Stone Rolling. Bushman provides evidence that Joseph Smith had multiple wives by 1835, when he was around 30 years old. Smith expressed on several occasions his belief in plural marriage as a divine commandment, a requirement for the exaltation of humanity. However, at times he hid this belief and practice from many of his followers, including his own wife, and for good reason: Smith’s first plural wife is believed to be Fanny Alger, a maid in his home, who may have been as young as 15 when she was married to the Mormon prophet.
More than 50 years after Joseph Smith was murdered by an angry mob, Mormons saw their new homeland of Utah admitted to the Union on January 4, 1896. After years of sparring with local and federal authorities, statehood was granted on the condition that polygamy be completely banned in Utah. Mormon leadership issued a public renunciation of the practice, but devout believers formed underground communities and continued to perform plural marriages, a religious ceremony which many of their descendants still believe is a mandate from God.
Out of the Shadows, into the Spotlight
In his searingly well-written history of fringe polygamist groups, Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer estimates that between 30,000 and 100,000 people are practicing polygamy today in Canada, Mexico, and the American West. While most modern groups originate historically in the infamous and undeniably abusive FLDS church, many factions have broken away, and they are understandably eager to dissociate themselves from the harm and abuse endemic to the FLDS. Families arguing publically for legalization openly condemn Warren Jeffs, a view reiterated often by Kody Brown and his four wives on the reality TV series Sister Wives. Moderate polygamists like the Browns assert their unions are consensual, and all women are treated as equal partners. Families’ claim their children are encouraged but not required to practice polygamy, and that children benefit from the presence of more than two loving parents.
There is evidence that these more nuanced believers are having a persuasive effect on the general public. Only a small minority of the population admits to supporting polygamy, but according to national polls, the number of Americans who find polygamy morally acceptable increased from 7% in 2001 to 16% in 2015. And more broadly, American marriage norms have evolved even since Jeffs first walked into a prison cell. In 2015, after years of lobbying and advocacy from the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, same sex marriage was legalized on June 26. Interestingly, while public support of same sex marriage has grown steadily over the past few decades, support for polygamy has grown faster.
Interestingly, while public support of same sex marriage has grown steadily over the past few decades, support for polygamy has grown faster.
A more open cultural interpretation of families has helped separate polygamy, in the public mind, from being the sole territory of the FLDS. Indeed, if you take away the unusual hair and dress, the isolationism, and the criminal activity, it is difficult to distinguish polygamy from polyamory. Put simply, polyamory is the practice of one person having multiple romantic partners, with the consent and knowledge of all involved. There are few reputable studies on polyamory in the US, and any article on the subject carries a “data are difficult to come by” disclaimer, but one study places the number somewhere between 1.2 and 2.4 million. It will be years before social science produces reliable analyses of this trend, but in the meantime we can be sure that public attitudes are shifting in favor of more liberal interpretations of marriage.
Unlawfully Wed: Polygamist Communities and Law Enforcement
When exploring moral justifications for and against polygamy, it is instructive to study how law enforcement has evolved over the years in its interactions with these communities. Polygamy is still illegal in all fifty states; however, Jeffs and others were not convicted of this charge. Instead, they are in prison for crimes such as child abuse and fraud. Past conflicts between the FLDS and law enforcement helps us understand why this might be. During the 2008 raid of the El Dorado, Texas polygamous ranch, authorities took 416 children into state custody. Media images conveyed the chaos and confusion as families with multiple wives and dozens of children were forcibly separated. Though police were responding to a tip that child abuse and child marriage were occurring in the compound, police returned all of the children to their families by order of an appellate court.
Recent controversy surrounding family separation policies at the US/Mexico border reminds us how little tolerance the American public has for government interfering with families. After the El Dorado raid, police faced a strongly negative public response, and were critiqued for harming families and violating religious freedom.
Rather than directly respond to the religious freedom argument, likely because they believe they will lose, state and federal authorities, wishing to destabilize polygamist communities, avoid the question of religion altogether. The trial of Jeffs and his supporters had very little discussion of polygamy or religious practice, and more recent criminal cases against the FLDS deal with welfare fraud and money laundering.
Whose Morality Prevails?
The question of whether the United States should legalize polygamy is an issue of competing moral values. For the majority of American history, polygamy has been viewed as immoral. In an attempt to gain legal legitimacy, moderate polygamists have intelligently (if not yet successfully) tried to argue that their families are not unusual, and that we are all united in the name of a higher moral: religious freedom. But knowing that legal battles regarding religious freedom tend to favor a liberal interpretation of this right, state authorities have ignored the religion question altogether and focused on the more clear-cut and even higher moral of fighting dishonesty like fraud and money laundering.
As law enforcement and public polygamists compete for higher and higher ethical ground on the issue, as they widen and generalize the scope of their moral justification, public attention is drawn further and further away from the central issue of polygamy: the abuse of women and children.
While vast social science research confirms that increased adult support is beneficial for children, children in polygamous communities do not reap these benefits because the adults in their lives are not created equal. Women do not share the status, influence, and resources of men, and they are the victims of rampant abuse and deprivation. Indeed, polygamy is utterly dependent on the assumption that women’s worth (if they have any at all) is less than men’s, and it has historically been practiced by groups who stand to benefit from promoting that assumption.
Polyamory, though a relatively new and fluid concept in the landscape of relationship norms, does not appear to contain this rigid gender hierarchy. The late Dr. Deborah Anapol, clinical psychologist and author of Polyamory: The New Love without Limits, explains that people have many personal reasons for engaging in polyamorous relationships. While not all of those reasons are healthy–such as covering up a sex addiction or competing against a partner–she concludes that the success of polyamory, as with all relationships, is dependent on the actions and motivations of the people in it. As a new mechanism for defining and experiencing love on personal terms, one might argue that polyamory will be liberating for some women, giving them new avenues for growth and expression in their relationships.
It is no longer an institution of oppression, where women are the currency, but rather a legally-protected avenue of companionship, safety, self-expression, and support. It is within the moral boundaries of this relatively new, individually-focused idea of marriage that the public made room for same-sex couples.
Historically, marriage has been a medium for the social reproduction of gender hierarchies, consolidating wealth and social status along patriarchal lines and subjugating women to their husbands. But as women continue to gain equality, the social utility of marriage has also evolved. It is no longer an institution of oppression, where women are the currency, but rather a legally-protected avenue of companionship, safety, self-expression, and support. It is within the moral boundaries of this relatively new, individually-focused idea of marriage that the public made room for same-sex couples. But the legalization of polygamy will be a step backwards for marriage equality. The violence and deprivation women experience in polygamous communities evidences their inherently lower status in these groups, and it raises concerns over whether they legitimately consented to their unions at all. And while they are the most consistently victimized and dangerously exploited figures in this debate, women’s voices are being lost in the din of arguments over religious freedom. Even if it is only practiced in fringe communities, giving legal recognition to unions based on gender inequality compromises the equality women have fought so hard to obtain, and it pushes marriage back to its archaic roots.
As we fight for more and more people to access their human rights, we must not forget that in oppressive social hierarchies, granting freedom to those already in power can inadvertently increase oppression against those without power. Indeed, as our marriage laws exist today, there is no way to legalize polygamy only for moderate communities without also legalizing it for their undeniably abusive counterparts. Grappling with the paradox that what is liberating for some will be oppressing for others is a daunting reality of American social justice debates, but it is also an opportunity for each of us to engage in nuanced thinking, develop creative solutions, and grow in our understanding of our own moral assumptions.
In all likelihood, polygamy will eventually become legal. And while we might gain momentary satisfaction from the fact that Warren Jeffs will learn this news from a prison he will never leave, let us not forget about his least powerful followers, who are left out in the world to fend for themselves.
Erin is an administrator and instructor at the University of Utah, holding degrees in sociology and international affairs. She writes about gender, religion, art, and history, exploring how individuals exist within and fight against social systems. Her essays have been published in The Exponent and Young Mormon Feminists.