Thursday, May 19, 2011

in defense of polygamy

We've been paying for TV for a couple of years now. It has its advantages, I suppose. There are more options for the kids, not many of which are worth having. (My own recollection of a childhood without pay TV is that I mostly watched prime-time programming--the Muppet Show, of course, but action and sci-fi shows like A-Team, Airwolf, and Automan come to mind.) We decided to pay extra for DVR, which has the distinct benefit of eliminating commercials from much of our viewing. Mostly the broader selection seems to have had the negative effect of niche viewing. Where before Julie and I used to spend time after the kids went to bed watching sit-coms and a few action dramas like Alias and Lost, now she has a long list of TLC-type programming and I have local government TV. I can only take so much of little people and hoarders and coupon clippers, and my tolerance for shows about wedding dresses and giving birth is almost non-existent. She groans in what I assume is agony, if she happens to walk through the room and catch 15 seconds of a school board meeting.

One of the few shows that we have managed to watch together is Sister Wives. I guess it meets all the usual requirements of standard TLC fare--prying into someone else's family life, border-line freak show, abnormal numbers of kids, and the tired format of reality TV, where even the most mundane moments are supposed to generate suspense and tension. I'm mostly interested in the phenomenon of polygamy--interested enough, I guess, that I can put up with the rest of it.

I should say, I'm not a polygamist in reality or in principle. Personally, I can't imagine how or why anyone would want to have more than one wife. Sustaining one such relationship takes enough energy, and as I've told Julie, I don't even envision myself remarrying if something ever happened to her. I also don't think polygamy was ever God's intent for human relationships; but the fact is, he did allow it. And that, I think, is significant.

From Mesopotamian law, we get a picture of polygamy for expedience. The motivation seems to be mostly childbearing. If a first wife couldn't produce, a second wife might be taken. Laws were provided to protect the rights of the first wife, since the wife with children might otherwise supplant her as more valuable. This same pattern plays out in the Bible, with Sarah and Hagar and later with Leah and Rachel. The only other kind of polygamy we see is when Israel's kings start taking multiple wives for political reasons. Both types seem to produce negative side-effects--internal family strife, religious compromise, and even tribal warfare. But they are tolerated within limits, as is divorce, probably to prevent the kind of actions people might have taken without that allowance. (Think, Henry VIII . . . )

What's harder for me to understand is polygamy that seems to be valued for its own sake. I've heard--though I'm no authority on the subject--that Mormon doctrine teaches salvation for the man as head of a household, where his wives' salvation depends on their relationship to him. I suppose, if that is widely known and accepted, it could be a motivation to extend salvation through marriage. But is that really a doctrinal difference between mainstream Mormons and the polygamist type? Or is it simply that polygamy became a cultural norm within Mormonism, and some conservatives turned it into a religious conviction, mostly because their church betrayed that practice? The reason for polygamy never really seems to be addressed in the show--it's presented as a lifestyle choice, often based on upbringing, but otherwise without much explanation.

But I think it's this presentation as a lifestyle choice that holds my attention. In a culture where we've come to accept extramarital sex, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and even same-sex marriage as more or less a matter of personal choice, why do we look at polygamy as just some obscure freak-show fodder? As a Christian, I look at the options out there, and I see polygamy as a whole lot more defensible than most of them. I'm sure there are abuses, and I would guess that making it illegal skews the numbers of those willing to make that choice toward the lunatic fringe. But the family in the show seems reasonably healthy--arguably, a good deal more healthy than so many half-families and re-mixed families resulting from divorce. The women chose this relationship as adults. The kids seem to interact well together. They seem to be getting by financially. I'm not even sure how they can be prosecuted, since he's only married legally to one of the four wives; but in any case it seems like an archaic legal stance to consider this criminal activity, while a man sleeping with multiple women but married to none of them would be considered safe, legal, and normal.

Is it that we just haven't had enough activism directed at recognizing polygamy as a lifestyle choice? Is it that we're culturally biased to accept choices that destroy family more easily than those that promote it? I don't know, but I can't escape the feeling that this is something worth defending. I wouldn't want to be polygamist, I wouldn't advise polygamy. But if we're destined to have a culture of choice, how can we possibly rule it out as an unacceptable option? And maybe, just maybe, having polygamy as a viable option on one end of the spectrum would help to create a more balanced perspective on traditional family.

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