Why do we have such an aversion to polygamy? I can think of three major objections: 1. It destroys the romantic intimacy of a couple. 2. It feels sexually unholy, akin to promiscuity. 3. It is unfair to women.
Different cultures and time periods will object to polygamy for different reasons. For example, in Joseph Smith’s day, a fairly puritanical culture, they would have seen polygamy as sexually unholy. But they wouldn’t care as much that it was unfair to women, as those days were pre-feminist. Today, the primary objection among Gentiles, is that it is unfair to women, but they wouldn’t care so much about the sexual aspect. Today’s LDS would probably object to it primarily because it destroys our romantic notions of eternal intimacy with a single companion. Understanding these objections is important, because it will influence how we approach and define our polygamous heritage both to members and non-members. I’d like to take each objection and examine possible responses to each. These arguments do not necessarily reflect my own views, but are simply various ideas as I try to come to an understanding of this difficult topic.
The Romantic Objection: Violated Intimacy
The doctrine of eternal marriage was originally presented within a polygamous framework, as a ritual necessary for people to enter the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. But today’s LDS have adopted the Western cultural notions of “eternal love” alongside the ritual of eternal marriage, which is a monogamous, romantic, possessive love that transcends both death and all polygamous competitors. It is nearly impossible for a modern person to retain notions of both romantic intimacy and polygamy.
Here is a possible argument to this objection: In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the highest expressions of love and intimacy are between God and His children. God’s love is not diminished by having billions of children to whom He must spread His love. To God, each individual is the lost sheep for whom He leaves the 99. His love, by virtue of being infinite, cannot be divided or diminished. Likewise those inheriting the Celestial Kingdom, become gods themselves, and their love grows to an infinite degree. Celestial polygamy would thus be no compromise to divine intimacy between gods and goddesses. Even here on earth, children do not often report that having siblings diminishes the love of their parents for them.
A second argument against the romantic objection could be centered on resisting covetousness and possessiveness. The Law of Moses says, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property.” The Doctrine and Covenants says, “thou shalt not covet THY OWN property.” This reflects the higher Law of Consecration. We are taught that everything we have is a gift from the Lord, and must fight against the natural feelings of possessiveness we have towards our own property. Let’s take the law to it’s logical conclusion regarding polygamy. The Law of Moses says “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife (or husband).” The higher law would be “thou shalt not covet THY OWN WIFE (or husband.)” Thus polygamy works in concert with the Law of Consecration to help wives (and husbands in the case of polyandry) resist possessiveness and covetousness.
The Puritanical Objection: Sexually Unholy
We are taught that sex is sacred and that it must only be practiced within the confines of holy, monogamous matrimony. We imagine that this law is universal, intrinsic, binding, and must never be compromised with. Breaking this law is considered a sin 2nd only to murder. Thus we recoil from polygamy in horror. “Thou shalt not commit adultery, or anything like unto it.” The idea of many wives sounds promiscuous.
However, it could be argued that God has in the scriptures and in church history, at various times, advocated polygamy, concubinage, celibacy, monogamy, and polyandry. Clearly God’s particular laws regarding sex are NOT universal, but vary from culture to culture, time to time. However, sexuality is universally subject to some kind of taboo or restraint. This is what makes sex sacred, not the act itself, but to restrain it and consecrate it. At different times, it may be consecrated to monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, or celibacy. For a man to practice polygamy is not to give free reign to his sexual passions, but rather to spread that passion equally upon a set of women to whom he is unequally attracted. This could be as great a sacrifice as consecrating all of his sexuality to one woman only.
The Egalitarian Objection: Unfair to Women
This is the primary objection to modern, non-LDS. The modern world is sexually permissive, and is perfectly happy with multiple partners among single consenting adults. But polygamy allows men to have multiple partners, but denies the same to women. Thus it is seen as an abhorrent crime against female equality.
The best argument to try and quell this objection is to bring up Joseph Smith’s polyandry. When Gentiles learn that Joseph Smith married other men’s wives, and that in early Mormonism some women had more than one husband, their perspective on Joseph Smith completely changes. They no longer see him as a lascivious patriarchal overlord, and begin to see him as an admirable sexual revolutionary. However, this argument is not going to impress most LDS, who don’t want to confront the idea of eternal polyandry.
There is another more difficult argument to make, which is that women are more naturally monogamous, and men are more naturally polygamous. Because of this fact, polyandry would not be a fair solution, because women would be less inclined to have multiple partners anyway. Polyandry caters more to the male promiscuous instinct than to the female instinct, which is to find a single partner to love and protect her. Thus you might be able to argue that polygamy cannot be said to be unfair to women, because it respects this gender imbalance.
Additionally, one might argue that polygamy can facilitate female fulfillment in other ways. In the modern world, monogamous mothers find it difficult to balance their domestic desires with their desires to find career fulfillment. Polygamy allows some wives to have careers while others take care of domestic duties. Likewise, sister wives can divide up domestic and career duties into part-time work, allowing complete educational and career fulfillment for all, without compromising childcare. Polygamous wives in early Mormonism were quite progressive, with Brigham Young preaching that women ought to go out and have careers like men, and educating his own daughters back East. This might not have happened without polygamy, as women’s domestic role would have been seen as more essential without the help of other sister-wives.
- Are there other objections to polygamy?
- Do you find any of these arguments compelling?
- Are their other apologetic arguments for polygamy that might satisfy concerns of those inside and outside the church?