When HBO’s new series, “Big Love,” begins Sunday evening, March 12, American television enters the brave new world of polygamy. In this program, a successful but struggling businessman juggles business, children, and three wives who live in adjacent houses on the same street. HBO says, “’Big Love’ explores the evolving institution of marriage through a typical atypical family.” It’s all quite normal, isn’t it, just another version of desperate housewives.
Multi-partner marriage is nothing new in American history. Most people know the Mormon Church and in turn the territory of Utah permitted plural marriage until 1890 when polygamy was banned as a condition of statehood. But that was more than a century ago and, though polygamy has continued to exist in clandestine arrangements since that time (According to a joint report issued by the Utah and Arizona attorney general's offices, July 2005, 'approximately 20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States.' Others believe the number is closer to 100,000.), it has not been legal, has not been endorsed by America’s public moral consensus, and has not been considered a viable alternative to monogamous heterosexual marriage. Now one wonders if the times, they are a changing.
Polygamy describes one husband with multiple wives or, rarely, one wife with multiple husbands. Polyamory is another term you need to learn, because we’re going to hear more about it. Polyamory describes any multi-partner or atypical familial relationship entered voluntarily by consenting adults. Polyamory encompasses polygamous marriages, same-sex marriages, bisexual relationships, and any of a host of other alternative sexualities and non-monogamous relationships. Polyamory isn’t yet a household word, but if liberals and secularists have any say, it will be.
For now, polygamy is the next battleground in the culture wars after same-sex marriage. Some proponents of gay marriage are not all that happy with polygamy’s re-emergence, primarily because they consider it a political threat to the potential success of their own movement to legalize same-sex marriage throughout America. Other proponents of gay marriage welcome polygamists as kindred spirits, people who in their vision just want to be left alone to do whatever they want to do in sex, love, and marriage.
After the Canadian Parliament legalized same-sex marriage the Liberal Party then in power authorized a commission to study polygamy and make recommendations. John Tierney, writing in The New York Times today, argued “Polygamy isn’t necessarily worse than the current American alternative: serial monogamy…If a few consenting adults…still want to practice polygamy, there’s no reason to stop them.” This is certainly not the view of women and children who have been part of polygamous relationships.
Christians sometimes struggle with outright moral condemnation of polygamy because it was alive and well among the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. God seemed to wink at it back then, so why would he care now? But he didn’t wink at it. One man, one woman, lifelong monogamous marriage has been God’s standard since the Garden of Eden. This is God’s moral will for those who remarry after the death of a spouse. This is God’s moral will for those who remarry after experiencing a biblically justifiable divorce. This is certainly God’s will for those getting married in the flower of youth, and it’s God’s will for newly formed older and elderly couples who are veterans of long marriages to a now deceased partner—living together is not a divine option either. Polygamy, polyamory, call it what you will, is not God’s desire for any of the Adams and Eves in the world.
HBO’s “Big Love” won’t change the culture by itself, but if its script and screen are well-presented Americans will watch, and the fact that it airs at all says something about the American consumer if not the culture. We’re a long way from “Ozzie and Harriett.”
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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