The Politics of Polygamy

Plural marriage meets the presidential race.


McKay Coppins has a fascinating story in Buzzfeed on the politics of polygamy. The hook is that there are plural marriages in the recent family trees of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but the most interesting parts of the piece involve the complicated allegiances of contemporary polygamists. Witness, for example, the left/right mosaic embraced by the Salt Lake man-of-many-wives Joe Darger, whose family

strives for a sort of Christian wholesomeness that would seem to identify them with cultural conservatives. They hang placards with religious maxims on the walls, they abstain from alcohol, and they read scripture together as a family. They believe homosexuality is sinful, and they abhor abortion — earnestly bemoaning the absence of God in public life, and yearning for a return to "family values." In short, they live lives that even the most ardent Rick Santorum acolyte would approve of (with one obvious exception).

"We're about faith, family, and getting the government out of our lives," Darger said. "It's a quintessential conservative argument." Which is why it was so jarring when, about 20 minutes into the discussion he started dropping terms that were borrowed from another community that hasn't always gotten along with religious right: The gay rights movement.

"We made the decision as a family to come out," he said, at one point.

"All we want is our equal rights," he said, at another.

When finally asked whether he saw parallels between the gay marriage cause and his own, Darger didn't hesitate: "Definitely."

Gay rights advocates want nothing to do with the polygamists, having spent years batting down the right's argument that the freedom to marry could extend in unexpected directions. But to get polygamy decriminalized, Darger said he is modeling his strategy after the successes of that movement (which he supports on Constitutional principle).

This comment from Darger is pretty interesting too:

"We have an uneasy alignment with the traditional LDS Church," he said. "Traditionally, they have been the ones most easily wielding the bully stick. And so it's not like, 'Oh great a Mormon's coming to power.' Because Mormons in power have not necessarily been kind to us."

He's voting for Gary Johnson instead.

The article also discusses polygamy among African immigrants, plus "a deliberate shift toward polygamy in South Philadelphia's black Muslim community, where advocates say the lifestyle could effectively address common inner-city social ailments caused by children growing up without fathers." And I'm happy to hear about this burst of sanity out west:

[W]hile Utah's strict anti-polygamy laws may have helped prove a point, experts say they also served to drive polygamist religious sects further underground, where malnutrition, incest, and child abuse regularly went unreported to the police.

The state began to change its tack in 2003, when Attorney General Mark Shurtleff implemented the "safety net" policy, urging polygamist whistle-blowers to come forward with crimes taking place in their communities, and promising not to prosecute otherwise law-abiding plural families. The new goal, said one state official, is for Utah polygamists to eventually function like the safest and most successful Amish communities in Pennsylvania: protected by organized society, but living mostly independent of it.