It’s a rare treat when reality television provides us with something other than a sense of dread having wasted an evening in front of the TV. However, the legal struggles of one group of reality stars provides an insight into debates over a long-standing social phenomenon that is often swept under the rug in the United States.
On Monday 12th April 2016, a circuit court in Utah upheld state laws which ban polygamous marriage. The law had been challenged by Kody Brown and his four wives, stars of the US television series Sister Wives, which documents their life as a polygamist family living under the same roof. The Browns will not face criminal charges due to an official Utah County policy which protects polygamous families from prosecution as long as they have committed no other crimes. However, many of the approximately 40,000 polygamists living in Utah remain concerned that the existence of anti-polygamy legislation creates a stigma towards a group who mostly live in peaceful, happy relationships. The Brown family has subsequently appealed against the court’s ruling, threatening to further extend this legal drama.
What is perhaps most interesting about this story, from a historical perspective, is that the social context within which this debate is taking place today is dramatically different from that in which anti-polygamy legislation was first passed. In the nineteenth century, polygamy was most closely identified with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which publicly announced the practice as part of its doctrine in 1852. Four years later the newly-formed Republican Party placed it alongside slavery as one of the ‘twin relics of barbarism’ which it sought to prohibit.
Recently settled in Utah in order to avoid persecution, members of the LDS church found that polygamy would be held up within national culture as the clearest indicator of Mormon peculiarity. Over a thirty-year period, the U.S. Federal Government passed increasingly stringent anti-polygamy legislation, which culminated with LDS leaders removing official church support for the practice in 1890. This announcement met with opposition from some members of the church, resulting in a number of offshoot religious organisations, including the Apostolic United Brethren, to which the Brown family belong.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, and the admission of Utah as a state, polygamy has been a low priority for law enforcement officials, although a watchful eye has remained on certain fundamentalist groups due to concerns over violence towards women and sexual assault. Polygamy’s role within society has shifted, which makes the question of whether existing anti-polygamy legislation is suitable or even necessary all the more interesting.
Polygamy in the nineteenth century was an act practiced or supported by almost all Mormons in Utah, and represented just one concern over many held by mainstream Americans about the LDS Church. Consequently a strong stance against the practice was seen to be warranted as part of an overall mission to ‘Americanise’ Mormons. It is safe to say that contemporary polygamists are not seen as such a threat to the values of the American people.
The language used within debates over polygamy has also changed considerably over the last 150 years. Discourse surrounding polygamy in the late-nineteenth century drew upon the control that the LDS church wielded over Utah politics, allowing them to create an image of a patriarchal society in which church leaders dictated the actions of their followers in public, and of their wives in private. The defence used by members of the church usually focussed on freedom of religious practice and the impropriety of the federal government interfering with a private matter.
Today, however, you are far more likely to see defences made along similar lines to those who have campaigned in support of gay marriage. Most polygamists accept that they can only legally be married to one person, and are joined spiritually to their other partners. Instead, they argue that the form that their household takes is a private matter, which should not be punished by legislation. Families such as the Browns, whilst not claiming official recognition of their marriages, believe that they should be granted the same protections as other Americans.
In an era of increased divorce, increased recognition of same-sex households, with the infallibility of the ‘one man-one woman’ marriage under evermore scrutiny, it is conceivable that one day this approach could bear fruit. Problems remain. The thorny issue of those exploited under certain polygamous systems of living, as well as the difficulty added by the religious origin of most support for the practice, will probably prove significant obstacles for polygamists to overcome. But it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the stigma attached to having multiple wives weakens enough for families such as the Browns to get the legal victory that they are seeking so earnestly.
James Williamson completed undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of Sheffield, completing an MA in American History in 2013. He is now doing a PhD and Teaching Assistant at Keele University, where he is researching attitudes towards capitalism within the settlement of the American West. You can find him in twitter @jpwilliamson2.
Image: Portrait of Mormon polygamists in prison, at the Utah Penitentiary, [Wikicommons].