When I returned to my office after winter break, I found two large brown boxes (with “Joe Christensen” written on the sides) waiting for me in the mailroom. I was pretty sure I knew what they held and, sure enough, upon opening them, I saw copies of Taxing Polygamy, my (finally published!) article dealing with the difficulties that a regime of legally-recognized polygamy would present to the U.S. tax system.
And, in celebration of its finally being published, I thought I’d do a little polygamy-blogging, starting with this broad introductory post.
A caveat to start out: I’ve never met a polygamist in person. The closest I’ve come was on a road trip this summer, when, driving from Mesa Verde to St. George, we drove through Colorado City. Sadly, though, we drove through it at 9:30 pm in the middle of a storm, so I couldn’t see the unique architecture of a polygamous town.[fn1] My knowledge of polygamy, then, is purely theoretical and academic.
The Face of Polygamy in the United States
When we think of modern U.S. polygamy, I think it’s fair to say we think of white people in pioneer dresses with big hair living in cloistered communities. That perception may be changing, between Big Love and Sister Wives and whatever that new polygamist reality TV show is.[fn2] Even that changed perception, though, focuses on white Mountain West Mormon polygamy.
My interest in polygamy was initially piqued, though, by this New York Times article detailing secret polygamous families, not in sparsely-populated rural Western areas, but in row houses in the Bronx.
The number of polygamists in the U.S. is notoriously hard to determine—as the Times article points out, it’s grounds for deportation for non-citizens, and grounds for prison time in any event. Still, according to the numbers I could find, the U.S. is home to an estimated 20,000-100,000 Mormon polygamists. There are about 50,000 polygamist Muslims, and several thousand polygamist Hmong, too.[fn3]
That is, while probably one- to two-thirds of U.S. polygamists are, in fact, fundamentalist Mormons, a significant percentage are non-white, non-Mormon, non-Westerners.
Why, then, the focus on Mormon polygamy in our discourse? I really don’t know. I suspect that it’s a combination of the history of Mormonism in America, our greater visibility and relevance in passing the various anti-polygamy laws, and the fact that, in U.S. culture, non-white groups tend to fade into the background. We discursively use whiteness as a default un-raced group, and, if that’s our rhetorical and philosophical grounding, we understandably gravitate toward white polygamists when we think of polygamy.[fn4]
Brief Bibliography on Modern Polygamy
In doing my research, I found some pretty good books on polygamy in the modern world. (And, in fact, my bookshelf at work probably has more books on polygamy than any other tax professor.) Books I found interesting and valuable:
Jacobson & Burton, eds., Modern Polygamy in the United States: Historical, Cultural, and Legal Issues
Altman & Ginat, Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society
Zeitzen, Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis
In future posts, I’ll talk, among other things, about how polygamous families are and should be taxed, on some recent IRS developments with the FLDS Church, and on other things that strike my fancy. If you have any questions you want me to address,[fn5] feel free to ask in the comments.
[fn1] I tried, let me tell you.
[fn2] Confession time: Even though I’ve researched and published about polygamy, I’ve never seen Big Love or the TLC reality shows. My excuse? I don’t subscribe to cable, so they’re all kind of out of my reach. Even if I did, though, my aesthetics don’t permit me to watch reality TV.
[fn3] You can get my sources for the numbers on p. 131 of Taxing Polygamy.
[fn4] I could, of course, be totally wrong about that, but I suspect default racial categories have at least something to do with our focus on fundamentalist Mormon polygamy.
[fn5] Remembering, again, that my knowledge is purely academic.