Polygamy, Society, and the Mormons

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

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

Coming Soon

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.


  1. Sam,

    I look forward to reading your posts. My comments aren’t along tax lines, but I am curious to how you see these problems.

    The NYT article was interesting. Polygany is a increasingly a migration problem, not just in the U.S., but in Europe as well. As immigration increases from Pakistan and other parts of South and South East Asia, it happens more frequently. Often men leave first wives behind and find a wife in the U.S. for a multitude of reasons, and a wife and children left behind suffer because of it. Beyond tax laws, do you see a humane remedy to the situation? Just like in the happy portrayals of TLC’s Sister Wives, some women are ok with this, it’s a way of life for them–and they’d rather live with a sister wife than a mother-in-law. Beyond tax laws, do you see a humane remedy to the situation that will take care of wives and children?

    Secondly, it seems to me people are mostly unaware of it (including legal authorities), or turn a blind eye to the practice. This is a big problem of migrant women who don’t have access to services and cannot communicate in English when they have problems. (a great example of life for some immigrant women: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0296008/ ).

    The biggest problem with polygany in migrant groups is not polygany itself, but under aged and forced marriage. This gets to one of the important facts in the recent Brown ruling. Wouldn’t it be better if the U.S. accepted migrants who engage in the practice (and all of their wives), rather than drive it underground where human rights violations take place?

    Third, does the law recognize it as bigamy if the man has a family in the home country, yet in his view the marriage is completely over–and he takes a new wife in the U.S.? What if there is no remedy–nor divorce option, for him in his home country?

    One more note, in some cases being forced to live polygany has been grounds for asylum for women.

  2. Along these lines for Mormons, I am troubled by the idea that men practicing polygany in other countries (for instance Africa) who want to get baptized must then (and do) abandon wives. It puts women and children who already have few choices in a terrible situation because of one choice their husband’s make, and leaves them without the security of an intact family.

  3. Were I a mission pres I would not permit such to be baptized (one who leaves spouse to get baptized) . I guess that’s why I’m not one… But living up to your marriage covenant and responsibilities supersedes your baptismal obligations in my mind. Indeed, I’m not sure how you can honor your baptismal covenant is if as a part of devoting your life to Christ you abandon a mother and child in the first step.

    Does this really happen or is it a second wives tail?

  4. I am interested to hear how other countries may handle tax issues for polygamous families. I know nothing about this.

    Because tax code is used to encentivize and de-encentivize certain family behavior, I am eager to hear more about what you think represents the most equitable taxation for both ‘1 to 1’ pairings and the ‘1 to many’ families.

  5. Thanks. I’m looking forward to the series.

    An interesting recent cultural representation of polygamy was a family in Call the Midwife, Season 2, I think. Who would have expected polygamy in 1950s Poplar? The husband and his two wives seemed English, but somehow belonged to another cultural group.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Sam. And congrats on the publication!

  7. Inheritance taxes and polygamous line marriages.

  8. Agreed on the reality TV, but Big Love is a guilty pleasure, for the first season at least. Jumps the shark a bit after that.

  9. Thanks, all! I look forward to digging a little more and answering some of your questions in future posts, so please keep them coming.

    Cynthia, I really did want to see Big Love, but my HBO-less-ness (and the fact that I’m not willing to buy the show) has made it impossible. Which maybe means I don’t want to see it as much as I think I do.

  10. Re: watching Big Love:
    I got interested in seeing it when it was popular and coworkers were asking me questions about it and also about Mormon polygamy. I went to the public library and found the 1st season on DVD. I watched a bunch of it and realized I wasn’t missing much. It was a soap opera a-la-Young-And-the-Restless but with a Polygamous mormon conceit instead of feuding and philandering society-page members. I thought it was a waste of my time inasmuch as I believe that all soap-operas are a waste of my time, and I didn’t enjoy it. The later brouhaha about it and the temple simply reinforced my assessment that they were doing everything they could do for shock-value ratings: the oldest trick in the soap opera handbook (e.g. “oh no! Is Sharon carrying Nick’s baby? Again?! But what about his twin!”).
    YMMV, or rather “Your Enjoyment May Vary.”

%d bloggers like this: