2016-06-30
This article originally ran on Beliefnet in 2001.

I read with interest of Tom Green, the vocal member of a widespread polygamous community in Utah. Whereas there are about 30,000 members of Mormon offshoot groups who practice polygamy in Utah (despite the Mormon church outlawing the practice in the late 19th century), Green was that rarity: a proud polygamist who championed his lifestyle to the world. He appeared on numerous national current affairs programs and, in the process, berated the Mormon church for turning its back on the traditions of its founders, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, both of whom had multiple wives. He also earned the ire of David Leavitt, the local prosecuting attorney for Juab County who successfully prosecuted Green for his unlawful, and one would assume, tiring lifestyle.

I got even closer to polygamy the other night when I debated one Pastor Steven Butt, also from Utah, who is an avowed polygamist living with three wives. Now I have a number of arguments against polygamy, the principal one being that I am a marriage counselor and find it trying enough to persuade a husband to get along with his one wife. Can you just imagine five?

But Green and Butt point to the Bible to support their claims that G-d has sanctioned polygamous unions. After all, quite a few of the central figures in the Bible had more than one wife. The Patriarch Abraham had two, and so did Jacob his grandson. However, closer examination reveals that Abraham took another wife only at the urging of his first wife, Sarah, because she had been barren for 80 years, and that Jacob was duped into marrying the sister of the woman he had worked seven long years to wed. In these instances, bigamy and polygamy are at best, secondary, and at worst, coerced choices.

More important, the Biblical archetype, the way G-d intended it all to happen, was not polygamy but monogamy. G-d created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve and Cindy and Veronica. Adam had one wife for the 930 years of his life. This was the first human union to grace this earth and the ideal to which all subsequent generations were to aspire.

But aside from the biblical example and the rabbinic prohibition in Judaism against polygamy, my own opposition to the institution is based on the simple idea of uniqueness. Human dignity is based around being special. There is none other on this earth that is quite like you or me. And marriage is the corroboration of this uniqueness, when one person chooses us for a spouse and places us at the center of his or her universe, to the exclusion of all others. Like G-d Himself, we all want to be the one and only. This is marriage's highest purpose. The moment, however, when we go from being the sun with a planet revolving around us, to just one Jovian moon that revolves around a bloated planet, we lose our uniqueness and are made to feel ordinary, one of many instead of the one and only.

That's the idea behind a soulmate. We want to find that one person who puts us before all others, and in whose arms we feel irreplaceable. Polygamy and polyandry are the antitheses of soulmate. They are immoral precisely because they are practices designed to purloin one's uniqueness. Jealousy abounds as kinship is destroyed. One wife fights for a greater share of her husband against the other wives. The marital bond, designed to establish security and comfort, becomes instead the source of rivalry and insecurity. What Tom Green therefore did was tell five women that each of them were only 1/5 special, only 1/5 unique.

So much for the moral crime of polygamy. But what of the question: "Should polygamy be a criminal?"

I believe that we have treated Tom Green and his case with a great deal of hypocrisy. In an age in which the entire institution of marriage is under threat, where more and more men refuse to commit to the women they date, where Newsweek magazine runs a cover story about the death of the nuclear family and the rise of single mothering, then the message that the imprisonment of Tom Green sends is this: If you are a womanizer who dates and then sleeps with a different woman every night, you have done nothing wrong.

Likewise, if you father children from different single mothers and then disappear from their lives, the state can bring no charges against you. But if you were to actually marry the children's mothers, you're going to be locked up. Similarly, if you are a married man who keeps a mistress in an Upper East Side apartment, you have committed no crime. But the moment you marry that mistress, commit to her, support her, and call her your wife, then we're going to throw you in Sing-Sing.

The Tom Green Case

 

  • A Family Determined: The struggles of Green's wives and kids

  • The Life of a Polygamist: A Salt Lake Tribune photo gallery
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  • Utah Steps Up Polygamy Prosecutions

  • The Mormon Church and Polygamy: A history lesson
  • I am not defending polygamy but rather a confused system that punishes one highly misguided man, whose greatest sin is over-commitment, and yet heralds all the other misguided men whose sin is essentially under-commitment, or fear of commitment.

    Now, I don't believe that we should lock up all men who refuse to marry or incarcerate those who keep mistresses. But I do believe that such a lifestyle should be condemned at least as much, if not more, than polygamy. Thus, if the latter carries a punishment, the former should as well.

    So, what should we do with good old Tom Green? First, we should convict him and suspend the sentence. Does it really help his children to become wards of the state? Are we doing this troubled family more good by locking up their principal breadwinner? No, Tom Green's 25 years are not going to help his 25 children. Rather than jailing him, he should be asked to pay a hefty fine. If he cannot afford the fine, then we should all rest easy knowing that his money is going to support his children. But he should not be punished for over-commitment while all those who are guilty of under-commitment are left free.

    And what of those poor, wretched, commitment-phobic single male souls who cannot devote themselves to one woman? What should their punishment be?

    Well, the only thing worse than having more than one wife is not having one at all. Such loneliness is punishment enough.