The latest series of Gallup public opinion polls are out and there’s one obscure items which caught my attention. It’s not as much of a big ticket topic as the usual fare regarding war, healthcare and the economy, but it probably speaks to something deeper and more ancient in our collective psyche. We’re talking about the long rejected (in America at least) taboo involving polygamy. It’s illegal in all fifty states to this day and it’s still widely unpopular, but not quite as unpopular as it used to be. (Gallup)
Polygamy, a practice that President James Garfield once said “offends the moral sense,” is now seen by 17% of Americans as “morally acceptable,” up from 14% in 2016 and the highest rate on record dating back to 2003.
These results come from the May 3-7 Gallup Values and Beliefs poll. Despite growing acceptance of the practice over the last 15 years, polygamy, or having multiple spouses at one time, remains one of the most morally taboo social behaviors in the eyes of Americans.
Indeed, for the first seven years (2003-2010) Gallup measured Americans’ moral perceptions of polygamy, the rate of U.S. adults who said it was “morally acceptable” was always in the single digits.
So in a period of fourteen years the concept of polygamy as being morally acceptable has risen from low single digits to 17%. That’s nearly one in five Americans. What explains the change? Gallup is speculating that the advent of television shows such as Sister Wives is feeding into the trend. In a broader sense, they’re guessing that the rise of liberal issues described on the left as equality or social justice markers is stoking enthusiasm as well. There’s also a difference in the wording of the poll question. Gallup used to define polygamy as when “a husband has more than one wife at the same time.” They’ve now dropped the genders, describing it as when “a married person has more than one spouse at the same time.” I suppose that might be somewhat less offensive to the ladies.
But to understand where the change is coming from it’s worth looking at the demographics for this sample. That’s particularly applicable for me as I try to figure out why this is a “liberal issue” in the first place. The biggest group finding polygamy morally acceptable is among those who describe themselves as not being religious or not being affiliated with any particular religion. In that demographic polygamy finds 32% support… nearly one third. It’s also slightly more acceptable among liberals than conservatives and Democrats than Republicans. Why?
It’s easy to point to our own national history and just say that this is the way things are. But our history is also full of examples of the way we used to do things eventually changing. One of the overriding factors here would seem (at least to me) to be a question of big government versus small government. There’s nothing in the constitution about marriage in general or polygamy specifically. And much like the gay marriage question, the more libertarian part of me has to immediately ask what business it is of the government how many people show up at the alter to get hitched? And for that matter, what business is it of the neighbors’ if the new, notably larger family isn’t causing them any harm?
The idea of forbidding polygamy seems to fail the test of asking how deeply involved in our personal lives we want the government to be. To be clear, I completely understand the reluctance. I personally find the idea not at all to my liking. (I can barely keep up with one wife. What in the world would I do with a few more?) And the religious angle against it in Judaeo-Christian faiths can’t be discounted in popular perception either. (Again, ignoring the fact that the founders of these religions didn’t seem to have a problem with it at all. King David had at least eight – and probably many more -wives, but hey.. it’s good to be the King.)
But just because I don’t personally care for something, that’s not a reason for me to call for the government to regulate or ban it. If you can’t show demonstrable harm to others resulting from any particular private action or find some proscription against it in the Constitution, it’s not exactly a small government, conservative position to want Uncle Sam to bring down the ban hammer.