This past July, I attended a luncheon in Salt Lake City–I’ve referred to this before–where I rubbed elbows with foreign scholars who were in the U.S. for a seminar on religion in American society. I was there as an expert on Mormonism, and the conversation turned for a while to Mormon polygamy, historical and contemporary. An Egyptian scholar asked me: If Americans accept gay marriage, why don’t they accept polygamy? I replied that, actually, there does appear to be some measure of increasing sympathy for contemporary Mormon polygamists, as indicated by their positive treatment on TV (Big Love, Sister Wives, Polygamy USA) and by states’ general reluctance to prosecute polygamists for polygamy per se. If, I hypothesized, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of gay marriage, Mormon polygamists would look very closely at that decision to see if its principles could be applied to their case.
In retrospect, I realize that I probably missed the point of the scholar’s question. I suspect, now, that the point of his question was to register surprise that Americans are proving more tolerant of homosexuality than of heterosexual polygamy. Which, when I think about, is certainly not a self-evident state of affairs. Until I started reflecting on this outsider’s question, I had taken for granted, as an American cultural insider, that social acceptance of polygamous relationships represents a “next step” beyond social acceptance of homosexual relationships. But why is that? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why aren’t heterosexual polygamous relationships–because they’re heterosexual–more acceptable than homosexual couplings? I presume that for my Egyptian interlocutor, that last is the more logical way to think about the issue.
I guess what this shows is that for Americans, monogamy is a more fundamental cultural value than heteronormativity. Increasing numbers of Americans–I think polls indicate it’s a narrow majority at this point, yes?–are prepared to re-imagine marriage as the union of two women or two men. But a greater number of us are still inclined to think that a marriage should consist of just two people. Presumably this has a lot to do with the popularization of romantic, companionate models of marriage during the 19th century, which is itself related to the slower shift toward equality for women in modernized Western societies, which in turn is related to the West’s self-perception of its superiority over peoples whom it had or was colonizing–Egyptian Muslims, for example. Eventually, the romantic, companionate model of marriage was expanded to include gay/lesian couples. It’s taking more work to stretch the model to include polygamous couples.