The Polygamist in the White House… and next door

We may never know if indeed it was a first.

At the White House on Tuesday the president awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to an esteemed American and de facto polygamist.

His name is Warren Buffett.

In case you didn’t know, for more than a half-century, right up until her death, the celebrated multi-billionaire investor was married to his beloved Susie. And for a quarter-century, at Susie’s behest and with her full approval, he also maintained a committed, intimate relationship and publically shared a home with Astrid.  Holiday cards to friends were signed “Warren, Susie and Astrid.” Upon Susie’s death — which was devastating to Buffett — he and Astrid were able to be formally married.

Warren, Susie and Astrid are a rare exception: most committed, long-term triads are not so public.  Of course, there was no violation of any bigamy statute and no tax fraud. One legal marriage at a time, one spousal tax deduction.

High-profile polygamists — married de facto, if not de jure — may not be running the marriage rights flag up the flagpole, but the Buffetts are not alone.

So respectable a figure as Karl Barth, the twentieth-century Protestant theologian widely held to be the greatest mind in Christendom since Thomas Aquinas, shared the entire second half of his 80-year life in a household with two women.  

When the greatest German composer of the second half of the 20th century, Karlheinz Stockhausen, died in 2007, it was his two common law wives, Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, who jointly announced his passing.

Still, attention in the news media to the subject of polygamy has focused on a single stereotype: fundamentalist Mormons who live on compounds in remote parts of Utah, Arizona and Texas, and on crimes and allegations of crimes by men such as Warren Jeffs against women and children. They are news worthy, sadly real and utterly abhorrent.  But they appear not to be the norm, and according to social scientists who have studied them are not the basis for polygamy.

This is no longer the only image of polygamy in the American media.  The fictional Hendricksons of ‘Big Love’ and the real-life Browns of  ‘Sister Wives’ portray polygamy in a more All American life-in-the-suburbs light. They are for the most part at least approachable and very often endearing. Still, both high-profile TV shows are about families living the Mormon principle of plural marriage as a religious tenet.

The Buffetts’ polygamy is not based on Mormonism. Nor was the Barths’, nor that of the Stockhausen family. And it’s fair to say that none of the women in these three men’s lives was coerced into an underage union against their will by a manipulative prophet or tyrannical patriarch. It was for each of them a life they chose.

As a boy growing up I couldn’t imagine that I knew anyone who was a homosexual.  The thought of meeting one kind of scared me. When I learned that a man I was working with and respected was gay I could barely believe it: he was pretty much like everyone else.  He wasn’t scary. These days, everyone knows someone who is gay. My eldest son is gay. He’s out. No big deal.

I suspect there are polygamists, or would-be ones, in your town, in your neighborhood.  Maybe you know them and maybe you don’t.  And maybe you know or suspect they’re really — de facto — polygamists and maybe you don’t. But chances are they aren’t drawing a lot of attention to themselves and aren’t much like Warren Jeffs — or for that matter Warren Buffett.  Chances are they’re more like you and me.

Perhaps you’re one.

Or perhaps you would be, if you felt you could.

A Bountiful Marriage

So few of us in the United States know much about Canada. 

Mention “Bountiful” and very few think about a town in British Columbia. Fewer still are aware that there is a case, commonly referred to as the Bountiful Case, presently before the BC Supreme Court, that challenges the law that limits a “conjugal union” to the relationship between two persons.

Yes, it’s a polygamy case. And there is a good chance it will ultimately be decided in the Canadian national Supreme Court.

The case is shrouded in a cloak of prejudice. The town of Bountiful is a fundamentalist LDS one. Those involved do not look like the well-adjusted suburbanites on HBO’s ‘Big Love’ or TLC’s ‘Sister Wives’. There are allegations of child brides and spousal abuse in Bountiful. It’s not the perfect crime-free community. But rights have never been predicated upon engendering everything picture postcard perfect.

What is striking about the Bountiful Case is that it brings to the foreground assumptions we make about the fundamental nature of an institution whose definition we have until recently mostly taken for granted. Marriage is an exclusive union between a single man and a single woman.

But this is a very specific historically and culturally grounded definition.  It is by no means universal.

In G.P. Murdock’s magisterial 1967 Ethnographic Atlas, an overwhelming 85 percent of recorded societies were polygamous. No, that doesn’t mean that 85 percent of marriages throughout the world were multi-partner ones. What it says is that our own society’s refusal to accept polygamy is the “odd man out” in a humanity that has as a species typically encouraged or at least allowed for marriage to be defined as other than simply one man and one woman.

We are an ethnocentric lot. Like gay marriage, the thought of more than two people marrying may be hard for most of us to wrap our minds around.

I will be writing more about this landmark case in the days ahead. I will be writing about polygamy in several contexts – historical, religious, sociological and also clinical. For now, here’s a short but very informative article by attorney Jim Quail called The BC Polygamy Case: Be Careful What You Criminalize.

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