Thursday, May 29, 2008

Polygamy: Spreading Silently

Alice C. Linsley

Polygamy is against the law in the United States and rarely prosecuted, unless it involves sexual abuse of minors. The recent intervention in the case of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints in Texas is about sex with minors, not polygamy. In fact, state officials in Utah, Arizona, and Texas are reluctant to prosecute polygamy cases. It means wading into religious waters and Constitutional challenges.

The religious justification for polygamy is found in the Old Testament. It was the practice for Afro-Asiatic chiefs to have 2 wives living in separate households on a north-south axis. These wives marked out the boundaries of the chief’s territory. Sometimes there were also concubines, but these women did not have the social status of the 2 wives. Abraham’s father, Terah, had 2 wives. By one wife he had Abraham and Nahor. By the other wife he had Sarah (Abraham’s first wife) and Haran. Abraham also had 2 wives: Sarah and Keturah. Isaac had 2 wives and so did Jacob. (For more on this subject read this.)

There is no evidence that all the men of Abraham’s culture had 2 wives. It appears to have been the case for the first born sons of rulers, those sons who would take over their fathers’ territories. So while there is no doubt that polygyny (multiple wives) was practiced by biblical figures, it was a custom of rulers, not the common man. It served to build up a man’s kingdom. And this is exactly what polygamist leaders in the US are attempting to do.

While state officials waffle in their thinking on the issue, polygamy silently spreads across the US among Moslems. According to a recent NPR report, Moslems in polygamous relationships number between 50,000 to 100,000. Legal challenges are avoided because only one of these marriages is officially recognized by the state. The other marriages are religious ceremonies not recognized by the state.

In many cases, Moslem men maintain wives in the US and in their homelands. These unofficial marriages are often secret, and the second and third wives are without legal rights or protections. There are many incidents of abuse by both the husband and his first wife. For more, read the NPR article here.

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