Understanding the Increase in Moral Acceptability of Polygamy

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One thing I look forward to each May is the “moral acceptability” section of Gallup’s Values and Beliefs poll — the section that provides a list of behaviors and asks Americans to say whether each is morally acceptable or morally wrong. As my colleague Megan Brennan recently reviewed, there is a great deal of variation in the responses. For example, 90% of Americans say birth control is morally acceptable, putting it at the top of the list, while just 9% say that married men and women having an affair is morally acceptable, putting that behavior at the bottom.

The survey has been asking about most of the behaviors on the list since the early 2000s, giving us excellent trend lines for gauging how the public’s views on morality have morphed in one direction or the other over time. Megan’s review pointed out that the proportion of Americans who find the death penalty morally acceptable, now 54%, is the lowest in our history of asking that question. Another important trend has been the increase in the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations, now 66%, up from as low as 38% (in 2002). And it’s important to note that “married men and women having an affair” has essentially held its positioning as a lasting taboo in American society; the 9% who today say having an affair is morally acceptable is just a few points higher than when we first asked about it almost 20 years ago.

But what fascinates me as much as anything else is the trend on polygamy. When Gallup first included polygamy on the list in 2003, 7% of Americans said it was morally acceptable, and that fell to 5% in 2006. But over the past decade, this percentage has gradually increased — moving into double digits in 2011, reaching 16% in 2015, and this year, at 20%, the highest in our history. In short, there has been a fourfold increase in the American public’s acceptance of polygamy in about a decade and a half.

Line graph. Trend from 2003 on the moral acceptability of polygamy. 7% said polygamy was morally acceptable in 2003, a percentage that has gradually increased to 20% morally acceptable in 2020.

The key question, of course, is why? What’s behind this upswing in the moral acceptability of polygamy?

This question is not new. My Gallup colleague Andrew Dugan, noting the same upward trend in the acceptability of polygamy a few years ago, wrote an analysis outlining possible explanations. Now that polygamy’s acceptance has reached a new high, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit this cultural phenomenon.

Polygamy in the Context of Other Behaviors

First, it is important to locate polygamy in the context of the broad list of 21 moral issues tested in the May survey. Although the acceptability of polygamy has risen significantly, its relative position near the bottom of the list of moral behaviors hasn’t changed a great deal. Polygamy is now fourth from the bottom on the list of 21 behaviors, above married men and women having an affair, cloning humans, and suicide. In 2003, when we first included it, polygamy was second from the bottom of the list of 16 behaviors tested, by one percentage point seen as more acceptable than married men and women having an affair, and one point lower than cloning humans.

Polygamy has basically been part of a rising tide of Americans’ acceptance of a number of moral behaviors. This means one explanation for the increased acceptability of polygamy — and perhaps the most plausible one — lies with the fact that it is part of a general trend of increased liberalism on moral issues.

To check this out, I compared the acceptability of a list of behaviors in an aggregate of our 2003-2006 surveys with an aggregate from the past three years (2018-2020). Between these periods, the acceptability of polygamy jumped from 6% to 19%, a 13-point gain. But other moral issues have also become more acceptable, underscoring the conclusion that views of polygamy are not changing in a vacuum. Americans’ acceptance of gay or lesbian relations has risen 22 points, while having a baby outside of marriage, sex between an unmarried man and woman, and divorce gained about the same as polygamy. Most other issues have become at least somewhat more acceptable over time, with the exceptions of medical testing of animals, the death penalty and wearing animal fur — the only issues seen as less acceptable now than they were a decade and a half ago.

Increased Representation of Polygamy in the Entertainment Media

Another quite interesting explanation for Americans’ increased acceptance of polygamy is a more frequent portrayal of polygamous households in the mass media. I don’t have an accurate count of the representation of polygamous relationships in popular culture (that is, books, movies, television, and so on) over time, so I’m making some assumptions here. But it’s undeniable that we have seen a number of representations of polygamy in popular television series and documentaries in recent years — including Sister WivesBig LoveMy Five Wives and, most recently Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness — something we did not see in decades past. The presence of these shows in the popular culture may have the impact of legitimizing polygamy by making it appear to be a more routine and less deviant family arrangement.

(There has been little legal change in the status of polygamy. It is still illegal in all 50 states of the union, although Utah recently reduced the penalty for polygamy from a felony to a misdemeanor, as long as no force or coercion is involved.)

Decrease in Traditional Marriage May Be a Factor

Another possible explanation for the increased acceptance of polygamy lies with changes in traditional marriage in American society. Our Gallup data show that married people are significantly less likely than unmarried people to find polygamy morally acceptable. This “marriage gap” in views of polygamy has been getting larger over time, from a three-point difference between those married and those unmarried in the 2003-2006 aggregate to a 10-point difference in the 2018-2020 aggregate. Additionally, the percentage of married people in the U.S. adult population has been declining, from 53% married in our Gallup Values and Beliefs aggregate from 2003-2006 to 49% in the 2018-2020 aggregate.

Thus, two things relating to marriage have affected the overall percentage of the population who find polygamy acceptable: more unmarried people in the population, and the fact that these unmarried people are increasingly likely to find polygamy acceptable.

Demographic Subgroup Trends

Most attitudes about moral issues differ among subgroups of the population, and polygamy is no exception. The defining variables on which views of polygamy pivot are age (young people are much more accepting), religiosity (with the less religious much more accepting), marital status (not married much more accepting), and political identity (Democrats more accepting).

Some of these demographic gaps have widened over time. The percentage of young people who find polygamy morally acceptable has risen from 9% to 34% from 2003-2006 to 2018-2020, significantly more than the increase among older Americans. Similarly, unmarried Americans increased their acceptance of polygamy more than married Americans, as have Democrats compared with Republicans, and those who are less religious compared with those who are very religious.

Mormons No More Accepting of Polygamy Than Overall Population

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is historically identified with polygamy, although the church formally renounced polygamy in 1890 and does not consider polygamous individuals to be members. Our data show that Mormons appear to adhere to their church’s official position. The Gallup aggregate of all Values and Beliefs surveys since 2003 includes interviews with 367 Americans who identify their religion as Mormon, and this group is slightly less likely than the sample average to say polygamy is morally acceptable.

Question Wording Changed in 2011, but Probably Not a Factor

There is also the matter of the wording change Gallup instituted in 2011. In surveys conducted before 2011, the item read, “Polygamy, when one husband has more than one wife at the same time.” In 2011, the item was changed to read, “Polygamy, when a married person has more than one spouse at the same time.” That wording change was coincident with a rise from 7% of Americans who found polygamy acceptable in 2010 to 11% in 2011. But the moral acceptability of polygamy has continued rising over the past nine years, using the new wording, to today’s 20%, suggesting that something more than a wording change is responsible for the increase.

Bottom Line

Americans’ views of polygamy have shifted along with their views of a number of other behaviors and societal arrangements relating to family structure and procreation. All societies develop normative constraints governing marriage, sex and childbearing, although the nature of these constraints varies widely across cultures and across time. In the U.S., the evident trend is a general loosening of normative expectations about marriage and sexual relations. Americans have become more tolerant of official marriages between individuals of the same sex and are more accepting of the idea that individuals can have sexual relations and children outside of traditional heterosexual marriage (the one exception being the continuing taboo against married men and women having an affair).

Views of polygamy have followed this same pattern, and although the significant majority of Americans continue to disapprove of polygamous relationships, the one in five who find such behavior morally acceptable is much higher on a relative basis than it was just a decade and a half ago.

Just why norms relating to marriage, sex and procreation are changing in American society is, of course, the broader question of interest, but one whose answer goes beyond the current descriptive analysis of key trends.

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