Polygamists Share Their Faith And Family Lives

Talk of polygamy has spread nationwide, partly due to TV shows and news coverage of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs' sexual assault conviction. But some see polygamy as a lifestyle rooted in faith. Two open polygamists discuss why they've chosen such lifestyles, what burdens they bear, and how they feel about pop culture's depictions of polygamy.

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TONY COX, Host:

And now, it's time for our Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about issues of religion and spirituality. Polygamy has become a hot topic in popular American culture thanks, in part, to television programs like "Big Love" and "Sister Wives" and with recent news coverage of the sexual assault conviction of polygamist leader, Warren Jeffs.

But for some Americans, polygamy is not a headline or a reality show. It is a lifestyle rooted in faith that today is practiced legally, by some estimates, in 50 African and Muslim nations. It is illegal in the United States and was outlawed in Utah more than a century ago. But polygamy continues, at times openly, in this country.

Joining us today are two Americans who are practicing polygamists despite the law. Moroni Lopez-Jessop is with us from Show Low, Arizona. Also with us is Julie Halcomb from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is the author of the blog, "A Normal Polygamist Family." Let me say welcome to the program to both of you.

JULIE HALCOMB: Thank you.

MORONI LOPEZ: Thank you.

COX: Julie, since it's the title of your blog, what is a normal polygamist family?

HALCOMB: Well, my goal in writing my blog was to show the country that not every polygamist fits under the umbrella of the Warren Jeffs idea. When you mention polygamy to the world, they tend to think of prairie dresses and French braids and women not allowed to speak, that their husband is ruling over them in an authoritative manner.

And I wanted to show the world that, you know, I live in the middle of a city. I live on a normal street in a normal house. I just happen to have two other women that I share my husband with. We raise our children as normal, everyday, go to school, go to the store, go to the library kind of kids. And I just wanted to show the world that we're completely normal. There just happens to be four adults instead of just two in the house.

COX: You use the word normal, which is a good way for me to get into this next question. I'm going to direct it to you first, Moroni, and then back to you, Julie. Your marriage, the ceremony itself. We've already indicated that polygamy is illegal in the United States. How normal was the ceremony?

LOPEZ: The ceremony is very similar to the marriage ceremony that takes place in mainstream LDS temples, yet we don't really have the same type of structure. We don't have temples. So it takes place, usually, in somebody's home, a living room, somewhere private. It's just a regular marriage ceremony, and we usually invite only close friends, relatives. It's usually a very private deal.

COX: You were previously, Julie, in a monogamous marriage and entered into a plural marriage as a third wife after your divorce. You knew that you wanted to live in a polygamous life before the second time around. Tell us what drew you to this life.

HALCOMB: Well, having been in a monogamous marriage, I realized how lonely it was, and how everything always fell on me as far as the housework, the raising of the children - at that time, just one child.

Everything was my responsibility, as my husband was a truck driver and he was always gone, and I hated it. I hated being alone. I had friends. My family was within 20 minutes of me, but there was something missing.

After my ex left, I started researching, and I grew up in a mainstream evangelical church, and I had read the Bible. I went to a Bible college. I studied the stuff, and it always seemed odd to me that, for some reason, it was OK in the Old Testament to have plural wives and to have these large families, but somehow, over time, the practice had stopped. And I wanted to find out more of why it had stopped, because it seemed to make sense. It seemed to be a logical thing, that one woman wasn't having to take care of everything.

So as I started reading and I started praying about it, I kind of got this - just this feeling in my heart. I'm, like, I want to see if this works. You know, this is common in the fundamental Mormon, independent Mormons. Obviously, not in the LDS, as it has, like you said before, been kind of taken out of the practice of the church.

But I wanted to see how it actually played out into American culture. So I got online and I started joining a couple of groups and just talking to other families, how they balanced it, how they did everything. And the more I talked to people, I went, this is exactly what I want to do.

And I ended up meeting my husband on one of these groups, and talked to my sister - my now-sister wives, and we hit it off really well, came up for a visit. And it wasn't a couple weeks later, actually, that I ended up marrying them. So...

COX: You mentioned LDS, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We're talking about polygamist marriages and families. Our guests are Julie Halcomb and Moroni Lopez-Jessop, who are both in polygamist marriages.

Let me ask you, Moroni, what are the burdens of being a polygamist?

LOPEZ: Well, there are several challenges that can come up. First of all, a man needs to become attentive to the needs of his wives. I'm not going to lie to you. There are jealousies that creep up among the wives.

Generally, if a jealousy appears, it's usually that the wife has an insecurity that she needs addressed. And if the husband is attentive enough and he can get to the core of the matter, if he can address that insecurity, then that's half of the battle right there.

COX: But Julie, many people argue that the polygamy structure treats women unfairly and subscribes to traditional gender roles. The men have the power in the house. Women don't get to make the decisions. If that's wrong, please correct me. What about that?

HALCOMB: I would say, in a lot of households, that is exactly the case. But it's also that case in a monogamous marriage and in monogamous relationships.

However, I know from experience, in my house, that is not the case. My other sisters do actually work outside of the home. They get to keep half of their paycheck. Half their paycheck goes to the house account, so that we can pay the bills, take care of everything.

We actually will sit down - just like, actually, it shows on the "Big Love" series. We will sit down, the three of us wives, and talk through things. And how do we do this? How do we balance this? What needs to be done? And just talk about it.

If our husband is home, of course, he's involved in it, or sometimes we'll just look at him and go, OK. Well, this is what we decided, so this is what you have to do. And he'll kind of laugh at us and go, I thought I was the head of the house.

But we don't ever do anything without his permission, nor do we do anything above his head. If he tells us, no, out of respect and under the religious principles as far as he is the head of the household and we are to submit to his authority, it's not the authority of, yes, sir, I'm going to do whatever you say, sir. But when he makes that final decision, OK. I'll go with it. And we play it out and see what happens, but it's definitely not the iron rule.

COX: You mentioned the TV show, "Big Love," and for a lot of Americans, their first exposure to a polygamous family is what they have either read in the newspapers, seen on the news or seen on show like "Big Love."

Do you think, Julie, that these portrayals on television have made it easier for people to become more tolerant of your lifestyle, or do they misrepresent what your lifestyle actually is?

HALCOMB: In some ways, it's definitely more dramatized. It has to be, for ratings sake. They have to dramatize the lifestyle a little bit more than what we experience in our own home.

I think, as a whole, the nation is becoming a little more tolerant of it and realizing that we're not the compounds. We're not hiding behind concrete and barbed wire. But unfortunately, because that is what is in the news and that is the reality that people see, that tends to still be the view and the understanding of what polygamy is.

COX: Moroni, you have how many children?

LOPEZ: I have a total of 11 children.

COX: Eleven children. Do you want your sons and do you want your daughters to follow in your footsteps and become part of polygamous families when they become adults?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, I think that every parent wants their children to follow in their footsteps. But you know, to me, I have a daughter that's 17 years old. She's going to be a senior in high school this year. She's already decided that this is not for her.

One of our core beliefs is to allow what we call free agency, which is their ability to choose for themselves. And there's not going to be anybody who's going to force her into that.

You know, in my experience, I've seen a lot of people who were not ready for this type of lifestyle kind of ruin their lives because they tried it. So my aim is not to recommend people that this is a lifestyle for them, but to recognize that for, you know, some people, it is.

COX: Moroni Lopez-Jessop and Julie Halcomb are both in polygamous marriages. Moroni joined us from Show Low, Arizona. Julie joined us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Thank you both very much for sharing with us.

HALCOMB: Well, thank you.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

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