Family values: Fundamentalism wounds, but don’t let the Duggar scandal make hypocrites of us all
Josh Duggar, reality TV star and professional morality peddler, has admitted to molesting 5 children as a teenager. The victims allegedly include his own sisters.
In a statement released yesterday evening, he said he’d “acted inexcusably” and resigned from his position as the executive director of the Family Research Council’s political action committee. His parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, called his actions “very bad mistakes.” In response, TLC pulled episodes of the Duggars’ show, “19 Kids and Counting,” although they say they haven’t made a final decision about its fate.
It’s the most serious consequence he’s faced for his actions. As a teenager, he simply received a “stern talk” from a state trooper who’s now serving over 50 years in prison for possessing child pornography, and his parents sent him to stay with a family friend for several months.
The world’s reacted to the news with predictable and reasonable outrage, largely because of the startling hypocrisy. Josh Duggar is not just a child molester; he’s a child molester who works for an organization that calls itself the “Family Research Council.” He and his parents regularly use their public platform to actively organize against LGBT rights.
In a particularly egregious incident, Michelle Duggar made robo-calls urging Fayetteville, Ark., residents to overturn an ordinance that prohibited anti-trans discrimination. “ I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls,” she said.
To the communities they’ve targeted, it’s all a disgusting farce. But although the outcry is justified, it threatens to obscure real tragedy. There are 5 victims to consider, although you wouldn’t know it from the Duggars’ official statements. They do not mention the counselling his victims received, or spend much time on the trauma he inflicted.
This erasure doesn’t surprise me. I spent the first two decades of my life immersed in Christian fundamentalism, and I’m all too familiar with its treatment of women, and of sexual abuse.
I’m also familiar with the Duggars’ extreme version of “Quiverfull” fundamentalism. The sect manages to amplify typical fundamentalist misogyny. It teaches Christian parents to have as many children as they physically can in order to advance the kingdom of God. And in practice, it relies on strict gender roles to survive. Quiverfull wives are explicitly taught to be subservient to their husbands. Their role is to produce, and then homeschool, large families.
The Duggars are also acolytes of Bill Gothard, a fundamentalist preacher who resigned from his ministry last year after multiple women accused him of harassment and assault. Before his disgrace, Gothard founded an array of extreme ministries that promoted his views to thousands.
Those views provide some context that’s currently missing from most discussions of the Duggar family’s internal structure. Consider, for example, Gothard’s “umbrella of protection.”
“God-given authorities can be considered ‘umbrellas of protection.’ By honoring and submitting to authorities, you will receive the privileges of their protection,” says the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), one of Gothard’s many projects.
Step outside that umbrella, though, and you’re asking for trouble. “If you resist their instructions and move out from their jurisdictional care, you forfeit your place under their protection and face life’s challenges and temptations on your own,” IBLP warns.
The umbrella really functions as more of a pyramid, with husbands at the top, then wives, and then children. According to individuals who left the ministry, Gothard originally called it the “chain of command,” and men clearly control it. Strict rules on female modesty and behaviour exist to reinforce that structure.
There is a strange juxtaposition at the heart of Gothard’s theology. First, it preaches sexual repression, especially for women. We see this manifested in Jim Bob’s much-publicized decision to read texts between his daughters and their boyfriends, and in the fact that the Duggar boys (including Josh) acted as chaperones on their sisters’ dates. At the same time, it’s a theology completely centered on sex. Quivers don’t fill themselves, after all.
Gothard’s teachings on sexual abuse reflect this. In the 1990s, the IBLP published an informational pamphlet on “moral failures” in the family. It included an interview with a young man who sexually abused his younger siblings.
“Modesty was a factor. It was not at the level it should have been in my family,” he said. “I am so grateful my parents have changed so much of this area in our home. This was not a major reason for the offending, but it allowed my little sister to be open to what I made her do.”
Another pamphlet encouraged survivors of sexual abuse to ask God if they’d been “defrauded” because of “immodest dress” or “indecent exposure.”
No wonder the Duggars say so little about their abused daughters.
Their dedication to Gothard’s teachings provide important context to their statements. According to Gothard, victims bear some responsibility for their own abuse. The children stepped outside the umbrella of protection; they must have, somehow. They weren’t modest enough. They didn’t obey.
Maybe they were asking for it.
But here it must be noted that the Duggars share this attitude with the secular culture they so abhor. Josh’s actions are abominable, and so is the cover-up his parents conducted on his behalf. It is easy, and it is right, to condemn both. It is also right, although much harder, to admit that Quiverfull Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on either vice, and that perhaps we observers are reinforcing the very exploitation we’ve all rushed to denounce.
The Duggar children had no control over their victimization. But we do have the power to make sure we aren’t complicit in it. We don’t need to accept TLC’s invitation to treat them like they’re an exhibit in a highly profitable human zoo. We don’t honor them as individuals and as survivors by using their stories to confirm our stereotypes about backwards religions and flyover states.
Josh may not have respected them. His parents still may not respect them. But we should. It’s time to put an end to the voyeurism. Keep the Duggars off the air, and let the victims heal in private.