I feel bad for Josh Duggar

This isn’t the article I thought I was going to write. I was revisiting an article on the Duggars that I had written in May 2015 to update it with news reported after I published when I noticed that the family announced last week that their other show — Jill & Jessa: Counting On — is coming back to TLC. As I followed up on the story of the Duggars that had unfolded since last May, I felt worse and worse.

Last fall, we were besieged with news from and about the family. It was full-on “our brand is in crisis” mode. In the wake of the abuse scandal, we learned Josh Duggar had a paid account on Ashley Madison, that he had possibly paid a porn star for sex, that he confessed to infidelity and had an addiction to pornography. The “news” about the family was also overrun with the sort of bullshit gossip pieces that serve as thinly-veiled publicity for the family brand.

As gross as those kinds of self-serving pieces make me feel, something made me feel grosser: the growing realization that I felt sympathy for Josh who was the target of most of these articles.

I don’t feel the least bad that Josh had to resign his position with the Family Research Council (he was the executive director of FRC Action — “the non-profit and tax-exempt legislative action arm”) or that his family lost their reality show. Those were appropriate consequences for a family who covered up his actions and a man who made a living lobbying for force to be applied to those who didn’t share his values.

But I did feel bad for a young man who was having his faults examined in public. I felt that way because he is a young man raised in a loosely-organized Christian cult who likely doesn’t have the tools to deal with these issues privately, not to mention publicly. Combing through article after article about his confessions, I couldn’t imagine having to deal with a situation as difficult as this in front of the world.

Predictable Outcomes

My original article was about how beliefs lead to predictable outcomes. Patriarchies lead to the abuse of women and children. Insulating believers from the world leads to them not knowing nor understanding how to deal with common human issues. Teaching children crazy things about sex and gender roles leads to them acting really inappropriately as they mature sexually. These things are known. They are predictable.

Furthermore, there are predictable actions from cults. Cults protect themselves by not involving outsiders. (As the Duggars did when they sent Josh to counseling by other cult members before notifying the police.) Cults also protect themselves by shunning those who break their laws: those violators become apostates, suppressive persons, the disfellowshipped, the ex-communicated. Behind all the gossip pieces about the individual Duggars who are relieved Josh is out of the family is a dark subtext: that apostate has been removed.

Cults must remove the exceptions to their rules because they believe those exceptions expose how fragile a thing their beliefs are. It is actually the opposite: it is the removal of the apostates and sinners that reveals this fragility. When a belief system cannot handle opposition or contradiction of its tenets, we see the beliefs for what they are: bullshit that can’t stand up to scrutiny.

This is why all cults tell their members to avoid the worldly and not to read what’s been written about their beliefs. They know that they can’t counter logical criticism so they have to preach insularity and willful ignorance. If their beliefs were powerful enough to overwhelm criticism, they would embrace the critics in order to prove them wrong. But they can’t do that.

The Victims

While Josh is a product of a cult, he is also a victim of it. And because of that, I sympathize with him. Infidelity, addiction — these are human frailties that all of us struggle with regardless of our belief system. But he doesn’t know that. His own mother thinks that the secret to a happy marriage is for a wife never to say no to sex. His sisters agree Josh was “too curious” about girls.

What confusing messages this young boy must have received.

He wasn’t given the tools to deal with his actions when he was 14 and he hasn’t been given them now.

The revelations of Josh’s infidelity were greeted with the sort of “blood in the water” rapaciousness that we should reserve for politicians and other powerful, abusive people long after he’d been humbled from his seat of power. To the extent that was in retaliation to his position as a moralizer, I understand it. But he’s a human being who deserves our compassion (no, not above our compassion for his victims, but some level of compassion). We only need to look at the way Josh’s admissions were covered compared to those of others who have confessed infidelity or addiciton.

There were plenty of reasons to want to take Josh Duggar down last May. But here’s the thing: he was raised in a cult. His parents and the other cult leaders clearly didn’t know how to get him help when he was a teenager. They let him and his victims down. But we (we secularists, I mean) let him down further if we continue to greet his human frailties as some kind of immoral “otherness” unknown to us. Sex is complicated and confusing to the best of us. Can we imagine what it’s like for a child taught that he has dominion over his sisters and all females yet is also “too curious”?

Josh is a victim of his cult. Not in the same way as those he abused but a victim nonetheless.

This is important because the more the story focuses on his actions, the more it ignores the real danger of the belief system that creates all these victims. And the more we ignore that belief system in favor of the more salacious stories of the humans who have fallen, the more we secure that system.

Those who believe in the system never want to admit that it is the system itself that is problematic. They need to believe in the exceptions of bad actors. Josh was always “too curious.” That priest was a pervert. That apostate had the devil in him.

But the truth is that the system itself contributes to the bad behavior of those “exceptions.” A men’s club that outlaws sex but has unrestricted access to young people will lead to abuse. Children taught wrong ideas about gender roles and sexual relationships will act on those beliefs. Whether it’s the Catholic church or a small group of home-schooled evangelicals, those systems create the opportunities for abuse and bad behavior.

To make meaningful change, to stop the abuse and the excuses of bad actors, we have to aim our vitriol at the belief systems and the institutions that enable them. Otherwise, we’re complying with the desires of the cults. The cults want us to focus on the exceptions not their rules.

Meanwhile…

Meanwhile the cult burns down. Gil Bates — father of 19 children, patriarch of the Bates family who have their own reality show Bringing Up Bates, pal of Jim Bob Duggar — was named in a suit against the Institute for Basic Life Principles for ignoring reports of sexual abuse.

The fervent Christian, 50, who serves as a co-director of the IBLP, is accused along with his fellow defendants of receiving reports of employees’ sexual misconduct against “certain interns, employees and participants of its problems,” but failing to take any type of “corrective action” until February 2014.

Like the Duggars, Bates is described as a “fervent Christian” not a cult member which dilutes the issue.

The Duggars were closely associated with the IBLP (when Josh molested his sisters as a teenager, he was sent to an IBLP training center) whose founder and director Bill Gothard resigned last year after allegations surfaced that he had abused 35 women and teens. Gil Bates wasn’t the only one named in the recent suit brought by five plaintiffs which alleges the IBLP concealed the allegations of sexual abuse.

It is the teaching of the IBLP and its Advanced Training Institute homeschooling program that exacerbate abuse in family situations like the Duggars:

The lessons learned from birth in homes like the Duggar’s [sic] strip children of their voice and agency. Starting with blanket training babies and toddlers understand quickly that disappointing a parent leads to swift and painful consequences. As they grow, it becomes clear that simply doing what is expected is not enough. It must be done instantly and cheerfully. Children are even forbidden to seek out the logic behind the request, as kids are prone to do, because that is seen a making excuses or delaying obedience. The consequences of failing to meet these expectations are severe. Gothard and the Duggars believe that spankings are necessary to save a child from their inborn nature to do evil, and these are not just any spankings. The Duggars endorse the child abuse methods taught by the Pearls. Growing up in an environment of fear, where questions are seen as rebellious, eventually makes children unable to speak up for themselves. They become unable to trust their own judgment of what is right and wrong. These children are the perfect targets for abuse; they do not know how to advocate for themselves.

The IBLP teaches nonsense like “the seed of the man is an alien substance to the woman” and that just as genetic diseases are passed along:

…the specific sins of the fathers are passed on in the form of weaknesses to their sons and daughters. Thus, a father who lusts with his eyes will cause his children to have greater temptation in this area until he confesses his past sins and prays a daily hedge around his children.

In the wake of this, TLC announces a full series of the Duggars spin-off, Jill & Jessa: Counting On. The wicked have been shunned and the righteous promoted. But the system remains. We can all see where this is going, right?