There really is nothing more important in life than family. But just because you have what appears to be a “perfect” family doesn’t mean that your family isn’t dysfunctional like everyone else’s — maybe even VERY dysfunctional. So the news that Josh Duggar — eldest son of the Duggar clan that stars on TLC’s popular “reality” show 19 Kids and Counting — had molested underage girls when he was a young teenager wasn’t entirely surprising. These revelations led Josh Duggar to resign from his advocacy role with the Family Research Council, a homophobic hate group through which he consistently — and hypocritically — equated gay people to child molesters.
There’s a grand tradition in America that those who go out of their way to wear their righteousness on their sleeves are usually the ones hiding some decidedly un-righteous secrets. Overt religiosity and sexual repression have a tendency to warp young people in particular (just consider the fact that teen pregnancy rates are highest in the Bible Belt states, where sex is considered the ultimate sin and “abstinence only education” rules the day). But Josh Dugger’s actions are way more serious than your average teenager fumbling with a bra strap on prom night. Vox has an excellent rundown of the allegations against the Dirty Duggar, and they’re exceedingly weird and creepy.
In 2002 and 2003, Josh’s father, Duggar patriarch Jim Bob, learned that Josh had fondled “several” minors (i.e. his sisters), often while they slept. In response, Josh’s parents sent him to receive “counseling,” first from a family friend who worked as a building contractor, and then from an Arkansas state trooper named Jim Hutchins, a guy who was eventually sentenced to 56 years in the slammer on child porn charges. Of course, Oprah is also somehow involved, as the iconic talk-show host cancelled a 2006 appearance by the Duggars after an anonymous e-mail informed her studio about Josh’s pervy habits and the Duggar clan’s attempt to keep them secret. Even more bizarre is the fact that one of the “counseling centers” at which Josh supposedly got “treatment,” the far-right evangelical Institute in Basic Life Principles, was headed by Bill Gothard. Gothard is a top-shelf slime ball who in 2014 was forced to resign from his group amid accusations that he molested women whom he lured in through his powerful position in a “Christian” advocacy organization. Are you sensing any themes here?
America’s far-right Christian subculture is obsessed with the family. They give their advocacy groups names like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council (where Josh Duggar plied his homophobic trade). And it’s this right-wing American obsession with the “perfect,” devout Christian family that turned the ultra-creepy Duggar clan into reality teevee stars.
The Duggars represent all the things that conservative Americans fantasize about when it comes the family’s relation to church and state — projected through a carefully controlled, micro-managed, commodified mass-media lens. They combined two things that Americans love in spades that are equally phony: celebritydom and public piousness. To their loyal viewing audience, the Duggars symbolized family togetherness, independence from the government, self-reliance, resistance to ever-creeping secularism, and more Christian piety than St. Paul, Martin Luther, and a tear-swamped, forgiveness-begging Jimmy Swaggart baked into a halibut and Merlot pie.
Of course, by contrast, millions of other Americans who watched 19 Kids and Counting saw the Duggars as a world-class freak show. But not all freak shows are built to last, and there’s a good reason why even those who saw the Duggars as religious-cult-weirdos nonetheless preferred the ginormous clan of Arkansas mega-breeders to the Goat Boy down at the county fair sideshow tent. The Duggars may be freaks, but gol’ darnnit, they’re freaks that represented Americans’ more idealized family values. You don’t get that kind of down-home goodness from the Goat Boy.
But calling the Duggars a representative American Christian family is like calling Ted Nugent representative of hunters: it’s taking an extreme version of something that’s common and presenting it in an idealized fashion. The Duggars are like a Frankensteinian mixture of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best — fused together with enough steroids to fuel a 1980s pro-wrestling dressing room for a week straight. They’re WAYYYY more than a nuclear family: they’re the Mad Max-style, post-fallout, creepy-tribal-lord-with-multiple-brides-ridden, scorched desert, triple-apocalyptic, nuclear-wasteland family.
While the controlled confines of reality teevee made the Duggars seem like a pious — if nonthreateningly abnormal — Christian family, the actual reality is way more strange. They’re members of a fringe religious cult known as the Quiverfull movement, a radical “Christian Patriarchy” subculture that makes even the most right-wing of evangelicals a bit uncomfortable. The Patheos blog collective has written extensively about this cult. The Quiverfull movement advocates a divinely sanctioned, patriarchal family order as “God’s institution on earth.” Thus, the husband/father plays the role of supreme authority to whom women are subservient. The movement takes its name from Psalm 27 of the King James Bible: “Lo, children are a heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward…Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.” Thus, Quiverfull believers have lots and lots of kids in order to create more “soldiers for God” who are to act as metaphorical arrows that can pierce the armour of secular culture.
Blogger Libby Anne, a former Quiverfuller herself who now writes at Patheos’ Love, Joy, Feminism notes that: “I learned that homeschooling is the only godly way to raise children, because to send them to public school is to turn a child over to the government and the secular humanists. I learned that a woman is always under male authority…I was told that children are always a blessing, and that it was imperative to raise up quivers full of warriors for Christ, equipped to take back the culture and restore it to its Christian foundations.” This type of environment is a breeding ground (pun intended) for some seriously warped views about male-female relations, and it instills in men a total disregard for women as complete, intellectual, independent human beings who are agents of their own destiny and who control their own sexuality. The Quiverfull movement is undiluted misogyny wrapped up in biblical bullshit.
Nonetheless, most Americans who watched 19 Kids and Counting likely knew little about the Duggers’ involvement in the Quiverfull cult, since the show never really discussed it. To conservative viewers in particular, the Duggars represented idealized notions of what said viewers consider the most important of institutions: the conservative, godly American family. If the ideal, conservative, American nuclear family is supposed to have a two-parent household with kids, the Duggars have a two-parent household with LOTS of kids. If the conservative, American nuclear family is supposed to be devoutly Christian, the Duggars are devoutly Christian in the most extreme way possible. If the conservative, American nuclear family is supposed to be suspicious of secular society and its government, the Duggars home school their army of kid-arrows in order to keep them away from public schools, the government’s ultimate, anti-Christian, brain-warping institution.
As historian of the family Stephanie Coontz writes in The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families, “The reduction of morality to questions of sexuality, marriage, and parenthood leads to some serious instances of moral blindness.”* The result is the mainstreaming of “simplistic moralizing” via the right-wing “family values” subculture that has allowed weirdo cult members like the Duggar family to pose as the obviously atypical, but somehow thoroughly idealized, American family.
The Quiverfull movement more broadly, and the Duggar family more specifically, takes some of the worst traditions in American society — patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, rampant misogyny, and self-embraced anti-intellectualism — and turns them into a collection of loveable eccentricities to be broadcast on reality teevee.
There’s no getting around this fact: marinating kids in a toxic culture that deems women to be lesser than, and subservient to, men; a culture that deems sexuality to be a sin and suffocates normal human sexual development with biblical pillows is a recipe for abuse. I can’t get inside the mind of Josh Duggar, but I’m willing to bet that being raised in a misogynistic cult environment that grants men literally God-approved domination over women had a hand in turning him into a sexual predator — and I’m fairly certain that the Duggars and others in the Quiverfull movement have plenty more dirty laundry hanging in their misogynistic closets.
The Duggars offer a cautionary tale about seeking out ideals to validate mass-cultural notions about what the supposedly “traditional,” God-fearing, “perfect” conservative American family stands for. Moreover, there’s one thing that much of America values even more than God and family, and that’s money. Indeed, it’s the worship of Mammon that led the TLC network to keep the Duggars on the air even as it knew about Josh Dugger’s perverted habits back in 2007. After all, the Duggars’ super weird, yet super-Godly American family made the network lots of money by catering to an audience hungry for some good (very) old-fashioned family values — and the only thing more American than family piety is guaranteed profit.
* See Stephanie Coontz writes in The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families (New York: Perseus Books, 1997), 7.