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I'm Not the Duggars, You Aren't the Duggars, the Duggars Are the Duggars
I’m hoping to watch Shiny Happy People some time. It’s a short-form docuseries about the Duggar family (“19 Kids and Counting”) and the ideas that influenced them. It appears that most of these ideas gained prominence through a somewhat mysterious guy named Bill Gothard, whose Institute for Basic Life Principles gained some notoriety in the 1970s. The vast majority of what I know of Gothard and IBLP comes second-hand, so I’m interested in what the documentary lays out regarding Gothard’s teachings and how widespread they became.
Let me say that one more time: I do not know first-hand about Bill Gothard or IBLP. I suppose this is important to clarify from the outset, because I am a white, homeschooled, conservative, evangelical male; apparently there are some out there that would associate me with IBLP on that basis alone. Here is an article, for example, that attempts to tie The Gospel Coalition and Kevin DeYoung with IBLP, at least kinda sorta. Here’s a tweet that suggests the Duggar family is a pretty representative sample of Christian homeschoolers. There are more pieces of commentary like this.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Jim Bob Duggar is a highly influential theologian, or that Bill Gothard was once the president of a major Protestant denomination. Neither of those things are actually true. But the implication being passed around is that Gothard’s influence is systemic and pervasive within all evangelicalism that is to the right of Christianity Today.
This will be a brief post. I only have five points:
As far as Bill Gothard is concerned, measuring his influence seems notoriously difficult for two reasons. One, a lot of what he is alleged to have taught feels like standard traditionalism, uncontroversial with a majority of the country until about 30 years ago. His beliefs about gender roles, for example, were fairly representative of both genders in the United States until the 1970s (Jean Twenge’s book Generations has some incredible data on this). The fact that this teaching was uncontroversial in its day does not make it true. But it does make it difficult to evaluate how much of its consensus was due to Gothard himself or just due to cultural attitudes that existed before (and after) Gothard. The second reason Gothard’s influence is difficult to estimate is that the guy seemed to be an institution to himself. IBLP did not plant churches or establish seminaries. It appears to have been its own thing, and when IBLP fell of a cliff (some seem to identify this happening in the 90s), hardly any other institutions seem to have felt the effects.
The Duggar family themselves are not at all representative of what most conservative Christian families are like in this country, which is precisely why they became famous. Millions of Americans, including conservatives, gawked at the Duggars because they were so exotic. TLC’s showrunners made such a big deal about how the Duggar daughters dressed and talked precisely because it was so unusual. Moreover, a lot of conservative homeschooling families had no interest in some of the bizarre dynamics that seemed to be at work in that family. I know, because I lived in one of those families, and I had friends in those families. The Duggars were entertainment. Were there homeschoolers who resembled them? Definitely. Were these homeschoolers the core of a nationally organized cult that was mobilizing politically? LOL.
This cycle is once again a reminder of how the Internet completely flattens distinctions and rewards those turn their narratives into metanarratives. Questioning Gothard’s influence will get you flamed quickly by people who say there’s no questioning at all because their parents or their youth ministry clearly taught the same things. That’s absolutely possible! But there are many others whose youth pastors and parents did not teach the exact same things. Whose story matters more? Whose experience weighs more? Your answer to that question does not reveal what’s true so much as where you sort yourself on a digital grid.
This documentary exists primarily for one reason: Joshua Duggar, the oldest son, built the first stages of a right-wing political career while nursing a horrific sexual/pornographic addiction that probably started well before the Duggar family signed their first lucrative TV deal. Josh Duggar’s predatory addiction to sex did not happen because he lived in a huge family. It did not happen because he was homeschooled. It did not even happen because his father was involved in conservative politics. It happened for the exact same reasons it happens to self-described feminists, egalitarian institutions, mainstream journalists, NYC pastors, and husbands whose wives ask advice columnists for help.
The contemporary instinct to immediately connect sin and predation to a worldview owned by your political enemies is not just unkind or uncharitable. It is an abolition of thought. Anyone can see the logical errors with tying TGC or homeschooling with Joshua Duggar’s child pornography conviction. Such an effort doesn’t hold up to a minute’s scrutiny. But a minute’s scrutiny is precisely what a lot of people at the top of our media economy do not have capacity for at this point. And what’s most disconcerting to me is that this exercise is exactly what someone would design if they wanted more people to assault and victimize others. Cut off the sources of true change by disguising the presenting issue. Externalize the desires, outsource the brokenness, anathematize repentance. Keep the guns aimed high and wide. Don’t look in the mirror. Ever.