On Facebook a friend who is familiar with my area of research asked me to weigh in on the Josh Duggar scandal. (For anyone who has just returned from hiking in the wilderness without any access to TV or social media for the past few days, I’m talking about the oldest son of the “19 Kids and Counting” reality TV show who recently admitted to having molested five young girls twelve years ago when he was fourteen.) While there’s been plenty of the typical inane news coverage, there has also been very thoughtful critique from bloggers who are familiar with the social and religious circles in which the Duggars move. Some of these bloggers explain how the absence of consent is at the heart of this situation, the theology behind this absence, how these views warp normal human development, and the frustration with major media outlets who never seem to get it.
These writers do such a great job that there doesn’t seem to be much more for me to say about the situation even though I wrote an entire dissertation that traced the social and rhetorical development of “family values” and its legacy in the Duggar’s strain of Christian fundamentalism.
But my friend’s question on Facebook reminded me that I do have something to say, particularly for readers who had normal American childhoods going to public school, summer camp, playing sports, taking dance classes, and watching cartoons Saturday morning. Since the Duggars are white and speak standard American English, it can be very easy to assume they are just like you–only a boatload more kids than were in your home growing up. But they’re not, and this blogger does a great job explaining why that matters.
On the other hand, most mainstream Americans have a very limited vocabulary for talking about people like the Duggars are on the far right edge of Protestant fundamentalism (or getting close to it). There’s the c-word, cult, and that’s about as far as it goes. The problem with using cult to describe these contexts is that it invokes a world that doesn’t capture the reality of this strain of Protestant fundamentalism very well at all. It invokes a world of recruits confined to damp basements, chanting crowds, forced behaviors, members cut off from family and friends, a top-down-structure with clearly defined hierarchies.
This is not the Duggars’ world. Their strain of fundamentalism doesn’t function like a 1970s cult with a rigid boundaries between the in-group and out-group. Rather, its processes are thoroughly post-structural. Everything Foucault said about atomized power applies here. While there are certainly specific organizations such as IBPL, Vision Forum (recently defunct), or HSLDA, like the Moral Majority of the 1980s, no one organization has exclusive influence over other orbiting bodies of related and often overlapping ideology. And I haven’t even begun to name all the homeschooling conferences, the para-church organizations, and lobbying groups who also circulate in this universe. The leadership of these groups often share personal connections; individuals who attend their conferences, read their materials, and buy into their ideology mix and mingle–they don’t identify with just one organization. Therefore, people like the Duggars can deny being part of “the Quiverfull movement” as so many journalists call it, because to them it’s not about joining an organized movement, but about following a very narrow, (to them) literal interpretation of the Bible.
As a result, unlike traditional hierarchical religious structures where members can be compelled to comply with the institution on the basis of its authority alone, these organizations evolve in a marketplace of ideas where speakers and writers must draw on all available means to draw an audience for what they are selling. As a result, rhetorical appeals in this universe are often fascinating to analyze as they are layered with obscure references, audience identity-building, scapegoating, and fear mongering. Like cults, people are drawn in by the promise of identification with success and goodness and division from all that is wrong with the world.
Where the most disturbing power dynamics play out is in the home. The absolute power typically associated with cults happens not so much in the organization (unless you happen to be so unlucky as to work at its headquarters, or attend its schools), but is reserved for the patriarchal figure who maintains a cult-like control over his family. Yet this control is cloaked in nostalgic “family values” terminology that assumes parental figures must “shelter” children by shutting out the evil of the world “out there” and grooming them to become compliant members of the household. Cultivating the image of successfully shielding one’s family from the influences of the broader world becomes paramount–the means for accumulating social capital in these religious circles.
And the day it is discovered that their child has molested other children in the home, it is far more important to maintain the image of innocence than experience the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they have failed in their life’s mission to keep their children pure from the filth of the sinful world. Since they rejected women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy long ago, there is little impetus for recognizing the personal horror of the assault on the victims. Rather, “forgiveness” becomes a useful term for maintaining the charade that all is well. The only time that Christian fundamentalists like these have any interest in the idea of equality is when it helps them mask the abuse of power.
And they get away with it because of the loose network of organizations that resists any real accountability for heads of households. It allows the Duggars to claim they are just following the Bible, not an abuse-condoning organization. And when this happens to a family that doesn’t have a public image to maintain, this hyper-individualistic structure allows others in their community to turn a blind eye, pretend they didn’t see anything. Because nothing is quite so sacred to these folks as the independence of the nuclear family–not even the well-being of young children.