The Duggars’ beliefs help explain their behavior

To catch you up

There was a show on TLC (which used to be an abbreviation for The Learning Channel) called 17 Kids and Counting, then 18 Kids and Counting, and finally, 19 Kids and Counting. Last Thursday, in classic “you bury news before a long weekend” strategy, the oldest of these 19 kids (Josh, 27 years old), his wife, and parents took to Facebook to admit that allegations reported by InTouch magazine were true–namely, that Josh, as a minor, had molested 5 other minors including his sisters.

In 2003, Josh had confessed this abusive behavior to his parents who waited a while, reported it to their church elders, then sent him away to work with a “guy they knew in Little Rock who is remodeling a building” for whatever good that would do, then told the police. The state police officer to whom they spoke gave Josh a “stern” talking-to which started the clock ticking on the statute of limitations. That police officer was later convicted of possessing child pornography and sentenced to 56 years in prison before any other law enforcement took a look at these allegations against Josh Duggar. Oh also, police destroyed records pertaining to the case. In 2006, when the Duggars were set to appear on Oprah, an anonymous tip about Josh’s behavior was sent to the show which then cancelled the appearance. Since then, message board users have openly discussed the Duggar molestation allegations. Yet, the Duggars have been professional baby-makers for almost a decade.

As an old-school hater of “reality television,” I’ve never seen any of these shows but was aware of their existence. Like you, I thought, “what crazy religious beliefs led these people to have 19 children?” Unlike you, probably, I looked into it. A lot.

Because of the nature of the subjects that interest me and the books and articles I read about them, Josh Duggar’s semi-confession last Thursday didn’t especially surprise me. Obviously nothing can excuse his behavior (and certainly not the behavior of his parents, church officials, and law enforcement who all covered it up), but the details of the family’s beliefs may help explain their behavior: the abuse and the cover-up.

Typical of coverage of the Duggars is CNN’s description: “The Duggars are known for being devout Christians.” This is misleading. The Duggars aren’t merely “devout Christians.” The Duggars subscribe to a set of beliefs known as the “Christian patriarchy.” And, as one might infer, there’s something real…patriarchal about the Christian patriarchy.

The Patriarchy

Christian patriarchy believes that men hold absolute authority over women (to the extent that daughters are under their fathers’ authority until their own marriage), that women should not have careers outside the home, and that families should have a whole bunch of kids. In some cases, this patriarchal teaching extends to forbidding women to vote or seeking higher education.

This subservience to men is the defining characteristic of the movement. For example:

Christian Patriarchy holds that women must always be under male authority (or headship). A woman is never to be independent of male authority. First, she is under her father’s authority, and then under her husband’s authority.

(A widow would be under her son’s authority, or, if she had no sons or her sons were young, she would return to her father’s authority. If is not possibles possible [sic], some argue that widow should place herself under the authority of a church elder or pastor.)

Unsurprisingly, this breeds daughters who know nothing but subjugation to male authority:

Daughters of Christian Patriarchy are essentially servants in their own homes, but this does not mean they are necessarily miserable and unhappy. While some daughters of Christian Patriarchy rebel and inwardly resent how they are being raised, most don’t. Most accept what their parents teach them as true, and look forward to their wedding day as the beginning of their lives. This was me. I was perfectly happy to help with my younger siblings and cook for a dozen and do load after load of laundry. At age ten, twelve, or fourteen, I was being trained to be a “helpmeet” to my future husband, preparing for my life’s role by working alongside my mother and serving as junior “helpmeet” to my father. I dreamed of my wedding constantly, and thought of what a wonderful wife, mother, and homemaker I would be. A wife and mother was all I wanted to be, because any dream of anything else was nipped in the bud before it ever took root. I truly believed that this was what God wanted of me, and that serving my family and raising my siblings was serving God. And I gloried in it.

And because wives in the movement fall under the authority of their husbands, they sometimes get spanked. Yes, grown women are spanked in an non-sexual, disciplinary way by their husbands.

More than a movement, it is a “patriarchal cult” according to Vyckie Garrison who writes the No Longer Quivering blog about her escape from the movement.


But this movement is imploding. Despite the poor timing of a 19 Kids marathon running Thursday evening as news of Josh’s admission reverberated across the internet, TLC cancelled the show the next day. The Duggars were the movement’s highest profile followers but they aren’t the first to get swept up in controversy.

In October 2013, Douglas Phillips, the president of Vision Forum Ministries (a vocal advocate of Biblical Patriarchy) resigned when news of an extra-marital affair surfaced. In November, the board of Vision Forum shut down its ministry operations. In April of 2014, a lawsuit revealed that this was more than an “extra-marital affair.” The lawsuit claimed that Phillips “repeatedly groped and touched [his accuser] inappropriately and masturbated on her, ‘against her wishes and over her objections,’ over a period of years.” The lawsuit claims Phillips’s victim had been “methodically groomed” to be his wife since she was 15 years old. He told her this was possible since his current wife “was going to die soon.”

In 2014, Bill Gothard, another vocal advocate of the “Quiverfull” movement (which is sort of, mostly the same thing as Christian patriarchy), was suspended from the Institute in Basic Life Principles (the homeschooling program the Duggars use which Gothard founded) after allegations emerged that he molested an underage woman in the 1990s, sexually harassed others, and failed to report child abuse.

What Fundamentalism Leads To

Depending on your personal convictions, you may read these stories with a jaded eye and think they all concern “crazy religious nuts” or you may read them with compassion and worry how people go so far astray. But I suggest a nuanced reading that the issues in these stories concern people who are neither crazy nor astray. They are simply acting as their beliefs have led them to act.

No belief absolves Josh Duggar, his parents, church, law enforcement officials, or these other abusers mentioned. But if you teach a child since birth that a holy order exists in which men are the authority on earth over women, how do you also teach that child that he isn’t right to explore his hormonal development with the girl over whom he is an earthly authority? You can’t brainwash a child and then expect him to behave responsibly. Likewise, you can’t raise girls to believe that the boys and men in their life are their sole protectors and providers and then wonder why they don’t speak out about abuses.

In the Duggar family, they used “the buddy system” to help parent their children: “The older children mentor the younger ones….They will play with them or help them pick out the color of their outfit that they want to wear that day, and just all of those types of things.” How far a stretch is it to see that a pubescent boy–taught that women are subservient to women, and placed in charge of his sisters to the extent that he is helping raise them–would act out?

And who could doubt that his victims would stay quiet:

Many evangelicals use the rhetoric of “male headship” but see it as merely spiritual or figurative. For Christian Patriarchy, though, being under male authority includes obedience. This obedience is absolute; a woman is only excused from obeying if her male authority orders her to do something illegal and immoral (some dispute this, and argue that she is still required to obey, but that God won’t hold her accountable for any sins she commits at the order of her male authority).

Let’s look at how belief affects a victim through another case, the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Ms. Smart was abducted from her family home in the middle of the night. Nine months after her abduction, she was found walking down the road with her captor and his wife, only a few miles from her home. This case is especially pertinent since it caused Dave Chappelle to ask “How old is 15 really?” in a serious comedy bit:

What Dave most likely did not know–because most of us didn’t know this, because the mainstream media never reported it–is that Ms. Smart was a Mormon of the LDS (Church of Latter Day Saints) variety and her captor was a Mormon Fundamentalist. As John Krakauer argued in his book Under the Banner of Heaven: “Raised to obey figures of Mormon authority unquestioningly, and to believe that LDS doctrine is the law of God, [Elizabeth] would have been particularly susceptible to the dextrous fundamentalist spin Mitchell applied to familiar Mormon scripture.” After kidnapping her, Smart’s captor forced her into a polygamous marriage arrangement. Krakauer explains that when he bullied her into submitting to this, “he used the words of Joseph Smith…to phrase those demands.”

In other words, Smart’s beliefs made her more vulnerable. Her beliefs made her a victim. They provided a framework of thought that her captor could exploit.

Some months before he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, Brian David Mitchell enchanted another young woman to whom he presented a written marriage proposal with the explanation that God wished her to become his plural wife. This woman declined the proposal explaining to Krakauer, “everything he said was stuff I was raised on….” If she’d been as young and impressionable as Smart, “There’s no telling what I would have done.”

That children’s beliefs have supplanted rational thought should come as no surprise when the adults in their lives defer to belief before reason as well. As in the case of the Duggars, Smart’s father called the president of his LDS stake about his daughter’s kidnapping before notifying the police.

Leaning in

Beliefs don’t absolve actions because beliefs only exist for the subject. They aren’t universal truths. Children don’t possess the capacity to understand this. They haven’t build up enough cause-and-effect evidence to evaluate the world for themselves. “Because I said so” is still a valid reason for them to believe a thing. And “because I believe it” is still a valid reason for a thing to be true.

And while they help explain horrific actions, beliefs can also help predict actions. When Oprah and The Learning Channel and the Arkansas State Police and all the viewers of the Duggars started to learn about their beliefs, everyone could have wondered, “what do these beliefs lead to?” Patriarchy has always led to the abuse of women. Any system in which a group of people arbitrarily exist in authority to another leads to abuse. This is predictable.

It is also predictable that so strong a belief system causes individuals to use it to cover-up a crime. That so biblically-raised a son would molest his sisters must be an aberration, they think. Adults, as proven in this complex story, are completely fallible–another reason “because I said so” should never be accepted as law.

Beliefs are interesting in how subtly they become truths for us. Even as adults, the more we affirm our belief in something, the more we brainwash ourselves that we’ve found the truth about an issue. Those beliefs then become habits that influence our behavior. When beliefs lead to actions that create destructive ends (as victims or criminals), believers ought to reconsider the man-made foundations of their beliefs. Yet most trying times cause all believers to lean in, to double down on the system that made them vulnerable to begin with.

Or as the Duggars affirmed: “That dark and difficult time caused us to seek God like never before.”