In 2004, the world got its first introduction to the Duggars. The Arkansas family with 14 (now 19) kids were a cartoonish oddity when they made their TV debut. They were fanatically religious, didn’t think women should wear pants, and bizarrely ate jar after jar of pickles.
During 14 Kids and Counting, their first hour long TV special, when asked why they chose to have so many children, mother Michelle Duggar looked into the camera with her wide, vacant eyes and said, “We decided we wanted to allow God to give us all the blessings he wanted to give us.”
For Kate J, host of the Duggar-themed podcast Defrauded, that moment would be the start of a baffling obsession. “But God also gave you birth control!” she snarks during an episode recap. “Yeah, those aren't blessings,” her co-host quips back. “Those are sperm.”
Kate, who describes herself as “not religious at all,” hosts the weekly show alongside her boyfriend, Chris M. The pair asked VICE to use only their first names and last initials for their privacy. “I’m very intrigued about the Duggars,” Kate says in the first episode. “I love to hate them, and I hate when I love them.” In between gossip about the Duggars and funny recaps of the family’s many reality shows, the podcast touches on religious topics, like “the weird world of Christian colleges,” and dishes about other famous families like the Bates, who also have 19 kids and their own reality show.
“Their lifestyles and beliefs are so crazy backwards to me,” Kate told VICE in an email. “When I was in college, I started becoming really interested in religion and cults. I started reading Tumblr blogs about the Duggars, which led me down a deep (deep, deep) rabbit hole.”
The swath of the internet devoted to blogging about famous fundamentalist families, or "fundies," seems mostly driven by curious, nonreligious viewers. As the Duggars rose to fame, people who wanted to learn more about the family turned to online forums like FreeJinger.org or DuggarsWithoutPity to page through episode recaps, genealogy information, and conspiracy theories. Today, those communities extend to subreddits, Facebook pages, and numerous Tumblrs. The fascination has extended to other radical Christian families, from the Maxwells to the Rodriguieses. There’s even a whole fundamentalist wiki devoted to cataloguing “mega-families.”
The time and energy people spend discussing them online is staggering. VICE spoke with a number of bloggers, and most asked us not to use their names. Some cited not wanting their employers to know their stance on religion. But many said that since they're often critical of fundamentalism, they wanted to avoid harassment from pro-Duggar, pro-conservative Christian fans.
“It’s an odd thing and morbidly fascinating,” the creator of Duggar Data, who requested anonymity, told VICE in a message. “I think part of the intrigue is the fact that [being born] into this family dictated so much how their life would go. Like, if I’d been born a Duggar, I would probably be married with three children by now. I wouldn’t be educated. I wouldn’t have a career. I just find the whole thing oddly compelling.”
The family's unstoppable breeding ignited the idea for a blog, which estimates how many new Duggars, Bateses, and Maxwells will be born in coming decades, by inputting data like wedding date, engagement length, and number of pregnancies into a dynamic Excel spreadsheet that makes predictions based on existing averages. So far, the blog correctly predicted which month Josie Bates would get hitched and when John-David Duggar would get engaged, plus or minus a few days. The most interesting data stories are the ones that reach far into the future. For example, the blog predicts that by the year 2077, there could be 1 million Duggars walking the earth, based on their current birth rate.
The owner of the blog told VICE they mostly run the site for fun, but there is a deeper purpose that fuels their mission. “Duggar Data uses statistics to reveal, quantify, and critique oppressive elements of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity,” they state on the site, “particularly, the Quiverfull movement and so–called ‘biblical patriarchy.'”
Quiverfull is a fundamentalist Christian ethos that encourages procreation by essentially dictating that women should have babies until the Lord shuts down their womb. It's a hot topic in the online community; most people in the "fundie fandom" seem vehemently against it. Although the Duggars have denied being part of Quiverfull, they are followers of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a non-denominational religious organization that's awfully similar. In addition to being called a “cult” by former followers, both Quiverfull and IBLP enforce strict patriarchal rules, like encouraging victims of sexual abuse to question whether or not it was their fault.
If their link to the controversial ministry wasn't contentious enough, in 2015, the Duggars were embroiled by scandal when Josh Duggar admitted to molesting underage girls, later revealed as four of his sisters. A year earlier, IBLP founder Bill Gothard found himself in the middle of his own sex scandal when 34 women accused him of sexual misconduct.
TLC dropped 19 Kids and Counting after the scandal, but on their spin-off series Counting On , you won’t hear the Duggars talk about their involvement with IBLP or the molestation controversy. The juxtaposition between the Duggars's picture-perfect TV visage and their hidden controversies became the catalyst for online fundie fandom—though people in the community prefer "observer" over "fan," implying they watch the Duggars from afar but don't condone or support their antics.
“I was a fan in the beginning,” the founder of Facebook group Life Is Not All Pickles and Hairspray, who requested anonymity, told VICE via message. “But when I learned more about their politics and misogynistic religion I just became an observer.” The person who runs the page describes themselves as a “retired Catholic.” Their page is a smattering of Duggar news, info on Duggar sightings, and tons of articles criticizing Trump and evangelicals. A picture of Rick Santorum on the page is captioned, “This friend of the Duggars and all who think like him are pure evil."
Catherine Tan runs Duggar, Bates, and All Things Fundie, and she attributes her fundie obsession to her background as a religious studies major. “I personally come from an interesting angle, because in my academic life I had to be professional, and I could not make snarky comments,” Tan told VICE. “Online, especially Tumblr, I can put my snark out there with others who agree with me.”
Though people online are quick to criticize families like the Duggars and the Bates, they also gush about fundie wedding dresses, coo over new babies, crush on certain family members, and rejoice at engagements. It’s a contradictory relationship, to be sure. “It's complicated,” Kate said. “While we might not agree with these people, we are interested and therefore invested in their lives.”
It’s also easy to forget that these families are bonafide celebrities. “People have been following [them] for a very long time,” said Ella, a Tumblr user who runs What the Fundie and the WTF Book Club. “So just like any popular reality star, they are a point of interest.”
But unlike the Kardashians, the Duggars and other fundamentalists are mired in ethical controversies far more serious than overexposure and botched plastic surgeries. Most members of the family were born into fundamentalism, as well as fame, without a choice. In that case, is it right to make fun of them?
“I think internet culture and discussion are very centered on joking around about serious issues,” Kate said. “On our show, for example, we're certainly going to talk about a fundie wedding when it happens, but then add in our thoughts about courtship dynamics and how the married couples tend to often get pregnant immediately.”
If humor is the most powerful weapon, the fundie fandom is armed, loaded, and not backing down. “I think it’s important to point out the flaws and absurdities about these organizations,” Ella said. “And if that’s through snarking, then so be it.”
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