The Josh Duggar Scandal Is Part of a Much Larger Christian Abuse Problem
Josh Duggar's abuse and his family's cover-up of his crimes are part of a much larger set of issues about how the Christian Right handles sexual crimes.
The Duggar family in 2007, one year after the police investigation into the molestation activities of Josh Duggar (far right). Picture via Wikimedia Commons.
The story of the Josh Duggar scandal—that as a teen, the 19 Kids and Counting Star molested multiple young women, only to have his father, Jim Bob Duggar, underplay and cover up his actions—is simple. The narratives surrounding it, however, are not, exposing underlying questions about faith, morality, and abuse in the Christian patriarchy movement, a fundamentalist set of beliefs popular among Evangelical homeschooling families like the Duggars.
The scandal is the latest in a series of sexual abuse allegations that have rocked the Patriarchy movement, which holds that women in general should be subject and subordinate to men. According to Evangelical leaders, including Home School Legal Defense Association founder Michael Farris, who has distanced himself from the movement, biblical patriarchy goes beyond even typical Christian fundamentalism in treating women as subjects, discouraging females from voting or attending college and promoting the idea that "unmarried adult women are subject to their fathers' authority."
The Duggars, who homeschool their children, belong to an even more specific sect known as "Quiverfulls," which advocates for large, patriarchal families. Each family member is an "arrow" in a "quiver." Vyckie Garrison, a former Quiverfull adherent who runs the Patheos blog No Longer Quivering, which acts as a watchdog against the movement, describes the "quiver" metaphor this way:
The whole point of having a quiver full of babies is to... out-populate the "enemy"... and to shoot those many arrows "straight into the heart of the enemy." And by that, we meant that our children would grow up to be leaders in all the major institutions of our society.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a central tenet of Quiverfull beliefs is a rejection of any and all forms of contraception. The Quiverfull website contains links to articles with titles like "The Case Against Birth Control," sells a booklet titled "Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions?," and includes a link to a now-disabled site that encourages vasectomy reversals. The message is clear: Women ought to have as many children as possible, regardless of their personal preferences.
Writing of her time in the Quiverfull movement, Garrison has said that "using any form of birth control was tantamount to playing God, so I was kept perpetually pregnant or nursing, or both for more than 11 years." She wrote that her husband would downplay her arguments in a discussion by saying, "What you are suggesting SOUNDS reasonable, but how do I know that Satan isn't using you to deceive me?"
Another harrowing account posted on Garrison's site recently by an anonymous woman detailed how her bipolar estranged husband manipulated her into calling off their divorce by impregnating her.
"He seemed overjoyed but not surprised," the blogger wrote. "We rejoined our church, I had another baby and then had more pregnancies, one every year as the pressure to be Quiverfull increased in our group." She continued, "Charles had planned everything, his seduction of me, poking holes in the condom before hand and the renewal of our marriage. He purposely impregnated me in order to control me—the real essence of Quiverfull: Men controlling women via their uterus."
In an interview with VICE, Miranda Blue, a senior researcher for special projects at People for the American Way, an advocacy group founded by Norman Lear meant to challenge the Moral Majority, explained, "If you're in an environment where girls are brought up to submit to men and being told they're the property of their father until they're the property of their husband, that's not a safe place for women and girls," she said.
Blue added, that these sects view "the family unit and church as a separate governing body from the secular world."
"Women in these situations would be very reluctant to talk to an authority," she said. "They won't necessarily get a fair hearing from their church if they come forward."
The problem seems to be evident in the case of Josh Duggar. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, after the teenage Duggar admitted that he had molested several girls, his father, Duggar patriarch Jim Bob, attempted to reform his son by sending him to the well-known Evangelical Bill Gothard, a leading voice in the Christian homeschool movement whose Institute in Basic Life Principles offers a tiered program of seminars pushing (among other things) patriarchal views on the Bible and Christianity. According to the paper, Josh helped Gothard construct the Little Rock wing of his Institute from March to July of 2003.
Gothard was perhaps not the best choice to mentor Josh. In 2012, a website run by former members of his Institute published allegations that Gothard had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment and abuses. The site, Recovering Grace, eventually helped unearth stories of 35 women, including several former female employees, who claimed to have received inappropriate sexual treatment from Gothard.
The site's FAQ section explains that while attempts were made to reconcile Gothard's actions privately, "Bill Gothard has not only resisted these attempts, but, like the Old Testament kings, has 'stoned and run off the prophets God has sent him.'" It also notes that Gothard's Advanced Training Institute helped establish the curriculum that the Duggars drew on when homeschooling their children (Gawker wrote at length on the ATI's curriculum here). Gothard stepped down from his post at the Institute last year.
Gothard is not the only homeschool advocate to have faced allegations of bad behavior. As VICE reported last year, a sexual abuse lawsuit against Doug Phillips of Vision Forum Industries, a major figure in Christian homeschooling circles, rocked the Biblical Patriarchy movement and sent ripples through the evangelical homeschooling community.
In the suit, a woman named Lourdes Torres, who had lived with the Phillips family as a live-in nanny, alleged that Phillips repeatedly groped and masturbated upon her for five years. Following the lawsuit, several of Phillips' contemporaries distanced themselves from the Patriarchy ideology. In the same article referenced above, Farris wrote, "If public policy makers believe that the homeschooling movement promotes teachers and teaching that have a strong likelihood of damaging people—particularly children and women—then our freedom will suffer."
And in a case that bears some similarities to the Duggar allegations, a group of Christian homeschooled brothers were sentenced to jail time last week on charges that they had molested their younger sister from the time she was four until she was almost 15. Five of six brothers in the family were arrested in in 2012 after the oldest admitted the abuse to his pastor. The parents, who according to reports were "anti-school" and "anti-government" are alleged to have known about the abuse, but said nothing.
According to RawStory, the sister, "told investigators that she believed she would go to hell if she told anyone about the assaults, which she said took place at least twice a week." On May 22, four of the brothers have been sentenced; the fifth awaits trial in July.
When children homeschooled under fundamentalist and patriarchal doctrines go off to college, they are often sent to private, conservative Christian institutions, where thepattern of assault and subsequent victim-shaming often continues. Last year, the New Republic published an article outlining alleged misdeeds at Patrick Henry College, detailing how the school's "Dean of Women" told victims of sexual abuse not to speak about their abuse outside of her office.
Earlier this year, the consulting firm G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) published a 301-page report on the handling of sexual abuse at Bob Jones University, a longtime bastion of Christian fundamentalism. The report's found rampant victim-blaming on the part of the Bob Jones faculty, and accuses the school of displaying a "lack of distinction between sexual abuse and consensual sexual sin."
The report also claims that Jim Berg, who served as dean of students from 1981 until 2010 and was responsible for handling sexual abuse disclosures, ad a "lack of formal training and professional supervision" that "was evident in several judgment errors in the counseling he offered."
If one snoops around the Bob Jones University site enough, they can find this page video response to the report, which contains BJU President Steve Pettitt's video response to the GRACE report, as well as a detailed written response to the findings. In it, the school writes that "We greatly desire to meet and talk personally with each victim of sexual abuse or assault who was not helped by our response to their disclosure." The invitation, the school notes, is open indefinitely. BJU also said it would begin to offer outside counseling services to victims of sexual assault as well as their on-campus "biblical counseling."
Of course, people who ascribe to Quiverfull and Biblical Patriarchy beliefs aren't inherently bad people. In the wake of the Duggar scandal, many Christian news organizations have posted news stories about the news, and while few have outright condemned him, most have been fairly neutral.
Earlier this week, Christian Headlines, a Christian news site, posted a damning condemnation of sexual abuse in evangelical movement, titled Moving Forward from the Duggar Scandal: The Church, Sexual Abuse, and the Epidemic of Silence. The author wrote, "The good news: the truth is getting exposed. The bad news: statistics tell us these stories are only the tip of the iceberg." She called for more accountability within the church, saying, "When civil justice is brought as well as ecclesiastical justice, the gospel is on display."
On Huffington Post Religion, Christian theologian Joel L. Watts penned an op-ed titled Dear Duggar Family Children, offering advice to those whose abuse was condoned by their belief systems. He wrote, "What you are told is Christianity is not Christianity, I assure you." He continued, "Just because the god of Quiverfull and your parents may not be in the box you were given, it doesn't mean God does not exist."
Drew Millard is on Twitter.
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