Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

In recent days, I have had quite a few emails asking what the GetReligionistas think of the fall of Josh Duggar of the Family Research Council and then the whole "19 Kids and Counting" TLC reality-television empire.

As always, people seemed to be asking what we thought of the story itself, as opposed to our reactions to the mainstream news media coverage of the story. That's two different issues.

As always, most of the coverage has looked at the story through a political lens, asking how this scandal among hypocrites on the Religious Right would impact public debates about same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage.

That's an interesting angle, since I never got the impression -- as someone who has never seen a complete episode of the show -- that the Duggars were the kinds of folks who were very effective as apologists, when it came time to changing many minds on the cultural left. They seemed, to me, to be the ultimate preaching-to-the-choir niche media product. For those who are interested, here is the family's public statement on the controversy.

It's safe to assume that folks on the cultural left pretty much hated these folks, with good cause. The more subtle point is that the Duggars were also very controversial among evangelicals, including among folks who are often accurately described as very traditional, or even patriarchal, on family issues. This television empire made all kinds of folks nervous, with good cause.

Here is the key, if you want to dig into the serious coverage. How early does the name "Bill Gothard" appear and to what degree does the coverage make it sound like Gothard and his disciples represent mainstream evangelicalism or even orthodox (let alone Orthodox or Catholic) Christianity? At this point, I should note that I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist home, the son of a pastor, yet in a family in which I don't think I ever heard a positive word spoken about Gothard and his whole "Institute in Basic Life Principles" world. Yet there were other Southern Baptists who took Gothard's word as gospel.

In other words, there is a division out there among conservative Christians on almost every topic linked to the Duggars and, especially, Gothard.

It's going to be painful, of course, but there is a lot of brokenness, dirt and sin here that needs to be covered in as factual -- and politically neutral -- manner as possible. The sins and crimes of children create complicated legal puzzles. Here are some strong words from blogger Owen "The Ochlophobist" White, as noted by Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher:

I am glad that the Duggars will no longer have a show about their family. That is a good thing that has come from these public revelations. But I am not comfortable with the media publicizing the mistakes that a child made. This strikes me as a very dangerous thing, and cruel.

Josh Duggar grew up in a home that was close to Bill Gothard. Gothard had to resign from his ministry because he fondled at least 32 girls. The Duggars were also connected with Doug Phillips, who was forced from his ministry after being outed as a sexual predator. The pastor of the Duggars' church, the man who gave Mrs. Duggar her Mother of the Year award, resigned after a sex scandal. The highway patrolman, a family friend and an elder in a church connected to the Duggars' religious circles, who was the first law enforcement person Jim Bob Duggar reported Josh's issues to, is now serving a 56 year prison sentence for child porn. Josh Duggar grew up in a home that revered men in leadership who have turned out to be sexual abusers. One way or another, Josh Duggar did to his sisters what he knew (intuitively or directly) to do.

Anyone who assumes that sexual abuse in the Duggar household begins and ends with Josh is living in a TLCesque unreality world.

My advice is that readers pretty much ignore the celebrations on the journalistic left and the apologetics on the pro-Duggar side -- unless they offer links to documents and transcripts. Read carefully -- especially when standing in the grocery line or watching television -- and look for the voices in the middle.

Here is a good place to start -- a Washington Post piece by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey and veteran Godbeat specialist Michelle Boorstein, which ran under the headline "How do evangelicals view the Duggars? It’s complicated." Here are two key chunks of this must-read feature:

“I think the big issue about them is whether they’re seen as any type of role model. In broad strokes, some would say: ‘Hey, I love what they’re doing, trusting God, putting priority on family, saying faith is important.’ Another group would say: ‘In no way shape or form do they represent me and my friends because who does this?” said Timothy Muehlhoff, a communications professor at the evangelical Biola University, where he directs their Center for Marriage & Relationships.
When the Duggars first appeared on television in 2008, some evangelicals saw a fringe image of themselves, perhaps something like the experience of Mormons watching the reality show “Sister Wives,” about a polygamous family.

And also:

... The show divided evangelicals as much as it attracted them.
“I feel like they’re very polarizing. I think for some people, they don’t know anybody who would ever make these choices. For other people in conservative Christian culture, they’re excited to see something at least vaguely familiar on screen,” said Rebecca Cusey, a senior contributor to The Federalist and film reviewer.
Some evangelicals didn’t like being represented by such extreme gender roles, said Cusey. The Duggars are part of a subset of evangelicals who encourage patriarchal authority in the home. The children go through a parent-guided courtship before marrying. “While evangelicals will often talk about gender roles, the way it’s played out is nothing like how it’s played out with the Duggars,” she said.

Now, please note that there are plenty of people who embrace centuries of biblical teachings about marriage and family -- people who can accurately be called "patriarchal" in their approach -- who cannot be grouped with Gothard and his disciples. There are lots of folks who see "courtship" principles as being relevant in a hooking-up world, who do not use the same strategies as the Duggars.

In other words, journalists cannot assume that all doctrinally conservative Christians have the same beliefs on these issues, even if they are using some of the strange language.

But this Post story was a great opening salvo in what I hope is a stream of coverage of these debates.

Be careful out there.

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