With “19 Kids and Counting,” the reality TV star family the Duggars were a spectacle for anyone to watch. But for many evangelicals, the show sometimes felt like looking at yourself in one of those distorted circus mirrors.
On Thursday, one of reality TV’s most enduring household names became embroiled in scandal, with news that Josh Duggar, the eldest of 19, had molested several youths when he was a teenager. For a show built around the concept of a wholesome family, and with Josh a high-level staffer with a prominent social conservative D.C. advocacy group, the news triggered a quick plunge from public grace.
For many evangelicals, however, the revelation felt more personal and complicated. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who reflected an evangelical faith in their lifestyle – from limitless children to homeschooling to a father-dominated home – had always stirred debate about what it means to be a Christian family and to live out your faith. It was as if their extreme family pushed the question even harder.
Now Josh Duggar’s past and the family’s less-functional reality make some wonder if the positive aspects of these evangelical pop culture figures will become suspect.
Craig Detweiler, a filmmaker who teaches about evangelicalism and culture at Pepperdine University, said Thursday’s news may turn the Duggars into “a cautionary tale.” Until now, he said, their image has been “as the ultimate family rooted in homespun Christian values… and now we discover it really is hard to keep up with two kids, let alone 19.”
During the show’s long run, evangelical leaders became more outspoken against abortion and even contraception, and the Duggars forced ethical questions. They included: How many babies is too many? And as evangelical marriages debate gender equality, who in the family makes key decisions?
As the Duggars became huge celebrities and eventually high-profile advocates for politicians including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, evangelicals debated whether it was crazy to keep looking at them as ideals of modest Christian living.
“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.
“It appeals to people who are not comfortable with the mainstream culture in America, whether media, gender roles, sexuality or pop culture,” said Larry Eskridge, a historian and longtime observer of evangelicals. “And then people are fascinated with the mechanics: How do you house, feed and clothe that many kids in one household?”
Both shows spotlight extreme subsets of religious groups not used to getting much nuanced attention in pop culture.
“It’s a minority way of approaching life in the United States, but it’s still a considerable minority that’s out there,” he said. “This is where the other America can tune in to see what the heartland or Southerners are doing.”
But 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.
Part of the Duggars’ legacy among evangelicals will likely depend on what comes out about how they handled Josh’s abuse.
It wasn’t clear Friday when Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar told civil authorities. According to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which acquired a copy of a police report, the couple told police at some point that they learned of a person improperly touching people at their home in 2002 and 2003.
After Josh Duggar admitted to the actions and Jim Bob Duggar consulted with his church, Josh Duggar was sent to Little Rock for counseling for three months in March 2003.
After his son returned from counseling, Jim Bob Duggar took him to an Arkansas State Police corporal. That officer gave Josh Duggar “a very stern talk” but didn’t report the matter to child-abuse investigators, according to the report obtained by the newspaper.
On Friday, the TLC network pulled all pending episodes of the show, citing the “heartbreaking situation.” In September, the show’s 10th season premiere drew in 3.29 million viewers, more than double the audience it drew with its summer finale in June, according to Variety magazine. The family’s updates, including the marriages of their kids and the births of their grandchildren, have been regularly featured in popular magazines.
Kate Shellnutt, associate editor of Christianity Today, said many evangelicals were wowed by the family’s self-sufficiency, with children doing their chores and making their own meals. They seemed “like a well-oiled machine,” she said. “You have a sense that if they can do it with 19 kids, why can’t the rest of us with two or three?”
Now, some of those values might be looked at differently, she said: “People are suggesting that maybe if they didn’t have such conservative views on sex, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. It’s hard to say.”