The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Duggars might lose their show, but the toxic culture they promote persists

Josh Duggar’s crimes might cost his family their empire, but their cultural context still matters

Josh Duggar is booked on Dec. 9 at the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Fayetteville, Ark. (Washington County Sheriff's Office/AFP)

For the past 15 years, Josh Duggar and other members of his expansive family have been staples on several reality TV shows on TLC, including the long-running “19 Kids and Counting. These popular shows and associated publicity helped spread the Duggars’ brand of evangelicalism — a media-savvy backlash against feminism based on strict adherence to divinely ordained gender roles and the refusal of bodily autonomy for children and women.

Josh Duggar’s Dec. 9 conviction on two child pornography counts may lead to the end of this reality TV empire. But the broader and deeply troubling ideology that his family has propagated continues to pose a danger for American society.

The Duggars build on a patriarchal conception of domestic life that has a long tradition in U.S. history. In it, a man’s home and family are his own little dominion and any state interference into the family is rejected as government overreach. This concept was originally written into U.S. law under the principle of “coverture,” a British legal holdover that considered wives to be “covered” by their husbands. Once married, women had no legal rights. They couldn’t sue or be sued, own property or even claim legal custody of their children. This principle also made marital rape legal: One could not violate what was his legal property. Under patriarchy, there also was no room for a wife’s — or a child’s — bodily autonomy.

Women’s rights advocates challenged these ideas. Starting in the mid-19th century, multiple generations of feminists pushed for — and gradually, over more than a century, achieved — the recognition of women’s rights, within and outside of marriage. From advocating for economic rights and reproductive autonomy to criminalizing marital rape and family violence, feminists transformed the legal landscape, showing how, as the popular 1970s feminist refrain put it, “the personal is political.” During the ’70s, feminism seemed to be riding high with the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution — banning discrimination on the basis of sex — on the precipice of ratification.

And yet, challenges to these advancements emerged in a powerful backlash by the middle of the decade. Anti-feminist leaders saw threats to “family values” in the ERA, and others in policies such as legal abortion and gay rights. For example, in 1977, the evangelical Christian pop singer Anita Bryant organized a Save Our Children campaign and mobilized voters by linking child endangerment with the dissolution of the nuclear family. Bryant claimed, for example, that “militant homosexuals” in public schools would try to “recruit” children into a gay lifestyle involving the use of child pornography.

Those fighting against feminist-proposed changes wanted to keep government out of this entire realm. When in 1971 President Richard M. Nixon vetoed federally subsidized child care, he framed it as a “radical” and “family-weakening” proposition that would threaten the “family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.” Here, Nixon reframed a policy successfully championed by feminist congresswomen as a necessary aid for working mothers into government overreach and intrusion into the private sphere.

Such “pro-family” rhetoric became increasingly central to Republican politics as an ascendant conservative wing highlighted social and cultural issues to motivate grass-roots support and pressure elected Republican leaders. Even as Republican platforms in the 1970s nodded toward the language of women’s equal opportunity, they advocated for policies built on the patriarchal assumption that women should focus on the domestic sphere and child rearing.

The successful STOP ERA campaign led by activist Phyllis Schlafly, which brought together conservative Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and Jews, along with outrage over proposed IRS rules threatening the tax exemption of religious schools that discriminated on the basis of race, helped expose the potential political potency of religious voters. Republicans began courting them, and figures such as the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson began organizing evangelical Christians into a political movement to exert itself in Republican politics. They started organizations like Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council (FRC), aimed at influencing elections and policies. For example, the FRC launched in 1983 with the goal to influence politicians through policy research that offers a “biblical worldview” on family issues to the media, academia and corporate America.

Over the past 40 years, evangelical Christianity has become increasingly influential and even more politicized, fueled by a growing sense that their core values are under assault. Conservatives have capitalized on this, as recent panics over transgender bathroom bills and critical race theory demonstrate, by painting secular liberalism as predatory to children, while insisting that schools and families grounded in traditional gender roles provide the best protection against such threats.

The Duggars epitomized this brand of conservative, religiously inspired activism. They situated themselves as culture warriors against the “radical left,” feminism and an overreaching federal government. The family patriarch, Jim Bob Duggar, served as a Republican state representative in Arkansas from 1999 to 2003 and ran for U.S. Senate in 2002. He recently lost a campaign for the Arkansas state Senate. Josh Duggar worked for conservative Christian political campaigns and served as the executive director of the lobbying arm of the FRC.

The Duggars have also been linked to the anti-birth control theology of the Quiverfull movement, which emerged in the late 1980s and encourages followers to reproduce prolifically. They interpret Psalm 127 to counsel them to see children “like a warrior’s fistful of arrows,” providing ammunition against one’s “enemies.” Quiverfull ideology is not a retreat from modern culture. Instead, its adherents use tools such as the Internet to naturalize and normalize male headship and female submission.

The Duggars’ popular reality shows have brought these ideas of the Religious Right to an even larger audience by a media image purposefully crafted — and heavily edited — to be nonjudgmental and benign. Social media has provided even more opportunities to present a sanitized version of life under Christian patriarchy that more closely matches the aesthetic of mainstream consumer culture. The Duggar women and children smile in their Instagram posts, as inspirational and seemingly content as countless other social media influencers. These cheerful public images help defang decades-old feminist criticism of Christian patriarchy and its political goals.

But in reality, this philosophy gives tremendous authority to fathers and husbands. Leaders in the Christian home-schooling movement — such as the now-disgraced Bill Gothard, whose teachings the Duggars championed — preach obedience to paternal and divine authority above all else. They do not see sexual assault as a violation of human rights, but as a sin of temptation, responsibility for which is often laid at the feet of the victim.

Indeed, Josh Duggar admitted in 2015 to a history of sexually assaulting young girls, including four of his minor-age sisters. Jessa and Jill Duggar, two of his victims, played a prominent role in the family’s public relations effort to downplay the scandal. They appeared on Fox News to decry claims that their brother should be labeled a pedophile or child molester. Prominent Republican politician and minister Mike Huckabee also defended Duggar, framing the ordeal as a private spiritual crisis that should not be exploited by the media.

Now, as Josh Duggar faces up to 40 years in prison, some in his political and religious community, including sister Jinger — another alleged prior sexual abuse victim of his — are speaking out, calling him a “hypocrite” who “claims to be a Christian.” To them, his crimes are a personal moral failure. But it would be a mistake to excuse his actions as those of an individual “bad apple,” without also disavowing the underlying ideology. While Duggar’s crimes are his own, they exist in a cultural context that derides women’s and children’s rights, encourages obedience to male authority figures and resists government interference into patriarchal authority within the family.

The religious right has long positioned feminist changes to the traditional private sphere as the ultimate threat to “family values.” In this case, the threat came from within.

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