Anna Duggar and the Silencing Power of Forgiveness

I have been coming upon more and more truly excellent commentary in the aftermath of the revelation that Josh Duggar sexually molested five girls in two families as a teenager—and that his parents, their elders, and local law enforcement covered this up. There is Samantha’s How Josh Duggar Is Getting Away with It, for example, and Kathryn Elizabeth’s Josh Duggar Says He’s Sorry. So What?

I’ve seen defenders argue that we shouldn’t be airing the family’s private affairs publicly, and that this is over and done with and water under the bridge, and so forth. The problem with these statements is that they ignore the role specific beliefs and doctrines played in the mishandling of Josh Duggar’s abuse. As I pointed out yesterday in my blog post exploring the sort of counseling Josh and his victims likely received, the story here is about problems with the Duggar’s worldview and subculture—a worldview and subculture many Duggar fans have praised as wholesome or quaint for years now, without understanding the deep underlying problems inherent to it (problems I have addressed previously here and here).

And now, without further ado, I give you the following excellent commentary by my friend Carmen Green, who like me, like Samantha, and like Kathryn Elizabeth, grew up in a Christian homeschool family and has personal experience with the Duggar’s worldview and subculture. (I even have mutual friends with the Duggars—the Christian homeschool world can be very small indeed.)

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Two things:

1) Anna Duggar (Josh’s wife) is an example of what many women coming out of the Duggar’s fundamentalist Christian subculture go through. They get married young after a brief courtship. (Because of family pressure and perhaps a desperate need to get out of their parents’ home.) They don’t really know the person they are marrying, and they are too inexperienced (having no sex ed, previous boyfriends, or real-world experience) to recognize any red flags that might have risen by this point. They can’t use birth control (because sinful) so they start having children right away.

Anna now has three, with a fourth on the way. She is 26 years old. She was homeschooled her whole life and never went to college. She now claims that she knew when the courtship began that Josh was a child molester. But I very much doubt that Josh used those words — it is far more likely that he said he had “temptations” to which he “succumbed” but “God is good” and he has “asked for forgiveness.” And, in that culture, she would have had no choice but to accept that for face value, because to do otherwise would be to call Josh a liar and to doubt God’s ability to save. Now she’s found out the truth, she has a few more years of experience, and she’s more trapped than she’s ever been.

There are so many women who use marriage to escape in this subculture (because that’s the only socially accepted way out) only to find out (once they have the added responsibility of small children to care for) that they’ve jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. I see, time and again, young women in their twenties with multiple small children, no job experience, and no marketable skills trying to navigate the world of divorce, custody and support, and protective orders, all while trying to live on their own for the first time in their life. They are some of the bravest and most extraordinary women I know.

When someone like Anna chooses to stay with someone like Josh, it’s not necessarily because they blindly believe that everything is fine. (Although she might well still be that naive.) It’s often because they feel walled in with no place else to go. She is a victim here too, as well as her children.

2) Forgiveness is a warped topic in fundamentalist Christian circles where abuse is concerned. Jim Bob, Michelle, and Josh are using that language purposefully. They are tapping into the belief that no sin is too terrible for God to forgive and the mandate that we must forgive our trespassers as God has forgiven us. Together, these beliefs force victims in this subculture to shut up, sit down, and “make peace” with the people who have wronged them.

This results in victims having to act as if nothing ever happened. They still have to live with the perpetrator. They still have to speak to the perpetrator and show affection to them. They have to smile and pretend for years and years. No one gets real counseling. And the perpetrator is never punished.

My friend, Kathryn, wrote an excellent piece on why we shouldn’t let Jim Bob, Michelle, and Josh dictate the tone of the discussion. I don’t care if Josh thinks the victims forgave him (what choice did they have?). I don’t care if Josh says he’s sorry. He’s a child molester who escaped punishment because mommy and daddy covered for him. Children in two different families (that we know of) were victimized. No other families were ever told about Josh’s behavior so that they could take protective measures for their own children.

This story is NOT about the power of forgiveness. It’s about a cover-up, a blatant disregard for children’s safety, and the appalling selfishness of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar.

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I want to finish by quoting from Josh Duggar’s description of his courtship with Anna, which included discussion of the years before he met her. I quote it here because it backs up Carmen’s contention that Anna was probably told of Josh’s past “mistakes” in a language that disguised what they really were.

As I became a teenage young man I was constantly tempted to have lots of wrong thoughts, and often battled to keep my heart right. One of the greatest things that helped me in my struggles was my parent’s commitment to accountability. They were faithful to talk with each one of their children – if we were willing to share honestly & openly with them – to maintain a clear conscience. I learned quickly that great freedom can be achieved by accountability, and great accountability requires humility & openness. I often had failures in my early teenage years, but found I had a clear conscience only when I was willing to confess my thoughts and temptations quickly to God & my parents. (1 John 1:9)

Josh says he was “tempted” to have “wrong thoughts” and that he “had failures” but learned to confess his “thoughts and temptations” to God. There is no hint that these “temptations” involved sexual molestation. Instead, the rhetoric sounds not unlike that of any other young man in a culture that values “purity” and treats any sexual thought as sin.

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