For a group that says it believes in the utter inerrancy of the Bible and the totally unchanging, perfect nature of the Bible’s god, extremist fundamentalists sure do display a willingness to pursue any idea, no matter how obviously deranged and disastrous, as long as it feels more extremist and constrictive than whatever came before.
For the last thirty or so years, right-wing extremist Christians have been conducting a social experiment on their own families and communities. That experiment is the infliction of untested, obviously-harmful philosophies developed by the teachers of Christian patriarchy, a movement which is exemplified by Quiverfull teachings and those of Bill Gothard and the Duggars, on Christian families and children in the hopes that these philosophies will produce happy, safe families and well-adjusted kids who, once grown, will remain in the faith and be good little Christian warriors. The first crop of children born of that experiment are now adults.
And with Josh Duggar’s scandal and what it shows us about patriarchy’s true face, I think we can declare this social experiment concluded. We have finally hit the endgame of the movement; we have finally seen what this philosophy does when it reaches its logical conclusion, what it leads to when applied to the raising of children from birth to adulthood, and what harm it inexorably causes in its adherents’ lives.
As someone kinda famous once said, it is finished.
It must be.
The hardline fundagelical party line makes a number of threats and an equal number of promises. I myself fell into the terror it produces, hoping to avoid the terrible fate it said awaited those who didn’t obey–and to reap the rewards it promised for those who did obey. I’ve said before that I can see the roots in today’s ultra-right-wing conservative Christianity–“patriarchy”, where men rule women and children like kings in their homes, churches, and communities–in the version I followed (which was considered quite hardcore back in my day!). Today’s Gothard and Duggar scandals are nothing but the logical blossoming of those roots’ growth; they are the fruit that tell us that the tree they grew from is sick and twisted beyond redemption.
Bill Gothard clearly produced his homeschooling and childrearing system (the main one being Advanced Training Institute, or ATI) based on what he thought should work for families and communities, not on what actually might have worked. He sold his system to families like the Duggars based on the fear and hope he induced in them. They were primed by a variety of cultural factors to accept his threats and believe in his promises: a population that has no idea how to think critically or assess claims; an overly-trusting flock; a movement primed to see sex as naughty and women as second-class citizens born to serve and service men; a culture that proved all too willing to accept the rape culture ideology that patriarchy pushes. In short, he found an eager and receptive audience.
When I look over the stories of those who have been damaged by this movement, a few themes emerge very quickly. Couples like the Duggars don’t usually grow up in this kind of movement. Rather, they tend to join them as young adults–often before they even start having children. Maybe they were already Christians, maybe they weren’t, but the extremism of the movement appealed to them. Demographically, that’d just about have to be the case; the movement didn’t really begin until the 1980s. There just hasn’t been time enough to get generations of patriarchy-practicing families rolling. The first crop of youngsters is just now reaching adulthood.
These couples don’t wake up the morning after their wedding day thinking, “Let’s have tons of kids and introduce them to a life of mental bondage, servitude, sexual enslavement, misunderstood and over-simplistic doctrines, victim-blaming and body-shaming, and false idol worship! That sounds totally rad!” They get into movements like patriarchy because it made promises and threats to them that made sense based on what they knew at the time. It offered them clear-cut ways to avoid the threats and easy ways to reap the promises.
Obey and be blessed, happy, and safe.
Disobey and be cursed, miserable, and victimized.
Those were my choices as well in the proto-patriarchal denomination I was in, and those are the choices of the people in the patriarchy movement today, with no halfway points and no consolation prizes for anything but complete perfection and slavish obedience.
The important thing to remember, however, is that the doctrines in patriarchy do not prevent the fates they claim to prevent but rather bring them about inexorably and inevitably, and they do not fulfill the promises they make but rather bring about the dead opposite.
And that’s why I say this social experiment is over.
We know the truth now.
We know that patriarchy systems like Quiverfull and ATI are nothing but expressions of the power-lust of perverted, frustrated, angry, power-mad man-children who are furious at women for becoming more independent and furious at society for daring to take from them what they see as their proper place in society (at the top of the heap, natch!). We know that Bill Gothard and his cronies–many of them, like Doug Phillips, having finally fallen to their own lusts and scandals just like Gothard did–created this movement out of nothing but their own wishful thinking, need for power, and lecherous desires to rule over, and be served by, women.
In service to that goal, Bill Gothard and these patriarchy preachers told a lot of people many years ago that they knew how to make people’s families safe, happy, and strong.
All those Christians believed that message and put their trust into obeying these preachers.
But these false prophets did not in fact know what they claimed to know; they were lying either to themselves or to their followers. Their followers’ trust was misplaced. The rest of us had no idea what to think or what was going on–these families are good at concealment. In that silence, families grew up in this movement, and people got hurt. It took years for those children to escape and share the word about what they had endured in their “godly” families, and now I’m sure I’m not the only one who is absolutely floored and shocked by just how bad it was for those poor kids.
Adults who joined patriarchy at least had a little perspective about the world and about life when they got involved with the movement. Many of them grew up in much more permissive environments (which I’ve heard some ATI adherents say influenced them to choose a much stricter regime for their own kids). To some extent they could temper the rhetoric they internalized with their real-world understanding and experience.
Their children had none of those benefits. They were blank slates for their parents to write upon. They had no idea–and many still don’t have any idea–that the real world looks a lot different than their bubble-encased, shrink-wrapped world looks, and works a lot differently. When they escape, many talk about having to totally re-learn how to interact with others and figure out all those lessons most of the rest of society learned in middle school.
Here is part of what we know now.
1. This teaching does not produce safe families.
Josh Duggar showed us that if nothing else ever has. It gives predatory men license to prey upon women in an environment where those women will be blamed–even if they are actually only little girls–for their own victimization. It shields those predators like the Duggars shielded their son Josh, protecting the tribe at the expense of the daughters they claim to want to protect. It hurts other boys who become traumatized by their experiences in these cult-brainwashed families.
2. This teaching does not produce happy families.
If it did, why would parents need to teach their kids how to smile no matter what they really feel and punish–sometimes even to the point of shunning and ostracism–kids who don’t obey their every command with an ear-to-ear smile plastered on their faces? If the teaching really made a family happy, unhappiness wouldn’t be punished and smiles wouldn’t need to be coached. As it is, I find the Duggar kids’ dead-eyed identical smiles to be repellent and frightening; now we know that behind those smiles lay years of emotional if not physical abuse, sexual victimization, and unthinkable repression. I will never again be able to see a group photo of any Quiverfull family without noticing that carbon-copy smile, or without wondering anew what pain those smiles hide.
3. This teaching does not produce strong families or train strong Christian warriors.
Read some of those horror stories at Recovering Grace. Read No Longer Quivering. Read Love, Joy, Feminism. Read Spiritual Sounding Board. Read Homeschoolers Anonymous. These are the real faces of patriarchy, not the dead-eyed smiles. They are not aberrations. Kids who grow up in this system are destroyed emotionally, their capacity to form normal healthy relationships shredded to bits, their trust in others eradicated, their self-confidence sapped, their pride in themselves destroyed. The Duggar family is revealed by the Josh Duggar scandal to be considerably more dysfunctional than the “worldly” families over whom they claim the moral high ground. When abuse victims do dare to speak out against their abuse, their families are ill-equipped to help their children–relying instead on pseudo-counseling materials that victim-blame and silence any show of dissent or dissatisfaction with patriarchy; indeed, Josh’s parents did not handle their newfound knowledge responsibly or appropriately. Instead, every action they took was designed to silence the scandal and protect the molester from justice. As a blogger at Homeschoolers Anonymous noted, “Bill Gothard’s cult creates a world in which abuse thrives in secret, and those that need help the most are silenced and shamed.”
Yes, exactly. That’s because that’s what the system of patriarchy was designed to do. Patriarchy works exactly as it’s meant to work.
Patriarchal systems are meant to reinforce the privilege of their leaders, not to produce happy, healthy, strong, safe, loving families and supportive, successful communities. And these systems fulfill their function perfectly–though at great cost. Their leaders don’t care about that cost as long as they can continue to operate the way they like best.
Their cover is blown at this point. Instead of kids growing up and raving about how wonderful it was, we’ve got dozens if not hundreds of stories about what life growing up in that movement was really like, enough for us to know that the system itself–even milder versions of it–is the problem, not how those individual families worked with that system. It can’t be that godly or that intuitive if there are this many horror stories. It can’t be divinely good if its community not only cannot protect its most vulnerable members but has rallied around not the five victims of the latest scandal but around the direct abuser of those little girls and those who concealed that abuser’s crimes.
There is no way to salvage the underlying teachings in patriarchy.
There is no magical way to make the main teachings of patriarchy work because they are sick at their core. Though there’s no shortage of Christian right-wing leaders who denounce ATI, like the Christian homeschooling champion Michael Farris, who called Gothard’s Quiverfull movement “truly dangerous” last year when Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard first fell, their solution is generally to attempt to roll back the extremism inherent in those ideas rather than scrapping them.
There’s no assurance that any meaningful safeguards will or could prevent abuse from occurring. That’s because the mindset in and of itself sets up a power imbalance that strips one group–women and children–of voices and power, and sets up another group–adult men–as the wielders of all power as well as arbiters of all that is right or wrong. There are no checks on their power as a group and no external gauges on whether they’re doing the right thing or not. There is no other way that this setup could turn out than by the churning out of scandal after scandal. The real miracle here is that we don’t see more scandals than we do considering how doggedly patriarchy-minded Christians are trying to bring back “separate but equal.”
Indeed, ATI’s founders tried to retool their group once, but because they kept their operational assumptions (gender inequality, unquestioning obedience from one group but unquestioned authority for another, rigid control and dominance over children) nothing came of it. Some of Bill Gothard’s followers confronted him about his system’s abusiveness and his own history of moral and ethical failures; his responses were uniformly to deny and smooth over any and all opposition and objections. That’s because his goal was not to make strong, happy, safe families but to establish an empire that would let him live and behave the way he really wanted.
In the same exact way, Josh Duggar was able to operate because patriarchy is designed from the ground up to let people like him operate. He preyed upon the little girls that he did because they were available to him. When he was discovered, his self-serving parents silenced his accusers and covered up his shameful deed–and almost got away with it. Even now that he’s been exposed, their spin-doctoring continues–because at this point they’ve invested so much in this movement that all they can do is try to defend it.
But society’s collective revulsion at that defense is rising quickly–more so than even I would have predicted a year ago. And we are correctly perceiving that the issue in this particular scandal isn’t so much Josh Duggar himself but the patriarchal society that helped create him and then did not stop him from hurting others–and that even today privileges both him and its own image over those who were hurt. I ain’t the only seeing it, either, I’m glad to say! I’m noticing other voices being raised in response to the Duggar scandal to reveal even more about ATI’s shortcomings and pitfalls; we’ve hit a turning point at last with all this patriarchy bullshit.
Fundagelicals have had decades to make their social experiment work. It’s not fixable; it’s not salvageable. It’s not livable. And if consenting adults want to have their little Happy Christian Patriarchal Fantasy, that’s cool, that’s their life, so whatever as long as they don’t try to drag anybody else into their fetish. But when unconsenting children get involved, then yes, we’re going to say something.
You won’t find a lot of mention of Bill Gothard in many of the Duggars’ official sites and fan pages, and the Duggar girls have stopped torturing their hair into the harsh home-permed curly manes the old pervert fancied on young women. But the teaching that Bill Gothard gave these families is harder to shake than just growing out a perm, and as long as these families cling to those teachings, nothing is going to change. Bill Gothard is, like Josh Duggar, just a symptom. Prune away those symptoms as much as you like, but if you don’t get the disease cured, then new abusers will just keep popping up.
It’s time we see this scandal for what it is: the only logical outgrowth of sick teachings and demented theology meant to enshrine male privilege and keep women and children weak and voiceless.
If we needed visible evidence of how completely failed patriarchy is as a social system and childrearing philosophy, we have it now in spades thanks to the Duggars. And we won’t forget.