Group Identity, Priorities, and the Josh Duggar Scandal.

Group Identity, Priorities, and the Josh Duggar Scandal. May 22, 2015

During and right after deconversion, I often got this bizarre feeling like I was living in an alternate universe when I listened to my still-Christian friends and family talking. Their priorities were completely mangled to the point where they barely even seemed human anymore. They were like robots or aliens trying to fit in by pretending to be people, or perhaps more like people who completely lack empathy trying to make their face muscles do what empathetic people’s face muscles do in response to good or bad news to hide the fact that they’re missing that essential component of personality.

This photo spoke to me. (Credit: Robb North, CC license.)
This photo spoke to me. (Credit: Robb North, CC license.)

When a story broke about a typically fundagelical pastor bragging about how his Jaguar had gotten wrecked but hadn’t messed up his hair* or his favorite pen while his wife was hospitalized with a serious injury, that was a more dramatic version of what I encountered nearly every day. Why should he care about his wife, when his hair was saved by Jesus? It’s a miracle!

This is not a mindset that lends itself well to dealing with scandals.

The scandal breaking at present in fundagelical Christianity is the news that Josh Duggar molested a bunch of underaged girls when he was a teenager and that his parents not only knew and not only didn’t take appropriate actions upon learning the news, but actively impeded investigation and almost successfully silenced the entire scandal. Indeed, the eventual investigation would have totally vanished from sight thanks to their massaging if not for some journalists making Freedom of Information Act requests to see the records of the investigation and police reports. (Here is Libby Anne’s excellent timeline of the whole thing; be forewarned, it gets worse with every single detail you learn.)

The response of such Christians to the news has been depressingly predictable. Distancing, evasion, demands for silence, demands for “forgiveness,” putting child molestation on the same shelf as any innocent or average mistake of judgment… seriously, it’s like Christians can’t help themselves, like their mouths disengage from their brains and they start babbling something, anything, to try to regain their old image and privilege.

Their priorities are totally skewed, and this scandal is showing just how skewed in a way that nothing else has in a really long time. One reason it’s getting so much attention is that the Duggars are a loud and proud part of the very worst that Christianity has to offer, and they were all but idolized by a great many Christians and held up as examples of how “godly living” could make families strong and marriages secure. Prominent, A-list Republican politicians cozied up with Josh Duggar all over the place and offered up their tight friendship with the Duggars as proof that they were fundagelical enough for the tinfoil-hat-wearing base.

This scandal has the potential to open up a national conversation about consent, about bodily integrity even for children, about how religious people aren’t superior morally to anybody else, and about how these ultra-conservative, ultra-regressive Patriarchy movements keep pushing the same faux-Biblical model of family despite its marked inability to produce happy, healthy families and well-adjusted, high-functioning adults. This is the best opportunity that’s come along in a long time for extremist Christians to seriously examine their misplaced loyalty to this narcissistic, misogynistic, self-serving doctrine and see the damage that it’s doing to both the people struggling to live within its bounds and to their religion’s credibility as scandal after scandal pours out of that end of the pool.

But that might be too much to hope. Christians are instead trying to protect their tribe’s group identity, not to protect the very real children that Josh Duggar preyed upon and victimized or to learn anything about why these kinds of scandals keep happening to families that are supposed to be the very figureheads of extreme Christian movements.

I can see why. As one of the older kids to graduate from the Jim Bob Duggar Hyuck-Hyuck-Gyarsh School of Ultra-Patriarchy, Josh Duggar is a living testament to how successful this form of childrearing is. Homeschooled kids get told regularly that they are seen by outsiders as examples; everywhere they go, I’ve heard them say, they are reminded that they must be on their best behavior. This whole movement is still pretty young–I’d go so far as to characterize it as a particularly irresponsible social experiment–so it is natural that outsiders will be carefully scrutinizing its results. All of these factors make it natural for families immersed in this lifestyle to feel and cultivate a strong group identity.

Now that Josh Duggar has turned out to be a child molester, what does that say about Jim Bob’s chosen method of raising him? What does it say about his religion’s claim to moral superiority when even one of its most fervent adherents couldn’t keep his hands to himself? What does it say about patriarchal Christianity in general? What does it say about that branch of religion’s entire conceptualization of relationships and sexuality?

If Jesus didn’t make Josh Duggar a better person, and if he didn’t protect the children that Josh victimized, then what does that say about this religion?***

Worst of all, a few years after the scandal initially happened and Jim Bob and Michelle successfully shushed it up and kept it out of the public eye, Jim Bob’s family began to star in their own reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, but even before that the family was prominent in the news; in 2004, as that link recounts, Michelle Duggar got a “Mother of the Year” award from her state (but I’m betting she didn’t tell the judges that just one year previously she’d helped quiet news of her son’s pedophilia against little girls including her very own daughters, who she and Jim Bob totally threw under the bus to protect their facade). The year that Jim Bob discovered what his son was doing to his daughters, he was running for an election to political office that he lost. One of his buddies attributed that loss to some vague, unspecified “sin in the camp”, which was a mystifying reference at the time, but one which people are realizing now was very likely a reference to Josh Duggar’s pedophilia.

So yes, I can definitely see why Jim Bob and Michelle might have been tremendously motivated to cover up what they’d learned about their son. Josh Duggar’s secret life was a direct threat to not only their income and reputation but also to their entire religion’s increasingly-precarious credibility and reputation in the world marketplace of ideas. It was a contradiction to every single assertion the Duggars and their supporters have ever made, implicitly and explicitly, about themselves, their family, and their religion.

Don’t expect virtue from zealots when that much is on the line.

They already belong to a worldview predicated upon dishonesty and dependent upon silencing dissent. A zealot wouldn’t even need that much of a threat to sacrifice the health and safety of five precious little girls, even that zealot’s own daughters.

I’ve talked before about the Happy Christian Marriage/Family/Society Illusion–and it is ten times worse in families like those of the Duggars than it was even for me back in my Christian days. This is the illusion that all is well, all is happy, all is great, all is doubleplus-good-awesome in the tribe. It is maintained to impress both other church members and outsiders, and presented as evidence that Christianity is a great way to live one’s life and don’t you wanna join us and be happy just like we are all the time?

You see this facade-presentation anywhere lifestyles get sold and bought on the marketplace of ideas–weight-loss gurus, New Age mystics, religious school marketers, advertising executives, even military recruiters do it.

This thinking is pervasive in this branch of the religion. Adherents are dissuaded from ever voicing problems with it or dissenting from it. When a Christian doesn’t live up to the Happy Christian Facade, then it’s seen as a personal failing both by that Christian and those around him or her–sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly. Because nobody has any idea just how many people are failing to live up to the ideal, it’s easy to place blame that way.

Preserving that illusion matters more than anything. It matters more than other family members; it matters more than being honest. When I was Christian, I was told that the illusion had to be maintained or else people might get turned off to our religion and thereby be sent to Hell by our “loving” god. When I deconverted, my then-husband Biff talked about my soul often enough, but I think–and thought even then–that what really bothered him was how my deconversion would affect his standing in church and his future prospects in paid, full-time ministry–and what non-Christians (especially our many atheist acquaintances and friends) would think of my defection.

Instead of condemning Josh Duggar, Christians are displaying their alternate-universe priorities by instead protecting their group. But people know now what lurks behind those perky, chipper group photos, behind all those perfect, obviously-coached, identical toothy Jesus smiles and matchy-matchy outfits, behind the almost desperate-looking forced cheer in those girls’ eyes and the weird detachment in the boys’. When one of the Duggar girls chirps one of her tribe’s ridiculously poorly-thought-out and debunked talking points about evolution or abortion or whatever bee is up their butt this week courtesy of Fox News, it’s not just a display of science denial or misogyny; she’s reinforcing her group’s identity by asserting its opinions–even at her own expense. Doing anything less than parroting those party lines, for someone raised in her environment, would be risking ostracism and shunning from the only tribe she’s ever known, which would mean losing her entire family. But she’s been trained to do it, and for a reason.

It’s not enough for Christians to have hugely delusional, regressive, reckless, or toxic ideas. They can’t just keep those ideas to themselves or within their own groups. It’s not enough for them to do what their own Savior commanded, either, and pray in private rather than swanning around in public with their pious preacher eyebrows all squinched up like they’re having massive bowel movements. They have to say this stuff around outsiders and train their children to say this stuff too–because that’s part of how they mark the line between “Them” and “Us.” They know we don’t like it and don’t welcome it. They definitely know we don’t agree with it.

That’s why they do it.

This behavior differentiates them from the rest of society. They know who they are by who they aren’t like.

And that’s why they come down as hard as they do on people who question those party lines or threaten the tribe’s position in society–especially when that person is in their own tribe, and even if that person is a victimized little girl seeking justice and an end to abuse.

Don’t be surprised if we keep hearing more and more totally offensive and tone-deaf statements in response to extremist Christianity’s inevitable future scandals. As their image and identity become more and more threatened, zealots will stoop to lower and lower lengths to protect what is dearest to them.

We need to keep talking about these scandals and to have that conversation about bodily ownership and integrity. We need to keep talking about why there is no magical way to enact a sexist society without it causing scandals and endless abuses of women and children. We need to keep highlighting the total hypocrisy of extremist Christianity’s figureheads and keep hammering home the point that religion not only doesn’t make anybody moral but that extremely untrustworthy and nasty people get attracted to these movements and then use them as permission slips to abuse and prey upon vulnerable, marginalized, disenfranchised people whose voices have been silenced by indoctrination and fear.

Every single time a Christian bleats that we should just shut up about this hypocrisy and whines about how meeeeeeeean we are for calling attention to it, we should talk more and louder.

And we will.


* And from what I can see from this photo of the hairdo in question, that may be more of a miracle than I’d initially thought; he looks like he’s trying to become a Centauri or something.

** And you too can reap the rewards of tithing by being really inept at keeping a checkbook ledger.

*** Answer key: Nothing good; nothing good; nothing good; nothing good; that it’s superfluous at best and a permission slip for predators at worst. How’d you score?

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