Dangerous Curiosity: Reflections on Gothard, the Duggars and “Shiny Happy People”
My curiosity around faith and sexuality has led me on an interesting path of discovery. I’m finding answers to questions I hadn’t considered before. I find myself grieving for the generations of women before me who never knew the freedom of being able to choose whether they would marry or not. I wonder if those women knew sexual pleasure or simply the obligation of being someone’s wife.
We’ve come so far, but it’s not nearly far enough. With every push toward equality, the religious patriarchy has attempted to clamp down.
A few weeks ago I watched the Amazon Prime documentary “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets.” The four part series follows the reality TV family of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, of the TLC hit show 19 and Counting. In the process it peels the lid off of the cult-ish Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), founded by Bill Gothard.
The stories of former members of the IBLP were shocking but not surprising. They echoed with familiarity. Gothard heavy influenced the Southern Baptist Church and white evangelical culture as a whole.
Bill Gothard wasn’t the first Evangelical of the 1960s and 70s to insist on gender based hierarchy, but he was one of the most successful. By 1973, Gothard’s conferences drew more than 200,000 attendees. He claims more than 2.5 million have attended his seminars. The organization continued to grow and amass wealth from families who believed his teaching aligned with the voice of God.
Gothard appealed to the conservative religious folks who saw their world changing. They worried their children would be out of control. Or worse, damned to hell.
Central to Gothard’s approach was male headship. Authority flowed down from God to men. It was seen as a man’s responsibility to take control of his family. He promoted the imagery of an umbrella. Husbands were the protectors of the family, and for a wife to usurp that authority would invoke consequences great and small. “If we allow a hole in our umbrella,” Jim Bob Duggar said, “Satan will come in and attack our family.”
This message of submission is key. Wives are under the authority of their husbands. “One major area in which God began to really work on my heart, was in the area of submission,” says a women in a video clip from an IBLP conference. “My husband had asked me not to wear pants and I was out from under his authority, again.”
This power dynamic extended beyond marriage relationships. For children, the hierarchy continued wherever they went. “Basically the oldest male presence was in charge,” Lindsey Williams explains. She went on to tell her story of sexual abuse at an IBLP training center. One night a boy came to her bed. She said, “I didn’t know how to say, ‘I don’t want you in my bed. Get out please.’ I’d never been taught that. Not only that, any back talk was beat out of us at a young age.”
Former IBLP members recounted the fear of hell that consumed so much of their thoughts. It reminded me of my brother Joe, who talks of being consumed with guilt and practicing what was once a daily ritual of getting saved. Fleeting impure thoughts brought danger of hell-fire. This may sound hyperbolic, but to so many who lived in constant fear of God’s displeasure, it’s an understatement.
This practice of repeated repentance was strategic. “If you are so preoccupied with self-examination,” one said, “you’re not going to have enough energy to challenge the system itself.”
IBLP offered all the answers when it came to raising children. Michael Pearl talks about administering spankings saying, “A little psychological terror is sometimes more effective than the pain.” Part of the instruction was to spank your child until they quit crying. Pearl’s book ToTrain Up a Child was endorsed by the IBLP. He specialized in techniques to use physical punishment that could avoid legal prosecution. The Duggars called this form of punishment “encouragement.”
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Pearl says, “The rules, principles, techniques for training an animal and a human are the same.”
Children were raised to be compliant. Immediate and absolute obedience was valued above all. Michelle Duggar explains her technique of blanket training in one of her books. You put your baby on a blanket with their favorite toy just out of reach. Anytime they tried to reach for the toy they received a smack on the hand. “We’re going to practice. Obey mama.” she says, “sit really still and look at me with a big ol’ smile.”
Particularly painful was video of a seminar where IBLP speaker, Pastor Bill Ligon, asked for someone to loan him a little boy. He wanted to demonstrate how to spank a child and bless him at the same time. The little one who was sent forward might have been all of 6 or 7 years old. The pastor pretended to be his daddy as he bent him over his knee while he patted his bottom saying, “You’re a fine boy. You’re going to grow up to be an outstanding man. God’s hand is on your life, son.” For some reason the crowd found this funny and began to laugh out loud.
When he finished the spanking Ligon said, “Now give Daddy a hug.” The little boy embraced him. “I don’t think you put yourself into that hug, son.” The crowd again continues to roar in laughter. “Let’s spank a little more.” He then gave the little one a second chance and this time the hug was more enthusiastic in order to avoid additional punishment.
Absolute male authority, conditioning to quietly and instantly obey all instruction, dissolution of physical autonomy, it should come as no surprise that sexual abuse was pervasive. This would be revealed in the story of the eldest Duggar child, Josh. In 2015 reports emerged that he had sexually abused 5 girls, 4 of which were his sisters.
The details of what really happened with Josh Duggar’s victims is largely unknown. Interviews from two of his sisters when the story broke explained that the touching was over their clothes while they were asleep. If Josh hadn’t confessed, the sisters explained, they would never have known.
Years later Jill Duggar would tell a different story—one that involved pressure from family to white wash the whole thing to preserve their wholesome image. Her resistance to speak on the topic reflected the undoubtedly deep wounds she still carries. Her cousin described what happened and said Jill fought back.
Interviews from other IBLP members retold their own experiences of sexual abuse. One respondent explained that similar abuse was common. “That’s just what brothers do,” she said.
Eventually Josh Duggar would be brought to justice. Investigators found 600 images and videos of child pornography on his computer. The Homeland Security agent who would testify at his trial said “one video… was one of the most disturbing things he’d seen in his whole career.” The eldest Duggar is currently in prison serving a 12.5 year sentence, but continues to insist he’s innocent.
At the same time as Josh was being prosecuted for child sex crimes, Jim Bob Duggar announced he was running again for Arkansas State Senate. He would lose.
Gothard too, after nearly 60 years of leadership, would be exposed as a sexual abuser. More than 30 women came forward to tell their stories of molestation and sexual harassment, many of which were minors at the time. He had groomed young girls, shielding inappropriate touches under the guise of prayer and confession.
Gothard was never convicted. At the age of 79, the IBLP would finally remove him from organizational leadership in 2014. This was no consolation to his victims—the girls he abused and the thousands of others who would carry the wounds of brothers, fathers and church leaders who did the same. How many others had he hurt?
Here is a man who built one of the most widely influential parachurch organizations with teachings about children and families. Gothard was key in the “quiver full” movement that encouraged Christian families to have as many children as possible. He is credited with driving the homeschool movement and built a business selling curriculum. He propagated family structures that ordered households. Yet the man himself never married and never fathered a child.
How did he do it? Simple. Bill Gothard was a charismatic leader who figured out how to successfully weaponize scripture. He coopted the authority of the divine for his own purposes. He played on people’s fear of social change and used it to reenforce patriarchal rule. He created a threat and an enemy and by doing so he started a movement.
It's easy to watch “Shiny Happy People” and think this extreme lifestyle is just crazy. They are a fringe group of radicals, right? But the ideas promoted by Gothard and the IBLP aren’t far from mainstream Evangelical culture. Fear of God’s wrath, language of male headship, the imagery of an umbrella, the stories of sexual abuse—all mirror stories I hear from people who grew up in Evangelical spaces. The wounds of these witnesses are damning. We wonder why so many are deconstructing their faith. This is it.
Why else would a loosely affiliated denomination like the SBC take such a dogged stance on denying women positions of leadership? It’s because of this movement that posts men as head of household with complete authority. If a congregation can thrive with a female leader, it undermines their entire platform. If a woman can lead successfully, what imagined consequences can male pastors threaten for wives who might dare to question their husband’s authority? If there are no god-ordained gender roles, could that make a case for same sex couples?
It's time that we separate the scriptures from systems of oppression in evangelical culture. This requires us to ask bigger questions. Is male headship God’s will for the family? If not, how does that affect the way we read stories of patriarchal society in scripture?
Too often we read the holy text to find something to support our own viewpoint. We look for a verse and make it service our argument. The deep work of seeking to know God and understanding the Bible is so often overshadowed by fear, insecurity and manipulation.
I’m not throwing stones, I am guilty of this too. I go looking for passages that agree with me all the time. I just want us to be honest about it. Maybe by acknowledging our bias we can move beyond it.
Honesty makes us humble. That humility searches for hidden motivations and agendas. It keeps us open to really hearing someone else’s viewpoint. Humility allows for compassion for folks who make mistakes. It gives others the room to learn and grow.
With humility we have the freedom to approach scripture with curiosity. What might God want to say to me today? How can I better understand the author’s original message? Curiosity leads us to ask more questions, to listen and learn rather than answer and dictate. But curiosity can also be dangerous to those who hold power.
I would contend that humility and curiosity are how we come to know the living God, an invitation that’s generously offered to all of humanity.
A posture of humility and curiosity draws a stark contrast to white evangelical culture. It is in fact the opposite of what Bill Gothard taught his followers. Questions were a form of insubordination. Answers were always given, not discovered or explored.
The question I’ll leave you with is this: which approach more closely reflects our Creator? Is God all about top-down authoritative leadership? You can read lists of rules in Leviticus or lists of sins in Paul’s New Testament letters. But you can also hear Jesus tell stories about the kingdom of God that leave the listener to draw their own conclusions. Some might even wonder, what is Jesus trying to say?
The Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
 Buzzfeed article that recaps Josh Duggar’s trial and explains that his prison sentence was extended. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/juliareinstein/josh-duggar-federal-prison-sentence-extended  Washington Post article from 2016 that reports on Gothard’s abuse accusations. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/01/06/new-charges-allege-religious-leader-who-has-ties-to-the-duggars-sexually-abused-women/