Last Thursday, April 29, former reality TV star Josh Duggar was arrested by federal authorities and held without bail. On Friday, the charges dropped: downloading and possession of child sexual abuse material (still often referred to, problematically, as “child porn”). Both counts may individually result in penalties of up to twenty years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The news generated so much buzz that it nearly drowned out two other evangelical scandals—involving Hillsong Church and, to probably no one’s surprise, Jerry Falwell, Jr.—that broke last week.
I bring them up here, alongside the horrific Duggar revelations, neither to be petty nor simply to point out that it’s been a bad week for evangelicals, but to highlight, once again, that evangelical abuses are part of a pattern that can be directly linked to indoctrination in evangelicalism’s twisted understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender, broadly referred to as purity culture. After I raised the issue here on RD in connection with the Atlanta spa murderer’s evangelical background, major media outlets included it in their coverage of the racist and sexist murder spree. It’s my hope that we will continue to see that kind of scrutiny applied to evangelical theology and subculture, because evangelicals’ authoritarian beliefs and practices give rise to violence over, and over, and over again, and will continue to do so if the root causes are not addressed and evangelicalism does not reform.
On April 28, the news broke that Darnell Barrett would be the latest American pastor to resign from his position in the charismatic Australia-based, celebrity-friendly, and scandal-plagued megachurch conglomerate Hillsong, amid revelations of “infidelity” and of the unsolicited sharing of explicit photos with women. Hillsong’s long record of misconduct starts with its founder, Brian Houston, who covered up the child sexual abuse committed by his father, Assemblies of God Pastor Frank Houston.
And then there was Jerry Falwell, Jr. Again. This time, the disgraced former Liberty University president and son of the university’s infamous fundamentalist founder, showed up to a student comedy show hosted at an off-campus residence. There, Falwell was caught on video, apparently drunk—again—inviting seniors to come to the Falwell farm on May 8 for “the real Liberty graduation.” Given recent revelations not only about Jerry Jr. and wife Becki Falwell’s affair with “pool boy” Giancarlo Granda, and allegations of sexually predatory behavior toward Liberty students, the notion that what Falwell had in mind was an innocent “picnic” (as a statement canceling the event due to Falwell’s poor health frames it) can hardly be taken at face value.
And that brings us back to Duggar, whose teenage molestation of younger girls—including his sisters Jessa Seewald, Jill Dillard, Joy-Anna Forsyth, and Jinger Vuolo—has been known since 2015. At that time, Duggar was 27 and executive director of FRC action, the lobbying arm of evangelical-run anti-LGBTQ hate group the Family Research Council, a position well in keeping with his family’s ideology. His mother, Michelle Duggar, was in the news at the time for making a robocall opposing a non-discrimination ordinance on the thoroughly false grounds that transgender women are “men” who want to sneak into women’s bathrooms and locker rooms for predatory purposes. The revelations led to Josh’s resignation from his FRC post and to TLC canceling 19 Kids and Counting—but otherwise he faced no repercussions.
It’s striking to contrast Michelle’s robocall with the actions her family took to protect Josh from accountability for his predatory behavior. In the call, which in retrospect is a clear example of projection and scapegoating, Michelle said:
I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls. I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space.
But what about her own daughters? Is what’s good for the gander good, as it were, for the goslings? Father Jim Bob Duggar’s own 2015 comments make it appear as if Josh took the initiative to confess to his parents, although the police report on the incident clearly indicates that one of his sisters told their parents first.* “The ray of hope was that Josh had came [sic] and told us and that his heart was still soft. Because we wouldn’t have known about any of these things if he hadn’t had came [sic.] and told us,” Jim Bob stated. Jim Bob also told the press that his daughters had not wanted the news of the molestation to come out, and one of those daughters, Jessa, who along with Jill spoke to the press, stated for the record that the accusation that her brother was a pedophile was “so overboard and a lie.”
Michelle spoke of an “agenda” certain parties were “purposing” against her family, and she downplayed her son’s sexual misconduct with “I know that every one of us have done things wrong. That’s why Jesus came.” As for the sisters who Josh molested, they told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that they forgave him and also downplayed the severity of the abuse, an action that is frequently demanded from victims of abuse in evangelical contexts, although we have no evidence at this point that they were directly pressured into it.
As for Josh? After confessing to his parents three times, he was given a “stern” talking to by a police officer and sent to receive clearly ineffective “Christian counseling” that seems to have consisted mostly of doing manual labor. And Joseph Hutchens, the law enforcement officer who was supposed to “scare Josh straight,” is, incidentally, himself currently serving his own prison sentence for possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material.
While the Duggars represent an extreme evangelical and fundamentalist lifestyle known as Quiverfull—one that is particularly abusive and difficult to escape from—their views about sex, sexuality, and gender are widely shared among conservative evangelicals. In more mainstream evangelical communities, patriarchy may not be as strictly enforced, but it’s still considered biblical and is a part of evangelical socialization in families, churches, and Christian schools. This generates extreme anxiety about sex, sexuality, and gender roles that leads to unhealthy repression, and to the projection of those anxieties onto sexual and gender minorities, who are subjected to fierce persecution, often in the form of legislative assaults on our rights.
Meanwhile, consent is a term that for the most part simply doesn’t enter into evangelical discourse. Patriarchy, that lack of understanding of consent, and “sin flattening”—that is, insisting that all “sin” is equivalently heinous in God’s eyes, which opens the door for evangelicals to compare consensual same-sex relationships to alcohol addiction or murder—makes for a toxic brew in which the abuse and silencing of women and children is simply inevitable. The evidence of that is all around us. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,” Jesus is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Matthew. “By their fruits you will know them.”
*CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly took Jim Bob Duggar’s spin at face value. RD regrets the error.