Fundamentalism and the Duggar Fantasy

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I’m a writer, artist and poet, which means I fantasize quite a bit. Sometimes I fear I spend more time in my head than I do in the real world. In the recesses of my mind, anything is possible. The colors are brighter, the adventures more exciting, the people more fascinating. When I’m in that space, I feel comfortable. Joyous. Sometimes it’s hard to come back and rejoin reality.

And that’s exactly the problem. Sometimes the fantasy is so seductive, so compelling, that I start to think that it is reality–or, at least, could be. This can affect how I interact with others. In my effort to affirm the fantasy, I start to ascribe to them feelings and motivations that they may not actually have. I want the fantasy to be real

To some degree, all humans do this. It’s called “confirmation bias.” We form beliefs and perceptions about the world, and we want to think that those beliefs represent the most objective, logical and realistic view of it. We interpret everything through the lens of those beliefs, seeking the evidence that will affirm them. The problem comes when those beliefs become so entrenched that we sink into delusion rather than allow ourselves to be challenged. It’s like the drunk, tone-deaf karaoke singer who takes his audience’s groans and laughter as a sign that he should pursue a record deal.

This sort of confirmation bias is rampant in religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism teaches that if you believe a certain way and do a certain way, your life will be pretty much perfect. Your marriage will be happy, your children will be obedient and successful, your career will flourish, and the problems that plague “the sinners”–poverty, teen pregnancy, addiction, adultery, mental illness, etc.–won’t affect your life.

But as I stated in an earlier post, fundamentalism is the proverbial carrot on a stick. It’s a fantasy. No one gets the luxury of rule-following their way out of life’s problems. Sure, making sound, moral decisions can minimize the trouble you face in life, but there is no formula for perfection. Let me say that again: There is no formula for perfection. Jesus said, “In this world, you shall have trouble” (John 16:33). Jesus overcame that trouble, but overcoming anything requires one to first experience it. You don’t overcome anything through avoidance.

For the past 7 years, Americans have been watching a reality TV show about the Duggars, a fundamentalist Quiverfull family. Some of my Facebook friends have oohed and ahhed at how idyllic their life seems to be. Everyone is always smiling. The kids are sweet and helpful. Jim Bob, the husband, is confident and in control. No one is punching or throwing things. No one is screaming obscenities. No one is stealing the car or sneaking out of the house to attend a wild party. No one is depressed, gay, or addicted. And because we call it a “reality show,” people assume that all this utopia they see on the screen is, in fact, reality.

But it’s not. It’s scripted.

I’m not talking about the producers at TLC giving a script to the Duggars to follow during filming. Nor am I speaking of the creative editing that goes on during production to make certain aspects of the Duggars’ lives seem more than they really are–which I’m sure happens. I’m speaking of their lives being scripted by fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is, first and foremost, a script to follow. It’s a career in acting from which you never take a day off. Fundamentalism teaches people to subvert their reality by putting on a different face. Feeling sad? Smile. Feeling frustrated or angry? Smile and hold your tongue. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t air the dirty laundry. People have to see that this is what an obedient Christian life gets you: a blessed, happy and trouble-free existence. Not happy? Smile until you believe it. Smile until everyone believes it!

I can tell you, from experience, that such acting does not come naturally, even to the most pliant and submissive human being. It has to be ingrained and enforced, and it is done so through fear, shame, anger and coercion. Someone is always policing the borders, prying into your thoughts, assigning rebellious intent to words and attitudes that stray from the approved script. Everyone hears the overt threat of, “Step out of line, and this is what the world will do to you,” but few hear the covert threat of, “Step out of line, and this is what I’ll do to you.” This is the backdrop of the Duggars’ lives. Everyone has an assigned role, and that is that. Are you a young man who wants to cook? Nope, sorry, that’s for the women. Are you a young woman who wants to go to college and have a career? Nope, sorry, that’s for the men. Children in fundamentalism don’t even get to have an opinion that deviates from their parents’ way of thinking. They are told what to think, what to feel, what to want and how to live. They are stripped of all autonomy, desire, and decision-making. The script dictates everything.

Never have I met a happy person in a fundamentalist environment. Never. Not even the men in charge of the production. Everyone is either angry or walking on eggshells. Oh, they may be the most well-dressed, sweetest-smelling, nicest-sounding people you’ve ever seen, but their entire existence is ruled by fear.

And the problem is, all that fear and deprivation and self-denial does nothing to protect people from the world’s evil. Jim Bob and Michelle taught their kids to be extremely modest and reserved and abstinent of all physical affection until marriage, yet their oldest son molested 5 young girls under their roof. It didn’t stop two grown men from sexually assaulting me as a child, either. You’d think that would be enough to shatter the fantasy, but no. There are people out there saying, “Well, if they had just done one thing differently–maybe if they had taught their kids about consent–this wouldn’t have happened.”

But Jim Bob and Michelle will never teach their children about consent, because fundamentalism does not allow for free consent. Consent to the script and to your authority is automatic. You are born consenting to it. If you are a woman, you have no right to refuse anything. Uncovering your knees is consenting to sex. Being too pretty is consenting to sex. Getting married is consenting to sex whenever your authority wants it. You do not get the privilege of saying “yes” and “no” with your mouth. If anything bad is happening to you, it’s because you somehow deviated from the script–and you deserve what you get. This is how fundamentalism keeps its adherents in line. This is how the fantasy exists.

Fans of the Duggars say that they’re just trying to instill godly values in their children. But instilling values requires the one being instilled to make a choice. Free will and assent have to be involved. Otherwise, it’s coercion. It’s brainwashing. The Duggar children do not have a choice in what they say, believe, or do. They are not being instilled with values. They are being handed a script and ordered to follow it. And being in front of the camera with the whole world watching their every move means that the script is doubly enforced. No one dares put a toe out of line…or else.

Fundamentalism creates environments ripe for abuse because fundamentalism itself is inherently abusive.

In short, the entire Duggar family is under bondage. Fundamentalism is spiritual bondage. It is a tool of Satan used to deprive people of peace, joy, and freedom in Christ. Which is why I don’t watch the Duggars’ show. I see nothing entertaining or enlightening in watching people be controlled by fear. I’ve already lived that life and know what happens when the cameras are off and the doors are closed. I know the feelings that lay beneath the smiles. It’s not wholesome. It’s not pretty. It’s not real. 

30 responses to “Fundamentalism and the Duggar Fantasy

  1. Amen.
    My own experiences in Fundie-land were a nightmare. My too-pretty mother having lots of “helpful” men coming by and when they were rejected, we were made to pay because we were the marked “sinners”. My connectedness to God and a true reality based life did not happen until I was 35, and the damages from being an “obedient” wife did not start to heal until I left my abusive husband ten years later. So hard on my children, me and my ex. No one wins in Fundie-land.
    It’s either love or fear, and if there is fear…it’s not love.

  2. Ms. Kelsey – great article and keep writing!

    When I substitute the word “co-dependent” for fundamental (ism, ist) in this article, the picture becomes very clear.

  3. I hadn’t heard of “Duggars” [1] until this story hit the news and had it not been for people like you and elizabethesther, it might have escaped my notice altogether. But I am not at all surprised that the eldest son molested his younger sisters because I know all too well that such actions are not as rare as many would wish them to be. And the family need not be Fundamentalist (or even Christian) to cover up and engage in denialism — “Cousin David wouldn’t do a thing like that. You must have imagined it.”

    [1] I have been called a “Digger” but we prefer the term “Degro”.

  4. “In short, the entire Duggar family is under bondage.” It is so sad, April. Thanks to your post for unearthing the way the enemy works in these families. And I need to add we need to pray for them as well – “to deliver all of us from the evil one,” and to give families like this one ears to hear the truth of Christ and the courage to break the chains.

  5. All of us learn through experience, but perceiving those experiences “as they are” can be very difficult if our own perception mechanisms are warped from birth by religious education.

    I note that the blog author, in the “Conversations with Agnostics” seems to differentiate between her own strong and single-religion beliefs from those of “fundamentalists” on the basis that they are constrained and controlled by their patriarchal men and pastors, yet she still carries on about how Satan, Christ and the Christian God exist.

    She’s on her way, but with a long journey ahead. Someday she’ll gain enough personal strength and insight to realize we just can’t know enough to prescribe behavior for others because My God Says So! Nor can we tell which, if any, gods are real in a world with thousands of prescriptive fairy tales.

    This, too, will bring peace, comfort, and understanding of even more of life.

    Welcome to the Journey. Read Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and The Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. They’ll give you something to think about, and some understanding of how wonderful and mysterious the world, and man, really are.

    Ormond Otvos

  6. I’m personally offended by what you’ve said. You’re putting all fundamentalists into a single category, and that’s simply not the case. I grew up the daughter of a fundamental pastor, and although there were rules when I was growing up, my father allowed my brother and me both to make choices about things like going to the movie theater and what kind of music I listen to when we were old enough to use discernment ourselves. Do I feel trapped in a box or ordered about to a script? No. In fact, I graduated from with a 4-year degree last month. I’m headed to graduate school in the fall, which, according to you, isn’t an option for Fundamentalists. My skirts land above my knee more often than not. Am I consenting to have sex? No, that’s a ridiculous assumption. You’re going down a slippery slope. Do my skirts go halfway up my thigh? Also no. Every time I dress I do so modestly which, even with my Fundamentalist background, I believe I can do while wearing pants or while wearing a skirt that does not cover my knee. It’s not a script I follow – this is life for me, trying to live in a way that pleases God, not people, and my Fundamentalist father is proud of me.
    You probably think that this is just some comment from some Fundamentalist standing up for herself. I’m not – I’m standing up for all Fundamentalists who don’t fall into your little “box.” Will I agree that some so-called Fundamentalists take some things too far? Absolutely. But again, not all Fundamentalists fall into your “standard,” and it’s certainly not fair to generalize them all in such a way. I’m a Fundamentalist, living not by a set of rules, but by the grace of God, which is how He intends me to live, and how, contrary, to your assertion, I can live happily.

    • I’m curious: how does your community define “fundamentalist”? Because in all the instances I’ve encountered, fundamentalism is associated with a highly conservative, rule-based lifestyle.

      • I went to a Bible college that defined two different types of Fundamentalism – religious fundamentalism and cultural fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is the fundamentals of Scripture, those things that if you read the Bible and adhere to what the Bible very clearly teaches, you cannot disagree with. I think you’re primarily dealing with cultural fundamentalism – which tends to be incredibly behavior-based and turned a lot of churches against my school.
        I wholeheartedly agree that those who try to impose their behaviors on others and live by a list of rules, instead of by the grace of God, are wrong although I’m more than happy to change my behavior if you can prove to me directly from Scripture that I am wrong. My family and I both have been hurt by these people, and it’s incredibly easy to become bitter at them. I struggle with it still sometimes.
        I just think it’s important not to lump all of us together and my burden is to still promote unity within the body of Christ, even though we don’t agree on everything.

    • And I would like to clarify, college for women and going to the movies are certainly not options where the Duggar family is concerned. It is their particular brand of fundamentalism that I was addressing.

      • I was glad to read the comments from Debra and I wholeheartedly agree with her. Thanks April for clarifying what brand you are talking about . You are very passionate about your belief but passion can blind us at times and makes us more judgmental. I will have to read more of your post to find out what else you are passionate about,

        • Here’s where I get hung up. We have a distinction between cultural and “biblical” Fundamentalism. (And I’m aware of what fundamentalism typically refers to: belief in what Protestants call the fundamentals of scripture–biblical inerrancy, creation, virgin birth, substitutionary attonement, Christ’s divinity, premillenial dispensationalism, etc.) Yet, people like the Duggars would absolutely insist that they are following biblical, and not cultural, fundamentalism. They would say that first-time obedience, women staying home, spanking children, extreme modesty, unconditional submission to husbands, women excluded from church ministry, no TV, etc., are all concepts clearly outlined by scripture. So where’s the line? How do you know which one is biblical and which is cultural? What’s the difference?

    • What exactly is the reason a skirt would ever be above your knee? If it’s a hot day, a pair of shorts would be both functional and modest. Men wear shorts, so it’s not sexist. Why can’t women wear shorts too? Skirts only distract men sexually, because they are open in the center. Shorts are more covering.

      • I do wear shorts actually, but I can’t wear them to church. A skirt is more formal than shorts and looks much more professional.
        I don’t think you have strong support for the sexual distraction thing. If the skirt is modest, it’s your job to control your thoughts. Wardrobe is not merely the woman’s responsibility – although she does play a role – Men also have to control their minds if there is nothing wrong with what the woman is wearing. Along with that, there’s not much difference between skirts and shorts when a girl is standing, but she does need to be careful how she sits. That’s true about any length skirt.

    • Deborah-

      You use this phrase

      “when we were old enough to use discernment ourselves.”

      My question is this:

      How old were you, and what were you TAUGHT by your authority figures about the nature of the universe, morality and behavior?

      Did you magically discard all that teaching when your attained “discernment”?

      My understanding of human psychology is that confirmation bias is especially powerful about those three things; we sort incoming facts by their agreement with previous beliefs, and discard those that cause discomfort.

      Do you actually think, now, that there’s a Satan (not a metaphorical one, but a real fallen angel or whatever?)

      Do you think non-Christians who reject the gospels are going to hell?

      Do you believe the Christian holy book, as amended into the King James version, is actually the word of god?

      I really don’t care how high your skirt is.

      • I was raised on the Biblical view of the nature of the universe, morality, and behavior. And of course not! I used that teaching in making my decisions in issues such as going to the movies. When I say “discernment,” I’m referring to reaching an age where I can be trusted to make my own decisions under the influence of the Bible and the Holy Spirit. It’s not a mystic idea. It was my parents’ realizing that I was old enough to make my own decisions – my parents giving me more and more responsibility as I got older – the way every parent should.
        Yes, I believe there is a Satan, and yes, I believe that all non-Christians are going to Hell. Like I said, I was raised on the Bible. If the Bible says it, I believe it.
        I believe that the King James Bible is the best English version that we have, but I am not against using other versions necessarily (depending on the version).

  7. Even when I was in a fundamentalist charistmatic church I knew there was something wrong with them. It was clear to me that Michelle and Bob did not raise their kids but shackled down the older kids to raise the younger ones and that seemed obviously dysfunctional. Now that I am out of the fundamentalist church which is objectively a cult, I believe the Duggars too are a cult. Jim Bob is the one that controls information and you see too much uniformity that they are calling unity. If a Duggar girl even wants to be a teacher with a degree from a Christian college she can’t. Her primary role is to raise and home school her younger siblings and then her next role will be childbearer and occasional midwife. Being a stay at home mom is an honor and huge role but it should be a real choice between a couple. It shouldn’t be some fear based work thing.

    I don’t think Josh deserves the scorn and perpetual hate that some are giving but rather the finger should be pointed at the parents and their worldview.

  8. Proceeding from the civil rights axiom that power should not be used to force opinion, especially in the case of children, how do you justify religious education?

    Children are obviously unable to refute even incorrect views, so how do Christians justify loading their beliefs, which could just as easily have been Hindu, Muslim, Jainist, etc, into the kid’s heads, when the kid will then have to painfully (correct term) unload them in order to make up their own mind about the universe, morality, etc, OR just accept them like the color of their skin, or their gender, an accident of birth?

    • I think there’s a difference between coercing someone to adhere to a particular opinion and educating someone in the tenets of one’s religion. Education encourages people to draw their own conclusions. Indoctrination does not.

      The reality is, we all have to unlearn things. History is written by the victors. How much American Exceptionalism is in our history textbooks? How much of that shapes our view of issues like poverty and minority oppression? Turn on the news for 5 minutes and let me know.

      • “there’s a difference between coercing someone to adhere to a particular opinion and educating someone in the tenets of one’s religion.”

        The difference is how broad the religious education is. In public school, religion is taught as a sociological phenomenon, and a wide variety of religious beliefs are addressed, with none being given more emphasis or validity than another. There should also be teaching about why we’re built so faith becomes institutionalized, why we need supernatural beings to mold our behavior. Is it a rational response to fragile emotions when thinking about death? It may be, but that doesn’t require postulation of a god, just a moral structure.

        In church schools, only OUR religion is number one. The rest are treated, if at all, as stumblers after the truth. Maybe they all are. Does the kid know that religion is a choice? Most parents hate the idea.

        Which style do you imply? Do your kids get Islam, Hinduism, etc as equally valid analyses of the universe, morality, behavior? Or does Christianity get special emphasis and validity?

        I think each set of parents, if there are two, wants the kid to believe as they do. I don’t. I want my kid to have a full set of analytic chops by which to navigate this complicated life, and teaching them, first thing, to believe without evidence, seems like binding their feet would seem, a crippling of a natural ability to think rationally, and with a careful regard for evidence evaluation. My kid, of course, is an agnostic who rarely needs to control his behavior by the Ten Commandments, or the Haditch or Torah.

        The Golden Rule long predates the Bible. It’s the true underpinning of social psychology: “augmented tit-for-tat.” No faith required. Hint: it doesn’t mean an eye for an eye OR turn the other cheek.

        We taught him social psychology. The Marines taught him how to defeat the enemy through war. He now knows the difference. Killing techniques are SO useless in forming a society. That’s why Islam is getting a bloody nose, and agnostic kids are multiplying. Rejection of irrationality.

        Frankly, if I were a Christian parent, I’d learn something from those kids.

        But religion makes closed minds. BY DEFINITION.

        • “In public school, religion is taught as a sociological phenomenon, and a wide variety of religious beliefs are addressed, with none being given more emphasis or validity than another.”

          I agree with the first part of that statement, but not the second. The dominant religion is almost always given more depth and emphasis when taught in school. The amount of emphasis will depend on the culture of the area and the beliefs of the teacher.

          Religion has a strong cultural element and we pass it down as such. Being religious often means being a part of a community with similar structure and processes. Of course we want to pass that down. We want our children to share our community. Now, if my child gets older and wants to learn about, say, Buddhism, that will be his choice. There are books and there is Google. He is free to explore and ask questions. (Just FYI, my husband is agnostic.)

          The problem with families like the Duggar’s is that there is no freedom to learn or explore, even as adults. They are only allowed to read books that the parents buy and only allowed access to websites that reinforce what they’re taught. The girls aren’t allowed attend college. They only marry men that have been approved by their father. There is no real assent going on in that environment. Their lives are carefully controlled so that no opposing information ever gets through. That is the difference.

          The choices I hold up for my kid is “believe in Jesus or don’t.” Faith is a choice in my house, but I don’t teach other religions. And at 5 years old, he doesn’t need that many options. All he needs to know right now is that he is loved and has a responsibility to be kind to others. You may think my mind is closed, but I don’t think atheism will make it more open.

        • “The choices I hold up for my kid is “believe in Jesus or don’t.”

          In the light of this discussion, how is that not a closed set of choices? Sounds like an implicit threat of shunning. Of course he’s gonna cave and play Christian. Little kids need a more neutral choice. They always want to be like Mommy and Daddy. But women raise little kids, usually.

          My wife and I have been doing boutique day care for three decades. We don’t push religion and its decisions down their throats, and we don’t take kids who are religiously oppressed. Kids do fine without ideology.

          I don’t see morality as a skygod ideology, but as a pretty easy system to derive from a little cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology and sociology: Dennett, Harris and Dawkins will suffice.


          Faith is a choice in my house, but I don’t teach other religions."

          I've never advocated teaching a religion, just ABOUT religions.

          I would comment, to a child's inquiry, on St Peter's square at Christmas the same way I'd comment on Hindu festivals, or the Mormon choir: it's a group of people who all believe in the same things. If further queried, I'd note that very little of what they have faith in ever comes with proof, and I'd tend to discuss evidentiary belief contrasted with faith, and the problems faith without evidence runs into, and how evidentiary behavior works better in groups.

          You don't seem to make that distinction. Am I wrong? How do you work on faith when evidence works better?

          I'm not talking about psychological comfort, but functioning in a complex large society. Decisions need to be made in cooperation with people, who often want proof, or evidence before they'll cooperate.

          There is no resolution generally available when people just use faith in skygod morality as their guide, because there's no umpire.

          Hindus believe differently than all the others, not on evidence, but because they've been bent that way by their culture. Should we have, instead, a culture of neutrality, or religious wars and wars between people who don't really know why they believe what they do? That's a puppet-like existence, and often a war of all against all, like current Islam. Or Mormons and Baptists or End Timers.

          Ever hear the joke about the guy who's about to jump off a bridge and another guy comes along and asks him why he's doing it? They get to discussing religion and find they're both Christians, but further discussions reveal they're from very slightly different schismatic sects.

          So the second guy tells the first to go ahead and jump.


        • It is a closed set of choices. But I wouldn’t shun my kid if he chose to not believe, just like I don’t shun my husband.

          The mistake most atheists (specifically Dawkins et al) make is that religion is only a moral ideology. It is more than that. It is acceptance and reverence of spiritual things–the idea that man has a soul and can commune with unseen forces. If I merely wanted to “behave” or “get along”, there are laws and humanistic decency. I’m in it for much more than that. I believe I’m a created being fellowshipping with the divine. I feel a resonance within that cannot be satisfactorily be explained (to me) using science and logic. The proof I have is in my own experience. Others can take it or leave it.

          There are many things people believe without hard proof. It’s part of being human.

          I agree, there’s a lot of screwed up stuff that goes on in organized religion. That’s why I write this blog. But I’m not giving up faith yet. And I’m going to teach my kid and let him choose. You are free to disagree.

  9. Hard life for children who are taught fear of hell. I was there. Can’t imagine what parents were thinking putting those children in that position. No one’s life can bear that scrutiny. I lived a life as close to purity as possible when I was a teenager, out of fear and repression, yet I am sure things I said or did could have blown up causing me to feel shame. My uncle attempted to molest me and I felt responsible. I felt guilt for normal sexual feelings. It was a hard way to grow up.