With “19 Kids and Counting,” the reality TV star family the Duggars were a spectacle for anyone to watch. But for many evangelicals, the show sometimes felt like looking at yourself in one of those distorted circus mirrors.
On Thursday, one of reality TV’s most enduring household names became embroiled in scandal, with news that Josh Duggar, the eldest of 19, had molested several youths when he was a teenager. For a show built around the concept of a wholesome family, and with Josh a high-level staffer with a prominent social conservative D.C. advocacy group, the news triggered a quick plunge from public grace.
For many evangelicals, however, the revelation felt more personal and complicated. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who reflected an evangelical faith in their lifestyle – from limitless children to homeschooling to a father-dominated home – had always stirred debate about what it means to be a Christian family and to live out your faith. It was as if their extreme family pushed the question even harder.
Now Josh Duggar’s past and the family’s less-functional reality make some wonder if the positive aspects of these evangelical pop culture figures will become suspect.
Craig Detweiler, a filmmaker who teaches about evangelicalism and culture at Pepperdine University, said Thursday’s news may turn the Duggars into “a cautionary tale.” Until now, he said, their image has been “as the ultimate family rooted in homespun Christian values… and now we discover it really is hard to keep up with two kids, let alone 19.”
During the show’s long run, evangelical leaders became more outspoken against abortion and even contraception, and the Duggars forced ethical questions. They included: How many babies is too many? And as evangelical marriages debate gender equality, who in the family makes key decisions?
As the Duggars became huge celebrities and eventually high-profile advocates for politicians including Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, evangelicals debated whether it was crazy to keep looking at them as ideals of modest Christian living.
“I think the big issue about them is whether they’re seen as any type of role model. In broad strokes, some would say: ‘Hey, I love what they’re doing, trusting God, putting priority on family, saying faith is important.’ Another group would say: ‘In no way shape or form do they represent me and my friends because who does this?” said Timothy Muehlhoff, a communications professor at the evangelical Biola University, where he directs their Center for Marriage & Relationships.
When the Duggars first appeared on television in 2008, some evangelicals saw a fringe image of themselves, perhaps something like the experience of Mormons watching the reality show “Sister Wives,” about a polygamous family.
“It appeals to people who are not comfortable with the mainstream culture in America, whether media, gender roles, sexuality or pop culture,” said Larry Eskridge, a historian and longtime observer of evangelicals. “And then people are fascinated with the mechanics: How do you house, feed and clothe that many kids in one household?”
Both shows spotlight extreme subsets of religious groups not used to getting much nuanced attention in pop culture.
“It’s a minority way of approaching life in the United States, but it’s still a considerable minority that’s out there,” he said. “This is where the other America can tune in to see what the heartland or Southerners are doing.”
But the show divided evangelicals as much as it attracted them.
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