Shiny Happy People: What the Duggar documentary tells us about post-Christian America

By Jonathon Van Maren

As the culture wars intensify and the West moves from post-Christian to anti-Christian (Aaron Renn refers to this as “negative world”), orthodox Christians find themselves increasingly under scrutiny by secular forces seeking to demonize and discredit them. The storytellers of the mainstream media and the entertainment world are eager to expose Christians as hypocrites, bigots, and dangerous to democracy. Christian leaders have warned for decades that the day is coming when Christians could face persecution for their beliefs and social scorn for defending biblical truth.

It is true that Christians are now being targeted for their beliefs—just think of Jack Phillips, the baker who has been trudging wearily through the court system for years as LGBT activists bring lawsuit after lawsuit against him for declining to use his artistic skills to celebrate their lifestyles. I could list hundreds of other stories like this. But it is a mistake for Christians to assume that they will be primarily targeted for being Christian. In many cases, Christians are being targeted for not being Christian enough—for not living up to their own values. To put it in spiritual terms, Satan is far too clever to attack the churches where they are strongest.

The clearest examples of this are the scandals which have wracked nearly every denomination over the past decades, the most recent of which is the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuse cases. It is true that secular reporters are often particularly motivated to find wrongdoing in Christian churches, institutions, and parachurch ministries—but when they find it, it would be farcical to claim that this is “persecution.” If scandals are not dealt with internally, they will be dealt with externally. It should be clear by now that coverups are the greatest blow to the credibility of churches and institutions.

Thus, we are seeing an entire genre of documentaries and podcasts scrutinizing Christian institutions. The Netflix documentary Pray Away, for example, looked at the loosely defined practice of so-called “conversion therapy,” exposing extremely questionable methods used by organizations such as Exodus International as a way of condemning biblical teaching on sexuality. (As Sam Alberry, author of Is God Anti-Gay? and other books, put it: “I want Exodus International to receive the blame for the folding of Exodus International, I don’t want biblical Christianity to receive the blame. I don’t think Exodus International was expressing biblical Christianity.”)

Films of this genre are often difficult for those with a culture war mindset to process. The potent mixture of legitimate criticism and the unsubtle demonization of Christianity in generally can provoke the primary instinct to dismiss criticism out of hand or worse, play down the abuses described. We should recognize this as a trap, and we should not fall into it. When we defend the indefensible, we become who they say we are. The Sexual Revolution created an unprecedented period of upheaval across the West, and the response of Christians to these conditions are obviously not above criticism.

It is important to recognize that we can—and must—have honest discussions about mistakes that were made while recognizing the unique historical conditions in which they were made. Some scandals were perpetrated by genuine abusers or bad faith actors; other mistakes were made by those reacting in good faith to a rapidly changing culture.

That brings me to the latest documentary series focused on exposing Christian malpractice: Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets. The series, released on Amazon Prime, tells several intertwining stories. The primary story is that of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting (the title changed as children were added, from 17 to 18 to 19), which followed the lives of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their enormous brood of children for seven years. The show was wildly popular, reaching millions of viewers per episode. The Duggars are independent Baptists, and despite being opposed to TV, Jim Bob called their show a “ministry.” The show was suspended in 2015 when it was revealed that the eldest Duggar son, Josh, had molested five girls in 2002 and 2003, including several of his sisters. A spin-off show focusing on several of the adult Duggar children, Counting On, was cancelled in 2021 when Josh was arrested on horrifying child pornography charges. He was subsequently sentenced to twelve years in federal prison.

In my view, this part of Shiny Happy People needs little nuance. Jim Bob Duggar chose to put his family in a reality television show and expose their lives to millions of people knowing full well that several of his daughters had been victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by his oldest son. This decision simply boggles the mind. When the show accrued millions of fans, it was inevitable that this information was going to become public and that his daughters would be forced to grapple with their abuse on TV—and that his children were going to lose the ability to choose if or when to tell their stories. Additionally, Jim Bob’s claim that the family “hardly noticed” the cameras is obviously laughable. The camera always shapes what it is pointed at. Jim Bob knew that better than most.

In summation: The Duggar family secrets were not exposed by Shiny Happy People. They were exposed by Jim Bob Duggar. This is not an analysis of his motives, which I cannot possibly be party to. It is an analysis of his decision.

The second storyline of the series is an exposé of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a “nondenominational Christian organization” run by Bill Gothard which focused on providing seminars on Christian living. Gothard was forced out of the IBLP empire, which included campuses across America and worldwide, after his own board concluded that allegations of sexual misconduct were grounded (they stated that he had acted “inappropriately” but “not criminally,” which some survivors contest). Shiny Happy People features interviews with several people who testified to physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at IBLP courses, as well as some of the disturbing teachings on discipline. Gothard himself is clearly a weird, disturbing, abusive man enabled by a lack of accountability. The hook in Shiny Happy People is that the Duggars were deeply involved in the IBLP and did much to promote it.

The third storyline in the series is one that permeates nearly every film of this genre: Christian influence on politics and public life is deeply sinister not just because there are scandals in some institutions and churches, but because the fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christianity are dangerous. Thus, just as Pray Away did not simply focus on problematic practices but the biblical view of sexuality as a whole, Shiny Happy People attempts to use the cautionary tale of the Duggars and the scandals of the IBLP to condemn the entire Christian homeschooling community; to present Christians who have concerns with the moral corruption permeating public education as bigots or paranoiacs; and to portray the pro-life movement as a vanguard of misogynist patriarchy. Shiny Happy People tells the truth about several Christian scandals in part to fire a broadside against Christianity in general.

An honest attempt to tell this story would ask why so many Christian parents considered (or are considering) homeschooling in the first place (many from the homeschooling community have noted, in the wake of the series’ release, that they had never heard of IBLP). Unfortunately, opposition to almost any aspect of the Sexual Revolution is written off as unfounded or hateful; the prevailing progressive narrative is that homeschooling began primarily in response to school integration in order to paint the entire movement as racist. Shiny Happy People suffers from the same fundamental flaw as Kristin Kobes du Mez’ bestseller Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation: palpable contempt for the subjects. Du Mez, unsurprisingly, is featured in the series. It is presented as unfathomable that parents might have genuine, sincere concerns about public education, or the rights of the pre-born, or the secularization of the culture. No, Christians with these concerns must be sinister, or stupid.

The key takeaway from Shiny Happy People is that scandals and a lack of accountability within Christian institutions, movements, or churches will be exposed sooner or later. Many Christians are willing to accept persecution for their deeply held beliefs; to be pilloried for genuine scandals and moral failures is much more difficult. The media and entertainment world are increasingly hostile to Christianity and thus deeply motivated to uncover Christian scandals and malpractice, and we should expect to see more of these stories in the years to come. Many of them will be true, and they will be used to undermine moral principles already under fierce attack. It is true that the motivation of those telling these stories is often sinister. It is also true that if Christian institutions decline to hold their own accountable, their secular opponents will be happy to do the job.

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