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Shiny Happy People is both true and false

Documentary exposes horrors but suggests they are representative of evangelical Christianity

The Duggar family visits mother Michelle and newborn Jennifer in Rogers, Ark., on Aug. 2, 2007. Associated Press/Photo by Beth Hall

<em>Shiny Happy People</em> is both true and false
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A new documentary series exposes the toxic ideology behind a branch of American fundamentalism and the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), both associated with the Duggar family, famous for their TV show, 19 Kids and Counting. 

The four-part series includes extensive interviews with Jill Duggar, the fourth oldest child, and focuses heavily on the molestation and pornography charges against oldest child Josh Duggar, currently serving 12 years in prison. 

The series details the abuse, hypocrisy, and manipulation of a Christian movement gone horribly astray at the behest of its fallen leader, Bill Gothard, and viewers see the Duggar family in a tragic, new light. 

While the series credibly exposes these horrors, it simultaneously conflates legitimate aspects of evangelical Christianity with the misguided systems of the IBLP and ultimately heads toward faith deconstruction. 

Deconstruction often results among Christians not discipled in personal discernment, and who are thus easily manipulated to believe that what they experienced in their understanding of Christianity is the norm. This was certainly the case within the IBLP. When people emerge from the strictures of fundamentalism, they often think everything they knew was a lie. Thus, even the good parts of faith are severed. 

In Shiny Happy People, notions of Biblical submission, pro-life advocacy, and Christian homeschooling are portrayed as intrinsically toxic. Viewers could easily walk away believing that a Biblical worldview inherently leads to misogyny, violence, and abuse. 

But it was not the worldview or the submission or the homeschooling that was the problem with the IBLP. It was the faulty interpretation of Scripture wedded to a dangerous legalism. 

Such messaging feeds directly into the story of Josh Duggar. In the film, we learn that the allegations against Josh—who molested four of his younger sisters and a family friend—occurred before the family got a TV deal. His parents covered it up, reasoning such sins were better dealt with in the home. Josh was sent away, but was soon brought back to live with his victims after he was “needed” on the show. His charismatic personality stole the screen, portraying him as a budding Christian leader. 

Like most dangerous religious movements, there are foundational elements of truth at the heart of its teaching.

His sisters, on the other hand, were learning their place. Here, women don’t get an education, and they exist to produce batches of babies, per the so-called “Quiverfull” ideology. While the public saw a happy, well-behaved brood of Christian homeschoolers, there was money, power, and coercion operating behind the scenes. 

Jill Duggar revealed that for seven years of her adult life, she participated in the family’s TV show without receiving payment. According to the documentary, Jim Bob collected all the family’s income, never distributing earnings to family members. 

After 19 Kids & Counting ended, Jill was coerced into participating in the spinoff show, Jill and Jessa Counting On. She also felt forced to allow cameras into the delivery room for her first baby. To resist, she had reasoned, would be to disrespect her parents. After the episode aired, Jill asked TLC for compensation and was denied, as all payment went to Jim Bob. 

If all this is true, extreme patriarchy is a feature of this pattern, not a bug. Clips from IBLP conventions show seminars for women on discipline, modesty, and gender roles. Disciplining children, modesty, and gender roles are appropriate things for Christians to discuss, but it’s doubtlessly the case that the Gothard approach took things too far. A woman admits she struggled to submit to her husband’s request that she only wear skirts, for example.

For all the harm he created, Gothard was ultimately accused of being a fraud. In 2014, more than 30 women accused him of sexual harassment, some of whom filed a lawsuit saying he had touched them inappropriately. He also never married or had children, though those were cornerstone pieces of his teaching. 

Like most dangerous religious movements, there are foundational elements of truth at the heart of its teaching. As such, Christian parents could feel targeted watching the film because it demonizes homeschooling and mocks those who believe in large family life. 

Many of those interviewed give the impression they’ve left the Christian faith, though no one says so explicitly. Near the end, one man implores viewers that they can trust themselves to know what’s true. Another tells IBLP defectors that “the universe catches you” when you leave. Such phrasing sounds dangerously secular and dependent on flawed human nature. These victims went from trusting a false leader to trusting themselves, without ever stopping to trust the one, true God. 

Thankfully, some of the Duggar children have escaped the ideology with their faith intact. Specifically, Jinger Duggar’s recently released biography details her exit from IBLP and entrance into a solid Reformed church. Jinger has said she did not “deconstruct” her faith, but rather, “disentangled” it from the poisonous bits. 

Despite Satan’s best attempts, it appears that the Duggar kids learned enough about God’s true nature to recognize Him in the ashes of IBLP’s destruction. That’s not mentioned in the docuseries, but it might be the most important part of the whole story.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.

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