Occasional Paper: Howell, “19 and Counting: Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency”

19 and Counting: Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency in Liberal America

Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

Editorial Note – This article was written prior to Josh Duggar’s recent admission to having molested unspecified minors twelve years ago, and also to his resignation from the Family Research Council. Points made herein about liberalism, agency, and coercion, though, have much to contribute to current debates regarding this issue. 

Abstract: TLC’s reality show “19 and Counting” (nee 18 and Counting; nee 17 and Counting) follows the Duggar family and their many children and grandchildren through “everyday life.” Described as “conservative Christians,” the show presents insights into the challenges of managing such a large family as well as extended coverage of the particular beliefs and practices of the family, such as the practice of “courtship,” a kind of arranged marriage, strictly limited physical contact prior to marriage, and the practice of rigid gender roles. While this form of conservative/fundamentalist Christianity fits within the scholarly orbit of what Susan Harding termed the “repugnant cultural other,” this reality show has consistently been one of the most popular TLC shows and generated wide-spread celebrity for the family. In this paper I argue that the network employs discourse of liberal freedom and autonomous moral choice to make the presence of an illiberal community in the midst of the United States acceptable, even attractive, to the wider audience. The audience of this TLC program learns very little about the sociality of this form of religion, even as they are inspired to accept and embrace the cultural others in their midst.

The Duggar family is nothing if not adorable. The 19 children of Michelle and “Jim Bob” (James Robert) Duggar are attractive, funny, and opinionated. The cameras of their TLC reality show, “19 Kids & Counting,” frequently turn to 9 year old Jackson and 8 year old Johanna, who offer their wisdom on everything from which of their older sisters will be the first to marry, to how many “bajillions of people” came to the family’s book signing in Harrisburg, PA, and whether their mother will have another baby. Just as frequently, the episodes feature matriarch Michelle calmly recounting the daily activities of homeschooling her large family, and patriarch Jim Bob often chimes in with the challenges of getting everyone to the airport on time to make their trip to New York, or organized for a mission trip to Central America. As a result of their reality-show fame, the Duggar parents have published two books and regularly appear on daytime shows such as Good Morning America and the Today Show. Now in its seventh season on air, 19 Kids and Counting has proven to be one of TLC’s most popular shows.

Although the extraordinary size of the clan is certainly one key to the show’s popularity, the producers highlight a second, and arguably more intriguing aspect of this family, the unusual theology and cultural practices they embody. In the first season of the show, the family self-described during the introduction as having “conservative values,” referring to the fundamentalist Christianity that is a regular feature of each episode. They are shown praying together, attending church, and visiting Christian conferences. Father Jim Bob makes frequent mention of his conviction against being in debt for any purchase, and it is a staple of the show that it is their faith that motivates their commitment to un-restrained fertility. Mother Michelle is very clear that she cedes authority in the family to her husband and views herself as “under his covering.” A popular story arc followed eldest son Josh through his “courtship,” engagement, and marriage to Anna, a young woman from a “like-minded family.” Their relationship and engagement was overseen, and largely arranged, by their fathers. What is remarkable about the popularity of this show is that this fringe theology is not portrayed, nor largely consumed, as a spectacle of a “repugnant” subculture (Harding 1991), but as a beloved and embraced family. How has a religious expression that seemingly runs counter to wider American views of gender, family, and social mores become a mainstream hit known not as a domestic train wreck but as a more fecund, real world Waltons? This article argues that despite the countercultural fundamentalism and conservative gender norms the family embraces, the show serves, through those who accept and those who critique the family, to reinforce the hegemonic ideology of liberal autonomy.[1]

Like most reality shows, of course, there are aspects to the backstory of which most viewers are likely unaware, as well as more implicit “realities” that are evident, but submerged. In terms of the Duggars’ religious identity, the show does not provide context to the theology animating the Duggars’ choices. The Duggars follow what is known as the “Quiverfull movement” or the “new Patriarchy,” (Joyce 2009). The name comes from Psalm 127: 3-5: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him./ Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth./ Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them” (NIV). Teaching that unrestrained fertility and male authority within marriage is a divine mandate, this movement has a number of key spokespeople, including Mary Pride (The Way Home, 1985), Nancy Campbell (Be Fruitful and Multiply, 2003) and Rich and Jan Hess (A Quiver Full: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, 1990) and, most influentially for the Duggars, Bill Gothard.

The family holds to all the practices supported by Gothard’s theology including refusing to hold debt of any kind, the avoidance of pork, and “courtship,” a form of quasi-arranged marriage. They embrace Gothard’s fundamentalist interpretations of scripture including rigid gender roles reflecting post-war U.S. ideals of the gendered spheres of private/public life, the male breadwinner and the capable homemaker. Gothard, and the Quiverfull movement generally, take this gender ideology further by joining these gender ideals with a prohibition on birth control and radically countercultural views on marriage and sexuality.

The theological context represented by the Duggars has not escaped the notice of all observers, of course. Feminists and Christians of other theological convictions have written to critique the show as reflecting, at best, a fringe theology, and, at worst, a destructive patriarchy. But unlike other TLC shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Sister Wives” (about a fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon family), the audience of “19 Kids & Counting” is not encouraged to view the Duggar family as fundamentally aberrant or, principally, as a foil for the viewing audience (cf:, Freidus 2012.) The Duggars are portrayed as likable and relatable to the viewing audience, and to judge by the many positive blog posts, book signings, and public appearances, it seems to work.

It is this issue of the portrayal of the Duggars, rather than the details of their theology or religious practice, that forms the core of this paper. The Quiverfull movement itself has been explored in a number of venues, sometimes using the Duggars as a prime example of the movement (e.g., Harrison & Rowley 2011; see also Joyce 2009). Given the rigid and hierarchical gender roles at the heart of this movement, most of the published, academic research has been critical, examining how particular biblical passages or theological traditions have been woven together to produce a contemporary patriarchy accepted by thousands of families throughout the world (e.g., Nadar & Potgeiter 2010). The purpose in this article is to explore how the hermeneutics of representation employed by “19 Kids and Counting” has reinforced the hegemonic ideology of liberal autonomy in public life. Specifically, the representation of the Duggars and, by extension, the Quiverfull movement, employs a neoliberal language of freedom and individuality to frame their theological positions as compatible with the wider viewing public. Presented through the language of choice and freedom, the Duggars’ potentially repellant views become, paradoxically, the embodiment of the free liberal democratic ideal. Those viewers who resist the depiction of the family as laudable or even likable first and foremost challenge the show’s assertion that every member of the family is practicing a freely chosen, morally autonomous life, as opposed to suggesting that such views should be suppressed or resisted by society. In this way, “19 Kids and Counting,” and its attendant debates, reinforces the secular public square in which any religion, no matter how illiberal, must conform to the ideals of freedom in a neoliberal public.

The first part of this paper introduces “the Duggars” as a television family. Taken solely from their representation in the show, this is not an exploration of the Duggars’ family life and theology as practiced day to day, but as it is self-consciously presented by particular members of the family and mediated through the representational work of the producers. The next section explores this representation of the Duggars’ religious identity in the context of the Quiverfull movement, particularly the Quiverfull movement as expressed in the writings and teaching of Bill Gothard. Although the Duggars likely draw their theology from sources in addition to Gothard, their books and personal testimony are for sale at the website of the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), the ministry of Gothard, and the convictions they do express on the show map entirely onto the teachings of the IBLP. Finally, through the portrayal of the Duggars on the show, and the framing of their beliefs and practices, the program appeals to a liberal discourse of choice and market freedom, revealing the kind of postsecular discourse (Habermas 2006, Calhoun 2011) in which religion in the public sphere adopts the privatized and liberal framework defining the public square, covering over the hierarchies embraced by those within the religion. Gender and power ideologies at the heart of this theology, and central to the lived religion of the Duggar family, are sublimated to this overarching language of liberalism, allowing the non-fundamentalist viewer to relate to and even embrace the Duggars. Translating their lives into this accepted public ideology of liberal freedom, the family and producers not only make this religious fundamentalism acceptable, the Duggars can be framed as a kind of American ideal of family and faith.

The Daily Lives of the Duggars

The show is largely promoted as the quotidian realities of a big family. The titles of Michelle’s blog entries hosted on the TLC website are mostly general parenting advice such as, “Guiding Your Teen to Adulthood” and “Making Memories at Thanksgiving” (TLC 2013). Michelle often comments on the authenticity of the program, commenting either on camera or in voice over, saying something along the lines of, “People say how much they love the show, but I tell them, it’s not a show; this is our life.” Yet in spite of such claims of unmediated access, and the foregrounding of everyday life in promotional materials, there is no question that the episodes themselves filter and construct a view of the family in which the audience is routinely exposed to the hyper-conservative religious ideology of the family. In pop-up bubbles and voice-overs (and, as seen below, occasionally through entire episodes), the viewer is reminded of such things as “Each Duggar girl is assigned a younger child to care for,” or “We believe it’s important for young ladies to keep their hearts pure.” As the episodes condense days or weeks of the family’s life into a one-hour episode, complete with individual family commentary, the constructed nature of the representation of the Duggar family and their conservative religious identity becomes obvious. In order to position this as part of the liberal public, the construction serves to place their religious ideology as solely a reflection of individual agency and choice.

Most episodes follow a narrative formula such as “Duggars Take a Dip” (2010). The episode tracks several mini-narratives, along with vignettes of family life. This episode opens with Michelle in the nursery, caring for Josie, their youngest, prematurely-born daughter. The camera approaches from behind with a view of Michelle leaning into Josie’s crib, and a wall plaque in the foreground that reads, “As for God, His way is Perfect.” After briefly explaining Michelle’s need for convalescence and Josie’s developmental stage (she is being weaned off supplemental oxygen), the focus moves to an account of Jim Bob taking the children to swim at a friend’s pool. Over a montage of the coordination necessary to get eighteen kids out the door, the viewer gets a very common kind of voice-over from 12-year-old Jason: “Since we have so many kids, it takes us a long time to get ready!”

When they arrive at the pool, we meet Theresa, one of the “like-minded” people with whom the Duggars regularly associate. The pool is owned by Theresa’s mother- and father-in-law who line the Duggar kids up on the edge of the pool to provide a swimming lesson. The boys are wearing short-sleeved wet suits, and the girls are wearing wet-suits, leggings, skirts, and t-shirts. After the lesson, a montage of swimming is accompanied by talking-head interviews and voice-overs of Jason, Jessa and Michelle talking about the swimwear. Jason begins:

Jason: We wear diving suits and the girls wear…wholesome wear.[2]

Michelle: The goal really is to just keep our focus on our countenance. And to not be drawing attention to places that our eyes don’t need to be going.

Jessa: In our family our parents have always taught us that it’s important to be modest, so we’ve chosen to wear modest swimwear. And our modest swimsuits are comfortable.

Michelle: It doesn’t really make any difference to them, and they want to be covered. So it makes it really easy for them to really enjoy swimming.

Heather, the teen daughter of Theresa, is shown throwing Josiah around in the pool. Heather is also wearing a t-shirt over her swimming suit (or wholesome wear.) Josiah says, “Heather Fedosky is very much like her mom. Very funny. She dunked me quite a few times.” “Because,” Joy Anna breaks in, “you were being a rotten boy.” With a wry smile and an elbow to the ribs, we are again brought back to the happy relationships of the family, the smooth inter-gender banter, and a sense that everyone is living the life they chose.

The swimming theme takes up roughly the first third of the episode. The next third follows newly-licensed daughter Jinger taking younger brother Jeremiah to buy a chess set for his birthday, followed by scenes of Jeremiah beating his siblings in multiple games, along with a few other everyday activities, including several of the middle boys cooking a brunch, and one of the older girls, Jill, cooking with the youngest children. The final vignette is devoted to Michelle’s trip to speak at a nearby church seminar on motherhood. Michelle has taken her five oldest daughters (who Jim Bob calls “her credentials”). At one point during the final segment, Michelle gives a voiceover saying, “I want them to be a part of any ladies meeting, because I feel like they can learn what it means to be a godly woman.” The episode ends with a brief montage of the girls posing for pictures with other teen girls from the conference, and groups of women hugging Michelle, while Michelle’s voice over concludes, “I think Moms are open to help from other moms. I figure if they’re there, they’re open to be encouraged.”

The focus on gendered practices appears in numerous episodes, highlighting the unconventional practices and beliefs of the family, but framing them as personal choices without judgment on those who choose otherwise. Although these choices are often explained through a gender essentialism, suggesting the transcendent morality of gender roles, the focus always comes back to the freedom of each person to make such decisions for him or herself.

In the episode “Duggars on Fire,” one of the narratives of the episode is following two of the older teen girls, Jana and Jessa, through their process of putting together a dress-uniform for their roles as volunteer members of the local fire department’s EMT team. The dark-blue suit, for men and women, normally consists of a jacket and slacks. However, as a pop-up bubble informs the viewers, “None of the older Duggar girls have ever worn pants.”

Josh’s wife Anna provides much of the commentary in the episode as she ends up doing much of the work to convert a pair of dress slacks into a skirt. At one point, while the shot moves between images of the Duggar girls shopping and Anna and Josh being interviewed in their living room, Anna comments on the conviction of the Duggar family to wear skirts:

I think the main reason Joshua’s sisters don’t wear pants is just to be feminine and to look like a lady. [At this point a shot of the clerk is interposed as she is saying: “These are unisex; they’re men’s and women’s pants, so…”] I don’t sense a judgmental spirit from them. If someone wears pants, it’s obviously each person’s decision and it’s…I mean, it’s not a really big issue but just for them…. Obviously they would wear the fire suits. You can’t walk into a fire in a skirt. If someone wears pants it’s obviously…

Anna hesitates at this point and Josh interjects:

I think and in business too and even in the fire department you know it’s important for them to keep it just that to where…Their focus is on doing what they’re there for, and nothing else. And when you start, and you’re talking about different things like that, you know you’re drawing interest, especially when it’s a bunch of guys.

Anna: It’s really a way to show they’re different to…men.

In this exchange, like the earlier apologetic for their use of “wholesome wear,” there is a clear reference to the gender essentialism supporting their views, but it is predominantly framed in terms of personal choice and the individual freedom of self-expression and marketplace liberalism. The astute viewer can detect subtle Christian theological language in their account (“a judgmental spirit”), but they do not appeal to theological categories explicitly, quoting scripture or theological teaching, either regarding the wearing of pants or in the affirmation of “wholesome wear.” In this way, the viewer can readily accept the Duggars’ ideology as mere preference rather than moral stricture. As a preference, though perhaps a bit odd, it is harmonious with so-called U.S. middle-class culture. Even when the parents are discussing the behaviors of the children it is often framed as the free choice of the children themselves (“…it doesn’t make any difference to them, and they want to be covered…”) that leads them to accept the convictions of their parents.

Occasionally, the program highlights criticism of the Duggars’ lives by providing an opportunity for the Duggars to address viewers’ questions. Several of these “Ask the Duggars” episodes have aired over the past seasons, with questions ranging from the innocuous (“How much cereal does your family eat every week?”) to the politically challenging (“How can you justify having so many children in a world so overpopulated?”) Through the same combination of voice over, montage, and talking-head interviews, the family accepts these questions good naturedly and directly. In response to the question about overpopulation, for example, Jim Bob responds that overpopulation is “one of the greatest myths” in the contemporary world, noting that the whole population of the world could “fit inside the city limits of Jacksonville.” Yet the real critique of the Duggars continues to come back to the question of freedom and individuality. In their own defense and in the public criticism, the questions from critical viewers return to the notion that the children are not free to make independent decisions as free, autonomous moral agents, as demanded by liberal virtue in the public sphere. For example, one of the viewers posed the question: “Why is it a family rule not to dance?” The first response comes from older daughter Jill, who says, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a rule.” The answer then cuts together statements from Michelle and Jim Bob before returning to Jill.

Michelle: It’s a personal conviction that I have, and I know Jim Bob also has that.

Jim Bob: We try not to shake body parts around to draw attention to our bodies.

Jill: We don’t want to stir up desires different things that cannot be righteously fulfilled, that cannot be…I don’t know, our family has chosen not to dance.

Through the progression from Jill, to Michelle, Jim Bob and back to Jill, the montage suggests that this is a family decision, personal to each member of the family. Of course, the reflective viewer will understand that, like most families, children do not come to “decisions” about their own convictions in the same way their parents do (or did). This is true of families generally, of course. Parents and other adults always take an active role in socialization that strongly shape, if not determine, children’s preferences. In a family such as the Duggars who are all home-schooled by their mother and older siblings, who socialize only with “like minded” friends, and who do not have internet or television in the home, it is easy for some viewers to imagine that the children are not quite so free as the narratives seem to suggest.

“Free Jinger” : The Liberal Critique

 One of the more aggressive anti-Duggar voices comes through a discussion forum (and associated Facebook page) called FreeJinger.org. Jinger, now 18, has long been a fan favorite for her slightly edgy look (she frequently wears black chokers and heavy eye liner) and mildly sarcastic manner (she has been “caught” giving eye rolls during some of her siblings’ on-camera interviews). For the Free Jinger activists, the question around all the children, but particularly Jinger, is the extent to which they are going to “break away” from their parents’ theology, or the degree to which they are suppressing true desires under the guise of conformity to the family’s headship theology, gender roles, and religiously defined standards. In the words of some of these anti-Duggar voices, Jinger represents the “best hope” for one of the Duggar kids to “break away” from the family.

The primary forum for these critics are internet discussion pages, blogs dedicated to critiquing fundamentalist Christianity generally, and snarky entertainment sites featuring contributors who monitor celebrity life.   Here, the Free Jinger participants have made Jinger Duggar a metonym for a phantasmagoria of all their frustrations with conservative religion. That Jinger is imagined to be “enslaved” supports a vision of human freedom rooted in liberal views of civil rights and autonomy. On the celebrity gossip blog “Crushable,” one commentator gushed about Jinger’s declaration that one day she’d like to live in a city as a sign that Jinger was ready to become “a free individual.” The commentator asserts, “But for a second we saw her breaking out of that mode and expressing her desire to be a free individual. It was like watching the classic ‘give us free’ scene from Amistad. But with a girl in an oppressive jean skirt, rather than shackles.” (Maier 2012) An article referencing the same “19 and Counting” episode appeared on another media-watch blog, “RadarOnline.com,” eliciting from one enthusiastic Free Jinger supporter: “I hope she does get away. It is very creepy that all the girls dress alike and wear their hair alike. Girls like individuality. The Duggar girls seem to have none. And mom and dad saying they can’t kiss until they marry? How will that happen if they can’t date? Find a nice town somewhere Jinger and be careful, be safe but make a life for yourself.” (Tereszcuk 2012) On the Free Jinger site itself, in the largest discussion forum called “Quiver Full of Snark,” (343,000+ posts), threads only occasionally address the Duggar family themselves, and are more likely to be diatribes against conservative/fundamentalist religion generally (including Islam), anti-abortion politics, and the opposition of gay rights. Commensurate with a political rhetoric that associates liberal social politics with self-determination, freedom of personal expression, and libertarian sexual ethics, Jinger’s “bondage” to her parent’s authority symbolizes the oppression of religious hierarchy and traditionalist kinship arrangements generally.

The producers themselves do, occasionally, raise the question of individual autonomy, though it typically does so in order to give the Duggars the opportunity to confirm the independent conscience and full information afforded the children, even if their “choices” and beliefs are outside the mainstream. One of these unusual episodes followed the Duggar family to the Creation Museum near Louisville, KY. After chronicling the mundane aspects of traveling together in their coach bus (outfitted with sleeping berths, a bathroom, and small kitchenette), the family arrived at the museum to be met by Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, a conservative Christian organization promoting literal six-day, young earth creationism (cf:, Numbers 2006). After showing the family touring the museum featuring dioramas of dinosaurs and humans inhabiting the pre-flood Garden of Eden together, the producers interview several of the children about their experience. Josiah, then age 13, is asked by the producers, “Do you ever wonder if your parents are censoring…? Do you know what ‘censoring’ means? [“like taking out?”] Yeah, do you ever wonder if your parents are trying to not let you see the other side of things?” He begins to answer: “I don’t think our parents are trying to not let us see the rest of, you know, the world…” His response is cut off as the producers switch to short interview segments from older siblings John David, Jill, Jessa and Jana giving their conviction that the creation museum’s portrayal of so-called creation science is superior to evolutionary explanations.

Jill: I think the world, definitely, is as the Bible says, 6,000 years old…

John David: It’s pretty obvious once you start looking into it what really would be, you know, more factual.

Jessa: It’s actually, you know, more scientifically proven than billions of years old. God had everything planned whenever he created the world in six days. The Bible clearly displays all that.

Jana: Some things that they say in evolution make sense, but then if you read in the Bible you can…it lines up to where its not, you know, its not correct; it’s totally different.

The camera then turns on new voices in a “man on the street”-style video in which four people (three men and one woman) who are not part of the show’s cast respond to questions such as “Do you believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?” and “Did dinosaurs and humans live together?” There are no context clues to place these individuals in relation to the Creation Museum or the Duggar family, but their answers are juxtaposed with images of the family touring the museum. All four of these random interview subjects reject the young age of the earth, and three of the four correctly give the answer that dinosaurs and humans were not contemporaries. The final interview clip suggests that the man is not quite sure if dinosaurs and humans co-existed, but he has his doubts (perhaps stoked by the nature of the interview and questions.) His answer, which the producers select as the final word left with the viewer, returns to a theme of liberal tolerance if not freedom. “I don’t know if dinosaurs and humans were kickin’ it back then,” the 30-something man responds. “How about to each his own?”

The segment is admittedly ambiguous, as the montage of the family in the museum accompanied by the anti-creationist views of the non-Duggars could be read as an ironic indictment of Josiah’s conviction that his parents are not, in fact, concealing the world from the kids. What is not ambiguous is the revelation by the producers that they’re not against highlighting the conflicts between the unusual beliefs of the Duggar family and the wider society, but with the final statement – “To each his own” – they lead the viewer to accept the notion that the children’s views are gained in essentially the same way as their parents (rather than primarily from their parents), along with suggesting that these differences should be simply tolerated as quirky views. The central problematic, for the critics and the producers, is not the religiously based hierarchies or kinship structures themsevles, but the question of how “free” the members of the family (i.e., the children) really are.

The Duggars and Quiverfull Theology

The theological support for their lives comes from a general movement known as the “Quiverfull movement.” The Duggars follow the teachings of a particular member of this movement, Bill Gothard. Gothard, a controversial figure in the Christian world, is known for his conservative views on gender, marriage, and popular culture. He has drawn sharp criticism from inside and outside Christian circles over his un-conventional interpretation of scripture, secrecy, and sex, even while building a multimillion-dollar publishing empire and massive following (cf:, Veinot 2003, also Joyce 2009). Emphasizing a patriarchal family structure as the “biblical family,” Gothard preaches the importance of dating and marriage as approved and overseen by fathers, the importance of living a completely debt-free life (including mortgage or student debt), the centrality of childbirth for a woman’s life (obviating the use of birth control in any way), the avoidance of pork, and strict gender roles in dress, behavior and family life.

From his official web site, Gothard’s theology is described as being rooted in the Bible and his ministry experience

After 15 years of working with inner-city gangs, church youth groups, high school clubs, youth camps, and families in crisis, Bill wrote his master’s thesis on a youth program that eventually led to seven Biblical, non-optional principles of life which, when followed, will result in harmonious relationships in all areas of life.[3]

The seven “Biblical (sic), non-optional principles” are described under the headings of Design, Authority, Responsibility, Suffering, Ownership, Freedom, and Success. These are each developed according to verses and theological statements drawn from the Bible. While several of these might seem to fit a “civil religion” model of Christianity (e.g., Bellah et al, 1985), the teachings of Gothard all run contrary to liberal notions of negative freedom typical of U.S. political philosophy.[4] For example, the principle of “freedom” is explained in the following paragraph:

A young person who loses his or her virtue is robbed of a power that God uses to produce spiritual initiative, creativity, wisdom, and understanding. For this reason, there are warnings throughout Scripture for young people to flee youthful lusts and to keep themselves pure for the Lord and for the one they marry. No principle could be needed more urgently in our day, when lust and perversion are taking multitudes of young people captive in sexual addictions that destroy the very foundations of life, health, riches, and happiness. Moral freedom is not the right to do what we want, but the power to do what we ought, and that is the goal and message of this principle (emphasis added.)

While this runs counter to the prevailing negative freedom of U.S. life and thought, it is not outside the liberal view of the autonomous moral agent. It is this positive freedom, some could argue, that compels the Duggar family to wear “wholesome wear” in order that their eyes would not go where “eyes don’t need to be going.”

But Gothard’s theology is not simply built on the freedom to choose moral rightness for independent moral agents. Gothard began his international ministry through the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. With little more than a collection of simple sketches and a fairly dry outline of advice, Gothard built a speaking juggernaut that was filling 10,000 person arenas in the 1970s and 1980s (Veinot et al, 2002). In particular, he focused on the importance of a “dating” life organized around the principle of male authority, particularly the authority of fathers, and the centrality of marriage as the context or goal of all romantic relationships. Although he does not explicitly call for arranged marriages (he allows for the possibility of young people being the initiators of a relationship), the practice of initiating a marriage is built on the wisdom and authority of fathers to approve a relationship very early in the dating (or “courtship”) process (Gothard 1981).

This submission to hierarchy goes beyond a positive understanding of freedom to establish a hierarchy of value, in which fathers, and to a lesser extent mothers, have a divine right and duty to control the choices of children. These hierarchies of value directly contradict liberal notions of freedom. An inability to reconcile accounts of freedom, which necessitate the defense of a public square free of interference on individual conscience, and universal commitments to morally transcendent hierarchies, creates crisis in the public square, often leading to the exclusion or persecution of religion.

Keep in mind, hierarchical authority is the normal state of affairs in most families, at least up to a point. Most TLC viewers would likely be comfortable with any family having parental control of matters relating to young children, issues of education, value formation, and the like. On the other hand, choices about marriage/sexual partners, clothing, music, and use of leisure time are generally thought to be areas of personal (i.e., negative) freedom beyond authority. In the now-classic sociological study Habit of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his co-authors (1985) quoted a Gallup poll that 80 percent of U.S. Americans agreed with the statement that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” In the political sphere, as well, the role of religious language and values are frequently characterized as illegitimate bases on which to build political opinion, social policy, or public discourse.

While the Duggars are not advancing a political agenda per se, their presence in a public setting sets up a potential conflict between the vision of a social ethic enforced by authority as seen in the theology of Bill Gothard, and the liberal notions of individual autonomy, in which free moral agents exercise choice, particularly over the most intimate, embodied aspects of life, such as sexual morality, family planning, and gender identity. As Charles Hirschkind has argued, “As for religion, to the extent that [religious] institutions enabling the cultivation of religious virtue have become subsumed within (and transformed by) the legal and administrative structures linked to the state, then the (traditional) project of preserving those virtues will necessarily be political if it is to succeed” (Hirschkind 1997 as quoted in Mahmood 2005: 193). For the producers of TLC, and even for the Duggar family themselves, they have chosen to engage the political through the language of individual freedom and moral, autonomous choice; what makes their admittedly odd, even potentially offensive, theology acceptable in the public sphere is the suggestion that each family member, including the youngest children, are presented as making a free moral choice in response to personal will and desire, rather than external authority. While some clearly doubt the legitimacy of that claim, it is on this ground that the acceptance or rejection of the Duggars seems to turn, and the key discursive strategy of the producers in making the Duggars a sympathetic, perhaps even enviable, family.

Freedom and Agency in Submission

What emerge from this tension – are the Duggar children freely choosing their lives, or are they imprisoned in a system imposed by tyrannical parents? – are questions about the relevance or legitimacy of the cultural framing imposed by TLC. In a number of innovative studies of contemporary religious movements emphasizing gendered hierarchies, women’s submission and rigid gender roles are being re-theorized away from a liberal-illiberal dichotomy, suggesting that the women embracing these systems are generating “a variety of substantial yet flexible meanings through which they experience some degree of control, however limited it may often appear” (Griffith 1997: 183). In other words, for women in the Quiverfull movement, including the Duggars, there may be a different matrix of choice that is not best understood in terms of liberal dichotomies of oppression and resistance.

In her examination of a fundamentalist Islamic women’s movement in Egypt, Saba Mahmood (2005) also makes this argument. She suggests that feminist analysis rooted in liberal notions of freedom cannot make sense of the agency involved in forming these Islamic subjects.

How do we conceive of individual freedom in a context where the distinction between the subject’s own desires and socially prescribed performances cannot be easily presumed, and where submission to certain forms of (external) authority is a condition for achieving the subject’s potentiality? In other words, how does one make the question of politics integral to the analysis of the architecture of the self? (2005: 31)

Mahmood’s answer to these questions is a subtle ethnographic exploration of religious debates, embodied gender practices, and kinship within these Muslim families by which Muslim women learn a habitus in which the self is formed in relationship with others, to authority and hierarchy, and as a political action outside liberalism.

In her analysis of the North American female submission movement “Women Aglow,” R. Marie Griffith (1997) works more comfortably within a liberal framework of choice and freedom, yet also comes to a position complicating categories of oppression or resistance. Throughout her two years of intense fieldwork, she uncovered a complex and nuanced range of meanings the women constructed from and within this seemingly sexist movement. In the end she remains unconvinced that by embracing “God’s design” in marriage, the women of the Aglow movement are not likely losing more than they gain, yet she also recognizes that “the hope created within that context may well have greater significance than any outsider can fathom; so the women themselves have told me, again and again” (1997: 213). It may be that this greater significance can only be understood, not simply from the inside, but from a vantage that does not start with a liberal subject as the only unit of agency and analysis.

TLC provides no such space for questioning the appropriateness of individual freedom as the metric by which the Duggars are to be judged. Mahmood notes that her study explicitly does not explore the hermeneutics of agency (2005:122). As a product of reality television, the reality-show version of the Duggars are only subject to the hermeneutics of agency, in this case drawn exclusively from a liberal frame. That is, while TLC, the Duggars’ fans, the Duggars’ detractors, and even the Duggars themselves, wrestle over the degree to which their views can be framed within liberal notions of positive or negative freedom for the acting subject, the possibility of religious agency outside the categories of liberal freedom remains unspoken and unexamined. “19 and Counting,” like the fundamentalist Baptists of Susan Harding’s (1991, 2001) work in the 1990s, becomes a prism through which various interested parties imagine and project their own understandings of the liberal ideal and public religion.

Conclusion: Religion in Liberal America

In his argument for the “postsecular” conception of the contemporary public sphere, Jurgan Habermas (2006) suggests that the religious person is now required to consider his or her own faith reflexively, translating it from a sectarian discourse into the language of a secular public (cf. Calhoun 2011). TLC accomplished this postsecular turn through its presentation of the Duggars as 19 independent moral agents voluntarily embracing the American virtues of freedom of conscience. The difficulty (if not impossibility) of imagining the children in terms of moral agency leads critics to suspect the testimony of the older Duggers as coerced, insincere, or as a form of oppression on the part of the parents. (The Free Jinger sites are replete with speculation as to which of the children are really “drinking the Kool-Aid.”) But as the family itself is placed in the position of advocating for an understanding of their lives as the collection of freely chosen preferences, made in the presence of the wider world of choices, they complete the circle in which everyone exists only within the arena of the modern liberal subject.

On the official TLC Facebook page for 19 Kids & Counting (760,000+ “likes”), the page is loaded with comments expressing how “inspired” and “moved” viewers are by the morals and family bonds of the Duggars. The occasional snarky or critical piece there mostly reflects the idea that the children are being “exploited” or “used” against their will. But even as the debate goes on, it is clear that the terms of the debate are settled. In the U.S. public media, and its attendant political sphere, media producers such as TLC and the viewing public collude to put forward the position that the theology and public religion of the Duggars, or anyone, should only be acceptable as the free choice of a liberal agent. Debating the rightness or wrongness of any theological position becomes secondary, if not off-limits, while the real question concerns the degree to which those practicing the faith chose to do so and are free to leave. Oppression is only and ever defined as coercion. Anything else would be, almost literally, unthinkable.

References Cited

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[1] Research on U.S. American attitudes towards gender roles and marriage (consistent themes of the show), reveal Americans’ divergence from the practices and beliefs of the Duggar family (see Medora et al., 2002;

[2] The term “wholesome wear” is not their own, but is the trade name of the company producing the swimwear. See www.wholesomewear.com

[3] http://billgothard.com/about/bio/

[4] There is a great deal of literature about the nature of freedom/liberty in U.S. political thought and life. A good introduction to this discussion can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012). Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/liberty-positive-negative/>