Friday, May 29, 2015

The Duggars' Toxic Christian Fundamentalism

As the Duggar sex molestation scandal continues to go increasingly viral - except on Fox News, of course - more attention is being focused on the cult like religious affiliations of the family.  Some are saying, as in a piece in Salon, that the molestation scandal should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Duggars' fundamentalist religious practices and home school organization that is the center of their practices.  Time and time again we see religious fundamentalists - who in my view suffer from a psychological/mental health illness given their obsession with avoiding independent thought and all things sexual - as the ones who are engaging in illicit sex, child pornography and inappropriate behaviors (an ultra-conservative Tea Party leader was recently arrested on child porn charges).  But back to the Salon piece on the Duggars.  Here are highlights:

Unlike most of the writers covering the Duggar sex scandal, I was raised in Advanced Training Institute (ATI), the fundamentalist Christian organization with which the family is affiliated. Joshua Duggar’s confession of sexually molesting young girls in his family’s home when he was a teenager didn’t surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone with any intimate knowledge about this organization, because ATI’s theological beliefs and practices cultivate an environment where women and children are more vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse.

The Duggars didn’t emerge from a subterranean bunker, though. They’ve been on TV promoting the fundamentalist Christian theology of ATI since their first special in 2004 (“14 Children and Pregnant Again!”). ATI is a Christian homeschool organization that hosts seminars worldwide, provides homeschooling curriculum, and even runs its own paramilitary training center.

[T]hey maintain insular groups and often form churches in which all members are affiliated with ATI and/or follow its basic principles. Referred to as “Gothardism” within fundamentalist Christian circles, the teachings of ATI form an ideological system of practices based on the extremely strict, fundamentalist, and idiosyncratic Biblical interpretations of the organization’s founder, Bill Gothard – a man who, in 2014, stepped down as head of ATI following allegations of sexual misconduct with young girls.

The allegations against “Mr. Gothard” (as he is respectfully and worshipfully referred to by his acolytes) were an open secret among group members for many years. As a friend who worked at ATI headquarters once said to me with a wink: “The prettiest girls are always chosen to work the closest with Mr Gothard.”

ATI’s teachings trickle down into every single part of its members’ lives. This is not just a homeschool curriculum, it is a fully institutionalized religious sect with incredibly strict demands to conformity — rules that, in my experience, more often reflect Gothard’s personal preferences than actual Biblical teachings. Have you ever wondered why every Duggar woman perms her hair? It’s because Gothard taught us that curly hair brings out a woman’s natural beauty. Other ATI beliefs that I learned range from utterly bizarre to downright barbaric . . .

And then there are the beliefs  . . . shared throughout the church’s teachings: the antiquated dress codes (especially for girls and women), the required homeschooling, the prohibition on birth control, the strictly gendered division of labor and the absolute and unquestioned authority of the father within the home.

Women and mothers working outside of the home is absolutely forbidden in ATI no matter what the financial situation of the family. Some women are even required to get permission from their husbands if they want to obtain a driver’s license.

Each child is another notch on Jim Bob’s headboard, walking and talking proofs of his masculine virility. Despite this fascination with Michelle’s fertility, there is a critical question that no one ever seems to be ask on camera: just how fragile is the boundary between the loss of a woman’s reproductive control over her body and the loss of her sexual control over her body? From my experience in the ATI culture, it is very, very slim.

A cornerstone belief of ATI is that God appoints husbands in an “umbrella of authority” over their wives, who are mandated by God to obey their husbands completely. That includes absolute sexual and reproductive submission.  

Like any system of abuse, ATI relies on control to maintain its power, and a critical component of that power is the total indoctrination of its members through its homeschool curriculum. The so-called “Wisdom Booklets” that form the backbone of ATI children’s educations contain more Bible verses than they do information. Particularly lacking, in a religious sect so obsessed with reproduction, is any kind of sex education. This is especially true for young women, who receive very little sex education because the church teaches us that women do not have sex drives. 

Women were taught from a very young age that they are to be submissive in all things: allowing men to open doors for us (even to get out of a car), never initiating conversation with a man and never correcting a man when he was wrong. Essentially, a good ATI woman is sweet, silent, and obedient.

This combination of zero sexual knowledge and deeply-ingrained submissiveness left many young girls in our church especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. As a teenager, I became aware that several of my friends were being molested by their older brothers or fathers.

The only hope of escape for young women was through courtship and marriage to a man, who would attempt to immediately impregnate her and to whom she would then relinquish all sexual control.

I hope this latest religion and sex scandal teaches that religious extremism isn’t entertainment. It is abuse. It is abuse when it is used to manipulate, control and victimize those who are rendered helpless within its confines. We should examine how we allow the most vulnerable members of our society to become prey for power-hungry religious leaders and sexual predators. Yes, the family is to blame. Yes, ATI is to blame. But so are we, for spending the past decade pointing and laughing along.

I remain convinced that raising children in far right fundamentalist homes is a form of child abuse.  The larger public needs to understand that fundamentalism - Christian or Muslim - is a sickness and that the "godly folk" all too often are not the nice, decent people they pretend to be.  

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