Not So Pure

So here’s the sad/bad/mad news story of the day (per Politico‘s Nick Gass):

Josh Duggar, the reality TV star and conservative activist, resigned from his position at the Family Research Council on Thursday after reports surfaced that he had molested underage girls as a teenager. The 27-year-old is the oldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, whose family is the subject of the TLC show “19 Kids and Counting.”

This led to the understatement of the month:

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, where Duggar was a lobbyist, confirmed the resignation in a statement: “Josh believes that the situation will make it difficult to be effective in his current work.”

You have to wonder if Duggar’s situation distracted Perkins from his regularly scheduled efforts to force presidential candidates to kiss his ring.

But seriously, and without making light of Duggar’s apparent teenage disorder and his victims, this is kind of a Waterloo for a major Christian conservative politico-cultural franchise. Nobody understands it better than Religion Dispatch‘s Sarah Posner, so I’ll turn to her for commentary:

In their own statement to People, Jim Bob and Michelle say that “when Josh was a young teenager, he made some very bad mistakes, and we were shocked. We had tried to teach him right from wrong,” that “each one of our family members drew closer to God,” and that they “pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family.”

But the Duggars and their supporters have very deliberately marketed them as a perfect family—or if not perfect, at least pure, and in particular, sexually pure.

The first episode of their “reality” television show aired in 2008, two years after the police interviewed family members about the sexual assaults that had taken place in 2002 and 2003; the statute of limitations had already run and the police could not pursue charges.

In 2010, the Family Research Council, Josh’s future employer, gave Jim Bob and Michelle the “Pro-Family Entertainment” award, describing the family as “outspoken ambassadors for Christian values in a secular world.”

On their television program in 2009, Josh Duggar was portrayed as devoting himself to a “courtship” with his future wife Anna, rather than dating, which was derided as part of the “divorce culture….”

This week, a recap of their television show on their blog discussed how Jim Bob and Michelle “encourage their kids to take a chaperone along on all their dates so they have someone to keep them accountable and ensure that they stick to their courtship standards.” In their family, they police sex outside of marriage. In politics they police sex between consenting adults, sex between people of the same sex; they are “pure” and “godly” because they police and condemn other people’s sexual lives. But now the public knows that this family which enforces “purity” has covered up the sexual predations—against children, even their own children— of their star son.

Sometimes the regular drumbeat of perp walks and sexual scandals involving televangelists or Christian Right ministers can make this sort of event seem hum-ho. But Posner believes this one is different:

The Duggars are no ordinary spokespeople for the religious right; they are super-spokespeople. For years, they have been held up as exemplars of biblical living, of devotion to Christ, and of, especially, homespun honest living and sexual purity. It’s long been obvious to many that this is a product of marketing and packaging, not reality. But now no one can pretend anymore.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.