Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar have put many years and a lot of work into putting a smiling, nearly normal-seeming face on the extreme Christian right. The couple adheres to a fringe strain of fundamentalist Christianity dubbed the “Christian patriarchy” or sometimes the “Quiverfull” movement, and while there is a lot of internal diversity to the movement, they generally preach a combination of beliefs that run counter to mainstream America: absolute female submission, a ban on dating, homeschooling, a rejection of higher education for women, and shunning of contraception in favor of trying to have as many children as humanly possible. The movement is controversial even within Christian right circles, but the Duggars have tried to counter that with their popular reality TV show 19 Kids & Counting, where they present themselves as a wholesome everyday family that just happens to be a little more fecund and conservative than average.
The strategy has been surprisingly effective, with Michelle Duggar being able to act like she’s just like any other reality TV star, giving sex tips and sharing recipes. Jim Bob has also been able to turn their fame into an opportunity to get political power, chumming around with presidential candidates and speaking at more mainstream conservative events. While many in the Christian right are still skeptical of Biblical patriarchy’s extremism, this charm offensive has clearly softened up resistance and is giving this fringe an ability to throw their political weight around. The fact that Republicans have started to step up the anti-contraception rhetoric lately appears, in part, to be the result of this tiny group of extremists Christians putting a smiley face on absolutist anti-contraception sentiments.
But right as the Duggars are beginning to cash in on all this hard propaganda work, it seems the world they come from—the tiny but growing world of strict Biblical patriarchy—is in real danger of collapsing. While adherents to this form of Christianity, like the Duggars, like to paint an uber-wholesome face on their families and beliefs, ugly truths are finally starting to leak out regarding the problems of infidelity and alleged sexual abuse in the community.
The latest scandal is a doozy. Back in November 2013, Doug Phillips, who, in his capacity as the president of Vision Forum Ministries, is probably the most important leader in the world of Biblical patriarchy, confessed to cheating on his wife and resigned as president of his ministry. “I engaged in a lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman,” he wrote. “While we did not ‘know’ each other in a Biblical sense, it was nevertheless inappropriately romantic and affectionate.” Shortly after his confession, Vision Forum Ministries closed up shop, unable to continue with the stink of sex scandal upon them.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Phillips in the small world of extreme fundamentalists. His father is one of the most critical founding fathers of the Christian right movement generally, and Doug extended his work by largely building this culture of the far Christian right as we know it, especially if you watch 19 Kids & Counting. The Duggar family are friends and acolytes of Phillips, and Vision Forum, in turn, has used Michelle Duggar in their efforts to demonize contraception, including giving her an award for “Mother of the Year” for having so many children.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that there may be more to this entire scandal than the typical minister-caught-cheating story. The woman with whom Phillips confessed to an “inappropriate” relationship, named Lourdes Torres-Manteufel, filed suit in Bexar County, Texas, accusing the powerful Christian right leader of pushing her into a multi-year abusive relationship that allegedly featured frequent sexual assault. While the complaint never mentions sexual intercourse, it does claim that he repeatedly groped and masturbated on her while she protested. The plaintiff alleges she was basically moved into Phillips’ house with his wife and children, taken on many family vacations, and given work as a caretaker for the family, all while secretly being bullied into sexual encounters without consent. She even claims that Phillips told her that they would marry soon, as he believed that his wife was about to die.
Torres-Manteufel’s lawyer provided me with a copy of the complaint. It is searing in its criticisms of Doug Phillips. “Phillips’s patriarchal movement teaches that men are, and should be, in the absolute control of women,” reads the complaint, claiming that Torres-Manteufel was therefore bullied into believing she had no choice but to submit to Phillips’ alleged sexual abuse, even though she feared it made her “damaged goods.”
“In other words, women within this movement are perceived to exist only for the end-goals communicated by the male leaders that perceive themselves as the ‘patriarchs’ of this world,” the lawsuit reads. The conclusion is that a woman who truly believed this—whose boss, mentor, and father figure taught her that total submission was her duty in life—was not able to effectively plot an escape from a sexually coercive relationship.
Torres-Manteufel’s lawyer, David C. Gibbs, is a light of the Christian right himself, having worked for Terri Schiavo’s parents, and most of the initial coverage was handled by the Christian right media rather than the secular media—suggesting that the Christian right itself is ready to boot a leader whose behavior has made him a liability.
Phillips has not publicly responded to the lawsuit but several weeks ago, when rumors of the suit began to circle, his attorney called Torres-Manteufel’s legal claims “false, defamatory and made with malicious intent,” according to The Christian Post.
Unsurprisingly, Phillips himself seems to be spiraling out of control. The Christian Post reports that Phillips’ lawyer has been sending out letters to former employees, accusing them of trying to destroy him and Vision Forum Ministries. Even though Phillips did confess to an inappropriate relationship, he has also signaled that he intends to deny some of the more shocking accusations leveled by Torres-Manteufel.
The scandal around Phillips is just the latest in a long line of ugly shocks to the far Christian right that threaten to destabilize and possibly capsize the community. As The Wire reported in early March, Bill Gothard, the leader of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, resigned his position in the wake of a series of accusations of alleged sexual abuse from dozens of women in the organization. IBLP, like Vision Forum Ministries, is a major clearinghouse for adherents to Biblical patriarchy, teaching members to shun contraception, embrace extreme forms of female submission, and, of course, use homeschooling to shelter young people from the outside world. Unsurprisingly, IBLP is also associated with the Duggar family, who participated in the organization’s many training seminars on embracing Biblical patriarchy and who called Gothard their “number one recommended resource” for family advice. He has exerted political influence in other ways, as well, befriending Sarah Palin and bringing her in for his International Association of Character Cities conference.
Similarly, both Bob Jones University and Patrick Henry College—schools that were established in no small part to give these homeschooled and sheltered kids from far Christian right backgrounds a place to go to college—have been at the center of accusations of indifference and even of allegedly covering up reported sexual abuse on campus. BJU received a lot of heat when they fired an outside firm that had been brought on to investigate accusations of sexual abuse, only to rehire them when it looked like they were punishing the firm for being too thorough in exposing the problem. Patrick Henry College was the recent target of an exposé in The New Republic that explored how young women who brought sexual abuse complaints to the school were frequently drummed out of the college or made to felt that they had somehow brought the abuse on themselves.
The “pitch” of Biblical patriarchy, as epitomized by Michelle Duggar, is that women will be coddled and worshipped in exchange for giving up their ambitions and the autonomy to practice an extreme form of female submission. The unpleasant truth is that a culture that teaches that women are put on Earth for no other purpose but to serve men is not going to breed respect for women. Instead, these incidents show a world where men believe they can do whatever they want to women without repercussions. Is it any surprise that a subculture that promises absolute control over women will attract men who want to dominate and hurt women? Don’t believe the TLC hype. Biblical patriarchy is a sour, dangerous world for women, and luckily, that reality is finally being outed.