Shiny Happy People: Why Toxic Theology Harms All of Us

The viral topic of the moment is the explosive new docuseries on Prime Video, Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets. This four-episode series covers the rise and fall of the Duggar Family (of 19 Kids and Counting notoriety) and their association with Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The docuseries is excellent and is a must-watch for parents. It reveals how this method of child-rearing is not only abusive, but is also not as fringe as some may think. Parts of IBLP ideology permeate many religious institutions and media; the packaging may look different, but the harmful effects of its toxic theology are the same.

It is vital for parents to understand the tactics of these teachings, often disguised as mainstream “wholesome family values”. Those in power who espouse these or similar fundamentalist teachings are attempting to permeate all corners of our culture. The evidence is in recent political travesties like book bans in schools, the loss of parental rights for parents of LGBTQ kids, funding being taken away from public schools, and more.

Blind Obedience to Authority

man's hand on a bible with child's hand covering it Back in the heyday of 19 Kids and Counting, many Americans watched in awe as a family with nineteen children lived a life that was organized, structured, and seemingly chaos-free. This is what the title Shiny Happy People refers to. The children obeyed their parents with smiles on their faces, never arguing or throwing a tantrum. Siblings worked and played in harmony, and they homeschooled and practiced musical instruments cheerfully without complaint. Jim Bob and Michelle appeared to have a perfect, harmonious marriage. How do they do it? we all wondered. What is the magic that makes this possible?

The “magic” actually stems from and/or leads to abuse. The underbelly of “joyful obedience” that looks so desirable is the breaking of a child’s spirit and decision-making capabilities from a shockingly young age. It suppresses a healthy, developmentally appropriate questioning of authority. It opens up the door to serious abuse because it takes away a child’s ability to say No to an authority figure who may be an abuser.

As parents, we must teach our children to respect authority appropriately, but also to question those in power. 

Our children must know that while most adults are not predators, some are. Instead of teaching blind obedience, we must teach our kids to use their innate intuition when a situation or person appears to be a threat. We must teach them to speak up when they are mistreated or see others being mistreated. It is absolutely developmentally appropriate for children to push back against their parents and others in authority, and when children never do this, it is a red flag for abuse.

The Absence of Consent

Consent is one of the most important lessons a parent can teach a child. Multiple stories shared in Shiny Happy People demonstrate what happens when there is a patriarchal family framework where consent is not an option. For example, in the Duggar family, Jim Bob made all the decisions, controlled the money, and the Duggar children had no choice in appearing for years on-screen. And as Jill Duggar describes in one of her interviews in the docuseries, she was forced to continue to be on-screen in Jill & Jessa Counting On as an adult, against her will. She was not paid one dime for her participation in either show. This example amplifies all the children’s experiences of being raised in a Gothard family with such toxic theology- they have no real choices, even as adults.

And while most families will not appear on a reality show, many families do follow patriarchal complementaritian theology where the husband/father is the absolute authority in the home. This can absolutely lead to emotional, physical and financial abuse, marital rape, forced birth, and more.

When children grow up without being taught to both give and get consent, they are left vulnerable to being victimized by predators or in the case of Joshua Duggar, become predators themselves. 

The Danger of the Toxic Theology of Purity Culture

One of the worst parts of the IBLP ideology is the emphasis it puts on sexual purity, especially for girls. Girls in this culture (and let’s be honest, in many mainstream religious groups as well) learn that they are directly responsible for the behavior of boys and men based on the way they dress, the way they wear their hair, and the places they choose to go.

Girls are expected to remain “pure” (not even kissing is allowed) until their wedding night, and then are expected to start their baby-making journey with the husband their father “transferred” his authority to. A woman’s role is to be a wife and mother, and to honor and obey her husband. if she has other dreams, career aspirations, or doesn’t want children, it doesn’t matter. Her voice doesn’t matter.

Children raised in this framework are not educated on sexuality; some do not even know what sex is well into their teenage years. Again, this makes them ripe for abuse from men in positions of power. And there is no room for any other expression of sexuality other than one man and one woman in a Christian marriage.

This ideology harms boys as well. Joshua Duggar was not taught healthy ways to express his budding sexuality as a young teenager, and his example was males in authority ruling over women. He then went on to molest his own sisters (with no real consequences), cheat on his wife multiple times, and is currently serving a 12.5 year prison sentence for possession of child sexual abuse materials (CSAM).

While the Duggar disaster is extreme, it definitely is not a one-off. Abuse in the evangelical church is an epidemic, with story after story coming to light. While many Christians will protest Not All Christians, or Not All Churches, it is vital to understand and identify the toxic theology that does lead to this abuse in many cases, so we can protect ourselves and our families. No family or church is immune.

Any religious organization or leader that claims authority over just one way to live, raise children, and interpret the Bible’s teaching is toxic. There is such a wide diversity in human beings, and as parents, we should be widening our children’s choices and opportunities, not narrowing them.

Shiny Happy People should be viewed by parents not as a trainwreck we can’t look away from, but as a cautionary tale. So much of this toxic theology is prevalent in our social, educational and religious circles, and often we either don’t notice it’s happening or can’t be bothered to care. But as those with these extreme views who want ultimate power infiltrate our communities, schools, and political offices, we must take a stand against it for the sake of our children.

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Elizabeth Baker
Elizabeth was raised in Houston and met her husband Ryan shortly after graduating from Texas A&M with a journalism degree. A few years later, Grayson {Sept 2010}, turned Elizabeth’s world upside down, not only with his sparkling blue eyes and killer smile, but with his profound disabilities and diagnosis of Mitochondrial Disease. After two years of navigating the world of special needs parenting, Elizabeth and Ryan were blessed with Charlotte {Jan 2013} and Nolan {Sept 2015}, perfectly completing their party of five. Elizabeth and her crew live in Katy, and when she can steal a few moments for herself, she can be found out for Mexican food and margaritas with girlfriends, binge-listening to podcasts and audiobooks, or trying once again {unsuccessfully} to organize her closet. In addition to her role as Managing Editor of HMB, Elizabeth writes about faith, politics and special needs parenting for publications like Scary Mommy and HuffPost.You can connect with Elizabeth on Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, or ElizabethKBaker.com

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