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Shiny Happy People

Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets: Gothard Legalism Exposed or Feminist Deconstruction?

Amidst cultural decline of the sexual revolution, many fundamentalist Christians turned to the teachings of Bill Gothard, whose Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschooling program became seen as the keys to success for raising children and overcoming the world. None were more prominent followers of Gothard’s movement than the Duggar family, whose political prominence in Arkansas gave way to multiple reality TV shows on TLC.

The Duggar family has fallen in disgrace after numerous scandals, the most notorious being the conduct of Josh Duggar, the eldest son who molested his sisters and is currently serving prison time for possession of child pornography.

Through Amazon Studios, the documentary series Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets springboards off the Duggar scandals to expose the underlying teachings of Bill Gothard, revealing how his legalistic teachings permitted his predatory behavior which is portrayed as ubiquitous amongst his followers. The series features most prominently Jill Duggar and others who were involved in the Duggar circles, including Jim and Bobye Holt, yet the structure of the series is increasingly bifurcated, initially focusing on the Duggars before shifting to its message against the teachings of Gothard.


The series functions in four parts with interviews interspliced with clips of both the TV series, TV news interviews, and the teachings of Bill Gothard.

Episode 1 begins with the background on show, detailing how the Duggar’s rose to prominence, which was through Jim Bob’s political career, which eventually landed him on TV due to the eccentric nature of his family. It mentions the the Josh Duggar 2015 bombshell. Jill Duggar was hesitant to speak on the molestation, though her Megyn Kelly interview has clips presented in later episodes. Jim Holt, a former family friend of the Duggars, blames Jim Bob for withholding this information at the time and using his daughter to correct Josh’s behavior. One gets the impression that the show further fueled the Duggar’s procreation efforts as the birthing and later marriage episodes were the primary drivers of ratings. The success of the TV show became the conduit for further popularizing Gothard’s ideas.

Episode 2 starts with the Josh Duggar abuse scandal before talking about Gothard’s hierarchy of authority and ATI homeschooling program. In this episode, Wesleyan pastor Josh Pease claims white evangelicals were racists for opposing integration in schools, which led them to homeschool. This blatantly ignores the historical facts and issues surrounding forced integration of schools, which include forced busing, racial violence, and white students being sent to terrible schools (coinciding with busing). But the liberals in this documentary do not pass up opportunities to claim racism, sexism, or other claims against Christian Conservatism, which they link to Gothard.

The teachings of ATI are presented with scrutiny, with the documentary claiming that the youths were being denied education and were brainwashed into Gothard’s ideology at a young age. The “Wisdoms” of ATI are legalistic rules surrounding modesty, sexual behavior, and a litany of other things which are designed to instill chastity. There is also the “Umbrella” of authority that if one steps outside the umbrella, they then fall into sin. This fear then maintains order within these hyper-fundamentalist communities. Through these rules, it is portrayed that Gothard guaranteed success through his program. The episode also features the disciplinary methods of the Duggar family where the children are made to be submissive to authority. The most noteworthy is the “blanket method” where the children are placed upon a blanket and subject to physical discipline if they reach for an object outside the blanket. The documentary also intersplices the Duggars speaking at various IBLP events throughout the series.

Episode 3 begins with Jill Duggar’s wedding and continuation of her show career even after the primary show was cancelled. She mentions how neither TLC nor Jim Bob Duggar paid her for her work on the show and coerced her to portray the delivery of her child for the network—of which she was not paid. The exploitation of the Duggar children is the initial focal point of the episode.

The episode then builds upon the prior episode’s presentation of the IBLP seminars and subsidiary organizations to discuss the sexual abuse allegations against Bill Gothard. Several of the recurring speakers include alleged victims of Gothard. The interviews describe the pattern of behaviors by Gothard, which include petting, one-on-one time in his office, and his methods of recruiting victims. One of the common traits of cult leaders is their sexual deviancy, where they wield their influence for sexual gain, which, as portrayed, Gothard fits the mold. The ideology of Gothard is presented as causational to the actions of Josh Duggar and other situations mentioned in the documentary.

Episode 4 starts with the Josh Duggar child pornography criminal case before transitioning into an attack on Christian conservative politics and institutions that seek to mobilize homeschooled students for political activism. The premise is that these fundamentalist Christians, under the teachings of Gothard, are having all these kids who will eventually conquer institutions for Christianity (or Gothard). This episode was the weakest in the series, reduced to a screed against Christian Conservative activism.

It cites the political influence of these ideas through former Congressman Madison Cawthorn as a champion of this movement. The main “expert” is Alex Harris, the brother of Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris critiques the Generation Joshua as the embodiment of Gothard’s ideology, where Gothard’s youth take over the world. Harris clerked for pro-homosexual, pro-abortion Catholic Justice Anthony Kennedy, and in an interview with the ERLC, unsurprisingly touts the AND Campaign as a positive example of Christian civic engagement. He devolved into a neoconservative Big Eva squish. Through Alex Harris and Kristen Du Mez, the episode is critical of these organizations which seek to mobilize these homeschooled kids to become politically involved and social media influencers.

The series ends by advocating deconstruction from the teachings of Gothard, which while it might remain within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy for Jill Duggar, some of the other women presented appear to have deconstructed even the biblical aspect of their faith.

Feminist Agenda

While Jill Duggar is most notably featured, it cannot be overlooked the feminist agenda being promoted by the documentary.

The inclusion of Kristen Du Mez as a “Christian historian” embodies this feminist agenda. Du Mez is most famous for her book Jesus and John Wayne, in which Jesus is more like David French than John Wayne. Then there is the feminist landwhale Jen Sutphin, a writer for Religion News Service who does a YouTube channel that deconstructs fundamentalism. Her critiques of fundamentalism are subverted by her disgusting physiognomy. Somehow, despite her disturbing appearance, her channel has 327K subscribers.

There is much that is worthy of critique regarding the teachings of Bill Gothard, who seemed to have inserted cultish legalism into the biblical sexual ethic. However, the documentary does not present these criticisms from a biblical perspective, but from a feminist one. Many appeared to reject the biblical notions of sexual purity, particularly those of premarital sex and male headship. The documentary also presents a biblical perspective on homosexuality as antiquated.

The final episode features Du Mez, amongst others, touting that the rise of social conservative, Christian influencers critiquing transgenderism, which they perceive as fringe, and conflating any “trad-wife” content on the internet, like Paul and Morgan Olliges, with being influenced by Gothard. Basically, anyone that advocates against premarital sex, condemns homosexuality, and promotes traditional gender roles is conflated with Bill Gothard’s teachings and the Duggars.

Thoughts on Bill Gothard

It must be noted that Gothard’s legalism begins with a kernel of biblical truth, like premarital sex being sinful, but proceeds to add restrictions that go beyond Scriptural teachings which eventually create a law-based salvation. Does Gothard’s teachings lead to abuse? Perhaps. Legalism at its extreme loses the initial foundation for which the rules were instituted. In other words, the rules become the focal point, not Scripture. This could be seen in Josh Duggar, whose upbringing was perhaps so rigid against any possible sexual exposure to where it facilitated his worst desires rather than raised him with self-control. Then there are rules, like drums being satanic or denim jeans being sinful, which are entirely conjecture.

The teachings on the “umbrella” have roots in Scripture, since patriarchal hierarchy is biblical (Genesis 3:16, Ephesians 5), and there is a sense that when one falls away from authority, they are left vulnerable to sin. Small compromises can metastasize into grave sins. The fatal flaw is that Gothard’s method usurps sphere sovereignty by inserting himself as head over the family, prescribing his rules at or near the level of Scripture. So violation of these arbitrary rules, like skirt length, is tantamount to being out of the protection of the umbrella and susceptible to sin. Just as nations require particularity because certain nations are prone to certain sins/problems, so too is this the case with families. It also should be noted that Gothard is neither married nor fathered children, so he is hardly the ideal source for wisdom on decisions that should be left to the family. It would be like asking Jen Sutphin about healthy eating.

Jim Bob Duggar repeatedly violated his duties as a husband and even lorded over his daughter after she was married, and thus interfering with another man’s umbrella. Proverbs 13:22 states that, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,” which Duggar was denying his own family by withholding the proceeds of the TV show. Were Jim Bob’s actions motivated by Gothard’s teachings, or were they motivated by greed and fame? Because even when the initial molestations happened, they were in the early stages of their television careers. The documentary places too much emphasis on Gothard as the cause of Duggar’s behavior rather than Duggar’s own sinfulness.


Bill Gothard is a monster and worthy of castigation, but the Church should learn from the pitfalls of legalism rather than abandon orthodoxy for feminism. Too many of the speakers in the documentary deconstructed their faith following their mistreatment or rebellion against the IBLP teachings.

For Jill Duggar, it must be asked how cognizant she was of the overall message of the documentary. Her hesitancy to speak on sensitive subjects, particularly that of Josh Duggar, is laudable, as that drama does not need to be rehashed. It also demonstrates a general restraint in how she approached the subject of speaking against her family. There is a fine line between dishonoring one’s parents and speaking her testimony regarding their problematic practices which I believe she successfully manages. Still, one wonders what was left on the editing bay of Duggar’s interview, and whether that would have contradicted the anti-homeschooling, feminist slant of the documentary.

Overall, the documentary is an interesting starting point if one is not knowledgeful on Bill Gothard and IBLP, but the underlying bias functions as a bait and switch for Jill Duggar’s otherwise compelling story.

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6 Responses

  1. That’s the reprobate mind for you.

    In short, their “brilliant” solution to sexual immorality is more sexual immorality.

    To be expected from the likes of Amazon.

  2. My parents went to a two day Gothard seminar when it was on a “tour” for Basic Youth Conflicts in the early 1970’s. There were some good things to take away, but my folks were disturbed by some of Gothard’s teachings. One was that a female wife or child under the proper “umbrella” would be protected from rape/sexual assault. If assault occurred, it was because of some sin of the female and/or a structural usurp in the umbrella.
    My father was in law enforcement and knew this was just untrue.
    It also bothered them that women were to blame for men’s sexually impure thoughts. As if they had no control.

    That said, I watched the documentary. It was all too willing to put all traditional Bible believing folks into the “fundie” category. Not surprised, it’s from a secular perspective. I give kudos to Jill however. She has been able to remain in her faith despite being betrayed by her creep of a father (who used his children as a cash cow) and their complicit mother. I knew the train wreck was coming. What wasn’t covered, was that Josh, being their oldest, was the first to experience the nightmare of Gothard/Pearl discipline. Not said was, if a male child (Josh) was caught touching his private area, that hand was hit and tied behind their back as a reminder not to commit sexual sin against at their body…from a very young age.
    Not making excuses for the incredibly creepy Josh, but…monsters don’t usually just come out of nowhere.

    1. I attended that seminar also, way back when, and still have the materials.

      But what’s also true is that for every “Josh” there are thousands who were brought up the same way yet aren’t like him. The implication that such monstrosity is the result of such an upbringing, to any degree, just doesn’t hold any water. It’s an anomaly that substantiates nothing.To claim otherwise, is almost to collectively demonize everyone who had such an upbringing. The truth is the opposite – the more people have turned away from God and from His created order, the more sexual immorality has taken hold.

      A boy who’s touching himself in view of others enough for his parents to know it, should be disciplined, and taught not to do such things. Don’t you agree?

  3. How appallingly sexist and unchristian to commit the unpardonable sin of noticing and commenting on a feminist’s typically feminist physical appearance–which, of course, has nothing whatever to do with her feminism. 😉

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