There aren’t many Christians who’ve been at the center of not just one but two major scandals, but that twice-disgraced distinction now belongs to Josh Duggar, the Quiverfuller and reality-TV star turned pro-patriarchy political activist.
First, there was the confession that he had molested his sisters as a teenager, which his parents helped to cover up, and which got him fired from his job as a professional sex scold for the Family Research Council. And now, last week, we learned that he had a paid account on Ashley Madison, the dating site specifically for extramarital affairs, whose customer list was stolen and disclosed by hackers. His wife Anna says she blames herself and won’t divorce him, but then again, she’s deeply enmeshed in a ferociously patriarchal religious community that would surely punish her far worse than it has him if she did anything else.
I don’t consider the Ashley Madison client list newsworthy in general, but I’ll happily make an exception for hypocritical fundamentalists who make it their mission to police other people’s sex lives. And Josh Duggar is following a well-trodden path. As Jay Michaelson points out on the Daily Beast, he’s just the latest on an impressively long list of religious-right figures who privately flout the rules they preach in public, including other prominent members of the Quiverfull/Christian-patriarchy movement.
We can’t know for sure what drove his behavior. It could have been unhappiness in his marriage, pure sociopathy and the desire to see what he could get away with, or something else entirely. However, I’d argue – as I have in the past – that the Duggars’ brand of right-wing Christianity, and fundamentalist religion in general, creates this problem for itself. People who follow its rules are more likely, not less, to commit the acts that those rules are intended to prevent.
There are two reasons why this is true. First, there’s the attitude of fear and enforced ignorance which Christian fundamentalism wraps around sex and the human body. By trying to keep it off-limits, this makes it much more of a temptation than it otherwise would’ve been. Mysteriousness and prohibition always magnify people’s natural curiosity, which is something that Christian theology has never grasped.
Second, the rigid “courtship” model of Christian dating gives people no way to know if they’re compatible until it’s too late. The ironclad rules that Josh Duggar and other Quiverfull families follow forbid not just sex before marriage, but even minor acts of intimacy like kissing or holding hands. Often, they’re not even allowed to talk to each other without a parental chaperone looking over their shoulders.
If you’re never intimate with someone before you marry them, then how do you know if you’re compatible? How do you know if you like the same things in bed, or if you’re sexually attracted to each other at all? It’s not hard to imagine how dissatisfaction and resentment could grow and fester in the lives of people who are pushed together like this, or how those feelings could lead to one or both partners wanting an extramarital outlet.
Josh Duggar’s latest apology shows no sign that he’s learned any of this. It’s pure self-blame – “I gave in to temptation, I let Satan get the better of me, I strayed from the right path” – with no hint of reconsideration of the doctrines that led him to this. He won’t even allow himself to question whether anything he believed was itself the problem. (Interestingly, he later edited his apology to remove the reference to Satan, as well as another sentence saying he had a pornography addiction.)
This is the same thing we’ve seen in the tearful confessions and abject apologies of many other sex-scold preachers. It’s never their religion’s fault for setting unrealistic rules that crash against human nature; it’s always the fault of the people who can’t live up to those rules no matter how they try. They never recognize or admit that they were set up to fail. Of course, that realization would be too much like an admission that Christian doctrine is designed to produce feelings of continual guilt and shame in its followers, in order to reinforce their dependency on the very same beliefs that make them feel that way. It’s no surprise that people trapped in this spiral have a hard time seeing it for what it is.