The Christian homeschool movement is part of a broader dominionist plan to conquer democracy in the name of Christian fundamentalism.

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[Previous: ‘Under Authority’: The law of crying out]

The fourth and final episode of the documentary Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets begins with an audio recording of US marshals coming to arrest Josh Duggar. When he asks why they’re there, they say that child porn was downloaded to a computer on the premises. Josh doesn’t confess to anything, but he’s weirdly nonchalant about it. He certainly doesn’t show any of the shock or horror you might expect from an innocent person.

At the trial, the prosecution introduced the evidence of Josh’s molesting his sisters in the past, establishing a pattern of behavior. Jill Duggar says she was prepared to testify against her brother, if it came to that, but she didn’t have to. Bobye Holt, the family friend whose daughter Josh almost married, testified instead.

Josh’s father Jim Bob was also subpoenaed to testify. The prosecutor showed him the police report filed when Josh confessed the first time. Jim Bob claimed—astonishingly, and not plausibly—that he didn’t remember it. In fact, he claimed not to recall so many things that the judge got irate and kicked him out of the courtroom.

With little to offer in his defense, Josh was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Meanwhile, Jim Bob, in a stunning display of entitlement, ran for Arkansas state senate while his son was on trial. He lost badly, which seems to have crimped his political ambitions for the time being.

A lingering question, now that Josh is in prison, is why his wife Anna hasn’t divorced him or spoken out. The answer, again, comes from Gothard’s patriarchal theology which teaches that a wife must remain loyal and obedient to her husband even in adversity. If she were to write a tell-all book or do an exclusive interview, there’s no doubt she’d find a willing audience, but it’s possible she doesn’t know that she has those options.

The dominionist plan

At this point, the documentary zooms out to talk about the “Joshua Generation”—the grand plan of the Christian homeschool movement.

The term is a biblical allusion. According to the Old Testament, Moses freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but spent the rest of his lifetime wandering in the desert. It was Moses’ successor, Joshua, who led the Israelites into the promised land (where he led a campaign of holy genocide against the people who were already living there).

IBLP and other leaders of the Christian homeschool movement cast themselves in the role of Moses. They believed that their task was to raise an army of kids and indoctrinate them to believe all the correct things. When the time came, they’d turn these child soldiers loose on the world, where they’d be a political juggernaut ensuring that right-wing Christians won every election. They would become judges, legislators, and presidents with the power to impose their morality on everyone else.

Obviously, this didn’t turn out the way they hoped. Christian homeschoolers haven’t conquered America. Granted, they’ve had some successes to boast about (Madison Cawthorn was one of them). However, they’ve had at least as many high-profile failures. Some of their most prominent members turned out to be corrupt hypocrites and sinister predators (like Josh Duggar or, again, Madison Cawthorn).

It’s likely that this isn’t a coincidence. Corruption and sexual predation are intrinsic to this movement. Its teachings about absolute male authority and female submission, its belief that acceptance of suffering leads to holiness, plus its rule of keeping impressionable young people cloistered from the world and depriving them of every source of information that might help them think for themselves, combine to guarantee this result.

It’s an irresistible hunting ground for power-hungry sexual sociopaths. No surprise that, wherever the light of scrutiny shines on the homeschool movement, it finds monsters like Bill Gothard.

For viewers who aren’t familiar with the Christian Dominionist movement, this will sound alarming. It’s absolutely a threat that should be taken seriously. However, there’s one vital piece of context the documentary doesn’t provide: Evangelical Christians are shrinking as a share of the population, not growing. They’re aging and dwindling, and their churches are closing. Many of their homeschool graduates have escaped or fallen away. Their plans to overwhelm everyone else through sheer numbers haven’t succeeded. Giant families like the Duggars are the exception and not the rule.

The documentary briefly features a Christian named Alex Harris. He was homeschooled and raised to be part of the Joshua Generation, and even clerked for the Supreme Court. But now, he’s become disillusioned and no longer believes in that mission. This was an interesting story, and I wanted to hear more about it, but he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to tell it. (He published a Twitter thread explaining how he broke away from the beliefs he was raised with.)

Getting under the Duggars’ skin

The documentary should have ended on a high note, but it ends on a puzzling one. In 2016, some of the women who came forward to accuse Bill Gothard sued him and IBLP. In response, IBLP countersued them. Both lawsuits were eventually dismissed.

One of the plaintiffs, Brooke Arnold, went to confront Gothard at his home. In her telling, he asked her to pray with him, which she agreed to do without thinking. When she realized this was absurd, she opened her eyes and looked at him—and saw that he was staring back at her. It’s a bizarre story which the filmmakers should have given more context for. (Arnold has a video on TikTok where she explains it better.)

The strongest point in favor of this documentary is that it got under the Duggars’ skin. After it came out, Jim Bob and Michelle released a statement:

The recent “documentary” that talks about our family is sad because in it we see the media and those with ill intentions hurting people we love. Like other families, ours too has experienced the joys and heartbreaks of life, just in a very public format. This “documentary” paints so much and so many in a derogatory and sensationalized way because sadly that’s the direction of entertainment these days.

This brief, vague statement disputes none of the facts presented by the filmmakers. It offers no regrets and takes no accountability for the harm the Duggars caused. All it says is that they feel sad when people say bad things about them.

Despite the weak ending and some other missed opportunities along the way, “Shiny Happy People” is an important expose of the Christian fundamentalist homeschooling movement. Politically aware atheists will already know most of this, but there’s a large audience for whom it will come as new and disturbing information.

The Duggars’ fame is a double-edged sword. While it helped them spread their message into millions of unsuspecting homes, it also makes the revelation of Josh’s crimes more newsworthy. That, in turn, makes the ideal entry point for a documentary like this one that exposes the abuses and the sinister goals of homeschooling culture. There was significant ground left untrodden, but that also means there’s room for a second season. I bet this won’t be the last time we hear from disillusioned Duggar kids who broke free from their abusive upbringing and want to tell the world.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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