Monday, July 31, 2017

To my classmates on the occasion of our 30th Reunion

To my classmates on the occasion of our 30th Reunion

For me, it wasn’t so much about the memories. It was about the present. 

First of all, I’m convinced that I have the worst memory in our class, and I apologize to all those I stared in the face and called the wrong name (sorry Abby Arevelo!) or couldn’t come up with a name at all. (Wear your name tag, Matt McKern!) But then, I had plenty of people give me a pretty good double take, especially the first night when I didn’t wear a hat. I guess you weren’t picturing me as a 48-year-old bald guy when I gave my unforgettable speech at commencement. You know, the one where I talked about something or other, made a lame joke, and inspired us all.

But even though our organizing committee did everything they could to bring back our best memories (the Blue Devil rug was a great touch), my favorite moments were firmly rooted in the present.

I know that even those of you who have personally watched Walla Walla change over the years share the shock of someone like me who comes back to stand around sipping $80 wines with tourists from Japan, or listening to Broadway piano bars in funky clubs, eating artisanal organic vegan pizza.  It doesn’t feel like the Walla Walla we grew up in.

And, yet, it is.  We were part of this place, and we still know its streets and mountains and trees, rhythms and culture. Sure, it’s shifted, but it’s a real place with continuity that we know. I feel like that’s a pretty good metaphor for all of us.

The past we shared isn’t so much about the memories, good or bad, but about the roots we have together, a familiarity that is sometimes vague, but undeniably real, whether we like it or not. We’ve all arrived, in whatever our present moment, from some common stuff. Personally, I loved this sense of how we came through this place together, into our current lives, where we could meet each other, as new-old people, all over again.

The build-up to the reunion happening on Facebook – that page deserves its own sociological analysis – has been fascinating, and so much fun. I’ve loved hearing from those who couldn’t make it, and the ways you contributed to our collective experience. Digging out the photos, and thinking about our young, dewy-skinned, teenaged selves, I expected the sort of introspection and home-town nostalgia brought on by these occasions. [And though I said this in deep sincerity to some of you in person, I only half-facetiously apologize to all of you for 18-year-old Brian Howell. Probably less than half. He was a piece of work.]

But what I did not expect was the ways in which our time in Walla Walla would seem less like a familiar childhood space, and more like a coming together of new friends.  Whether drinking wine in completely unfamiliar space of The Foundry Winery, or bowling together in what used to be the fertilizer section of Long’s Lawn and Garden Supply, this new present always had a sense of this place and past, but with much more than just reminiscence and memory. It felt like I was getting to know these new, interesting, people who shared a common vocabulary with me. Even as we dug through our memories, we were not 17 year olds. We are all these 40-somethings, with our unique stories, coming together to share not the past, but the present.

A couple weeks before the reunion, I saw a pithy little piece on line entitled “Why You Should Go to Your High School Reunion, Dammit.”  The author drew on Buddhist philosophy to encourage us to embrace that which connects us – aging, suffering, heartbreak, loss – to celebrate what is most important: we are not alone.  It got some likes on our Facebook page, but disappeared pretty quickly behind the (awesome!) photos of us with beautiful hair and an amazing collective sense of fashion.

I went back to that post, though, after being with you all this weekend, because I think it did hit some of the things I liked best about being at our reunion. I was reminded that, whatever we’ve been through – our marriages, divorces, job changes, children, grandchildren (!), coming out, moving on – we share a lot more than just a mascot and three years of high school. We share a humanity that was, in part, forged in a specific place, at a specific time, (with a kick-ass soundtrack), together.

I was also reminded that whatever our past, and whatever our present, this is not the end of our story. This was our 30th high school reunion, but not our last. In five or ten years, we will gather, and we will be new people, with new heartbreaks, new losses, new joys, a different present in which to live and get to know one another, still sharing this charming, funny, unique town as a formative part of ourselves. I hope some of those who stayed away – dreading, perhaps, an evening of sometimes-awkward talk about ordinary life in ordinary places, or wanting to create distance with these shared past-selves – will decide that there’s something valuable for all of us in showing up, unafraid to simply acknowledge that our lives, in every possible form, have all done essentially the same thing, and shared in a meaningful, important, and very particular, place.

We all grew up in Walla Walla. No matter how many years we had there; whether we stayed in town, left temporarily, or even dusted off our feet, this place is a part of us, and we are part of each other. Now, in years that only share the multiple of 5, we can take some time, even just a few hours or a stilted 20 minute conversation, to just get to know this place, and each other, again.

Peace and grace to you, class of 1987.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

When All You Need is (More Than) Love

I wrote this as a comment to a recent post from AndrewDeCort, a Wheaton alumnus, sometimes faculty, theologian and all-around mensch I’ve come to hold in high regard. His post asked questions I’ve heard from numerous colleagues, students and alumni in the days following the "reconciliation service" held Tuesday at Wheaton College, essentially asking, “What don’t we know?”  and “What the hell just happened here?” 
I'm still thinking and sorting out feelings about all this myself. There is a lot that I don't know, which I hope I will at some point in the future (possible non-disclosure agreements notwithstanding), but I think I can imagine a way that everything we’re hearing is true. There could have been a mutuality to the split between Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College. There could be sincere apology, forgiveness, love, and even nascent reconciliation. The gestures of good will (endowed scholarships and gracious words of peace) can be real, even as we say good bye to a beloved friend, professor, mentor and sister in Christ. Sometimes love is not all you need.

My sense is that this comes down to the lack of trust: Wheaton’s leadership for Larycia and Larycia for the leadership.
 Let’s imagine that it was true that when President Ryken met with Larycia for what would be the final negotiations, that "all options were on the table,” including Larycia coming back to teach at Wheaton. (This is a bit of rumor mill here, but at this point, I’m just trying to imagine how this could be.) If this were true, I can only imagine that her coming back would be with all sorts of strings designed for her to prove her trustworthiness to Wheaton.  After all, in addition to her December post, there was her press conference with Jesse Jackson, her multifaith supporters, even her close associations with known campus reprobates and regalia-sashaying liberals.  There would, undoubtedly, be requirements for “ongoing discussion” around these and future concerns the administration would expect.  On one level, they administration might say, is something that every faculty member agrees to. We all can be called into the Dean/Provost/President/Trustee presence at any time to give explanations of our work and a defense of our faith. My senior colleagues have some pretty amazing stories of past Presidential Summons in earlier regimes (including, apropos recent news, accusations of failure to care for vulnerable student faith, metaphorically "clubbing baby seals.") So Wheaton may have wanted assurances from Larycia that she would accept this oversight going forward.

Larycia, of course, wants THEM to prove themselves trustworthy to her. For years, Larycia was subject to a level of scrutiny that was manifestly different than what I - a known troublemaker, but married White man - have experienced. To sign on to a process that might seem, in the College’s eyes, to be a ‘normal’ oversight, could easily appear to Larycia as a lifetime of sanctioned discriminatory suspicion and scrutiny, to which she now becomes an agreeable partner. Particularly given these past two months, I can only imagine what it would feel like to face this idea of ongoing “discussion” about faith, teaching, and life as a single black woman at Wheaton. 

In this scenario, I can believe that there truly was this agreement to "part ways" and that it was, sort of, mutual. That is, I think there is real love and a kind of deep Christian unity between Phil, Stan, Larycia and us all.  But there is not trust. The relationship cannot go forward without trust. Perhaps it's like when, in a marriage, both partners feel betrayed by the other, and while there is a kind of love, and fondness for what once was, it's impossible to see a way forward together, as both people want the other to prove fidelity.
I'm heartbroken in all this. I know we all are. But we must not stop here. Our sin has been exposed; there are deep systemic things to be unraveled and examined.  Andrew DeCort compared it to an experience he had of a falling out with a church that he continues to love and support, even as he is painfully aware of its pathologies and weaknesses. I think this is where I (and perhaps Larycia) stand with Wheaton right now. Its pathologies (many of which we have all seen for years) are not new, nor necessarily worse, than they’ve ever been, but this has brought them out in powerful and significant ways. Those of us who remain, even with a sense of great injustice having been done to our sister, don’t hate Wheaton; we love it so much that we don’t want it to remain stuck in sinful and hurtful patterns. We must address them head on, with clarity and transparency. It will be painful. I hope it is, or I don't think we're doing it right, but I have hope we can do it. Mistakes notwithstanding, I believe that with God's help we are all up to the task.  

I just wish Larycia could be here to help us.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Reply to a Concerned Alumna

Today I received a heartfelt letter from an alumna of Wheaton College concerned about the situation the college finds itself in regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins and her statements about Christians and Muslims. This alumna clearly wants the best for our students and college, and is deeply concerned that the gospel is being compromised by Dr. Hawkins words and those who defends her.

I took time to respond as thoughtfully as I could to what I presume is a view shared by many. I would like to share our exchange, but after consulting this alumna, she preferred that I did not share her letter. I respect her wishes, so you'll only see my reply and a summary of her letter.  I hope this will address concerns shared by others, but convey my sincere belief that we are all on the same team. May our unity be a witness to the world.


The author of the letter is a double alumna from Wheaton, having earned her undergrad and graduate degrees (in psychology) from the school in the 1990s.  She notes that it was a place where she learned to "freely think with God's Word at the center."

In observing the issues around Dr. Hawkins' statements and the administration response, she wants to encourage me to use whatever influence I have to "put God's word and HIS definition of himself" before any other consideration.

She then goes on to refer to "several missionaries who serve in Muslim countries (who also reject the "insider movement")[...] because they love their lord, Jesus Christ, and second because they love Muslims more than they love themselves."

It is clear that the letter's author believes that Dr. Hawkins' initial statements of solidarity with Muslims creates confusion about theology for Christians and Muslims, and overall find these statements harmful, rather than helpful.

She concludes saying (in boldface type),  "I truly want God to be glorified over any one person, college or group." 

Overall, she writes with humility and passion, and I have great respect that she is engaging these issues. I wanted to write thoughtfully, and hope my response might be helpful for others. Here is what I said:

Dear ______________,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts and feelings with me. I appreciate your love of the Lord, His Word, Wheaton and concern for all that’s going on here.

I want to assure you that in all that I do, I do strive to put God’s word at the center.  I want all my students to have the experience you describe, of thinking freely, with God’s word at the center. 

I understand that by supporting Dr. Hawkins it might seem that I am placing my concern for her, or perhaps for Muslim-Christian relations, ahead of scripture. I certainly understand how it can appear that way.  But I support Dr. Hawkins because I see scripture as fully supportive of both what she has done and what she has said.  Let me try to briefly explain:

As an anthropologist, I look at this partly through missiology. That is, whenever I think about how and what I am going to communicate of my faith, I think about the context and meaning of what I say in terms of those hearing it. How will it represent the Truth of Christ to those I’m speaking to, specifically those who need to hear the Word?  How will it reflect on the Kingdom in this time and place?  This is the apostle Paul’s concern in I Cor. 9:19-23 where he talks about becoming “all things to all people.” Of course this is not about neglecting the gospel. Quite the opposite!  It’s about making the gospel visible and available to those who seek it; helping to make the gospel understandable.

In this situation, I believe Dr. Hawkins’ actions and words speak to a non-Christian world powerfully, as a witness of Christ’s love to the nations. I want my support for her - as well as my support for the mission of the college - to speak to a non-Christian who is observing this. I know that for some Christians this can look like a compromise of biblical truth, but I have searched the scriptures for help and believe everything that Dr. Hawkins has said and done, and my support for her, have strong biblical warrant and ground.

You mention your missionary friends and their concerns.  Of course you recognize that there are many missionaries who do not reject the insider movement, and that there are several positions on a continuum of ministry in Muslim countries (the C-1 through C-6).  Though I have not been a missionary to Muslims myself, I have read some around the issue and see those across the spectrum looking to scripture to understand their work. Scripture provides guidance for them all, and I do not think there is a single biblical answer to what is, in my mind, a complex contextual question.  Those I know who accept the insider movement do so because they love the Lord and love Muslims more than themselves, just as those who reject the insider movement.  I am convinced that when sincere believers - truth seekers who come as the Bereans did to the scriptures daily - disagree on the guidance the Bible gives in a particular area, it is because of the different questions and context they are bringing to their thinking. Thus, Christians who have committed their lives to sharing the gospel with Muslims come to different views of how best to do that, not because some are looking to scripture and others are not, but because they work in distinct contexts, come from different backgrounds, and sincerely hear the Holy Spirit speaking to their questions and concerns. 

We always live our lives for Christ in the context of real life where we are called to think about how Jesus would have us respond. This is what Paul is doing throughout his letters, instructing Greek, Jewish, and Roman believers coming from a wide variety of prior religions and cultural contexts in how they can think about glorifying God in their context. This is why he gives different instructions at different points. Paul is not inconsistent!  The Scriptures have NO contradictions.  Paul is consistent in instructing the believers to live the Truth of Christ in light of how it can best provide no unnecessary obstacle to those who God would draw to Himself. 

 Dr. Hawkins was speaking into a context where vulnerable people (Muslims are only 2% of the U.S. population) were frightened and feeling isolated in places like the town of Wheaton. She wore the hijab to express Christian love of her neighbor, rooted in the ministry and words of Christ.  I understand her initial posts were confusing to many, but her follow-up statement was clear and appealed to scripture, theology and charity. (Have you read the statement she provided to Dr. Jones?  It is here at  Many people - nonChristians as well as Christians - have told me that they learned about the love of Christ from her.  A number of alumni who did not have as positive an experience at Wheaton as you had have written to say that Dr. Hawkins and the support she received has helped them to return to scripture and the Church.  God’s word does not return void and I see in this an opportunity to witness for Him.

This is what I teach my students, in general and specifically in this context.  I don’t expect that I would persuade you to support Dr. Hawkins’ actions in this, but I hope that we can share our common commitment to the Word of God and His lordship in our lives. I sincerely agree with so much of what you’ve written and wish nothing more than to see God lifted up in this.  God and His word is so much more than me, Dr. Hawkins, Wheaton, or the United States.  It is timeless and perfect, revealed in a baby 2000 years ago born in an insignificant place to insignificant people to save the world in every place and time. Now we must stand with God to show this revelation of love to our neighbors. Thank you for doing that where you are and please continue to pray for us as strive to do that here.

Your brother in Christ,

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why I Wear My Regalia

The academic life is odd. It requires a deep investment of time studying a relatively narrow topic. It involves broad familiarity with a wide and ever-expanding field of knowledge.  It puts one’s mind on display daily, open to the evaluation of others.  It can do a number on your ego.  Of course, it is also a life of great reward, from working with students in formative ways, growing with colleagues, and speaking to the wider public that, despite a current of anti-intellectualism of U.S. culture, still holds the professoriate in high regard.
One of the features of the academic life that is often not well understood outside our community is the custom of tenure.  It may seem to be a reward for sticking it out for certain amount of time, or a kind of union rule run amok, protecting incompetence into retirement. The reason for tenure at the university level, however, is not to pacify the academic life, but to enhance it. Tenure helps to ensure intellectual freedom and protect faculty in the pursuit of truth.  Pursuing truth means going where the data lead, creating what is crying out for creation, or applying an interpretation that seems correct, even if it runs against conventional wisdom or political interests.  Tenure is meant to protect the work of scholars from political pressure and cultural currents, so that the truth can be pursued and spoken. The institution grants it because it believes these faculty will pursue truth in their research and teaching, and enhance the life of the community.
At the same time, tenure has the potential to be abused, so it is neither easy to get, nor inviolable. At Wheaton College, as at most institutions, it takes seven years of service to earn the right to apply for tenure.  The application is accompanied by evidence of strength in teaching, scholarship, student mentoring, and institutional service.  At Wheaton as at most institutions, it is a justifiably high bar.  Once tenure is earned, faculty must still demonstrate competence in these four areas, but, as Tobin Grant has recently written, once the faculty member has made the case through the tenure application and tenure has been granted, the institution bestows a new measure of trust.
At an institution such as Wheaton, the trust granted with tenure has deeper and more consequential significance than just professional competence. David Lansdale argued in a Stanford dissertation written in1990 that faculty are often the “liberalizing” influence pushing a Christian college away from its sectarian mission to a broadly secular, pluralist one.[1] For that reason, every faculty member at Wheaton, since at least the 1920’s, has been under some theological scrutiny in order to be awarded tenure. As part of our process to earn tenure, we all write an academic “Faith and Learning Paper” in which we think Christianly within our discipline, whether we work in areas of theology or not. This is not as easy for the average physicist, music theorist, or ecologist as it is for a Christian theologian or Bible scholar, but we all engage this process with integrity, understanding the centrality of this work to Wheaton’s mission. Thus, tenure is meant to represent the work of the faculty member to earn the trust of the institution, and the granting of it as the sign that this trust has, in fact, been earned.
Given the events of the past month, I am concerned about the relationship of tenure to our ability to teach and do scholarship, and what it may mean in the future.  As Dr. Noah Toly recently covered in a careful and thoughtful piece, in what we have seen, it appears that the questions around Dr. Hawkins’ theology were answered in her December 17 statement to the administration. It seems that her explanations were clear and acceptable. It appears that the underlying issue that what she has written in response to legitimate administrative questions is not being trusted.  The request for additional conversation, then, makes me nervous.
Now it is clear that in the situation with Dr. Hawkins trust has been damaged on both sides. This is why reconciliation is necessary. Yet the power still largely rests with the institution, insofar as Dr. Hawkins’ job and the meaning of tenure is concerned.  Let me be clear that I am not accusing Wheaton of an abuse of power in this case. I believe that the administrators and trustees have acted in what they feel are the interests of the college, an institution they have been charged to protect. I know and respect the administrators involved and believe them to be men of great character and integrity.  I do not know many of the trustees personally, but have interacted with almost all of them (some I do count as friends) and believe them all people of good will.  More importantly, they are the ones with the significant responsibility to protect and advance the mission and identity of Wheaton. This is no small thing. But Larycia Hawkins is the vulnerable person, and, as she has said, this decision affects us all.  It affects all faculty and our relationships with our students, our colleagues, and the institution. Changing academic jobs is not a simple matter, as one's academic profile often becomes adapted to the place where you choose to invest. My sister, Larycia, has demonstrated that there are risks to take stands, but we stand with those in common cause to defend what we believe is important and right.
Wearing my regalia in solidarity with Larycia Hawkins is not to stand against Wheaton, or to shame or belittle those who act on its behalf. Instead, I seek to stand with the mission and meaning of Wheaton as an institution for Christ and His Kingdom, where we can trust one another in this mission. I wear it because I believe in the integrity of tenure and its importance to the academic life.  I wear it because I believe that Larycia Hawkins has acted with integrity to uphold the ideals of academic freedom, and I stand with her in seeking a restoration of the relationship between her and Wheaton College. I wear it because I believe in the mission of Wheaton as an institution of higher education rooted in a Christian mission guided by God and His word. I wear it to stand with the ideals of this school and my fellow faculty who strive to uphold them.
This is a time of great pain for Wheaton as so many watch a conflict unfold that is legal, theological, interpersonal, cultural, and spiritual in various measures. Faculty, students, alumni, parents, and trustees have invested deeply into the mission of Wheaton.  In practicing this form of embodied solidarity, I hope to say to a watching world that I am engaged in this process. I care about Larycia and the outcome of this. I care about how Wheaton is perceived within and beyond our community. I care about the integrity of our processes, the integrity of policies such as tenure, and the trust it represents. As a tenured faculty member, I want to be trusted that my yes will mean yes, and my no means no.  I want to be viewed as a partner in this work.
In the end, there are not “sides” to this.  The Trustees are given the responsibility to shepherd the mission of Wheaton College, and we are all given the responsibility and opportunity to uphold it. I believe we are all on the same side. And very soon I expect to stand, in my regalia, with us all.

[1] H/t to Wheaton librarian and historian David Malone for posting portions of this dissertation on line and summarizing its basic argument. Although there is not, as far as I can tell, an accessible online version, its existence can be verified through the hyperlink.

Friday, May 22, 2015

19 and Counting: Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency in Liberal America

NOTE: This was a paper I wrote several years ago, obviously prior to the current news about the Duggar family. This paper also uses data from the shows seasons six and seven. It is much longer than a normal blog post, as it was, originally, meant as an academic paper. I would argue that the analysis is current, however, and thus thought it might be interesting to people right now. 

19 and Counting:
Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency in Liberal America

The Duggar family is nothing if not adorable.  The 19 children of Michelle and “Jim Bob” (James Robert) Duggar are attractive, funny, and opinionated. The cameras of their TLC reality show, “19 Kids & Counting,” frequently turn to 9 year old Jackson and 8 year old Johanna, who offer their wisdom on everything from which of their older sisters will be the first to marry, to how many “bajillions of people” came to the family’s book signing in Harrisburg, PA, and whether their mother will have another baby.  Just as frequently, the episodes feature matriarch Michelle calmly recounting the daily activities of homeschooling her large family, and patriarch Jim Bob often chimes in with the challenges of getting everyone to the airport on time to make their trip to New York, or organized for a mission trip to Central America. As a result of their reality-show fame, the Duggar parents have published two books and regularly appear on daytime shows such as Good Morning America and the Today Show. Now in its seventh season on air, 19 Kids and Counting has proven to be one of TLC’s most popular shows.

Although the extraordinary size of the clan is certainly one key to the show’s popularity, the producers highlight a second, and arguably more intriguing aspect of this family, the unusual theology and cultural practices they embody. In the first season of the show, the family self-described during the introduction as having “conservative values,” referring to the fundamentalist Christianity that is a regular feature of each episode. They are shown praying together, attending church, and visiting Christian conferences.  Father Jim Bob makes frequent mention of his conviction against being in debt for any purchase, and it is a staple of the show that it is their faith that motivates their commitment to un-restrained fertility.  Mother Michelle is very clear that she cedes authority in the family to her husband and views herself as “under his covering.”  A popular story arc followed eldest son Josh through his “courtship,” engagement, and marriage to Anna, a young woman from a “like-minded family.” Their relationship and engagement was overseen, and largely arranged, by their fathers.  What is remarkable about the popularity of this show is that this fringe theology is not portrayed, nor largely consumed, as a spectacle of a repugnant subculture, but as a beloved and embraced family. How has a religious expression that seemingly runs counter to wider American views of gender, family, and social mores become a mainstream hit known not as a domestic train wreck but as a more fecund, real world Waltons?  This article argues that despite the countercultural fundamentalism and conservative gender norms the family embraces, the show serves, through those who accept and those who critique the family, to reinforce the hegemonic ideology of liberal autonomy.[1]
            Like most reality shows, of course, there are aspects to the backstory of which most viewers are likely unaware, as well as more implicit “realities” that are evident, but submerged.  In terms of the Duggars’ religious identity, the show does not provide context to the theology animating the Duggars’ choices.  The Duggars follow what is known as the “Quiverfull movement” or the “new Patriarchy,” (Joyce 2009).  The name comes from Psalm 127: 3-5: “Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him./ Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth./ Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them” (NIV).  Teaching that unrestrained fertility and male authority within marriage is a divine mandate, this movement has a number of key spokespeople, including Mary Pride (The Way Home, 1985), Nancy Campbell (Be Fruitful and Multiply, 2003) and Rich and Jan Hess (A Quiver Full: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, 1990) and, most influentially for the Duggars, Bill Gothard.
The family holds to all the practices supported by Gothard’s theology including refusing to hold debt of any kind, the avoidance of pork, and “courtship,” a form of quasi-arranged marriage.  They embrace Gothard’s fundamentalist interpretations of scripture including rigid gender roles reflecting post-war U.S. ideals of the gendered spheres of private/public life, the male breadwinner and the capable homemaker. Gothard, and the Quiverfull movement generally, take this gender ideology further by joining these gender ideals with a prohibition on birth control and radically countercultural views on marriage and sexuality.
The theological context represented by the Duggars has not escaped the notice of all observers, of course. Feminists and Christians of other theological convictions have written to critique the show as reflecting, at best, a fringe theology, and, at worst, a destructive patriarchy. But unlike other TLC shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Sister Wives” (about a fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon family), the audience of “19 Kids & Counting” is not encouraged to view the Duggar family as fundamentally aberrant or, principally, as a foil for the viewing audience (cf:, Freidus 2012.) The Duggars are portrayed as likable and relatable to the viewing audience, and to judge by the many positive blog posts, book signings, and public appearances, it seems to work.
It is this issue of the portrayal of the Duggars, rather than the details of their theology or religious practice, that forms the core of this paper. The Quiverfull movement itself has been explored in a number of venues, sometimes using the Duggars as a prime example of the movement (e.g., Harrison & Rowley 2011; see also Joyce 2009).  Given the rigid and hierarchical gender roles at the heart of this movement, most of the published, academic research has been critical, examining how particular biblical passages or theological traditions have been woven together to produce a contemporary patriarchy accepted by thousands of families throughout the world (e.g., Nadar & Potgeiter 2010). The purpose in this article is to explore how the hermeneutics of representation employed by “19 Kids and Counting” has reinforced the hegemonic ideology of liberal autonomy in public life.  Specifically, the representation of the Duggars and, by extension, the Quiverfull movement, employs a neoliberal language of freedom and individuality to frame their theological positions as compatible with the wider viewing public. Presented through the language of choice and freedom, the Duggars’ potentially repellant views become, paradoxically, the embodiment of the free liberal democratic ideal. Those viewers who resist the depiction of the family as laudable or even likable first and foremost challenge the show’s assertion that every member of the family is practicing a freely chosen, morally autonomous life, as opposed to suggesting that such views should be suppressed or resisted by society. In this way, “19 Kids and Counting,” and its attendant debates, reinforces the secular public square in which any religion, no matter how illiberal, must conform to the ideals of freedom in a neoliberal public.
The first part of this paper introduces “the Duggars” as a television family.  Taken solely from their representation in the show, this is not an exploration of the Duggars’ family life and theology as practiced day to day, but as it is self-consciously presented by particular members of the family and mediated through the representational work of the producers. The next section explores this representation of the Duggars’ religious identity in the context of the Quiverfull movement,  particularly the Quiverfull movement as expressed in the writings and teaching of Bill Gothard. Although the Duggars likely draw their theology from sources in addition to Gothard, their books and personal testimony are for sale at the website of the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), the ministry of Gothard, and the convictions they do express on the show map entirely onto the teachings of the IBLP.  Finally, through the portrayal of the Duggars on the show, and the framing of their beliefs and practices, the program appeals to a liberal discourse of choice and market freedom, revealing the kind of postsecular discourse (Habermas 2006, Calhoun 2011) in which religion in the public sphere adopts the privatized and liberal framework defining the public square, covering over the hierarchies embraced by those within the religion.  Gender and power ideologies at the heart of this theology, and central to the lived religion of the Duggar family, are sublimated to this overarching language of liberalism, allowing the non-fundamentalist viewer to relate to and even embrace the Duggars. Translating their lives into this accepted public ideology of liberal freedom, the family and producers not only make this religious fundamentalism acceptable, the Duggars can be framed as a kind of American ideal of family and faith.
The Daily Lives of the Duggars.
The show is largely promoted as the quotidian realities of a big family. The titles of Michelle’s blog entries hosted on the TLC website are mostly general parenting advice such as, “Guiding Your Teen to Adulthood” and “Making Memories at Thanksgiving” (TLC 2013).  Michelle often comments on the authenticity of the program, commenting either on camera or in voice over, saying something along the lines of, “People say how much they love the show, but I tell them, it’s not a show; this is our life.”  Yet in spite of such claims of unmediated access, and the foregrounding of everyday life in promotional materials, there is no question that the episodes themselves filter and construct a view of the family in which the audience is routinely exposed to the hyper-conservative religious ideology of the family.  In pop-up bubbles and voice-overs (and, as seen below, occasionally through entire episodes), the viewer is reminded of such things as “Each Duggar girl is assigned a younger child to care for,” or “We believe it’s important for young ladies to keep their hearts pure.” As the episodes condense days or weeks of the family’s life into a one-hour episode, complete with individual family commentary, the constructed nature of the representation of the Duggar family and their conservative religious identity becomes obvious.  In order to position this as part of the liberal public, the construction serves to place their religious ideology as solely a reflection of individual agency and choice.
Most episodes follow a narrative formula such as “Duggars Take a Dip” (2010). The episode tracks several mini-narratives, along with vignettes of family life.  This episode opens with Michelle in the nursery, caring for Josie, their youngest, prematurely-born daughter. The camera approaches from behind with a view of Michelle leaning into Josie’s crib, and a wall plaque in the foreground that reads, “As for God, His way is Perfect.” After briefly explaining Michelle’s need for convalescence and Josie’s developmental stage (she is being weaned off supplemental oxygen), the focus moves to an account of Jim Bob taking the children to swim at a friend’s pool. Over a montage of the coordination necessary to get eighteen kids out the door, the viewer gets a very common kind of voice-over from 12-year-old Jason: “Since we have so many kids, it takes us a long time to get ready!”
When they arrive at the pool, we meet Theresa, one of the “like-minded” people with whom the Duggars regularly associate.  The pool is owned by Theresa’s mother- and father-in-law who line the Duggar kids up on the edge of the pool to provide a swimming lesson.  The boys are wearing short-sleeved wet suits, and the girls are wearing wet-suits, leggings, skirts, and t-shirts. After the lesson, a montage of swimming is accompanied by talking-head interviews and voice-overs of Jason, Jessa and Michelle talking about the swimwear.  Jason begins:
Jason: We wear diving suits and the girls wear…wholesome wear.[2]
Michelle: The goal really is to just keep our focus on our countenance. And to not be drawing attention to places that our eyes don’t need to be going.
Jessa: In our family our parents have always taught us that it’s important to be modest, so we’ve chosen to wear modest swimwear. And our modest swimsuits are comfortable.
Michelle: It doesn’t really make any difference to them, and they want to be covered. So it makes it really easy for them to really enjoy swimming.
Heather, the teen daughter of Theresa, is shown throwing Josiah around in the pool.  Heather is also wearing a t-shirt over her swimming suit (or wholesome wear.)  Josiah says, “Heather Fedosky is very much like her mom. Very funny. She dunked me quite a few times.”  “Because,” Joy Anna breaks in, “you were being a rotten boy.”  With a wry smile and an elbow to the ribs, we are again brought back to the happy relationships of the family, the smooth inter-gender banter, and a sense that everyone is living the life they chose.
The swimming theme takes up roughly the first third of the episode.  The next third follows newly-licensed daughter Jinger taking younger brother Jeremiah to buy a chess set for his birthday, followed by scenes of Jeremiah beating his siblings in multiple games, along with a few other everyday activities, including several of the middle boys cooking a brunch, and one of the older girls, Jill, cooking with the youngest children. The final vignette is devoted to Michelle’s trip to speak at a nearby church seminar on motherhood. Michelle has taken her five oldest daughters (who Jim Bob calls “her credentials”).  At one point during the final segment, Michelle gives a voiceover saying, “I want them to be a part of any ladies meeting, because I feel like they can learn what it means to be a godly woman.” The episode ends with a brief montage of the girls posing for pictures with other teen girls from the conference, and groups of women hugging Michelle, while Michelle’s voice over concludes, “I think Moms are open to help from other moms. I figure if they’re there, they’re open to be encouraged.”          
The focus on gendered practices appears in numerous episodes, highlighting the unconventional practices and beliefs of the family, but framing them as personal choices without judgment on those who choose otherwise. Although these choices are often explained through a gender essentialism, suggesting the transcendent morality of gender roles, the focus always comes back to the freedom of each person to make such decisions for him or herself.
In the episode “Duggars on Fire,” one of the narratives of the episode is following two of the older teen girls, Jana and Jessa, through their process of putting together a dress-uniform for their roles as volunteer members of the local fire department’s EMT team. The dark-blue suit, for men and women, normally consists of a jacket and slacks. However, as a pop-up bubble informs the viewers, “None of the older Duggar girls have ever worn pants.”
Josh’s wife Anna provides much of the commentary in the episode as she ends up doing much of the work to convert a pair of dress slacks into a skirt.  At one point, while the shot moves between images of the Duggar girls shopping and Anna and Josh being interviewed in their living room, Anna comments on the conviction of the Duggar family to wear skirts:
I think the main reason Joshua’s sisters don’t wear pants is just to be feminine and to look like a lady. [At this point a shot of the clerk is interposed as she is saying: “These are unisex; they’re men’s and women’s pants, so…”] I don’t sense a judgmental spirit from them.  If someone wears pants, it’s obviously each person’s decision and it’s…I mean, it’s not a really big issue but just for them….  Obviously they would wear the fire suits. You can’t walk into a fire in a skirt. If someone wears pants it’s obviously…
Anna hesitates at this point and Josh interjects:
I think and in business too and even in the fire department you know it’s important for them to keep it just that to where…Their focus is on doing what they’re there for, and nothing else. And when you start, and you’re talking about different things like that, you know you’re drawing interest, especially when it’s a bunch of guys.
Anna: It’s really a way to show they’re different to…men.
In this exchange, like the earlier apologetic for their use of “wholesome wear,” there is a clear reference to the gender essentialism supporting their views, but it is predominantly framed in terms of personal choice and the individual freedom of self-expression and marketplace liberalism. The astute viewer can detect subtle Christian theological language in their account (“a judgmental spirit”), but they do not appeal to theological categories explicitly, quoting scripture or theological teaching, either regarding the wearing of pants or in the affirmation of “wholesome wear.” In this way, the viewer can readily accept the Duggars’ ideology as mere preference rather than moral stricture.  As a preference, though perhaps a bit odd, it is harmonious with so-called U.S. middle-class culture.  Even when the parents are discussing the behaviors of the children it is often framed as the free choice of the children themselves (“…it doesn’t make any difference to them, and they want to be covered…”) that leads them to accept the convictions of their parents.
            Occasionally, the program highlights criticism of the Duggars’ lives by providing an opportunity for the Duggars to address viewers’ questions. Several of these “Ask the Duggars” episodes have aired over the past seasons, with questions ranging from the innocuous (“How much cereal does your family eat every week?”) to the politically challenging (“How can you justify having so many children in a world so overpopulated?”)  Through the same combination of voice over, montage, and talking-head interviews, the family accepts these questions good naturedly and directly. In response to the question about overpopulation, for example, Jim Bob responds that overpopulation is “one of the greatest myths” in the contemporary world, noting that the whole population of the world could “fit inside the city limits of Jacksonville.” Yet the real critique of the Duggars continues to come back to the question of freedom and individuality. In their own defense and in the public criticism, the questions from critical viewers return to the notion that the children are not free to make independent decisions as free, autonomous moral agents, as demanded by liberal virtue in the public sphere.  For example, one of the viewers posed the question: “Why is it a family rule not to dance?”  The first response comes from older daughter Jill, who says, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a rule.” The answer then cuts together statements from Michelle and Jim Bob before returning to Jill.
Michelle: It’s a personal conviction that I have, and I know Jim Bob also has that.
Jim Bob: We try not to shake body parts around to draw attention to our bodies.
Jill: We don’t want to stir up desires different things that cannot be righteously fulfilled, that cannot be…I don’t know, our family has chosen not to dance.
Through the progression from Jill, to Michelle, Jim Bob and back to Jill, the montage suggests that this is a family decision, personal to each member of the family.  Of course, the reflective viewer will understand that, like most families, children do not come to “decisions” about their own convictions in the same way their parents do (or did).  This is true of families generally, of course. Parents and other adults always take an active role in socialization that strongly shape, if not determine, children’s preferences. In a family such as the Duggars who are all home-schooled by their mother and older siblings, who socialize only with “like minded” friends, and who do not have internet or television in the home, it is easy for some viewers to imagine that the children are not quite so free as the narratives seem to suggest.   
“Free Jinger” : The Liberal Critique
            One of the more aggressive anti-Duggar voices comes through a discussion forum (and associated Facebook page) called  Jinger, now 18, has long been a fan favorite for her slightly edgy look (she frequently wears black chokers and heavy eye liner) and mildly sarcastic manner (she has been “caught” giving eye rolls during some of her siblings’ on-camera interviews). For the Free Jinger activists, the question around all the children, but particularly Jinger, is the extent to which they are going to “break away” from their parents’ theology, or the degree to which they are suppressing true desires under the guise of conformity to the family’s headship theology, gender roles, and religiously defined standards. In the words of some of these anti-Duggar voices, Jinger represents the “best hope” for one of the Duggar kids to “break away” from the family.
            The primary forum for these critics are internet discussion pages, blogs dedicated to critiquing fundamentalist Christianity generally, and snarky entertainment sites featuring contributors who monitor celebrity life.   Here, the Free Jinger participants have made Jinger Duggar a metonym for a phantasmagoria of all their frustrations with conservative religion.  That Jinger is imagined to be “enslaved” supports a vision of human freedom rooted in liberal views of civil rights and autonomy.  On the celebrity gossip blog “Crushable,” one commentator gushed about Jinger’s declaration that one day she’d like to live in a city as a sign that Jinger was ready to become “a free individual.” The commentator asserts, “But for a second we saw her breaking out of that mode and expressing her desire to be a free individual. It was like watching the classic ‘give us free’ scene from Amistad. But with a girl in an oppressive jean skirt, rather than shackles.” (Maier 2012)  An article referencing the same “19 and Counting” episode appeared on another media-watch blog, “,” eliciting from one enthusiastic Free Jinger supporter: “I hope she does get away. It is very creepy that all the girls dress alike and wear their hair alike. Girls like individuality. The Duggar girls seem to have none. And mom and dad saying they can't kiss until they marry? How will that happen if they can't date? Find a nice town somewhere Jinger and be careful, be safe but make a life for yourself.” (Tereszcuk 2012) On the Free Jinger site itself, in the largest discussion forum called “Quiver Full of Snark,” (343,000+ posts), threads only occasionally address the Duggar family themselves, and are more likely to be diatribes against conservative/fundamentalist religion generally (including Islam), anti-abortion politics, and the opposition of gay rights.  Commensurate with a political rhetoric that associates liberal social politics with self-determination, freedom of personal expression, and libertarian sexual ethics, Jinger’s “bondage” to her parent’s authority symbolizes the oppression of religious hierarchy and traditionalist kinship arrangements generally.
            The producers themselves do, occasionally, raise the question of individual autonomy, though it typically does so in order to give the Duggars the opportunity to confirm the independent conscience and full information afforded the children, even if their “choices” and beliefs are outside the mainstream.  One of these unusual episodes followed the Duggar family to the Creation Museum near Louisville, KY.  After chronicling the mundane aspects of traveling together in their coach bus (outfitted with sleeping berths, a bathroom, and small kitchenette), the family arrived at the museum to be met by Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, a conservative Christian organization promoting literal six-day, young earth creationism (cf:, Numbers 2006). After showing the family touring the museum featuring dioramas of dinosaurs and humans inhabiting the pre-flood Garden of Eden together, the producers interview several of the children about their experience. Josiah, then age 13, is asked by the producers, “Do you ever wonder if your parents are censoring...? Do you know what ‘censoring’ means? [“like taking out?”]  Yeah, do you ever wonder if your parents are trying to not let you see the other side of things?”  He begins to answer: “I don’t think our parents are trying to not let us see the rest of, you know, the world…”  His response is cut off as the producers switch to short interview segments from older siblings John David, Jill, Jessa and Jana giving their conviction that the creation museum’s portrayal of so-called creation science is superior to evolutionary explanations.
Jill: I think the world, definitely, is as the Bible says, 6,000 years old…
John David: It’s pretty obvious once you start looking into it what really would be, you know, more factual.
Jessa: It’s actually, you know, more scientifically proven than billions of years old. God had everything planned whenever he created the world in six days. The Bible clearly displays all that.
Jana: Some things that they say in evolution make sense, but then if you read in the Bible you can…it lines up to where its not, you know, its not correct; it’s totally different.
The camera then turns on new voices in a “man on the street”-style video in which four people (three men and one woman) who are not part of the show’s cast respond to questions such as “Do you believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?” and “Did dinosaurs and humans live together?” There are no context clues to place these individuals in relation to the Creation Museum or the Duggar family, but their answers are juxtaposed with images of the family touring the museum. All four of these random interview subjects reject the young age of the earth, and three of the four correctly give the answer that dinosaurs and humans were not contemporaries. The final interview clip suggests that the man is not quite sure if dinosaurs and humans co-existed, but he has his doubts (perhaps stoked by the nature of the interview and questions.)  His answer, which the producers select as the final word left with the viewer, returns to a theme of liberal tolerance if not freedom. “I don’t know if dinosaurs and humans were kickin’ it back then,” the 30-something man responds.  “How about to each his own?”
            The segment is admittedly ambiguous, as the montage of the family in the museum accompanied by the anti-creationist views of the non-Duggars could be read as an ironic indictment of Josiah’s conviction that his parents are not, in fact, concealing the world from the kids. What is not ambiguous is the revelation by the producers that they’re not against highlighting the conflicts between the unusual beliefs of the Duggar family and the wider society, but with the final statement – “To each his own” - they lead the viewer to accept the notion that the children’s views are gained in essentially the same way as their parents (rather than primarily from their parents), along with suggesting that these differences should be simply tolerated as quirky views. The central problematic, for the critics and the producers, is not the religiously based hierarchies or kinship structures themsevles, but the question of how “free” the members of the family (i.e., the children) really are.
The Duggars and Quiverfull Theology
The theological support for their lives comes from a general movement known as the “Quiverfull movement.”  The Duggars follow the teachings of a particular member of this movement, Bill Gothard.  Gothard, a controversial figure in the Christian world, is known for his conservative views on gender, marriage, and popular culture.  He has drawn sharp criticism from inside and outside Christian circles over his un-conventional interpretation of scripture, secrecy, and sex, even while building a multimillion-dollar publishing empire and massive following (cf:, Veinot 2003, also Joyce 2009). Emphasizing a patriarchal family structure as the “biblical family,” Gothard preaches the importance of dating and marriage as approved and overseen by fathers, the importance of living a completely debt-free life (including mortgage or student debt), the centrality of childbirth for a woman’s life (obviating the use of birth control in any way), the avoidance of pork, and strict gender roles in dress, behavior and family life.
From his official web site, Gothard’s theology is described as being rooted in the Bible and his ministry experience
After 15 years of working with inner-city gangs, church youth groups, high school clubs, youth camps, and families in crisis, Bill wrote his master’s thesis on a youth program that eventually led to seven Biblical, non-optional principles of life which, when followed, will result in harmonious relationships in all areas of life.[3]
The seven “Biblical (sic), non-optional principles” are described under the headings of Design, Authority, Responsibility, Suffering, Ownership, Freedom, and Success.  These are each developed according to verses and theological statements drawn from the Bible.  While several of these might seem to fit a “civil religion” model of Christianity (e.g., Bellah et al, 1985), the teachings of Gothard all run contrary to liberal notions of negative freedom typical of U.S. political philosophy.[4]  For example, the principle of “freedom” is explained in the following paragraph:
A young person who loses his or her virtue is robbed of a power that God uses to produce spiritual initiative, creativity, wisdom, and understanding. For this reason, there are warnings throughout Scripture for young people to flee youthful lusts and to keep themselves pure for the Lord and for the one they marry. No principle could be needed more urgently in our day, when lust and perversion are taking multitudes of young people captive in sexual addictions that destroy the very foundations of life, health, riches, and happiness. Moral freedom is not the right to do what we want, but the power to do what we ought, and that is the goal and message of this principle (emphasis added.)  
While this runs counter to the prevailing negative freedom of U.S. life and thought, it is not outside the liberal view of the autonomous moral agent. It is this positive freedom, some could argue, that compels the Duggar family to wear “wholesome wear” in order that their eyes would not go where “eyes don’t need to be going.”
            But Gothard’s theology is not simply built on the freedom to choose moral rightness for independent moral agents. Gothard began his international ministry through the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts.  With little more than a collection of simple sketches and a fairly dry outline of advice, Gothard built a speaking juggernaut that was filling 10,000 person arenas in the 1970s and 1980s (Veinot et al, 2002).  In particular, he focused on the importance of a “dating” life organized around the principle of male authority, particularly the authority of fathers, and the centrality of marriage as the context or goal of all romantic relationships. Although he does not explicitly call for arranged marriages (he allows for the possibility of young people being the initiators of a relationship), the practice of initiating a marriage is built on the wisdom and authority of fathers to approve a relationship very early in the dating (or “courtship”) process (Gothard 1981).
            This submission to hierarchy goes beyond a positive understanding of freedom to establish a hierarchy of value, in which fathers, and to a lesser extent mothers, have a divine right and duty to control the choices of children.  These hierarchies of value directly contradict liberal notions of freedom.  An inability to reconcile accounts of freedom, which necessitate the defense of a public square free of interference on individual conscience, and universal commitments to morally transcendent hierarchies, creates crisis in the public square, often leading to the exclusion or persecution of religion.
            Keep in mind, hierarchical authority is the normal state of affairs in most families, at least up to a point. Most TLC viewers would likely be comfortable with any family having parental control of matters relating to young children, issues of education, value formation, and the like.  On the other hand, choices about marriage/sexual partners, clothing, music, and use of leisure time are generally thought to be areas of personal (i.e., negative) freedom beyond authority.  In the now-classic sociological study Habit of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his co-authors (1985) quoted a Gallup poll that 80 percent of U.S. Americans agreed with the statement that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues."  In the political sphere, as well, the role of religious language and values are frequently characterized as illegitimate bases on which to build political opinion, social policy, or public discourse.
            While the Duggars are not advancing a political agenda per se, their presence in a public setting sets up a potential conflict between the vision of a social ethic enforced by authority as seen in the theology of Bill Gothard, and the liberal notions of individual autonomy, in which free moral agents exercise choice, particularly over the most intimate, embodied aspects of life, such as sexual morality, family planning, and gender identity.  As Charles Hirschkind has argued, “As for religion, to the extent that [religious] institutions enabling the cultivation of religious virtue have become subsumed within (and transformed by) the legal and administrative structures linked to the state, then the (traditional) project of preserving those virtues will necessarily be political if it is to succeed” (Hirschkind 1997 as quoted in Mahmood 2005: 193). For the producers of TLC, and even for the Duggar family themselves, they have chosen to engage the political through the language of individual freedom and moral, autonomous choice; what makes their admittedly odd, even potentially offensive, theology acceptable in the public sphere is the suggestion that each family member, including the youngest children, are presented as making a free moral choice in response to personal will and desire, rather than external authority.  While some clearly doubt the legitimacy of that claim, it is on this ground that the acceptance or rejection of the Duggars seems to turn, and the key discursive strategy of the producers in making the Duggars a sympathetic, perhaps even enviable, family.
Freedom and Agency in Submission
            What emerge from this tension – are the Duggar children freely choosing their lives, or are they imprisoned in a system imposed by tyrannical parents? – are questions about the relevance or legitimacy of the cultural framing imposed by TLC. In a number of innovative studies of contemporary religious movements emphasizing gendered hierarchies, women’s submission and rigid gender roles are being re-theorized away from a liberal-illiberal dichotomy, suggesting that the women embracing these systems are generating “a variety of substantial yet flexible meanings through which they experience some degree of control, however limited it may often appear” (Griffith 1997: 183).  In other words, for women in the Quiverfull movement, including the Duggars, there may be a different matrix of choice that is not best understood in terms of liberal dichotomies of oppression and resistance.
            In her examination of a fundamentalist Islamic women’s movement in Egypt, Saba Mahmood (2005) also makes this argument.  She suggests that feminist analysis rooted in liberal notions of freedom cannot make sense of the agency involved in forming these Islamic subjects.
How do we conceive of individual freedom in a context where the distinction between the subject’s own desires and socially prescribed performances cannot be easily presumed, and where submission to certain forms of (external) authority is a condition for achieving the subject’s potentiality? In other words, how does one make the question of politics integral to the analysis of the architecture of the self? (2005: 31)
Mahmood’s answer to these questions is a subtle ethnographic exploration of religious debates, embodied gender practices, and kinship within these Muslim families by which Muslim women learn a habitus in which the self is formed in relationship with others, to authority and hierarchy, and as a political action outside liberalism.
            In her analysis of the North American female submission movement “Women Aglow,” R. Marie Griffith (1997) works more comfortably within a liberal framework of choice and freedom, yet also comes to a position complicating categories of oppression or resistance. Throughout her two years of intense fieldwork, she uncovered a complex and nuanced range of meanings the women constructed from and within this seemingly sexist movement. In the end she remains unconvinced that by embracing “God’s design” in marriage, the women of the Aglow movement are not likely losing more than they gain, yet she also recognizes that “the hope created within that context may well have greater significance than any outsider can fathom; so the women themselves have told me, again and again” (1997: 213). It may be that this greater significance can only be understood, not simply from the inside, but from a vantage that does not start with a liberal subject as the only unit of agency and analysis.
TLC provides no such space for questioning the appropriateness of individual freedom as the metric by which the Duggars are to be judged.  Mahmood notes that her study explicitly does not explore the hermeneutics of agency (2005:122).  As a product of reality television, the reality-show version of the Duggars are only subject to the hermeneutics of agency, in this case drawn exclusively from a liberal frame.  That is, while TLC, the Duggars’ fans, the Duggars’ detractors, and even the Duggars themselves, wrestle over the degree to which their views can be framed within liberal notions of positive or negative freedom for the acting subject, the possibility of religious agency outside the categories of liberal freedom remains unspoken and unexamined.  “19 and Counting,” like the fundamentalist Baptists of Susan Harding’s (1991, 2001) work in the 1990s, becomes a prism through which various interested parties imagine and project their own understandings of the liberal ideal and public religion.
Conclusion: Religion in Liberal America
            In his argument for the “postsecular” conception of the contemporary public sphere, Jurgan Habermas (2006) suggests that the religious person is now required to consider his or her own faith reflexively, translating it from a sectarian discourse into the language of a secular public (cf. Calhoun 2011).  TLC accomplished this postsecular turn through its presentation of the Duggars as 19 independent moral agents voluntarily embracing the American virtues of freedom of conscience. The difficulty (if not impossibility) of imagining the children in terms of moral agency leads critics to suspect the testimony of the older Duggers as coerced, insincere, or as a form of oppression on the part of the parents. (The Free Jinger sites are replete with speculation as to which of the children are really “drinking the Kool-Aid.”)  But as the family itself is placed in the position of advocating for an understanding of their lives as the collection of freely chosen preferences, made in the presence of the wider world of choices, they complete the circle in which everyone exists only within the arena of the modern liberal subject.
            On the official TLC Facebook page for 19 Kids & Counting (760,000+ “likes”), the page is loaded with comments expressing how “inspired” and “moved” viewers are by the morals and family bonds of the Duggars.  The occasional snarky or critical piece there mostly reflects the idea that the children are being “exploited” or “used” against their will. But even as the debate goes on, it is clear that the terms of the debate are settled. In the U.S. public media, and its attendant political sphere, media producers such as TLC and the viewing public collude to put forward the position that the theology and public religion of the Duggars, or anyone, should only be acceptable as the free choice of a liberal agent. Debating the rightness or wrongness of any theological position becomes secondary, if not off-limits, while the real question concerns the degree to which those practicing the faith chose to do so and are free to leave. Oppression is only and ever defined as coercion.  Anything else would be, almost literally, unthinkable. 
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[1] Research on U.S. American attitudes towards gender roles and marriage (consistent themes of the show), reveal Americans’ divergence from the practices and beliefs of the Duggar family (see Medora et al., 2002; 
[2] The term “wholesome wear” is not their own, but is the trade name of the company producing the swimwear. See
[4] There is a great deal of literature about the nature of freedom/liberty in U.S. political thought and life.  A good introduction to this discussion can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012). Carter, Ian, "Positive and Negative Liberty", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =