Occasional Paper: Howell, “19 and Counting: Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency”

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

Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

Editorial Note – This article was written prior to Josh Duggar’s recent admission to having molested unspecified minors twelve years ago, and also to his resignation from the Family Research Council. Points made herein about liberalism, agency, and coercion, though, have much to contribute to current debates regarding this issue. 

Abstract: TLC’s reality show “19 and Counting” (nee 18 and Counting; nee 17 and Counting) follows the Duggar family and their many children and grandchildren through “everyday life.” Described as “conservative Christians,” the show presents insights into the challenges of managing such a large family as well as extended coverage of the particular beliefs and practices of the family, such as the practice of “courtship,” a kind of arranged marriage, strictly limited physical contact prior to marriage, and the practice of rigid gender roles. While this form of conservative/fundamentalist Christianity fits within the scholarly orbit of what Susan Harding termed the “repugnant cultural other,” this reality show has consistently been one of the most popular TLC shows and generated wide-spread celebrity for the family. In this paper I argue that the network employs discourse of liberal freedom and autonomous moral choice to make the presence of an illiberal community in the midst of the United States acceptable, even attractive, to the wider audience. The audience of this TLC program learns very little about the sociality of this form of religion, even as they are inspired to accept and embrace the cultural others in their midst.

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 (Harding 1991), 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]

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