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Behind the Duggar smile: Family’s troubling connection to Bill Gothard’s IBLP uncovered

Princess Jones reviews Amazon Prime's new docuseries “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” looking at the famous "19 Kids and Counting" family and their religion.

(Religion Unplugged) — America got a glimpse of the happy Duggar family in an hour-long special, “14 Kids and Counting,” way back in 2004. They kept having kids, soaking up viral fame in the reality TV era and raising questions about big families, home schooling and Christianity in America.

Americans would become so captivated by this well-behaved Christian family that 10 seasons of “19 Kids and Counting” would showcase the happy family. However, behind the smiling faces were dark secrets and a religion that resembled a cult. These were the real lives of the Duggar children, who are now growing up and starting families of their own.

“Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets” is the latest docuseries from Amazon Prime that focuses on the family and its connections to the nonprofit organization Institute in Basic Life Principles, created by an unordained teacher named Bill Gothard, who was based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Ill.

Gothard offered popular seminars on Christian principles for living around the U.S. and expanded his ministry to include a large home-schooling network of thousands of families like the Duggars.

For years the Arkansas-based Duggar family maintained their perfect fundamentalist Christian image, one of thousands of families involved in Gothard’s home-schooling network. However, in 2015, the oldest son, Josh Duggar, came under fire after his sexual assault on girls came to light, which included two of his sisters. Since then, various sexual scandals have come to light against him, with the most recent being a child pornography charge.

While some kids in the Duggar family have left the institute, the main voice for the Duggar family in the documentary is Jill Duggar Dillard. Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar were involved in the institute before their TV days. In the series, we hear from several former members recounting the harmful effects the religion had on themselves and their families.

Gothard founded the Institute of Basic Life Principles in 1961. The principles were designed to help youth and parents make good biblical decisions and to avoid pitfalls in life. Gothard, who studied sociology at Wheaton University in Illinois, developed principles to help inner city youth — including gang members — in Chicago and eventually created curriculum and seminar materials for larger audiences.

Jill Duggar Dillard

By 1965 the first seminar was held in Chicago for 120 students. The material gained a larger following in the 1960s and 1970s as Gothard’s ideas represented an antidote to the harmful drugs and ennui of the hippie movement.

Bill Gothard taught seven basic principles that Christians should live by: design, authority, responsibility, suffering, ownership, freedom and success.

According to Jill and the former members of the home-schooling network, the Advanced Training Institute of America, the umbrella of authority was a more favored principle Bill would teach.

“Every one of us has umbrellas of protection,” said Gothard in a clip from the documentary. “If we get out from under the umbrella, we expose ourselves to the realm and the power of Satan’s control.”

For many people, love is the driving factor in building a relationship with God. However, for former institute members, fear drives their relationship with the father. While kids probably couldn’t play Monopoly, they could play Commands of Christ,a game created by the institute. Instead of getting a go-to-jail card, they could go to the venomous pit of bitterness or the torture pit of temporal values. Little girls couldn’t have Cabbage Patch dolls because a warlock made them — which is probably why the Duggar girls never owned one. And the institute taught that music with a rock beat, even Christian rock music, could be bad.

“When a young person listens to a rock song, even Christian rock, they give Satan a little square in their soul,” said Gothard in a clip from the documentary.

While the Duggar family draws in viewers, the real star of the docuseries is Institute in Basic Life Principles teachings and their destructive results. The series unpacks the fear and training put into children by the Advanced Training Institute of America, the Christian home-schooling movement that combats public school indoctrination. To this day, Christians continue to discuss whether public, private or home schooling is the best option for their children.

To provide an education “adequate” for home-schoolers, ATIA created “wisdom booklets.” The booklets prioritize biblical principles over reading and writing. The educational books are built around the Sermon on the Mount and give a biblical worldview to all other studies.

“In the wisdom booklet, there are these drawings of women, and they’re wearing various different outfits,” said Brooke Arnold, a former IBLP member featured in the documentary. “The assignment is to figure out what’s slutty about each woman’s outfit. Instead of learning math, you’re learning slut-shaming.”

Those same lessons and mistreatment would follow many girls and boys to IBLP ministry programs for children. Children were put to work for long hours and dealt with leadership issues. When kids would do something “wrong,” leaders would sometimes send them to a “prayer room” for an undefined amount of time.

Lara Smith, a former IBLP member.

“I bought a box of tampons — they (IBLP leaders) went through my stuff,” said Heather Heath, a former member featured in the docuseries. “They took them instantly. They said these are a form of pleasure. I got locked in my room because I took my own virginity with them and robbed my husband of the right to break my hymen. So, they took my devil sticks.”

Knowing God’s love sadly wasn’t a feeling that many youths received within this form of the Christian religion. And the teaching rarely focused on the person and work of Jesus. Rather, it focused on rules, laws and, procedures. It was a pharisaical and legalistic expression of Christianity, perhaps equivalent to rigid forms of Islam, Judaism or other major faiths.

“In IBLP, you’re on high alert all the time, digging into everything, making sure you’re not doing, thinking or feeling anything that’s going to get you sent to hell,” said Lara Smith, a former IBLP member featured in the docuseries. “Hell was very vivid for us. It was not an abstract concept. I would dream about being burned alive because I would think, ‘Ugh, I really hate my brother today.’“

All of these ministry programs and home-schooling network were part of a bigger plan by Gothard. That plan was for a “Joshua generation” — a group of elite home-schooled children who could rise to the highest level of government, something they saw as essential to take over the government for Jesus and reestablish the role of Christianity as central to America’s identity. Alex J. Harries, a Harvard graduate and lawyer, was a big part of the Joshua generation. Currently, he has deconstructed from that ideology.

In a Twitter post discussing his deconstructed thoughts about Christianity, culture and politics, he stated: “I find no support in Scripture for Christians to put their hope in political power or favor. Certainly not for treating the United States as akin to a new Israel — a common but dangerous theological (and usually politically motivated) analogy.”

Bill Gothard is no longer in a leadership position at IBLP. While Gothard was in an authoritative role, 30 women accused him of sexual harassment. These scandals would lead him to resign from leadership.

“Shiny Happy People” is a refreshing documentary about deconstructing from bad teachings associated with Christianity. Many faith documentaries have former members bad-mouth the religion and walk away from the faith. While some former IBLP members have walked away from God, others have unpacked faulty teaching or legalism. For some people in the documentary, they’ve sought God’s wisdom to see if what they learned was even biblical to begin with.

The Bible tells believers to beware of false prophets and teachers who lead people astray. I applaud Jill Duggar Dillard and Jinger Duggar Vuolo, who were able to deconstruct from IBLP teachings without blaming God for people’s misrepresentation of the word.

“IBLP and the teachings draw in people like my dad, who want this control,” Dillard said. “It can foster this cult-like environment. I absolutely think that people would be drawn to that.”

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar released a personal statement on their website regarding the docuseries.

“We love every member of our family and will continue to do all we can to have a good relationship with each one,” they wrote. “Through both the triumphs and the trials we have clung to our faith all the more and discovered that through the love and grace of Jesus, we find strength, comfort, and purpose.”

Princess Jones is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. Jones was a features editorial assistant at The New York Post and has worked for Religion Unplugged and the New York Amsterdam News. She is an alumna of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee, and of the NYC Semester in Journalism program at The King’s College in New York City.