Josh Duggar and the Purity/Courtship Culture’s Distorted View of Sex

“Hey Dad, somebody hacked into Ashley Madison and is gonna leak all their data…” [turns around and looks at Dad-shaped hole in the wall]

Who would have imagined a scene like this playing out at the Duggar home?

On second thought, given the purity culture of the stream of evangelicalism that the Duggars represent, it isn’t that far-fetched after all.

duggarJosh Duggar admitted cheating on his wife this week.  This came a day after a Gawker article revealed that he had maintained two Ashley Madison accounts.  Duggar, of the TLC reality show “19 Kids And Counting”, had parlayed that fame into a position as executive director of Family Research Council, a conservative family-values lobbying organization based in DC.  Duggar resigned earlier this year amid controversy over reports that he had molested five young women, four of them his sisters, starting back in 2002.

It’s a story that continues to grow and mutate with each passing week.  But instead of focusing on Josh and the Duggar family, we should instead focus on the ideas, theology, and culture that got us here.

The Duggars are the most public representatives of a small but prominent evangelical tribe which has, among other things, very specific views about sex before marriage.  They place a very strong emphasis on not having sex prior to marriage and on courtship–heavily supervised courtship–as the proper way for men and women to connect relationally.

Reserving sex for marriage is an essential discipline of the Christian faith, and there are very good reasons for this.  Yet in many parts of evangelicalism, there is such a heavy emphasis on sexual purity as the way in which we Christians live out our faith that it crowds out anything else that can be said about God and Jesus Christ.  In these places, sexual purity is what moves the needle and Jesus Christ is, at best, an assumed but unimportant presence.  I have written about this in an earlier post.

An example of this is young-ish conservative writer/speaker/blogger Matt Walsh’s Facebook rant, written the day after the story broke and the day Duggar released his confession.  A money quote:

In any case, we learn yet again that, as Chesterton said, the Christian ideal has never been tried and found wanting, but it has been tried and found difficult. To live up to our faith is difficult. Nobody does it perfectly — I know I certainly don’t — but when we put ourselves in front of the world as role models, we are called to carry an even heavier burden of responsibility.

Notice how Walsh apparently equates the purity/courtship movement’s view of sex with the Christian ideal.  It is true enough that Christianity has been tried and found difficult, but in this instance what is being tried and found wanting is not the Christian ideal, but the sexual ideology of a small evangelical movement.  Also note how Walsh emphasizes sin, personal responsibility, and bad decisions, as if ideas, theology, and culture do nothing whatsoever to create a context in which these bad decisions are made.  Duggar bears full responsibility for his sinful choices, and there is no attempt to examine or question the sexual ideology that provided the context for those choices.

No one sins in a vacuum.  All our choices happen within the context of ideas, beliefs, and culture.  Yet the whole emphasis of Walsh’s rant is on Duggar’s choices, for which he alone bears full responsibility.  Duggar failed to follow the rules, let him reap the consequences.  No suggestion that the rules themselves may be flawed.  The Duggars, and the purity/courtship movement which they represent, promote abstinence and courtship as THE key to sound marriages, yet here we have an instance where that claim is found severely wanting.  When you obsess about sex (and the not having of it), don’t be surprised to see sex become an obsession.  When you treat sex as a shameful thing never to be discussed, don’t be surprised to see people turning sex into a shameful thing.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there is an even bigger question in play here.  I asked it in my earlier post and I shall ask it again:  Where is God in all of this?  Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?  When you speak of the purity/courtship culture’s sexual ideology as the Christian ideal, you crowd out anything else that could be said about God or Jesus Christ.

Our faith does have things to say about sex, and we need to talk about that at some point.  But when an evangelical subculture conflates their sexual ideology with the Christian message, it creates a faith which is stunted and inadequate.  Especially when this ideology makes promises on which it cannot deliver, such as the purity/courtship movement’s claim that their way of doing relationships results in perfect relationships and fairytale marriages.  We are seeing one such marriage disintegrate right before our very eyes, and it is not a pretty sight.