There was just something wholesome about that Duggar family. Or at least that’s what TLC wanted you to think. Sure, they were a little quirky, with their weird religious beliefs, but look how well behaved their kids were and how much Jim Bob and Michelle clearly loved each other to have that many kids.
There was just something cool about Hillsong. Or at least that’s what social media wanted you to think. Sure, their religious beliefs were a little conservative when you dug deeper, but look at how stylish they all looked, how many young people attended on Sundays, and how popular their music was around the world.
I watched The Secrets of Hillsong and Shiny Happy People in quick succession earlier this month. Both docuseries track the rise and fall of all-stars of the evangelical world — the Duggar family and Hillsong Church. They detail the various scandals that rocked both groups and uncover the patterns of abuse underlying these seemingly unrelated scandals.
In The Secrets of Hillsong, we enter the world of Hillsong Church. What starts off as a story about Carl Lentz, the pastor of Hillsong New York, soon turns into a broader story of decades of abuse by men in leadership positions in the church and the accompanying cover up by church leadership. The focus shifts to the Houston family — Frank Houston, who founded the church that would later become Hillsong, and Brian Houston, his son and the lead pastor who expanded Hillsong’s reach around the world. The rest of the series focuses on how the Houstons gained infamy when it came to light that Frank Houston abused and preyed on young boys, while his son Brian helped cover it up.
In Shiny Happy People, we enter the world of the Duggar family. But what starts off as a story of their hit reality TV shows soon turns into a bigger story of the authoritarian and patriarchal teachings of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The docuseries traces the abuses within the Duggar family while also telling the story of Bill Gothard and the IBLP — the IBLP’s authoritarian teachings on the family, Bill Gothard’s own pattern of abuse and accompanying cover ups, and the IBLP’s broader mission to infiltrate American government.
Watching both series back-to-back made it clear how willing society is to give Christians the benefit of the doubt — a byproduct of Christian privilege in the United States, I would argue.
The IBLP, the Duggar family, and Hillsong all had glaring problems, problems that lots of people knew about for a long time. But people within these institutions and outside of them kind of just looked the other way. It was particularly glaring with the Duggar family. People chose to see a wholesome, loving family, even though their (frequently troubling) conservative religious beliefs were right out in the open for millions of people to view each week. In fact, it was a little ironic to see how frequently Christians were given the benefit of the doubt along the way in both series, given how quickly many evangelicals are to claim they are the persecuted ones.
Speaking of persecution, in both series when accusations arose and abuse was uncovered, the go-to response was to cry persecution. If things couldn’t be covered up, then the default response was to claim that the authorities/secular culture/the liberals/the government were out to persecute innocent Christians. Both these patterns allowed men in positions of power to continue to abuse people. For Hillsong, the IBLP, and the Duggar family, the abuse went on for years, even decades, before it was exposed.
A word of warning: it was an intense viewing experience watching both series back-to-back — for Shiny Happy People, in particular, I had to take breaks to make it through the full series. Seeing such awful abuse, it can be tempting to dismiss these as the result of fringe fundamentalist beliefs. But even though we might want to treat these as fringe events — and I am sure evangelicals would love us to treat these as one-offs or bad apples — they are not. Take Shiny Happy People, for example, a lot of the IBLP content comes off as almost cult-like. But watching it as someone raised in evangelicalism in the 1990s, all I could think about was how it was just one step removed from the Focus on the Family materials I grew up on and how so many of these deeply harmful teachings are still accepted as the norm.
Though they are intense to watch, both series felt like essential viewing — to understand evangelicalism in the US and abroad, the damage patriarchal institutions cause, the wide infiltration of these views in American Christianity, and their broader aims for government and society as a whole.