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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.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Even in New Testament times, how quickly and frequently these kinds of perversions of the Gospel spread in the church, and how difficult it was to combat them, and how St. Paul came off as a meany for doing so. And now, yes, as you say, they get the privilege of “persecution” by the secular media elite. It’s very frustrating for ordinary quiet preachers of the Gospel.

  • Susan says:

    This article came right after I finished reading Jesus and John Wayne. So much of the same stuff. Frightening
    Where can I find these programs?

  • Barry says:

    Allison, I’m puzzled. What’s your point here? Is your only conclusion you want the reader to adopt is that these are “essential viewing”? Aren’t these simply examples–embarrassing, to be sure–of the theological point that Christians don’t become perfect when they realize their need for a savior? Naturally, when the moral belly-flops are as big as the ones here (or others we could mention), there are many in both believing and non-believing communities anxious to publicize such failures. But I’m not sure what the value is of such exposés besides teaching us horrible consequences of sin. Or are you convinced that Evangelicalism is theologically incorrect, fraudulent, inherently leading to such failures?

    • Avril says:

      Isn’t the point that power leads to corruption? It isn’t that ‘we are all sinners’ and ‘no one is perfect’ – it is that churches that do not have robust governance and accountability structures, that place leaders on pedestals as particularly called and gifted rather than seeing them as merely servants of the servants of God, and that preach abusive gender relations in which men have control over women and adults have control over children, are inevitably going to lead to abuse and, following the abuse, the cover-up. We see this not just in evangelical and Pentecostal churches but in Catholicism. Clericalism and the glorifying of hierarchies lead to abuse, and all churches need to repent of them and change.

    • Bob Clatterbuck says:

      Hillsong and whatever affiliation the Duggars had is not the church. This article is an excellent warning to those of us that know what The Church is, to not turn a blind eye or silence our voices to the truth of what the Bible warns us of in almost every book in the New Testament. Time to look at all mega churches. Look at Bethel and Elevation….

      • Shelley says:

        Respectfully ALL fundamental Evangelical Christian churches have the same theology. Just because these are considered mega churches doesn’t explain away the harm and abuse. Are all the people who are currently in a mega church not actually true Christians and not members of “The Church”? Are they in a cult? The definition of “The Church” gets so much smaller when it gets called out for hard and abuse.

    • Shelley says:

      Your question to Allison asking about her theological beliefs is telling. It would be much easier to write this article off as someone who isn’t actually a true Christian who is going after the church. Because a true Christian would never highlight the abuses and harm done by fundamental Evangelical Christianity, right? Exposés are called accountability. Exposing abuse and harm is always the right thing. Always. And what if the theology is the root cause of the abuse and harm? It’s a difficult question to grapple with. Don’t make Allison do all the labor by explaining herself and the article to you. Do the work for yourself.

    • Bill Harper says:

      The point is that abuse happens when people with unchecked power are given control over the innocent and naive. This happens in both secular and religious groups. The problem is that religious groups set themselves up as better than or holier than others and often the abuse is worse because the trust is greater. Evangelicalism, like all religious groups, trades on raw power through wishful thinking and false hope and is therefore fraudulent. Don’t get me started on ‘theologically incorrect.’ I have no idea what that even means unless you are willing to discuss the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Evangelical groups are the worst because they make little effort to help the poor or hungry and are only interested in self-affirmation by coercing the ignorant and downtrodden to convert.

  • Nathan says:

    As an adult that grew up in IBLPs homeschooling program, I can attest that Shiny Happy People doesn’t even come close to showing you the horror of growing up in the middle of that. Most of us were so isolated that we didn’t realize until we were in our teens what life was like outside.

    This has damaged my relationship with family to the point that I haven’t spoken to them in nearly 2 years, and I don’t expect to ever speak to them again. They are all MAGA and believe that they should “take back” America for Christianity, no matter how violent that is.

    • Shelley says:

      I’m sorry this happened to you, Nathan. It is a horror that we all have to reckon with. Thank you for sharing.

  • Dean says:

    What’s the point? Just another critique of the imperfect Christian church. But truth be told not good examples or accurate representations according to my experience. The churches I minister in, and the Christian folks I know, aren’t perfect but aren’t like these mentioned. Throwing dirt at the church is never profitable.

  • Jack says:

    Not so sure about never. Especially if dirt is a metaphor for truth . . . Dirt’s where life grows.
    Thank you, Allison. I grew up in a mainstream Protestant church, a fine camouflage for an abusive pastor who damaged a lot of us teens for life. I wish someone had had the courage to hurl some exposure to what we kids had no idea we were being taught. Is there really “The Church”? Seems to me to be just a bunch of churches. Too easy to do nothing by hiding behind the sweeping illusion of the three letter word sin. Total depravity and the kingdom of God is within. Hmm

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