The Failure of Christian “Counseling” in the Duggar Family Saga

Josh Duggar is currently facing 40 years in prison for possession of child pornography (photo Fox News)

(The Josh Duggar narrative is too big for a single post. I’ll keep addressing various parts of the story as more news emerges in the coming weeks).

I wish I could say the news of Josh Duggar’s recent indictment on child pornography charges was a surprise. Unfortunately, Josh’s story is just another example of how conservative Christian culture has failed its followers.  In 2015 In Touch Magazine published reports that Josh Duggar had molested five underage girls while he was a teen— four of whom were his sisters. Two of those sisters- Jill and Jessa- came forward and spoke to Megyn Kelly about their abuse1 in 2015. However, this wasn’t the typical survivor narrative as both Jill and Jessa refused to blame Josh. Jessa noted frustration at how she and Jill had been dragged into the spotlight as Josh’s history of abuse came to light. “A system that is set up and supposed to protect kids both those who make stupid mistakes or have problems like this in their life and the ones effected by those choices. It’s greatly failed.” In the same interview Josh’s parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, noted this abuse began when Josh was 14. As Jim Bob recalled, Josh came to them and told them he had “improperly touched” some of his sisters. Josh’s molestation of the girls was downplayed as Jim Bob said “he just touched them over their clothes while they were sleeping,” “they didn’t even know he had done it,” “he was just curious about girls.” The abuse didn’t occur just once, but four more times before Jim Bob and Michelle sent Josh to a Christian residential treatment center for help. After treatment, the Duggars took Josh to the Arkansas State Police headquarters near their house where Josh confessed, but no charges were filed and he just received a “stern talking to.” There are so many things that were warning signs back in 2015 when this story first came out and unfortunately Josh’s latest choices are just one decision in a long time of actions that illustrate severe, unaddressed mental health issues. I want to be clear I am not excusing his actions. I’m disgusted by them; but the Duggar family saga is just one of many examples of how conservative Christian counseling is a farce.

First, the very language used to define Josh’s abuse as “curious about girls,” “they didn’t even know he had done it” or the defense by the victims that their brother had “made stupid mistakes” all illustrate a lack of understanding and/or stubborn refusal to fully understand severity of mental health issues Josh Duggar was struggling with as a teenager and continued to struggle with as an adult with a wife and father of soon to be seven children.

Conservative Christian culture is notorious for trying to deal with mental health issues only with spiritual counseling from clergy or from Christian residential therapy programs like the one Josh Duggar went to as a teen and again as an adult after the 2015 In Touch story was published. In 2015 Josh went to a residential facility that is part of Recovery Ministries for pornography addiction. Let me be upfront: terms such as “pornography addiction” or “sexual addiction” are just Christian cultures way of ignoring the underlying mental health conditions that led to addictive behavior. The idea that pornography is shameful plays into the conservative Christian beliefs that any sexual expression outside the marriage bed is a “sin.” According to the Recovery Ministries website, addiction can be “cured” by searching scripture, prayer, dying to self (giving up on selfish desires that distract us from God), exhorting God for help, and praising God. In addition, individuals who struggle with addiction can avoid relapse simply by addressing the underlying pain that caused the addiction and Jesus can help you heal from that pain.2

Mental health concerns are seen as “spiritual weaknesses” that need only be addressed by intense spiritual counseling and then after counseling you ask forgiveness from your victims. I’m not saying spiritual counseling is a bad thing; what I am saying, as Josh’s story clearly indicates, it isn’t enough. He needed(s) psychological testing, intensive therapy and possibly medication. However, that wasn’t/isn’t going to happen.

As someone who grew up in evangelical culture the fear of “secular” counseling is very real. Growing up, whenever an individual at my church said they were in counseling (usual marital counseling) the first question usually was “Is it a Christian counselor?” The idea of seeing a therapist who was not a Christian was unheard of and seen as a sign of spiritual weakness that the individual or couple didn’t believe faith based counseling would be enough to heal them.  There are some excellent Christian counselors out there who are highly qualified medical professionals. Yet, the type of therapy I’m writing about does not use medical advice and is focused only on using a person’s faith to help heal relationships or mental health conditions. Sometime faith is not enough and it isn’t the fault of the individual. Mental health issues should not be seen as a failure of faith but as a health condition that needs treatment beyond the spiritual realm.

In the conservative Christian circles the Duggars run in the teachings of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles are highly influential and inform what they consider “counseling services.” In past decades at Advanced Training Institute Conferences3 training materials on helping survivors of abuse were passed out that clearly blame the victim. The website Recovering Grace, a website devoted to sharing stories from survivors of  the Gothard movement, published some of these materials back in 2013. I have no idea if these materials are currently used in ATI counseling, but the fact they were in circulation through at least 2013 puts these materials in the Duggar’s path, and they most certainty saw them and used them to guide how they helped their son and their daughters.

A page from ATI Counseling Materials for Abuse Victims

The counseling literature suggests the victim is has at least partially to blame for the abuse. Counselors are to question the victim and ask if they can think of any reason God would let this happen. Were they dressed promiscuously? Did they leave the protection of their parents? Next, they should be asked if they share any guilt for the abuse. Had they not reported the abuse? Had they disobeyed God? Finally, if the victim seemed to have no “reason” for the abuse to occur they were to look at the positives of the situation. Abuse could grant them new spiritual insight, even inner peace.

It’s no wonder that Jessa Duggar referred to Josh’s actions as “mistakes.” In a culture that does not value counseling by trained medical professionals and focuses only on spiritual healing it’s difficult to understand the severity of what Josh Duggar has dealt with and continues to deal with.

Once again, I’m in no way excusing his behavior. It’s disguising and he is facing up to 40 years in prison for procession of child pornography (some images of children as young as 18 months). Conservative Christian culture has failed Josh, it has failed his sisters and it will continue to fail victims and those who severe mental illness because of the stubborn and prideful refusal of conservative leaders to realize the way their approach counseling and therapy might be wrong.

1 Inside Edition. (2015, June 4). Jill and Jessa Duggar Confirm They Were Molested by Josh Duggar [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFvz_0ECyhU

2 RU Recovery Ministries. (2021, March 25). Addiction Resources. RU Recovery. https://rurecovery.com/free-resources/. & Stern, C. (2021, May 6). Inside the Christian rehab where Josh Duggar was sent after he admitted to porn “addiction” in 2015. Mail Online. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-9550647/Inside-Christian-rehab-Josh-Duggar-sent-admitted-porn-addiction-2015.html

3 Recovering Grace. (2013, April 22). How “Counseling Sexual Abuse” Blames and Shames Survivors. Recovering Grace | A Bill Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI. https://www.recoveringgrace.org/2013/04/how-counseling-sexual-abuse-blames-and-shames-survivors/

For further reading on the Duggar Family see these posts on Free Methodist Feminist:

The Hypocrite and the Believer Part One

The Hypocrite and the Believer Part Two

The Duggars Take Christian Patriarchy Ideas Mainstream

TLC and the Fundamentalist Family

Why Rhetoric Matters: The Power of Words to Liberate or Manipulate

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