Subtle infiltration of fundamentalism

The Duggar family: parents Michelle and Jim-Bob Duggar and some of their 19 children — nine...
The Duggar family: parents Michelle and Jim-Bob Duggar and some of their 19 children — nine daughters and 10 sons — all of whose names begin with the letter "J". Photo: Wikimedia Commons
It's no secret that I love watching documentaries. True crime, missing planes, the dark underbelly of the wellness world—you name it, I’m there. But one docuseries I watched recently struck particularly close to home, making for a deeply uncomfortable watch.

Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets was released on June 2, and has become something of an internet sensation since. The docuseries delves into the secrets and scandals behind the Duggar Family, their reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting, and the cultish Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).

The Duggars, for those blissfully unaware, are a highly conservative Christian Baptist family from Arkansas with a seemingly endless stream of children, all with names beginning with the letter J, all ostensibly saintly, well-scrubbed, deferential to their parents, and dedicated to traditional gender roles.

Led by patriarch Jim-Bob and his subservient wife Michelle, the Duggars were the epitome of the American dream — a pastoral embodiment of traditional religious values. That is, until their wholesome facade cracked to reveal the abuse and repression festering beneath the surface.

The series is confronting, juxtaposing archival footage and IBLP materials alongside interviews with Duggar children, wider family members, and other individuals who grew up in the IBLP. Founded by Bill Gothard in 1961, the IBLP is a non-denominational Christian organisation that functions as a unifying body for multiple ministries. Under Gothard’s leadership, the IBLP promoted radical patriarchy and rigid fundamentalist beliefs via seminars, workshops, advice for "successful living" and a large home schooling organisation. The Duggars regularly endorsed Gothard’s seminars and were "the visible representation of this harmful organisation," to quote docuseries co-director Olivia Crist.

It has been remarkable witnessing the shock and incredulity Shiny Happy People has engendered. You see, I grew up within the suffocating bosom of Christian fundamentalism right here in New Zealand. While my family was not explicitly part of the IBLP umbrella, Gothard’s preachings nevertheless pervaded every aspect of my life, from the clothes I was permitted to wear, to the books I was allowed to read, to the expectations for my future (ideally, a married housewife with a brood of docile children).

There’s a temptation to believe that because evangelical fundamentalist Christians are a minority in New Zealand they can’t have much influence on culture and politics at large. But the Christo-fascist world of the Duggars and IBLP isn’t confined to the geographical barriers of the United States. There are prominent strains right here, in little old New Zealand.

The most fascinating part of Shiny Happy People is its examination of the "Joshua Generation", a decades-long project aimed at installing fundamentalist evangelical Christians in positions of power, including the highest levels of government.

The same goal is present in New Zealand fundamentalist Christian communities, although their efforts are arguably not as well organised. As Hannah Blake, a fellow survivor of the Christian home schooling movement in New Zealand puts it, evangelical church leadership "is petty in a way that outranks local politics in every way ... there’s a good chance that every political movement started by them tears itself apart by voting day".

Just look at the failed efforts of the Christian Heritage Party, the Christian Coalition, the Destiny NZ Party, the Conservative Party, the New Conservative Party and Leighton’s Baker’s latest hilarious and pathetic political efforts. But the infiltration of mainstream political parties by evangelical fundamentalist Christians is another matter altogether.

Don’t get me wrong; I do not oppose politicians having a faith. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The problem arises when one’s faith infringes upon the beliefs, freedoms, and rights of another — and when the separation of church and state becomes murky.

You see, evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is no quiet, unassuming religion. It is predicated on the importance of evangelising and "securing the obedience of nations". Evangelical Christianity is also frequently characterised by bigotry and intolerance, sexism, homophobia, intolerance and a hatred of immigrants, feminists, climate science, and anything reasonable or progressive.

To quote Hannah, the problem with fundamentalist Christian politicians is that "their religion is so intertwined with their political ideas that it is inseparable". Christian fundamentalist Christopher Luxon might argue his evangelical convictions apply only to him and his church community, but as Chris Trotter puts it, "the very name of his faith community argues against this claim".

This is why I don’t find Luxon’s alleged "jokes" encouraging women to have more babies all that funny. Jack Tame, in his ridiculously patronising piece on Luxon’s "tongue-in-cheek" comments argues that "it’s disingenuous to totally miscontextualise comments from a political leader for the sake of playing into unease over his personal values".

That’s all well and good, but Jack has clearly never been embedded in an evangelical community where the subjugation of women and the removal of reproductive rights is a serious and legitimate reality. Jack has never had to contend with purity culture or the Quiverfull movement. I doubt he knows anything of the relationship between evangelical Christianity and the Great Replacement Theory.

I also find Luxon’s pro-life stance incredibly telling. In an interview with Newshub, when asked if abortion is tantamount to murder, Luxon replied, "That’s what a pro-life position is". For all Luxon’s blustering and backtracking, I’m not convinced the National Party — a party dominated by male Christian conservatives — will keep away from curtailing reproductive rights.

I highly doubt Luxon would have the audacity or the means to ban abortion outright if freshly elected. But I have no doubt that, fuelled by his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, he’d be more than happy to gradually chip away at reproductive rights via defunding birth control, imposing administrative restrictions for abortions, and deprioritising accessible reproductive healthcare, for example. Call me hysterical? Look what happened with Roe vs Wade — death by a thousand cuts.

Other quasi-political evangelical figures abound in addition to lobbying groups such as Family First and Focus on the Family NZ. Julian Batchelor is an evangelical preacher tapped into concentrated but engaged circles of online extremists and conspiracy theorists. The apocalyptic imagination of evangelicalism is a potent and adaptable tool for creating a distinct sense of identity that sets the community of the chosen apart from the outside world. This naturally lends itself to the polarising and self-insulating insider/outsider logic of conspiracy theories.

Batchelor utilises the rhetoric and tactics honed on the evangelical preaching circuit to yank Kiwis away from liberal values and into racialised grievances. His "Stop Co-Governance" lectures are infused with Biblical imagery and are above all dominated by Christo-fascism and white supremacy.

There is a tendency among policy makers and experts to view New Zealand as a nation firmly bulwarked against extremism: it is, on the global stage, Jacinda Ardern’s "radical kindness" made manifest, with its robust and independent press, seemingly progressive and inclusive society, and deep-rooted commitment to liberal values.

But it is important to acknowledge the subtle infiltration of Christo-fascist beliefs into mainstream politics and beyond via politicians like Chris Luxon and preachers like Julian Batchelor.

The fundamentalist Christian perspective on education, reproductive health, marginalised communities, crime and the climate stands in direct opposition to the path we must take to foster a more fair and just society. Aotearoa deserves better.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.