Unlike most of the writers covering the Duggar sex scandal, I was raised in Advanced Training Institute (ATI), the fundamentalist Christian organization with which the family is affiliated. Joshua Duggar’s confession of sexually molesting young girls in his family’s home when he was a teenager didn’t surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone with any intimate knowledge about this organization, because ATI’s theological beliefs and practices cultivate an environment where women and children are more vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse. Ironically, the same theological beliefs and practices at the heart of this scandal are the same beliefs that created the Duggars as a media phenomenon, and drew viewers and fans to their TLC show “19 Kids and Counting.”
ATI’s teachings trickle down into every single part of its members’ lives. This is not just a homeschool curriculum, it is a fully institutionalized religious sect with incredibly strict demands to conformity — rules that, in my experience, more often reflect Gothard’s personal preferences than actual Biblical teachings. Have you ever wondered why every Duggar woman perms her hair? It’s because Gothard taught us that curly hair brings out a woman’s natural beauty. Other ATI beliefs that I learned range from utterly bizarre to downright barbaric, like the creator of Cabbage Patch Kid dolls is actually a Satanic wizard who implants demons into the dolls that then sneak into children’s bodies while they are sleeping — along with the old standard that rock music is inherently sinful. One boy from our church would walk around supermarkets with his fingers plugged into his ears to prevent himself from hearing it.
And then there are the beliefs that are more central to the portrayal of ATI on TV through the Duggar family, which are also shared throughout the church’s teachings: the antiquated dress codes (especially for girls and women), the required homeschooling, the prohibition on birth control, the strictly gendered division of labor and the absolute and unquestioned authority of the father within the home.
I hope this latest religion and sex scandal teaches that religious extremism isn’t entertainment. It is abuse. It is abuse when it is used to manipulate, control and victimize those who are rendered helpless within its confines.