Opinion | ‘Shiny Happy People,’ Fundamentalism and the Toxic Quest for Certainty


They found community in the people who flocked to the churches like the one I visited in Louisville. Certainty, however, was elusive. The formulas they received from Gothard seemed to work for some, didn’t work for others, and deeply damaged many, many people — especially women and children. The Duggars are a prime example. As the Amazon series recounts, even as the Duggar parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, were enormous celebrities in Gothard-world, extolling the virtues of his vision, they were concealing terrible secrets about their family.

Their oldest son, Josh, had molested four of his sisters. Later, he admitted to cheating on his wife. And now he’s in prison for possessing child pornography. The Duggars weren’t the model family they were presented as. They were in crisis. The Duggars’ guru, Gothard, was also disgraced. He has faced dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct — he denies them — and in 2014 he resigned from the presidency of his ministry.

But that’s not the extent of the darkness. Gothard’s teaching didn’t reach just the millions of Christians he claims have attended his seminars. Because he spoke to the most motivated and dedicated cohort of evangelicals in America, his teachings spread deep into American churches. Gothard’s concepts became part of the fabric of evangelical life even for people who’d never heard of the Basic Seminar.

In 2021, my wife, Nancy, and I published a report detailing years of horrific sexual abuse at one of the largest Christian camps in America, Kanakuk Kamps. The camp’s chief executive, Joe White, wrote that the “greatest journey of my life” began at a Bill Gothard conference in 1974, and many of the teachings at the camp mirrored the marriage and purity teachings in the Gothard seminars. A predator named Pete Newman exploited such teachings to gain access to countless young boys. White supported and promoted him even after receiving repeated reports of Newman playing games in the nude with kids.

With authority so central to Gothardism (and so many other fundamentalist movements), the quest for certainty turned into a quest for control. The explicitly patriarchal structure fed the will to power in troubled men. Failures in the family would lead to tighter controls, more rules, and an enormous amount of guilt and shame. After all, the principles Gothard taught were supposed to work. At the seminar I attended Gothard even taught that following his principles would make a young woman more beautiful. Obedience would improve her “countenance.” If a family struggled, the principles weren’t wrong — they were.


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