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Evangelical Denial and Shiny Happy People
Selective listening is hurting the church. It hurts survivors too.
The first house my first husband and I bought was an outdated cinderblock house with a flat roof and three tiny bedrooms. It was barely a thousand square feet, built in the 50’s, and carpeted in the early 80’s. When we discovered the original floors were hardwood, we decided to pull up the matted blue shag. It’s the first time I got a good visual of what happens under a rug.
Sand is what happens under a twenty-year carpet. There’s not a vacuum in the world that can pull all the dirt under the rug + pad + time. The wood floors were covered in so much sand it felt like a beach.
From that time on I promised myself I’d only ever have hard floors, even if they had to be unfished concrete or particle-board subflooring. Never again would I run a vacuum over a carpet and call it “clean,” when all that nasty was just hiding.
You know where I’m going with this, right?
I was successful in never living in a carpeted house again. But metaphorically? That was the first year I studied at the feet of my Titus 2-style mentors, the group of women teaching me the ways of Bill Gothard and the Institute of Basic Life Principles.
Metaphorically, my life in Christian fundamentalism was actively generating dirt that I would learn to hide under a carpet of complicity, embarrassment, shame, denial, and ardent prayer that rescue would come before someone found out. Back then, no one listened to survivors. We didn’t know that’s what we were becoming.
So because “not all Christians,” we shouldn’t talk about the problem?
The evangelical response to Shiny Happy People has been a mixed bag. From what I’ve heard, the reviews include a lot of shock around the extent of the IBLP’s reach into mainstream evangelical cultures and the wider American culture as well. Many Christians, particularly outside of evangelical traditions, were horrified about what they learned and sought ways to support survivors. We as cast members have all received heartening messages of support and gratitude for our bravery, including from evangelical writers who care to stop abuse.
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But calling it a “mixed bag” is gracious. The Duggar’s called it “sad” and blamed the direction of entertainment these days. The IBLP statement called it “misleading and untruthful,” attacking the documentary’s creators for being one-sided (more on that below.) World magazine used double-speak to distance themselves from complicity by calling Shiny Happy People “both true and false.” In a truly ironic flip, and prime example of defensive projection, The Federalist said it exploits homeschoolers and vilifies Christians.
Far and away, the most common evangelical response to Shiny Happy People was silence. They just ignored it. They pretended it didn’t exist. Watched other shows. Or watched and chose not to say anything. Or started to watch and decided their own discomfort was more important than bearing witness to what survivors went through.
Allow me to caveat: if you’re a trauma survivor and find watching depictions of abuse and hearing stories of abuse threatening to your recovery, you’re wise to set boundaries around docuseries like ours. No one is obligated to watch. However, if the discomfort isn’t about your own trauma at all, but about how awful it feels to realize complicity, then please take that signal for what it is: a call to do your work.
Survivors are used to silence when they share their stories of abuse. In fact, it’s probably the number one reflection I get in my DM’s. Their abusers didn’t stop. Their advocates didn’t listen. When they went to the church for counseling, they were shut down.
In the documentary, the “Law of Crying Out” is discussed. It was Gothard’s teaching that if a victim doesn’t cry out for help as abuse is happening, they’re guilty too. Of course, this is taught in the same environment that trained children not to cry, that taught women to be silent, that taught both they weren’t allowed to say no, and who turns away when stories of abuse are shared. Are you dizzy yet? There’s no way out of a swirl like that, no way to win until you’re willing to lose it all to save yourself. Which is what every survivor in Shiny Happy People did.
Maybe the nausea I feel when I recognize someone’s silence is the memory of what it felt like to be silent myself in evangelicism. My own years of alignment with Christians denying whatever we didn’t like––from climate change to democrats, queer identities to funding social programs like daycare––still haunt me enough to work on forgiveness, compassion, and understanding in therapy. As a former evangelical, I remember how we insisted our ideal was so right, it was as if we spoke loudly enough, then life would be that way, and any other noise would be drowned out.
So, the silence isn’t surprising. It’s still disappointing. When the show was number one for two weeks, and broke Amazon’s records for a docuseries debut, the crickets chirped louder.
We know you know. We know you’re choosing not to watch, connect, validate, or otherwise respond. Fortunately for us, our journeys no longer rest in your hands––and our safety doesn’t either.
Guess what shows when you bury your head in the sand?
Several people asked me if I’d heard from my mentors. They mean my “Gothard fundie mentors,” the group of families who mentored me into Gothard’s IBLP and high-control fundamentalism.
While most of them are no longer active homeschoolers using ATI or attending IBLP conferences, they are still evangelical Christians participating in the conservative swing toward Nationalism. They still stand by their Quiverful practices––now grandparenting quiverfulls generated by one or more of their loyal children. Every family has that one kid who bought in. Sometimes more than one.
But every family has several disenfranchised survivors too. Black sheep. Exvangelicals in therapy for religious trauma, deconstructing their beliefs, and choosing to live anti-fundamentalist lives full of love, inclusion, and openness. They are the carpet rippers, the ones willing to walk on cold concrete because never again will they sweep all that sand under a rug.
The word reckoning refers to the action or process of calculating something. It’s a view, a judgment, a settlement. A reckoning is the avenging of past deeds.
I think about this when I hear from my mentors’ children––and their generational peers. Because while I might not hear from the people who led me into fundamentalism, I do hear from their adult, disenfranchised survivors. The children they cut off, banished, and sent to punishment camps, and to Mr. Gothard’s headquarters. The children they controlled and blanket trained and suppressed. The children they whipped for hours, withheld food, and forced to pray. I hear from the kids who ran away. Who waited to turn 18 and disappeared. Who come out and toil for healing and build framilies from friends they chose, because their birth families chose ideas over them.
They are a generation of survivors who want an apology and an admission of complicity. They’ve calculated the harm done to them. When they hear my story, they apologize on their parents’ behalf. When I hear theirs, I cry, grateful again I took my kids and ran. That I repented of fundamentalism, admitted complicity, and chose to raise my children in freedom.
Evangelicals can ignore alarms like Shiny Happy People all they want. Go ahead and walk on your dirty carpet, church. The reckoning will come through your kids.