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This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On a recent Sunday in Springdale, Ark., a town of about 70,000 near the border with Oklahoma, I attended the 9:15 a.m. service at Cross Church, home to one of the state’s largest Baptist congregations. Pastor Ronnie Floyd stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people preaching about “what it means to be a man.”
Suddenly a photograph of Caitlyn Jenner, the personage formerly known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympian turned reality TV star, appeared on a giant screen overhead. “Gender is not fluid,” Floyd intoned to several enthusiastic “amens.” He looked over at the picture of Jenner and seemed to shake his head, which prompted titters and clucks of reprobation from the mostly white, mostly well-groomed and mostly over-40 audience. Instead of stained glass, pastel-colored backlit panels on both sides of the stage glowed brightly. The crowd was rapt.
Jenner’s revelation that he soon would be coming out as a woman was, Floyd said, “sad.” (Caitlyn Jenner would make her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair the next day.) “God didn’t make him like that,” Floyd boomed, increasingly agitated. “There are two different sexes, male and female. If you are created a man, you are specifically and intentionally created to be a man, so don’t try to be anything else.”
Floyd’s church happens to be just a few miles from the home of another headline-making family in the world of reality TV: the Duggars, stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting.
Their eldest son, Josh, currently sits at the center of a roiling controversy after his family spoke to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly — with 3.1 million viewers tuning in — and confirmed admissions in a police report stating that he had molested four of his younger sisters, as well as a babysitter, in 2002 and 2003, when he was 14. Josh’s parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, told Kelly they began to lock their daughters’ doors once the scope of their son’s behavior came to light.
Josh Duggar, who sits at the center of this scandal, posed with his wife, Anna, daughter Mackynzie and son Michael in 2012.
The reaction on social media was not kind. For some, including a North Carolina pastor named John Pavlovitz, the blame lay squarely with a hypocritical Christian orthodoxy. What was really “sad” about the discourse around Jenner and the Duggars, Pavlovitz tweeted, was that some folks were “more outraged at a person altering their own body, than one assaulting another’s.” But the scandal raised a bigger issue: The molestation admissions have put the Duggars’ community of believers and admirers in a quagmire. Even though no one wants to get behind a child molester, many folks in Springdale could get behind the idea of forgiveness.
And at least in this, the most Republican district of Arkansas, a fertile land of rolling hills where Black Angus cattle stroll through groves of cottonwoods, forgiveness and political expediency go hand in hand. Republicans have controlled the congressional seat here since 1966. GOP presidential candidates like Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have thrown their support behind the Duggars. And so while Jenner’s transformation came in for harsh words in Floyd’s church that week, there was not a single mention of the Duggars, or of their wayward son.
After the sermon, a woman introduced herself to me. Her name was Kim. She said she had known the Duggars informally for more than 20 years. “Michelle and Jim Bob are for real,” she said. “She’s a really, really sweet person, and they’re just both very authentic.” Kim wanted to know if I was Baptist.
I showed her something I had jotted down from Floyd’s sermon. “When one chooses to demean the life of another, one is demeaning God,” Floyd had said. “Any demeaning action we take is ungodly.” I told Kim that he had included “abuse” in his list of sins.
Kim nodded then shook her head; she seemed puzzled. “But where’s the love?” she asked. “Where is the love in all this?” She said she had helped Josh open his first bank account. “I feel so bad for him,” she said.
I asked about the victims. “I feel bad for them, too,” said Kim.
Jim Bob and Michelle sat for a family portrait in 2005 surrounded by the 16 biological children — 10 boys and six girls — they had at the time. Michelle gave birth to their youngest child, Josie Brooklyn, in December 2009, a little more than a year after their show first aired.
Then she backed a few feet away and kept a polite distance, suddenly very busy greeting other guests. Within a minute or so, the church’s director of communications appeared. He said he’d been attending the church since he was born, more than 35 years.
“In all that time, I’ve never seen the Duggars here,” he said. But in 2014, the Duggars’ second daughter, Jill, was married before 1,000 friends and family at Cross Church.
Even Jill, 24, who came out to Fox’s Kelly as one of Josh’s victims, took a conciliatory stance, saying in effect: Let bygones be bygones.
And that, by and large, is exactly what people here in Duggar territory have tended to do. Ever since TLC suspended 19 Kids and Counting and more than a dozen advertisers pulled their support, Springdale has been momentarily deprived of its homegrown celebrities and the Duggar family of its main source of income; in the past, Jim Bob has worked as a real estate agent, legislator and car salesman. Much like the Duck Dynasty controversy — which began after patriarch Phil Robertson made homophobic and racist comments in a GQ interview (he was suspended by A&E and reinstated nine days later) — the Duggars and the way of life they represent have become politically charged.
In Springdale, it wasn’t hard to find the wellspring of all the goodwill that was keeping them afloat; it simply is part of the landscape. Christian radio is ubiquitous on the airwaves, and churches dot suburban streets and busy intersections alike. More than half of Springdale residents consider themselves religious, and of those, nearly 50 percent, like the Duggars, are Baptist. While I was there, one radio broadcast featured a discussion that purported to be a forensic analysis of how the biblical Jonah could have survived in the belly of a great fish for three days.
Also on the radio: a show for kids that included a Bible quiz, followed by a segment called “Storytime.” The topic of this day’s show was, “What to do if you or someone you know is being abused?” Before anything else, kids were informed, even before talking to a trusted adult, victims should pray.
Jill Duggar was married in 2014 at Springdale’s Cross Church, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the state of Arkansas. Pastor Floyd has been an outspoken advocate of forgiving Josh while also speaking critically about Jenner’s transition.
The Duggar home sits just off a rural road in the “city” of Tontitown, population 2,625, just a couple of miles from Springdale. There’s a large well-watered lawn and a white gate. A few black cows graze in a pasture nearby. Just down the road is the Grace Communion Ministry, a pleasant one-story house across the road from a ranch and a small lake where geese float.
“They’re getting slammed unfairly,” said Grace’s pastor, Tony Avernheimer, who explained that his parish was “more on the evangelical side, whereas the Duggars are a bit more fundamental.”
Avernheimer, who was eating a piece of cake for his 60th birthday party, conceded that anyone who goes on national television has an added layer of responsibility. But he also said he’d think differently about the situation had Josh been an adult when he’d abused the girls. He had seen 19 Kids and Counting a few times and rather enjoyed it. “No reason I see to pull it off the air,” he said. “But I’m not a big reality TV person. I think the media is trying to massacre and crucify that family,” he added. “Judging and condemning belong to Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t want to be judged now for what I did when I was 14 years old.”
Just up the road from the Grace Communion, I found David Herring, an operations manager at a trucking company whose land abuts the Duggar property. He said he’d only run into Jim Bob once since the recent controversy erupted. “We just talked about machines,” he said.
People come from around the country to see the Duggars. Herring said that the family mostly had welcomed the extra attention. And while it’s hard to gauge the impact of 19 Kids and Counting on the local economy, enough of the show’s fans started coming that eventually Jim Bob had to put up a gate. These days, Herring stands out front and watches them come and go. They sidle up to the white fence and take selfies “with the house in the background.”
“I just say, ‘Well, there goes another Duggar fan,’ ” Herring said. “I told Jim Bob, I said, ‘You oughta put a buzzer up there. That way if people want to talk to you, they can buzz you and you can decide what to do.’ “
The family fell into prayer on an episode of ’19 Kids and Counting’ that aired in February, near
the end of the show’s 10th season on TLC
I walked down the road and buzzed. The Duggars had reportedly just returned from the 2015 Family Conferences in Nashville, where they had been invited to speak. Parked next to the Duggar house was a truck from a soda company and a few cars. But no one answered, and the buzzer tripped a fax machine sound. It still was buzzing as I walked away.
I returned on another day and stood at the fence line and waved to several people who were milling around on the expansive grassy lawn in front of the house. A few toddlers walked uncertainly under a leafy tree. Nobody waved back.
Over the years, the Duggars have sewn their family narrative, by way of the cameras documenting their lives, into the very fabric of Springdale. On a shady, tree-lined backstreet, I wandered into a public library and found longtime resident Brad Carter sitting at the information desk. Carter, a novelist, wrote a book called The Big Man of Barlow that got optioned for film. He wrote the screenplay, but then there was no money. “It’s sort of a gay buddy comedy with Sasquatch,” he said.
The Duggar family’s 20-acre gated compound just outside Springdale is anchored by a 7,000-square-foot house that contains an industrial kitchen.
In September 2012, Carter was sitting at his information desk when a Duggar film crew showed up for a staged scene. Josh’s wife, Anna, was there to get a library card, and Carter wound up having a few seconds of onscreen time in episode 147 as he issued it to her.
Anna read some stories to kids, which stood out to Carter; it was the only time someone who wasn’t an employee or an author had done a reading. “I always figured that the Duggars, with their right-wing politics and wacky religious beliefs, would be the type to distrust public libraries,” he said.
“Quite frankly, I find the family appalling,” lamented Carter. “Their beliefs are quite alien to me, and I find their views of the LGBT community downright offensive. That so many people get their ideas about Arkansas from watching the Duggars’ show is an embarrassment.”
Most people in Springdale just wanted to avoid the topic. The city attorney and the chief of police declined to see me. I called a lawyer who had passed on the opportunity to represent Josh Duggar when the case first surfaced. He said he couldn’t remember the incident at all, in fact.
When I asked if he’d like to talk more generally about the Duggars, he said, “I sure would not.”
Jim Bob and Michelle spoke about faith at the Values Voter Summit, an annual conference for social conservative causes, held in September 2010 in Washington, D.C.
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