Shiny Unhappy People

M. Rambaran-Olm
14 min readApr 18, 2024

Racism in the Evangelical World

Pink and orange balloons in a bunch with happy and sad faces on them
Photo by Madison Oren on Unsplash

CW: predation, sexual assault, racism, death.

Eyes Wide Open

“Come and sit on my lap” he said, with a suggestive smirk. I hesitantly obliged. He pulled me up on his lap and pressed me close. He gushed, “You are so pretty. I wish you were just a bit older, like 16, so I could take you out.” He was around 30 years old. I was 9. By 16, I was a veteran of being inappropriately groped by older, white Christian men.

As a person of color in an almost all-white church, growing up in the fundamentalist movement was like experiencing constant psychological whiplash. One moment, my family and I were being objectified, especially the females, and the next we were experiencing torrents of overt and stealth racism. It would have been wasted energy to tell those spirit-filled alabastarians that Jesus was probably closer to my melanin-rich skin than a cream-cheese confederate.

Sitting under teachings that required people to be servants of Jesus, it was no secret that my family was in the service of serving. Pastors, guest speakers and those in and out of leadership imposed various hierarchies from gender to class to race. The difference was that I am a mixed-race Black woman, and how my family and I were treated brought up a whole new level of racism, predation, and abuse. We were half Black and half brown but altogether “othered” and considered less than.

The minoritized groups my family fit into made us prime candidates to forever be in the service of serving, but whom we served is a big question. While this sole family of color shared their time, energy, hearts, and money with the genuine belief we were serving Jesus, the hard truth was that we were serving White Supremacy. The difficulty in navigating that, particularly as a child and teen, has left scars that ex-evangelicals of color don’t often discuss openly — partly because stories like mine involve a racial element that’s missing in a lot of ex-evangelical narratives. Maybe we should talk about these things. Maybe it’s time.

Witnessing to Whiteness

Among the list of exposés and documentaries on fundamentalist movements is Amazon Prime’s Shiny, Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets. As someone who’s fairly desensitized (I am a xennial after all), this documentary was at once not very surprising, but simultaneously took me back to familiar places, times and situations that I’ve long worked hard to bury. I’d much rather spend my time reminiscing about Thundercats or my favorite Fresh Prince episode, but here we are. The 4-part documentary did a good job of presenting how one American evangelical, Bill Gothard, formed and led what’s known as the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP). This movement may seem like it’s on the fringe, although it’s more in line with mainstream Christianity than some willingly admit. Its insidious attachment to whiteness in particular has left its mark, fangs, and scars on schools and politics.

The documentary mostly weaves the tale of one family, the Duggars, who became a cash cow for TLC as audiences watched (or gawked at) this seemingly wholesome family. The patriarch Jim Bob Duggar kept his wife, Michelle, pregnant for more than two decades in the name of a movement that has undertones of the Right’s fear found in the great replacement theory. One area that didn’t receive too much attention in the documentary was the thread of racism woven by this White Supremacist movement that has plagued evangelical churches for decades.

This piece isn’t necessarily autobiographical, per se; there’s no way a short write-up of this kind can fully summarize the complexity that connects this fringe brand of Christianity to White Supremacy. In discussing racism within the fundamentalist movement though, I can do what many others can’t by drawing on my first-hand experiences, even with brevity, to explain an equally dark side of a movement barely discussed by those of us who receive the closed fist and back hand of White Supremacy every day. It makes sense to speak from experience to some degree, although it’s comforting to know that because of this analysis I’ll spend eternity roasting with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bea Arthur, and Bruce Lee. I’m planning to become a guitar playing, dry-humored-blackbelt in preparation to fan burning flames away from me if Dante’s hell turns out to be true.

I don’t know if it’s even fair to call myself an ex-evangelical. I don’t think I ever was. I was never sold on the Jesus story and had too many questions about life and the world for a belief system that required me to just believe and trust without questioning. An inquisitive thinker with a Jezebel spirit from a young age, it wasn’t difficult to separate church from my state of being, just at the time that the fundamentalist movement seemed to grip North America when the Twin Towers fell.

This was a pivotal moment for fundamentalists although the foundations were laid decades before. Fundamentalists really have been playing a long game. At once they look back to some time that was ‘better’, ‘holier’, and more ‘traditional’, while simultaneously looking ahead, not just towards the afterlife but to obstruct progress in what is, to them, an increasingly secular world.

“Shiny Happy People” offers insights into the tension and conflict between fundamentalism and secularity, emphasizing how this brand of Christianity does not simply aspire to make individuals and families “better” people; rather, it delved into how many within this community have aimed to impose theocratic rule on secular societies both within and outside the western world. The documentary does a good job of teasing apart how deceptive and money-driven this movement actually is, and how the root of its fear lies in losing heteropatriarchal control.

Among the main antagonists of this documentary is “patriarch” Jim Bob Duggar.* The closest pop-culture comparison I have to this man is hillbilly Cletus from The Simpsons; although Cletus seems to have more respect for his trailer-trash wife than Jim Bob ever could. Real-life Lego figure Jim Bob kept his wife pregnant for 2 decades and amassed a gaggle of children that probably amounts to the number of workers left working for Elon at Twitter (or ‘X’ if you want). The Duggar’s trainwreck of a show began to draw in huge numbers for TLC although it painted a false depiction of a dying breed of traditional families with wholesomeness and purity. This is exactly the type of show that would keep white, conservative Christians glued to their TVs, and TLC knew it.

The documentary highlights behind-the-scenes truths about the materialistic lifestyle that Jim Bob craves and gets through the unpaid labor of his 20 mini-mes. Gender roles were strictly reinforced, so while the oldest son Joshua Duggar learned “manly” things like disrespecting women and touching them inappropriately, his younger sisters became mini-moms whose bodily autonomy and ability to think independently was sullied before they could talk.

We’re introduced to the corporal punishment the children were subjected to, mostly at the hands (or rod) of Michelle, whose falsely sweet demeanor and deer in the headlights stare hides a more sinister side. She embodies the historic white women who themselves were oppressed and looked for ways to exert authority over those “beneath” them. What she and others in this community fail to recognize is their own abuse and how they abuse others. My own mom was subjected to this type of oppression at the hands of white women in evangelical settings.

A controversial technique called “blanket training” was inflicted on the Duggar children to weaken their resolve as soon as they could sit up on their own. One of the only immediate family members to participate in the documentary was first-born daughter and sister, Jill Dillard (née Duggar), who still seems to be working through some of her issues and trauma, and is currently estranged from her family. I imagine it will take years or decades to process her childhood.

Spoiler alert.

Before we delve into racism and fundamentalism, it would be remiss of me not to point out that big brother Joshua is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for child porn. His sister Jill was one of his earliest victims, and his sexual abuse of several of his sisters and others, his parents’ knowledge and secrecy around this, their abysmal response to these allegations, and Josh’s eventual conviction served as catalysts for their family show’s demise on TLC.

That hasn’t stopped Jim Bob’s appetite for the limelight as he and his convicted son both entered the political arena. Josh’s father-in-law, Mike Keller, is also part of the IBLP movement and recently claimed from the pulpit that “the Blacks” humbled themselves and prayed instead of doing silly things like marching to Washington to protest for freedom. Whenever Mike is ready to humble himself, I’d be happy to hire him without pay and to tortur — I mean ‘teach’ him about humility. I’ll even teach him Old English and he’ll be grateful for it while not hallucinating from hunger and working 18 hours a day.

Anyway, at times the documentary seems close to honing in on connections between White Supremacy and the IBLP movement, but it immediately shies away. We catch glimpses in the documentary and also in current news cycles, but so far not many have tackled how racism is rampant in the fundamentalist movement. At any rate, I’m here as your guide, as an unfollower of Jesus, retraumatizing myself for your learning pleasure.

The Duggar family was not simply a “large family” because they loved children for children’s sake. The fundamentalist movement instills that women exist to “serve” their husbands in every way, and, as the documentary explores, Gothard, a man who never married and has been accused by at least 30 women of sexual harassment, promotes women having a “quiver full.” Using the language of war and weapon imagery is no coincidence for these folks, because they imagine this present life as a “spiritual warzone.”

It’s interesting to consider who’s allowed to have a “quiver full.” These lily-white alabastards with their slightly updated Little House on the Prairie-clothing and late-80s perms are doing “god’s work” of being fruitful and multiplying. This is only acceptable in a white, Christian context. For Black, Brown, and other people of color, any type of exceptionally large family is referred to as “overpopulation.”

Essentially, the quiver-full movement is repackaged White Supremacy that cloaks antisemitism (make no mistake that Christian Zionists are extremely antisemitic often believing they can convert Jewish people or use them as proxies and tools to usher in the ‘end times’) and Islamophobia. Christian fundamentalists are worried about who will be in charge tomorrow, so they’ve been building their armies in preparation. Their weapons are their children and a primary aim is political power. After all, “the end is near.”

White Saviors

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

The savior of the world isn’t melanin-rich Jesus. It’s our unseasoned Christian brethren who believe they have a world full of people to save. One point of reference that stuck out was how current Duggar outcast, Jill, describes how she and her husband Derick Dillard went to do “missionary” work after getting married. It doesn’t seem to cross her mind as she speaks that the whole idea of this work is borne out of white saviorism.

Fundamentalists are constantly going to countries that are predominantly Black/Brown/Indigenous or have other PoC in order to “evangelize.” Their neocolonialist framing convinces them that ‘others’ need saving or educating to become more “civilized.” No one stops to ask or think why “missionary” work can’t be done at home. After all, the world around folks is “sinful” isn’t it? Why fly thousands of miles from home to a land with people who don’t look like you, whose melanin-rich skin or different facial features or non-Western customs, histories, and medicine is different when you have people who look like you down the street that need “saving” too? Or are those “sinners” back home at the very least “civilized”?

This “missionary” work is to indoctrinate, and it can be predatory. I knew people who did this “work”, and a lot of the time they were taking away resources from deprived communities while being treated like royalty. It’s a ‘feel good’ mission — a selfish practice to further one’s “ministry” on earth, rather than a selfless act. This white savior complex is used in fundamentalist movements to satisfy their worldview that they have the ability to save those who are less than them.

They have nothing to learn from these communities and cultures; rather they have an aura of “knowing.” The fact that these people and cultures have survived for millennia (in some cases) doesn’t cross white saviors’ minds. These short trips are supposed to be life-changing and reaffirming. Some of these folks are changing lives for the worse, as they prey on innocent and vulnerable people, many of whom are people of color. While my family struggled to get by, my parents never hesitated to offer support to fund missionaries going to Hawaii, Australia, Japan, or the Caribbean. I wonder why these folks didn’t choose North Sentinel island? I’m glad they didn’t, for the health and safety of that Indigenous community, but it’s no coincidence that these “missionaries” choose the vacati…er “missionary” locations that they do.

The worldly music or the “voodoo drum beat” that Gothard railed against in his teachings exemplifies the stealth anti-Black racism that links Black culture and music to “paganism” and devil worship. Shiny, Happy People mentions in passing that music with rhythm or links to Africa are forbidden, but the documentary never explicitly examines this underlying racist angle. This rhetoric has been used at least since the beginning of the Transatlantic Slave trade. This is not just about rock music and satanic panic, it’s clandestinely suggesting that music developed by or in Black culture is evil. It reinforces the concept of a spiritual battle as congregants and followers are constantly bombarded with references to darkness and light. For children, this starts to manifest in how they see others, especially BIPOC (a broad acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color). There’s a whole other world of racism and anti-Blackness some of us BIPOC experience growing up in predominantly white churches if we dare to reflect on our experiences honestly.

On top of this racist, predatory, white saviorism, IBLP and other fundamentalist churches and organizations use books, like “Train Up Your Child” and teachings that have literally cost Black children their lives. One such example was Ethiopian-born Hana Williams, who was adopted by a fundamentalist pair Larry and Carri Williams who were later charged and convicted of homicide and child abuse. Hana, a beautiful 13-year-old little Black girl, endured an unimaginably cruel end shortly after arriving in the US just three years prior in 2008. She died a horrendous death, naked and alone outside in the cold backyard where she was terrorized and suffered hypothermia. The autopsy reports that she also suffered from malnutrition and gastritis. Hana deserved better and the Christian community failed her.

Her then-10-year-old, deaf, Ethiopian brother, Immanuel who was also adopted into this white hellhole eventually testified at the Williams’ trial about some of the abuse he witnessed. Hana’s story is one that made the news because she died, but there are many more victims. This is not to say that all Christian, white adoptive parents are abusive to their children, but the fundamentalist movement promotes white superiority in both passive and explicit ways. They thought Hana was nothing but a little savage that should be grateful, echoing Mike Keller’s sermon in July 2023.

One might ask why BIPOC would subject themselves to racism in a religious institution. I can’t answer for everyone, but for some BIPOC, we are raised to honor and value community. It’s part of who we are, and many families or individuals seek that connection in religion. We’re deceptively sold on the idea of being in “commune” with others, while being indoctrinated that as individuals we will suffer in this life and the next if we don’t follow and conform. It’s a completely contradictory and often haphazard way of thinking, but it’s manipulative and sometimes coercive in ways that keep people feeling needed and needy.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that for some, part of this connection is driven by wanting to assimilate, and there’s no other religion that has marketed itself to represent whiteness qwhite like evangelicalism.

The IBLP and Christian fundamentalism have never needed BIPOC followers and have thrived for decades with only a small minority of them, but the very few who enter these sects and cults are weaponized to bolster claims that these programs and institutions are for “everyone”, even us “savages.”

Still, if we examine the timing of when Bill Gothard’s teachings came out (the timeline is discussed in the documentary), it all coincides with the civil rights movement and previously when Brown vs Board and desegregation were at the forefront of news cycles. Homeschooling white, Christian kids became a way to reinforce segregation in schools when that was changing in the public system. Fast forward to the late 1980s/90s when I was in school. This same segregation was being enforced within IBLP as parents began pulling kids out of school to homeschool because of “secular” teaching.

An unspoken undercurrent here was covert racism. Homeschooling promoted building a strong “Christian” base that reinforced “traditional” values. This of course means heteropatriarchy, but the course content is meant to build a strong predominantly *white* base.

The Black, Brown, and other people of color who fell into this fold were few. Even as a child or teen, I remember being so annoyed with Christian evangelicals for arguing that they needed to take their kids out of public schools and away from “worldly” and “ungodly” topics. At home, I’d been taught that running away was cowardly and that’s what these folks were doing. The error in my thinking was that I thought these evangelicals were cowering, but they were deceptively building militias and child armies. Comparable and relatable to Dominionist theology, they are on a mission for power. What I didn’t have was Promethean foresight. They were playing a long game.

The whole Duggar situation/IBLP/fundamentalist movement is about control — hetero-patriarchal, *white* control. If you are BIPOC, you must code switch to survive in that sort of extremist Christian culture. In stripping women of any authority, BIPOC are meant to comply to another level. These churches try to break your will and erase who you are or could be. This is code to become white.

Reflections on this documentary and on a part of my childhood has reinforced how important it is to be more candid about the harmfulness and power of evangelicalism. If there is one truth about fundamentalism, it’s that society is facing many battles. Many evangelicals just don’t realize that they’re on the wrong side of the “war.” The shiny, happy exterior of this subculture hides awful truths about predation, misogyny, and yes, racism. What encapsulates Christian fundamentalism is not just the facade of happiness, but being shiny, happy, white people.

*Interestingly, the documentary discusses Jim Bob’s somewhat ruthless business-mindedness. Given how he’s marketed his family & exposed them to the world, it’s interesting that I couldn’t find any royalty free images of the family. He’s made a small fortune through exploitation. To me, that doesn’t seem like someone protecting those he loves as much as it is profiting from exploiting them.

**This article was written before the Palestinian genocide was expediated by the Israeli and US governments, but there’s a lot to say about Christian evangelicalism, racism, and Palestine. The topic deserves its own space, so I’ll try and outline something in detail soon.

***Thank you to Evan, Erik and Margie for looking this over.

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M. Rambaran-Olm

Literary Historian. Palaeographer. Antiracist Activist. Dual Citizen. WoC. Resident of the 5th Circle of Hell. Lover of 80s cartoons. Twitter: @isasaxonists