On 19 Kids and Counting, grocery shopping is a feat. Washing laundry requires grit. The Duggar family manages their child-packed home like a business, by necessity, and it makes for good TV. The uncommonly large Arkansas-based family is now TLC’s longest running reality show, with 14 seasons aired since 2008.
It’s a slice of American life, or at least a certain kind of American life, organized around conservative Christianity and all that entails: prayer, patriarchy, and watching only pre-recorded television in order to avoid exposure to anything tawdry.
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At 26, Josh Duggar is the clan’s eldest son. He opened his own used car dealership in 2006, and started working simultaneously as a political consultant the year after. In 2013, when he quietly began working in Washington, D.C., Duggar’s jump was actually to a very high-profile position—Executive Director of FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council. FRC Action advocates for socially conservative legislation, including opposing LGBT non-discrimination laws, abortion and divorce. (He's pictured above, at left, with former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.)
On 19 Kids and Counting, they said only that Josh had a new job, leaving out any additional details. They focused instead on his family’s adjustment to D.C. living. (There’s lots of traffic; Josh’s wife, Anna, is useless with a map.) But FRC Action’s website welcomed Duggar to the organization in a bold font: "Josh Duggar—Eldest of '19 Kids And Counting'—Is New Face of Faith and Politics."
Regarding the decision to downplay the connection between Duggar’s political job and the show, TLC Spokesperson Shannon Martin told GLAAD, an LGBT media monitoring organization, "His professional life will not be followed in the show." Only Josh and Anna’s "life in the big city" would be included.
TLC did not respond to ETonline’s request for additional comment.
But now the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, is targeting TLC and Duggar. In part because of the FRC Action connection, but also in response to his family’s call for the repeal of Ordinance 119 in Fayetteville, Ark., not far from their home, which protected all citizens from "unfair discrimination" on the basis of everything from sexual orientation to gender identity to veteran status.
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Michelle Duggar, Josh's mother, recorded robocalls that claimed Ordinance 119's protections for transgender people threatened the safety of Northwest Arkansas' women and children, and the family gave $10,000 to the campaigns of city council candidates who opposed the ordinance. (Listen to the robocall here.)
Their campaign was successful, and the ordinance was repealed. Josh Duggar tweeted, "Thanks to all who helped w/ the #Repeal119 campaign in Fayetteville, AR—supporting equality for ALL Fayetteville citizens."
Maureen McCarty, HRC's Associate Director of Digital Media, fired back in a blog post that asked bluntly, "Does TLC Know What Its Celebrities are Up To?"
The stakes are high: Money. Politics. Religion.
A special two-hour wedding episode aired in October was its highest rated show to date, beating Sons of Anarchy and landing more than 4 million viewers.
But now TLC suddenly faces similar scrutiny to that A&E received last year for Duck Dynasty, a reality show that follows the wealthy, duck hunting Robertson family—who, like the Duggars, are known for their conservative Christianity and politics.
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Duck patriarch Phil Robertson launched the controversy with a 2013 GQ interview in which he pejoratively compared gays with liars and adulterers. "What’s the difference?" he asked.
Days later Robertson doubled down on his anti-gay remarks in an interview with MailOnline, citing Jesus and the Bible for inspiration: "I will not give or back off from my path."
Though Duck Dynasty avoided cancellation despite angry petitions and threatened boycotts, the main result of the backlash was a temporary suspension of the star—which then drew death threats for A&E’s CEO for suspending him in the first place. The show generated about $400 million in merchandising revenue in 2013 alone, and as the controversy raged, sales of Dynasty-branded swag at Walmart actually surged. Ratings for the show’s season finale—while solidly at the top for all cable reality shows—dropped drastically from the year before.
The Duggars seem very comfortable exercising their newfound power to advance a conservative Christian public policy agenda. "I will be engaging the grassroots and taking the message of faith, family and freedom all across America," Duggar told the New York Daily News in 2013.
This past November the Duggars asked "all married couples" to post a photo on their family Facebook page. But when same-sex spouses participated, their photos were swiftly deleted.
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LGBT activists are ready for a prime-time fight. "It is time for the TLC celebrities to end their nationwide campaign to walk back the rights of LGBT Americans," HRC’s McCarty wrote. Or as advice columnist and It Gets Better author Dan Savage said more plainly in a Tweet: "The @duggarfam are very deeply sh***y people...#F***theDuggars."
TLC may not want to join this discussion, but viewers—and advertisers—are likely going to force the issue with some lobbying of their own, both in support and against the family’s politics. But for now the question remains: Who can rally more—and louder—troops to the reality show battle line?