WASHINGTON – Why did Republicans embrace the Duggars in the first place?
Rick Santorum no longer digs the Duggars.
Back in 2012, I watched the Republican presidential candidate campaign in Iowa alongside Jim Bob Duggar and several of his many children – the celebrity Christian family behind the hit TLC series “19 Kids and Counting” – en route to Santorum’s victory in the Iowa caucuses.
But after announcing his 2016 presidential bid last week, Santorum cut the Duggars loose. “I was sickened by it, just sickened by it,” Santorum said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” referring to the news that the eldest Duggar son, Josh, had molested several girls as a teen.
Santorum’s response contrasts dramatically with that of another 2016 contender, Mike Huckabee, who enjoyed the Duggars’ support in his 2008 bid but didn’t run in 2012. After the news broke (and Josh Duggar apologized) two weeks ago, Huckabee posted a message on Facebook to “affirm” his support of the Duggars. “Good people make mistakes and do regrettable and even disgusting things,” he wrote, calling Josh Duggar’s response a “testament to his family’s authenticity and humility.”
Why the divergence in opinion? Perhaps it has something to do with Huck’s victory in the Duggar Primary. Several candidates had sought the famous family’s favor, as evidenced by the photos (mostly from Josh Duggar’s Twitter stream) of Duggar with Huckabee, Santorum, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker. But in early May, before the scandal broke, Jim Bob Duggar and his wife Michelle endorsed Huckabee over their 2012 pick, Santorum.
This is the real scandal.
I don’t join in the schadenfreude on the left over the latest case of hypocrisy among family-values conservatives, or take any delight in the discovery that the Duggars, who find immorality in homosexuality, abortion and out-of-wedlock sex, have more disturbing questions of morality in their own home. What’s troubling is that the Republican presidential candidates have been so worshipful of the Duggars in the first place. The political issue is not what Josh Duggar did as a teenager but why so many who seek the nation’s highest office feel the need to woo people who are so far out on the ideological extreme.
A quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians, but only a small fraction of them are like the Duggars. Only 3 percent of American kids are home-schooled, as the Duggars are. And only 7 percent of Americans think using birth control is morally objectionable, as the Duggars do.
The family has often been associated with, and claimed by, the Quiverfull movement, a Christian patriarchy sect proposing that women must obey and submit sexually to their husbands and should eschew birth control and embrace their “high calling” as wives, mothers and homemakers. The Duggars have said they are not affiliated with the group, but their views are very similar and they have used the same biblical verse that is the basis of the Quiverfull movement to justify their belief in having as many children as God will give them.
Quiverfull followers speak of having children to “out-populate” their secular opponents. Dating is not allowed, and fathers supervise courtship. In the Duggar TV series, unmarried women must give “side hugs” – not frontal ones.
So why do mainstream conservatives give the family such a full frontal embrace? In addition to being wooed by GOP presidential candidates, the Duggars have been featured at conservative gatherings, and Josh Duggar held a top post at the Family Research Council, a powerful conservative group in Washington.
The answer seems to be that they are so eager to associate themselves with famous conservatives that they don’t pause to examine the beliefs of their would-be endorsers. The embrace of other bizarre figures in the conservative movement has caused heartburn similar to the Josh Duggar scandal for GOP officeholders – such as when Ted Nugent called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” and when antigovernment Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy expressed racist sentiments.
The likes of the Duggars do have influence in Iowa, where 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers are evangelical Christians – but wins there didn’t propel Huckabee or Santorum to the nomination. And their views of wifely submission won’t help Republicans nationally with their gender gap.
The overwhelming majority of Christian conservatives are upstanding Americans and are neither racist nor believers in exotic notions of patriarchy and fertility. Surely there is a way for Republican office seekers to appeal to them without wooing the most extreme.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.