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JOANNA WEISS

How the Duggars steer the GOP wrong

The Duggars greeted the 16th addition to the family in 2005, the same year Josh, the oldest son, was named in an underage sex abuse probe. TLC suspended the family’s reality show earlier this month.AP Photo/Discovery Health Channel, Spencer Tirey

It’s a different experience now, watching “19 Kids and Counting,” TLC’s reality show about a bland, Bible-wielding family that doesn’t use birth control. The network yanked the show from its schedule once news broke that Josh, the eldest son, had reportedly molested young girls when he was 14. But you can still find episodes on YouTube, which is how I found myself watching an episode titled “The Duggars’ Guide to Love.”

It described the family’s strict rules for courtship: no physical contact before marriage, save for the occasional “side hug”; chaperones on every date; many awkward double dates with Mom and Dad. The installment was filled with man-on-the-street interviews, with some people reacting in horror, some expressing a vague nostalgia for rituals they’d never use themselves.

The underlying theme was that the Duggars are odd: not a movement so much as a curiosity. This is abundantly clear to everyone but the Duggars themselves and the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which has somehow misread the show as aspirational.

On a network that regularly shines a light on subcultures and outliers, the Duggars fit in well; they practice a supremely patriarchal form of Christianity that, as their dating process suggests, amounts to an evangelical version of extreme couponing. They’re free to worship as they want, and flaunt it, and collect the paycheck.

They’re also free to try to leverage their fame into political power, and this the Duggars have done with gusto: lobbying against gay marriage, recording robocalls against an ordinance to ban discrimination against gay and transgender people. Until he resigned last week, Josh, now 27, held a top post at the Family Research Council, which fights against, among other things, abortion and comprehensive sex education. Last fall, after baiting gay couples on the family Facebook page, patriarch Jim Bob declared that “God is expanding our borders through the national media.”

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TLC has largely tried to tiptoe around the Duggars’ politics, blurring out their antiabortion T-shirts and focusing, instead, on the universal appeal of weddings and abundant babies. But the Republican Party has been less cautious. The conservative CPAC conference has rolled out the red carpet for the family. Josh Duggar recently left a trail of tweeted photos of himself with Republican presidential candidates.

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So far, only Mike Huckabee has doubled down on that support, posting a full-throated defense of the Duggars on Facebook. (Rick Santorum, who campaigned with the Duggars in 2012, told “Good Morning America” Thursday that he was “sickened” by the charges.) But even candidates wise enough to steer clear of the story have a Duggar problem of sorts, as they struggle to manage the party’s evangelical base. Bobby Jindal, who majored in biology at Brown, has championed the teaching of creationism in schools. Marco Rubio recently whined that Christianity faces “a real and present danger” from gay rights supporters exercising their right to free expression.

In fact, the winds are blowing, inexorably, away from the social conservatives’ agenda. Gay marriage is legal in 37 states. Thanks in part to another reality show, transgender rights are closer to becoming a mainstream issue.

Yet, because of primary politics, where evangelicals hold a disproportionate sway, GOP politicians keep getting pulled into the Duggars’ world. In 2012, in a stunning unforced error, Republicans resurrected a debate over whether women should be guaranteed access to birth control. Polls showed that the issue drove female voters straight into the Democrats’ arms. Americans might enjoy watching the Duggars, the way you’d watch a nature show. But the vast majority don’t want to be them.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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