If you have recently stood in line at the grocery store and glanced at the tabloid covers, chances are you have seen the faces of reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin. Jon and Kate are stars of the wildly popular TLC show Jon & Kate Plus Eight, which documents the life of this Pennsylvania couple as they raise their eight children, 8-year-old twins and 5-year-old sextuplets. Until recently, Jon and Kate were celebrated as models of wholesome family values. Sure, they bickered a lot, but they were committed to staying together for the long haul. Indeed, last season featured them renewing their wedding vows on the beach in Hawaii. Such commitment endeared them to the watching public and made them TLC's most profitable commodity.
Of all the viewers who followed the Gosselins, evangelicals were among the most faithful. Jon and Kate's refusal to resort to "selective reduction" when they found themselves pregnant with sextuplets, their membership in an Assemblies of God church, and their Isaiah 40:31 T-shirts all helped to make them icons of evangelical piety. Churches from across the country clamored to be added to their speaking tours. In the last two years the vast majority of Jon and Kate's presentations took place at Christian conferences or at evangelical churches, most often Baptist, nondenominational or charismatic.
Zondervan, one of the foremost evangelical presses, published two books with the Gosselins, both of which hit the New York Times bestseller list. The popular tongue-in-cheek blog Stuff Christians Like listed "Watching Jon and Kate Plus 8" on its list of favored Christian products or activities. Evangelicals dependably tuned in to the television show as the family received free trips to posh resorts, when the couple underwent plastic surgery, and when they moved from a comfortable house in the suburbs to a sprawling estate in the country. If they noticed that Jon and Kate's family and friends—most notably Aunt Jodi and Beth—were, one by one, being estranged from the family (reportedly over financial disputes), it did not stop believers from looking to this couple for inspiration on how to be a good Christian family.
Then everything changed. Reports surfaced that Jon was out partying with co-eds and getting too friendly with a 23-year-old teacher. Shortly thereafter the tabloids claimed that Kate was having an affair with her bodyguard and that she had given Jon the go-ahead to see other women, as long as he showed up for filming. The truthfulness of all of these claims has yet to be established. But one thing is clear—the marriage is crumbling. In fact, on the season five premiere, which aired on Memorial Day, the couple expressed no love for one another and made no promises about being together in the future. Both appeared ready to file for divorce.
Viewers, and especially evangelical viewers, are aghast. How could such a loving, Christian family disintegrate so quickly? Is the failure of their marriage due to the stress of parenting multiples? Can it be attributed to Kate's love of celebrity versus Jon's desire to retreat from the limelight? Might it be the result of living under constant (albeit self-imposed) surveillance? I suspect that each of these theories tell part of the story. But the story that has not been told is the one that sees in Jon and Kate the shortcomings of evangelical piety itself.
We evangelicals tend to be easily impressed. We cheered on Jon and Kate's decision to carry all six babies to term but rarely considered the prior question: Was it right for them to undergo risky fertility treatments in the first place? They had been married only a matter of months when Kate, who was in her mid-20s at the time, took fertility medication to stimulate her ovaries for intrauterine insemination and became pregnant with their twins, Cara and Mady.
Only a few years later, Kate's ovaries were stimulated once again, but this time they were hyper-stimulated. Warned by their doctor during an ultrasound examination that the fertility medication had worked a little too well and that four mature follicles were present, Jon and Kate nonetheless went ahead with the insemination. Apparently their doctor had miscounted on that fateful day, because Kate soon discovered that she was pregnant with seven embryos (one of which miscarried a short time later). Six babies were growing in a space designed for one, posing great risks to the life of each baby as well as to the life of their mother. Faced with this unintended but preventable situation, Jon and Kate were right to carry all of the babies to term. But this decision is not enough to warrant their status as models of Christian faithfulness. That most evangelicals were satisfied to celebrate the end—six miraculous lives—rather than assess the morality of the means whereby those lives were created, betrays the thinness of evangelical reflection on reproductive ethics. Too often our ethics have focused so singularly on the question of abortion that we have given comparatively little attention to the morally-significant issues surrounding infertility, reproductive technology, childbirth, and parenting. As such, we have a hard time challenging the assumptions of our consumerist culture or those who, like Jon and Kate, seem to be beholden to it.
As fellow Christians, we should have reminded the Gosselins that life is a gift to be received in gratitude, not something to be grasped, purchased, or sold. In many ways, the last four seasons of Jon & Kate Plus Eight is the story of a family that seemed to progressively lose sight of this truth. Of course, they had help along the way from TLC, from the show's producers, and not least of all, from their Christian viewers.
When the first few episodes revealed the earning potential of this "everyday family," Jon & Kate Plus Eight became a brand name that was packaged and sold. And many Christians were happy to comply by opening up their wallets and their fellowship halls. When the network and the couple were not satisfied with the money generated through high ratings and book sales, the Gosselin home was filled with product placements and the children were filmed for long hours each week. All the while many (though not all) evangelicals watched with undiscerning eyes. Somewhere along the line we, like Jon and Kate, seemed to forget the warnings of 1 Timothy 6:9-10:
But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (NRSV)
It was not until the recent allegations of sexual impropriety arose that a significant number of Christians began to question whether Jon and Kate were indeed the examples of faithful living that we had imagined. Somehow most of us missed the long trajectory that was, day by day, moving them farther from a life of Christian virtue. Sexual immorality—whether actual or merely suspected—caught our attention, but the materialism, narcissism, and exploitation of children that preceded it was largely overlooked.
As such, the breakdown of Jon and Kate's marriage is but a symptom of the larger weaknesses of ethics in the evangelical community. We are easily seduced by wealth and fame. We are easily contented by the shallow rhetoric of hot-button issues. In short, we are easily deceived by cultural values painted in Christian veneers (or clothed in Isaiah 40:31 T-shirts).
The hope for us—and the hope of Jon and Kate—is to turn once again to the rich, complex, and difficult ethics of Jesus and to let those ethics form us into a more discerning people in the world. It is time that we look for role models who value self-sacrifice over material gain. It is time that we practice forgiveness and the healing of broken relationships and call fellow Christians to do the same. It is time that we take our own marriage vows seriously and hold our brothers and sisters to be true to their commitments as well. Most importantly, it is time that we develop a view of faith and life that is capable of asking deep questions and courageous enough to embody real answers. Then, and only then, will Christians have something to offer the world and something to offer Jon & Kate Plus Eight.
Julie Vermeer Elliott is a faculty member at Eastern University, St. Davids, PA, where she teaches courses in Christian ethics and interdisciplinary studies and directs advising and first-year programs. She holds a master of theological studies degree from Duke Divinity School.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Earlier Christianity Today coverage of Jon & Kate Plus Eight includes:
Extreme Family | Jon & Kate Plus Eight is at home with faith. (Nov. 3, 2008)
Jon and Kate Plus a Lot of Bitterness | The Gosselins need to confess their sins to Christian friends rather than to the TV camera. (Lynn Roush, Her.menutics blog, May 28, 2009)
Today's Christian Woman, a Christianity Today sister publication, interviewed Kate Gosselin late last year.