The Amazon Prime docuseries Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets explores the reality-television homeschooling family and the system that shaped them—Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles—along with the fundamentalist mindset behind it.
Much of what it discusses felt nauseatingly familiar given all that we’ve seen in the last several years. One phrase, however, particularly struck me: the Joshua Generation.
Such was the language used by some sectors of the homeschooling and other movements to indicate the “long game” of training up those who could restore national greatness and steer the country back to a “Christian America.” And as Alex Harris, who was interviewed in the series, points out, some aspects of this idea became a reality.
There’s nothing wrong with preparing students for places of influence in politics (or medicine or business), but the Christian nationalism mixed up in much of the Joshua Generation rhetoric betrays a bigger question: the nature of real power. It seems the Joshua Generation came from a generation that did not know Joshua.
The language in the Book of Joshua alludes to the transition from Moses to his successor. Moses led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt—and could see the Promised Land from a distance but didn’t enter it. On the other hand, Joshua led the people across the Jordan to defeat the Canaanites and take over the territory God had given them. The modern implications are clear: One generation of American Christians offers up a vision of a Christian America, and the next makes it happen.
Note that in this analogy, the Promised Land is the United States of America and Joshua is the present generation. It’s no coincidence that the “Christian” rally days prior to the January 6 attack on the United States were called the “Jericho March”—echoing the account in the Book of Joshua in which the walls of Jericho city collapsed when the Israelites shouted and blew their trumpets (Josh. 6). God said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men” (v. 2).
In the Joshua Generation metaphor and other rhetorical tropes like it, the United States is overtaken by the enemies of God—enemies that must be routed to fulfill God’s promise.
In his introduction to the Trinity Forum booklet reprinting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Who Stands Fast?, historian Charles Marsh notes that “American Christian institutions have spent vast resources seeking to raise up and nurture an army of elites to engage the culture wars.” And yet, Marsh contends, there is far more actual power—leading to an actual change of minds and conditions—to be found in the examples of wartime theologian Bonhoeffer (who was executed by the Nazis) and in civil rights figure Fannie Lou Hamer (a poor sharecropper in the Jim Crow–era Mississippi Delta).
Bonhoeffer was no withdrawing pietist. After all, his life’s mission culminated in opposing an authoritarian and murderous regime—and confronting the church that collaborated with it and granted it theological legitimacy. But he also was not the kind of “realist” who saw the possibility of a split between private virtue and public leadership, between the inner person and the outward fruits.
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical,” Bonhoeffer wrote.
“Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men,” he continued. “Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
The series Shiny Happy People leaves us with yet one more example of how religion can be used for sexual predation on vulnerable people. The allegations there, some of which have been proven in court, are enraging and gut-wrenching. These cases demonstrate how power, which was said to be all about serving Jesus, was instead wielded for sadism. We are left wondering how people can rail against a decadent culture while using the words of Jesus to destroy lives—in actions so decadent even the secular culture would recoil.
A key subject of the series is Joshua Duggar, who was convicted of possessing child sex abuse materials—the descriptions of which were so awful I had to turn off the television to recover. This same man was once a spokesperson for a family values advocacy organization.
Suppose the Joshua Generation had worked out as planned and all our national institutions of power had Christians at the helm. Would that have effectively turned the culture around—now that we’ve seen some of these very leaders abuse power in Jesus’ name and commit the very same sins they denounce, and sometimes even worse? In some sectors of evangelical America, it seems the only disqualifying character flaw is the failure to hate the right people with the right amount of anger.
What is “power” of any kind if it comes with a loss of moral witness? Nothing.
In this era, Jesus calls his followers not to defeat enemies of flesh and blood but to fight “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). And how do we do that? With the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.
Gospel witness, which is a call to peace with God, and moral witness, which is a demonstration of a regenerated life and a faithful church, are where the greatest power lies.
The Land of Promise is not the United States of America but the “rest” that comes through Jesus (Heb. 4), whose name can be translated as “Joshua” in English. And just as Joshua spied out the Promised Land ahead of time, we’ve heard from a Pioneer behind the veil of eternity (Heb. 6:19–20)—the One who once was dead and is now alive.
True power is not placing interns on Capitol Hill or filling clerkships at the Supreme Court—especially not if what’s behind these efforts is a dead “Christianity” that trades the power of the gospel for the gospel of power.
A Jesus Generation—one that not only uses his name but also lives out his nature—is where the real power lies.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.
This article has been changed to remove an inaccurate detail about Bonhoeffer’s execution.