The Gospel and the Gosselins
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.