Another Christian influencer arrested for child abuse: Why conservatives keep falling for these cons

Family on broken tablet screen Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
Family on broken tablet screen Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images

In many ways, it's the least surprising story of our times: A showily Christian conservative holds themselves out to be the moral arbiter for others to follow but is soon exposed as a hypocrite and a villain, accused of violence or abuse against the vulnerable people they claimed to champion. It could be the establishment of the Catholic Church, which covered up sexual abuse by priests for years. Or the Southern Baptist Convention, which also spent decades reflexively shielding abusers. Or Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University. Or the Duggar family from TLC's reality TV series and their religious leader, Bill Gothard. The drumbeat of similar stories is unrelenting. Once a person holds themselves out to be an exemplar of clean Christian living, it feels like it's just a matter of time before their closetful of dark secrets comes spilling out.

So it wasn't really a shock when another Christian right celebrity, Ruby Franke of the YouTube series "8 Passengers," was recently arrested and charged with six charges of felony child abuse. Franke was part of a new crop of Christian "influencers" who have recreated the Duggar family's reality TV success for the social media era. There seems to be an unending number of these content creators. They rake in massive views and advertisers by dishing up a fantasy of blindingly white, well-scrubbed, "wholesome" family life.

The same religious right that treats women like second-class citizens takes a similar view of the humanity of children, treating them more like property than people.

Franke was a bog standard example: A thin Mormon housewife with 6 kids and expensive-looking blond hair, living in small town Utah. She and her husband, Kevin Franke, kept up a YouTube channel documenting how their strict, religious parenting style supposedly led to an upright and enviable life. She partnered with ConneXions Classroom, which bills itself as a counseling service to "create joy in your life and relationships!" All this is advertised with familiar imagery: Laughing children in fields, content-looking white wives in well-appointed kitchens, ruggedly handsome husbands with full heads of hair.

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Behind the scenes, according to police and prosecutors, was massive amounts of child abuse, which was exposed when Franke's 12-year-old son escaped out of a window of the home of Jodi Hildebrandt, who runs ConneXions. The boy reportedly had duct tape on his arms and legs and was starving. His 10-year-old sister was found in the house, reportedly also malnourished. Four minors were taken into care by the Department of Child and Family Services, according to a statement from the Santa Clara-Ivins Public Safety Department. Franke's oldest daughter responded with gratitude for the arrest on Instagram:

It's grim stuff, but also just exactly what cynical secularists of the left expect.

What's so confounding about this story is that so many other people were buying Franke's B.S. image of herself. She had over 2 million subscribers on her YouTube channel. While some of those people were skeptics, by and large, it was the same audience you always get for these Christian influencers: People who desperately want to believe in this fairy tale of the shiny, happy perfect white Christian families.

It's not like the red flags weren't there. The Frankes made a big deal out of being strict disciplinarians on their channel, which led to describing punishments of children. A 15-year-old, for instance, was deprived of a bed for 7 months, after he played a prank on a younger brother. Franke defended herself by calling a bedroom a "privilege." She also described being able to eat as a "privilege" that children should expect to lose for misbehavior. She filmed multiple videos recalling times when she withheld food to punish children.


"Shiny Happy People": The 8 most horrifying revelations from Prime Video's Duggar family doc

Some viewers criticized the Frankes for this, as well as their repeated assertions that children do not deserve privacy. Most of the audience, however, didn't clock this as abuse, and no wonder. The Christian right has long pushed the idea that harsh punishments are "loving" and that treating your kids like property is "good" parenting. Christian bookstores are full of parenting books that advocate hitting children, which is often minimized with the word "spanking." It's common to read writers like James Dobson, who claim the only reason beating kids wouldn't work is the "spanking may be too gentle." A popular parenting book, "To Train Up A Child," recommends beating kids from infancy and hitting them with a "switch," on the grounds that open-handed spanking isn't painful enough.

The viciousness, which often verges on flat-out sadism, goes a long way toward explaining the apparently bottomless yearning for Duggar-style propaganda. It's all about reassuring conservative Christians that all this religious oppression and cruelty is justified. The images of smiling blonde children chasing butterflies in a field under the gaze of beatific blonde parents tell a story they desperately want to hear: That it's okay to beat and starve kids because look at all this family harmony and joy it will eventually produce!

It's not true, of course, but the need to believe that they're one more spanking away from Christian utopia clearly drives a lot of people to consume this Hallmark-style propaganda by the bucketfuls. Worse, this notion that harsh "discipline" is the key to living this saccharine image is used to justify all manner of hurtful policies. Anti-choice activists advocate for abortion bans by suggesting that forced childbirth will turn women from hussies to glowing mothers, gratefully cuddling babies they didn't know they needed. The current mania for book-banning and bullying LGBTQ students in schools is fueled by the notion that there are "innocent" Christian families that need "protection." And, of course, this recasting of child abuse as mere "discipline" makes it incredibly difficult for authorities to intercede when children are in danger.

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One of the most striking things about the Franke story is that there seems to be many previous moments in which outside authorities received word that the children in the home were being abused. Their eldest daughter claims that child protective services and the police had been notified in the past, to no avail. Insider reports that there was a visit from child protective services after they took their son's bed away. In another video, Ruby Franke complains that her daughter's first grade teacher was clearly uncomfortable when Franke forced the girl to skip lunch.

The police, social workers and teachers are not to blame, however. They're often prevented from doing anything to interfere in child abuse, because Republicans, at the behest of the Christian right and under the guise of "parents rights," implement laws that make it very hard for authorities to deal with abusive parents. In many states, for instance, it's against the law for one adult to hit another adult, but you are allowed to hit a child so long as it doesn't bruise or break the skin. The teacher may not like watching a kid go hungry at lunch, but until the kid is in medical danger, it's not against the law in Utah. Republicans are so hostile to laws protecting the safety and well-being of children that they've even blocked the U.S. from ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, making ours the only nation in the world that doesn't recognize the human rights of children.

As Human Rights Watch explained in a recent report, "US states overwhelmingly fail to live up to key standards" on "the issues of child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice." As Jill Filipovic explained in her write-up of the report, "Over and over again, the worst states for children are clustered around the 'pro-life' Bible Belt, and the map of the states that are the worst for children looks a lot like a map of red state America." The same religious right that treats women like second-class citizens takes a similar view of the humanity of children, treating them more like property than people.

Ruby Franke's is just the latest in a long line of stories that illustrate the gap between the image the Christian right likes to portray and the ugly reality just under the surface. Millions of dollars every year spills into an industry framing conservative Christianity as a romanticized world full of beaming white people, living in bucolic environs untroubled by the problems that the sinners of the world supposedly bring upon themselves. The image of the emaciated 12-year-old boy with rope burns and duct tape on his limbs, slipping out the window of a pricey McMansion, is an alarmingly resonant symbol of reality: Behind that spiffy, shiny Christian exterior is all too often a world where the most vulnerable people trapped and malnourished.