Little Soldiers in the Culture War

Evangelical radical Bill Gothard's Character First! curriculum teaches students in Fort Lauderdale to obey his will

One of the lessons for today is obedience, and the first graders at the school inside the First Christian Church building in Fort Lauderdale sing about it quite obediently.

While the students at the Charter School of Excellence are divided fairly evenly between blacks and whites, they dress alike, with the boys in dark blue pants and green buttoned-up golf shirts and the girls wearing white blouses under plaid jumpers. All eyes are focused on their young and attractive teacher, Mrs. Blocker, who leads them in song:

Obedience is listening attentively,
Obedience will take instructions joyfully,
Obedience heeds wishes of authorities,
Obedience will follow orders instantly.
For when I am busy at my work or play,
And someone calls my name, I'll answer right away!
I'll be ready with a smile to go the extra mile
As soon as I can say "Yes, sir!" "Yes ma'am!"
Hup, two, three!

The ditty is capped off with a collective clap from all the happy children in the classroom. While singing songs about obedience and orderliness, they march in place, stand up straight, and occasionally salute in unison, giving the class a slightly militaristic feel. The little boys and girls, however unwittingly, are indeed in a war of sorts: They stand on the front lines of an ideological battle -- popularly known as the culture war -- for the souls of America's children.

The lesson the children are learning this morning in South Florida has nothing to do with math or science or history; it's about values, about morality, about set ways of how to conduct oneself in life. The curriculum is called "Character First!" and it says little kids should never complain or draw attention to themselves. The children are taught to forgive, to "turn the other cheek," and to "respond kindly to those who hurt me."

In addition to instantly obeying their authority figures, they are to be grateful for the chance to follow orders ("I will show appreciation/To my authorities/I will write them notes of gratefulness/For all they've done for me"). The pupils are also taught to "guard my eyes, ears, words, and thoughts," and they are ordered to "abstain from anything which might damage or pollute my mind or body."

The Charter School of Excellence, which receives some $800,000 in state tax dollars annually, has more ties to religion than its being inside a church building. Character First! is published by Character Training Institute (CTI) in Oklahoma City, which itself is an offshoot of the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The Chicago-based IBLP is the brainchild of a 64-year-old evangelical Christian guru named Bill Gothard, who boasts some 2.5 million "alumni" of his Bible-based seminars, and he promises to give the world a "new approach to life." The Character First! curriculum is directly based on Gothard's teachings -- but with overt references to God and Christianity edited out.

Gothard has been accused by fellow Christians of everything from misinterpreting the Bible to ignoring spousal abuse to being a borderline cult leader. According to materials Gothard has published, his more radical ideas come from his belief in a "chain of command," which holds that authority figures -- from preachers to politicians to middle managers -- are put in their elevated positions by God. Mess with your boss, you're messing with Christ. Women are taught to be submissive and obedient to their husbands. He teaches his followers that political leaders are ordained by God and therefore to be obeyed. Gothard doesn't focus on the Ten Commandments -- he teaches his seven "universal, nonoptional Principles of Life," and he extends those principles to what food to eat and what clothes to wear. Breaking any of Gothard's principles leads to the highway to Hell, quite literally. Another path to Satan is the drums. The "backbeat" common in rock music is evil, according to his teachings, as are chords played in the minor key, which is a subversion of God's harmony.

Follow the rules, go to Heaven. Break them, and Satan will get a foothold on your soul.

Gothard disdains "knowledge," which he says only "puffs up a man," in favor of the more abstract "wisdom." "The reasoning of man will bring destruction," he tells people during seminars. To guard his followers from the evils of public schools, Gothard sells his own brand of Bible-based home-schooling. He also has his own unaccredited law school and college where his unique brand of Christianity is taught.

Two years ago CTI embarked on the Character First! campaign to bring Gothard's beliefs into public schools. It might be assumed that Gothard's views would place him firmly on the outer fringes of American culture. Not so. Character First! has been taught in more than 250 public schools across the country, according to CTI's representatives.

Now Florida is slated to become Gothard country.
State Rep. Tracy Stafford and Sen. Howard Forman, both Democrats from Broward County, have introduced bills that would force every public elementary school in the state to teach Character First! -- which is mentioned by name in the bills -- or, as the bill vaguely puts it, a program "similar" to it. The cost: approximately five to seven million dollars in tax money. A bill encouraging the use of Character First! in public schools passed unanimously last year in the state legislature. If that is any indication, then a Character First! bill will likely land on the desk of Gov. Jeb Bush, who, according to a spokeswoman, would support the bill. Bush, who wasn't available for an interview, is implementing Character First! into his own charter school in Liberty City.

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