Little Soldiers in the Culture War

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

Howard Forman now says he doesn't believe Character First! should be put in Florida's public schools. "I never heard of Gothard, and I think his ideas sound kind of screwy," Forman says. "I don't support the kind of character training where people sing songs about discipline. I don't support religious extremists of any kind."

Clark, the teachers' union spokesman, says it's imperative that Gothard be investigated before any of his programs become adopted by the state's schools. "Whenever you look at a message, it pays to look at the messenger," he says.

About 200 miles due north of Fort Lauderdale, roughly 60 people in Titusville's Park Avenue Baptist Church gaze up at the messenger. Gothard isn't here, but a video image of his talking head is displayed on two large screens in the austere room. Husbands and wives, children, and single men and women are in attendance, all looking for an answer to life. Some have been here many times before and can be quickly spotted: They're the ones wearing ties or dresses. It's a Gothard thing.

Hundreds of IBLP seminars are held each year in cities across the United States and around the world. Gothard boasts that his brand of ministry has reached Singapore, Taiwan, Russia, South Korea, New Zealand, and Mexico. There will be Gothard seminars -- which are organized by volunteers -- in Miami this coming April and another in West Palm Beach in September.

Each new seminar attendee in Titusville had to pay $60 to enter Gothard's world. The seminars last 32 hours and are spread over six days. Afterward Gothard has plenty of books -- one of them called the Men's Manual, which he forbids women buying -- and tapes to sell. Gothard doesn't regularly attend his seminars and rarely updates the videotapes, so he doesn't grow old on the seminar circuit: His black hair shows no gray, his big squarish face remains unwrinkled. He looks a little like Casey Kasem but with a slight, rather Fargo-esque voice.

With a calm and rapid delivery, Gothard gets right to business, not even bothering to introduce himself. While he pontificates, his new disciples scribble his words in their IBLP seminar workbooks. A third screen flashes diagrams and charts to help them on their way to promised peace and happiness.

According to IBLP pamphlets, Gothard, who has a habit of unconditionally labeling things either right or wrong, began ministering in high school in reaction to his classmates' "wrong decisions." He spent years ministering to youth gangs before developing the seminar in 1964. Gothard has never been married and has lived most of his life with his parents. His institute was rocked by scandal back in 1980 when it was discovered that his brother, who helped create IBLP, was having sex with a half-dozen of Gothard's female employees, according to news accounts. Both Gothard and his brother resigned, but Gothard soon came back to his ministry, and it has since grown enormously.

Gothard's seminar is focused on his seven principles: design, authority, responsibility, suffering, ownership, freedom, and success. Violating the rules will lead, he says, to a "life of continuous failure." But if the rules are followed, wealth will likely follow (he teaches "20 Aspects of Financial Freedom"), and bad habits will be broken.

Several times throughout the seminar he mentions "wrong clothes," and says that when a teenager is wearing them it means he or she has deep spiritual problems. Same with rock music. Teens are told not to date but instead to "court," a process by which "two fathers agree to work with a qualified young man to win the daughter for marriage."

Gothard teaches in his seminars that obedience brings godliness. Authority figures -- the father, the politician, the minister, and the boss -- are to be obeyed as if Christ were giving the orders. Gothard's ideas of family life are rigid, as wives are taught to be submissive and men are encouraged to be the absolute head of the household. Quotes from the Bible are used as backup to his assertions. The biblical justification for always being subservient to the boss comes from 1 Peter 2:18: "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear."

Authority figures, according to Gothard, are on a higher spiritual plain than ordinary folk, and obeying them will help one get closer to God. He tells his followers that they are to obey everything, except orders to do "evil." If your boss is dead wrong, Gothard says it's OK to make a "Godly appeal" to him, but if the appeal is refused, the worker must live with it.

"Suppose Jesus Christ Himself was the manager of that store," Gothard asks a teen in one of the stories he tells. "Would that make a difference in the quality of your work?"

"It sure would!" answers the teenager.
"Do you realize that God expects you to consider that you are actually working for Jesus Christ on your job?"

As far as "wrathful" parents, Gothard teaches that they serve to develop character in children: "God even works through the wrath of parents to reveal character deficiencies in the son or daughter to develop additional character strengths or to reflect healing."

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