Little Soldiers in the Culture War

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

If Gothard's ambitions sound grandiose, so are his achievements. He's built a Christian empire worth, according to published reports, more than $30 million. And he mixes religion with government almost seamlessly. The symbol of his Institute of Basic Life Principles, for instance, is a bald eagle perched over a Bible. Gothard runs institutes in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Indianapolis, and other cities around the world. In Michigan he owns a paramilitary retreat called Northwoods, where he teaches boys the fine arts of emergency management (a venture that's done little to quell rumors that Gothard is a cult leader). A boy in Denver claimed last year that his copy of The Great Gatsby was confiscated and burned at the retreat. Gothard's representatives denied the assertion in a Denver Post article.

Gothard's crusade for character training began not in schools but in the workplace. The first Gothard-based character-training program began at a company in Oklahoma City called Kimray, Inc., which produces valves for oil wells. Kimray is owned by a man named Garman Kimmell, who bought a million-dollar hotel in downtown Oklahoma City for Gothard to begin what has become CTI, the institute that developed Character First!.

Numerous requests for an interview with Gothard -- who is known to avoid the media -- were denied, but his secretary told New Times that Gothard told her to say that he isn't part of the Character Training Institute anymore. It's a baffling assertion, as the director of the Character First! program, Kent Fahrenbruck, an IBLP member himself, and other CTI staffers say Gothard has the ultimate say over Character First!. In addition Gothard actively promotes Character First! in cities across the country and promotes the program in his IBLP pamphlets. The IBLP, in fact, runs the International Association of Character Cities, which promotes Character First!.

No matter who is running CTI, Character First! is firmly rooted in Gothard's basic seminar. The nine "basic character traits" of Character First! were plucked from the seminar's "positive qualities" and taught with their opposites: Attentiveness vs. Unconcern, Gratefulness vs. Unthankfulness, Forgiveness vs. Rejection, Obedience vs. Willfulness, Truthfulness vs. Deception, Orderliness vs. Disorganization, Generosity vs. Stinginess, Sincerity vs. Hypocrisy, and Virtue vs. Impurity.

The curriculum, which was obtained by New Times, is taught with recitations, songs, stories, crafts, and games. Each lesson includes historically dubious fables about Abraham Lincoln. In the lesson on attentiveness, the kids learn that "Abe didn't slouch in his chair or sit with his feet propped up on his desk. He sat straight in his chair, leaning toward the person who was talking." In the lesson on forgiveness, we learn that "Abe responded with kindness toward the ones who had fought against his armies," a dubious historical generalization if ever there were one. We learn that he also showed forgiveness when he was attacked by a band of escaping slaves who feared capture.

With each trait comes a little mantra, called an "I Will." The "I Wills" for virtue include, "I will abstain from anything which might damage or pollute my body or mind." The curriculum encourages teachers to decorate their classrooms with the three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil, which is reminiscent of Gothard's desire to protect his followers from modern movies, books, and music.

Another "I Will" for virtue is a variation of the Golden Rule: "I will treat others as I would want them to treat me." The song for forgiveness contains the most blatant biblical reference. In it the kids sing, "I will turn the other cheek." The songs are sung every morning at the Charter School of Excellence, right after the Pledge of Allegiance.

The curriculum also includes examples of character traits in nature. The example for obedience is a circus elephant, which quietly helps put up the big top and, when there is no food, walks across a deep river to retrieve some.

"When all was done, the amazing elephant had fed the whole circus," goes the story. "Then to everyone's surprise, he stepped up to his master, lowered his head, and began to purr. Though he hadn't eaten anything himself, though he had worked all day, though he was dripping wet and cold, the pleasant rumbling sound expressed the elephant's cheerful attitude." Animal-rights activists might also point out that elephants are typically driven to submission by trainers who beat them.

Character First!, says Barry Weinstein, a rabbi in Baton Rouge who was appointed by the mayor of that city to sit on a Character First! steering committee, seems to be teaching blind obedience.

"We all know that following orders in some situations is not the ethical thing to do," Weinstein explains. "Example: Nazi Germany. Example: Mi Lai. Another example is when an abusing spouse orders the other spouse to do bad things. Or in the case of an abusive parent. There are times where it would be wrong to take orders."

Nowhere have Bill Gothard's teachings taken deeper roots than in Weinstein's city of Baton Rouge, which touts itself as a Character First! city. Mayor Tom Ed McHugh and the administrator of its antidrug campaign, Dr. Robert Gaston, have developed "Character First! Baton Rouge," wherein all government employees and police officers are trained in Character First!, and it is encouraged in public schools and the area's businesses. The city advertises Character First! on the radio, television, and billboards.

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