Little Soldiers in the Culture War

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

Other cities that use "Character First!" as training include Compton, California; Little Rock, Arkansas; Temple, Texas; and McDonough, Georgia. In Indianapolis, juvenile delinquents are given a choice: Go to Gothard or go to jail.

"We take what we can from Bill Gothard," says Gaston, a former deputy superintendent of Louisiana public schools. "It's our goal to touch everybody in Baton Rouge with Character First! -- at work, in school, in the home. This is not a religious program, though if a group wants to make it a church program, they are welcome to. We don't stress the religious part of it."

Gaston and McHugh are spreading Gothard's word at mayors' conferences around the country. "Soon we will have spoken to over 500 mayors, and Mr. Gothard is a part of those presentations," says Gaston.

Rabbi Weinstein is curious to know more about Gothard. He says Character First! has had a positive impact on his city, as long as it is toned down in parts. But when told about the Florida bills to force schools to teach Character First! or a program like it, Weinstein says it's a bad idea.

"I wouldn't legislate it," he says. "Encourage it, maybe. But I don't think it's smart to legislate character."

Legislating character is precisely what Hamilton Forman, who stands in his fifth-floor office suite in the Port Everglades administration building, is determined to do.

Human bones carved into knives, an old human skull with designs artfully carved in it, and meticulous figures cut from stone are part of the magnificent clutter on the shelves lining the mirrored walls of Forman's office. Forman, whose eyes are startlingly wide for a man who'll turn 80 on April 3, has collected these things during his travels throughout the world.

"The Lord has blessed me with beautiful things," he says, sitting his thin and lanky six-foot frame down in a carved-wood chair from Thailand. "Now, I'm afraid I don't have much time."

With his large, rough-hewn hands, he sifts through papers on Character First!, looking for a copy of Stafford's bill. He wears a brightly colored tropical print shirt, unbuttoned down to his chest, showing golden necklaces. But Forman isn't a gaudy man, just supremely confident. He has every reason to be confident. During the past half-century, he's controlled huge tracts of land and developments. He's run the North Broward Hospital District. He started Nova University. And he's made millions in the process.

He finally finds his bill.
"I just told [Stafford] if he introduced it, I'd pass it," Forman says, in his rather thin patrician voice. "The bill will pass."

When asked why he's determined to get Character First! in the schools of Florida (and the nation), he expounds on the current state of public schools.

"Today you can pick up any newspaper and you see anarchy in our schools," he says. "The teachers are under attack. They can't teach. There is no respect for authority."

He picks up the curriculum and leafs through it.
"Look at this: 'Generosity.' Now, what's wrong with generosity? Being generous is good. Here you have 'gratefulness.' I've always said that being grateful unlocks the doors of Heaven and Earth."

When it comes to "orderliness," he smiles and throws up his hands.
"As you can see, I'm not orderly. I'm cluttered. I need to learn that lesson. Every so often I get it orderly, and it's much nicer that way," he says before getting back to the traits. "How can you argue against virtue versus impurity?... Who wants a liar?... You've got to be sincere."

He doesn't see anything wrong with the authoritarian stance of Character First! and believes drilling kids to obey instantly is just what they need. "That's the problem -- we've got complete freedom and nobody listens to anybody anymore," he says.

Forman does concede, after cajoling, that there may be a problem with teaching absolute submission to authority. But it would be a problem for only "1 percent" of the students. He says he expected some criticism from teachers' unions, as some teachers are "too damn lazy to do anything. They don't want anyone to tell them what to do."

As for the fact that it's the work of a radical evangelical minister, Forman said he's met Bill Gothard, went to his seminar about 15 years ago, and thought he taught a lot of "good stuff."

"I don't believe in Bill Gothard," he says. "I'm a believer in what he did here [with Character First!].... I'm a believer in God.... I don't believe we're cosmic accidents. I believe somebody employed a design."

And that is exactly what Forman is doing; he's employing a new design for the social engineering of the state's children. Forman believes Character First! will save the nation.

He puts on his Panama hat and grabs his cane. He has another appointment, where he'll surely tout Character First! He says he talks to everyone he meets about it, and everyone, without exception, agrees it's a great idea. Politicians, like the devoutly obedient children in a prototypical Bill Gothard classroom, have also bolstered him. Before leaving, Forman repeats himself with a smile, "The bill is going to pass."

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:

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