“Taliban Dan’s” Teacher: Inside Bill Gothard’s Authoritarian Subculture

Bill Gothard is intent on defending himself. He’s speaking with me by telephone from the Northwoods Conference Center in Watersmeet, Michigan, where he spends every January “for study and writing and reflecting and fasting.” The controversial 76-year-old evangelist wants to explain away the “distortions” of his critics, and why, he insists, that widely-discussed “Taliban Dan” ad had it all wrong.

In the ad (run last fall by congressional candidate Daniel Webster’s Democratic opponent), the Florida Republican is shown speaking at an Advanced Training Institute conference—part of Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, the $95 million nonprofit the evangelist founded in 1965 that boasts it has educated millions, including public officials, around the world at its conferences, in homeschool curricula, and in prisons. Webster is shown saying, “wives submit yourselves to your own husband” and “she should submit to me, that’s in the Bible.”

After the ad ran, Webster countered—and watchdogs and the media largely accepted—that Grayson had taken his words out of context and distorted their meaning. Still, though, Webster never denied that he believed wives should submit to the spiritual authority of their husbands. That there is a “chain of command” that families must obey has been at the core of Gothard’s teachings for decades.

Gothard insisted to me (in direct contradiction to materials on his own website) that he does not teach submission. When I asked Gothard whether he teaches that wives should submit to their husbands’ authority, he laughed, answering, “no, no,” adding, that Jesus taught “he who is the greatest among you be the servant of all. That makes the woman the greatest of all because she has served every single person in the world by being in her womb.”

Gothard’s effort to soft-pedal his teachings—by portraying women as venerated objects, and by saying that “authority” is simply “love” and “love” is “freedom”—flies in the face of his critics’ descriptions of the impact of his authoritarian teachings on their lives. In interviews, former adherents to Gothard’s teachings, disillusioned former members of “ATI families,” and an evangelical critic told me that his unyielding theology, including “non-optional” compliance with seven “biblical” principles (the “basic” life principles), compliance with 49 “character traits,” and other periodic Gothard revelations, are contrary to the Bible and have wreaked havoc on their emotional and spiritual lives and those of their families.

Gothard doesn’t deny he teaches adherence to what he calls “the commands of Christ.” And even though he has developed his own highly unusual interpretation of the Bible, he insists he’s not demanding that his followers obey him, but that they obey God (or how he singularly has interpreted God’s word). Following this path, he tells me cheerfully, will bring one “success and health and happiness and joy.”

“Laws in Harmony with the Laws of God”

In a video of Webster’s appearance at a 2003 Advanced Training Institute (ATI) seminar, for sale at the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) website, Webster described how making a “commitment” to Gothard’s teachings “absolutely changed my life.” Those commitments, he went on, “are the basis for everything I do today.”

Webster isn’t the only member of Congress with deep connections to Gothard. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), who just became chair of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, is the chair of the board of directors of the IBLP. Other politicians, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, have spoken at IBLP conferences, and Mike Huckabee is fan. And many others, such as Sarah Palin, as mayor of Wasilla, have attended his ostensibly secular (but not) International Association of Character Cities (IACC) conferences, based on his 49 character traits, and declared their municipalities “Cities of Character.” The supposedly secularized version of Gothard’s “character traits” have been taught in public schools.

Gothard’s recent efforts have even extended into faith healing. He told me that a delegation of Peruvian elected officials and other leaders were impressed with his ability to heal “stress” and cancer. “God has directed us to a new approach to health,” Gothard told me, “which is taking care of stress first.” Now the Peruvians, he said, want to be a “model world nation.” That, he added, “to me is like the example of what we’ve been working for all these years.”

Webster, whose office did not respond to an interview request, repeatedly insisted to the local press when he served in the Florida legislature from 1980 through 2008 that he would not apply Gothard’s teachings in his official duties. But Gothard told me that America’s problems are caused by “rejecting God’s ways” and that “we should make laws that are in harmony with the laws of nature and the laws of God.”

Gothard’s followers can take that directive quite literally. “Jack,” now in his 20s, who had lived and worked at IBLP headquarters and was exposed to ATI his entire life, told me that after high school he “immediately jumped into the legal studies program that ATI provided, determined to create a legal system based on biblical law then become president and implement it all over the world—crazy, I know.” He has since broken with ATI.

Webster was and remains a staunch social conservative, opposing LGBT rights and abortion even in the case of rape or incest. He introduced an unsuccessful covenant marriage bill in the Florida legislature which would have prohibited divorce except in cases of adultery. He was the sponsor of legislation that legalized homeschooling in Florida in 1985. He earned an “A” rating and an endorsement from the Christian Reconstructionist group Gun Owners of America. The religious right Florida Family Policy Council named its annual award honoring “outstanding service to the pro-life and pro-family principles” after him. Recipients have included the American Family Association’s Don Wildmon.

“Culture of Fear”

Don Venoit, a conservative evangelical who founded Midwest Christian Outreach, a ministry devoted to countering the influence of “new religious movements,” has long been a critic of Gothard and documented his efforts to confront him in a 2003 book, A Matter of Basic Principles. MCO, like other apologetics ministries, considers Mormonism and other religions “cultic” and has contested the teachings of other evangelicals like Rick Warren and Brian McLaren. Still, the Venoits’ objections to Gothard are a barometer of how Gothard, well-loved by many conservative evangelicals, has drawn the ire of others. The Venoits’ book was praised by scholars at evangelical colleges, including Westminster Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, and Dallas Theological Seminary, and received a favorable review in Christianity Today.

Venoit told me he doesn’t consider Gothard’s organization a cult, but that Gothard’s “view of authority is the core of where things go wrong.” Gothard teaches, in the first hour of the first night of his “basic” seminar that “authority is like an umbrella of protection.” If you get out of that protection, “you are in rebellion, which is like witchcraft,” and “all evil will befall you,” said Venoit.

“It’s a culture of fear, is what it is,” he added.

Gothard says that Venoit’s descriptions of his teachings are a “distortion”—but his defense is that all he is teaching is the necessity of obeying God’s commands.

Venoit said he was provoked to challenge Gothard’s “legalistic” views on issues like marriage and circumcision, which Gothard maintains must conform to Old Testament law, and other ideas like demons are transmitted from place to place through inanimate objects. In the 1990s, MCO began receiving increasing calls about Gothard’s authoritarianism.

Rather than engage in hermeneutics, said Venoit, Gothard “prays over large portions of scripture and God tells him what it means. Fundamentally, you have a mystic telling you how to understand the Bible.”

Basically Anti-Woman

Gothard’s “fundamental flaw,” Venoit told me, is his idea of the “umbrella of authority or chain of command.”

Ronald B. Allen, now a Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, criticized Gothard’s “chain-of-command” tenets of patriarchy in an essay:

Paramount among these is the terrible picture of the chain of command in the family with the husband as the hammer, the wife as the chisel and the children as the gems in the rough… The ghastly picture is that he beats on her and she chips on them. If ever there were a reason for a women’s movement in the evangelical church—this is it. This illustration is simply not reflective of biblical theology; it is a parody of patriarchalism.

Allen called Gothard’s teaching “the basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context… His view is basically anti-woman.”

In our interview, Gothard disputed the “terrible picture” Allen had drawn, maintaining that “God is the one who has a hammer” and that “God will use different authorities in their life to perfect the diamonds in our life. It’s not breaking the diamond, it’s perfecting the diamond. We are his jewels.”

“It’s not a harsh thing,” he insisted, “it’s a matter of perfecting the goal God has for every one of us.”

Vyckie Garrison, who runs the website No Longer Quivering, “a gathering place for women escaping and recovering from spiritual abuse,” told me that she and her now ex-husband, although they lacked the money to attend Gothard’s seminars, followed his teachings through his homeschool curricula. She said her husband had believed, based on Gothard’s teachings, that he was responsible for his family’s salvation through the authority he exercised over his family, a role which turned him into a “tyrant.”

While many evangelical couples follow complementarian theology, Gothard’s twist on that teaching, said Garrison, is that “the man has ultimate responsibility with eternal consequences,” meaning that it “gives him the authority over every aspect of family’s life and thoughts.” In Garrison’s family this meant her husband exercised control of her and the children’s every move to ensure compliance with Gothard’s 49 character traits.

The husband provides an “umbrella of protection” or “spiritual protection from Satan.” The wife needs to be in submission, because the husband is “going to answer not just for your own life and your own walk before God but for your wife and children,” said Garrison.

While she was attempting to live up to the unattainable expectations imposed by her husband’s adherence to Gothard’s theology, Garrison was “mesmerized” by the Duggars of 19 Kids and Counting fame, who are possibly Gothard’s most recognizable followers. The matriarch and star of the TLC reality hit, Michelle Duggar, “was like my hero,” said Garrison, who found raising her own seven children overwhelming. “She makes it all look so doable.” In spite of Gothard’s controversial status, religious right activists fawned over the Duggars at last year’s Values Voters Summit, where they were honored with a “Pro-Family Entertainment” award.

The Duggars write on their website that when Jim Bob Duggar first met Michelle, he was smitten and “completely convinced he’d just met the girl he’d been praying for without knowing who she was. Oh, God, he prayed in that doorway, from the depths of my heart, I ask that Michelle could be mine and that I could become her spiritual leader.” (emphasis in original)

A former religious right activist who worked closely with some of its leadership, and who also followed Gothard’s teachings in her marriage (which ended in divorce) said, “what I remember most about Gothard’s teaching—and this sticks in my mind—you don’t have any rights.”

Gothard requires “total submission to God, doesn’t matter what you think, want, or feel, it only matters what God wants,” she said.

With regard to following Gothard’s teachings on marriage, the former activist said, “basically I gave up my rights to be who I was and I just determined to be whoever he [my husband] wanted me to be.”

Like Garrison, the former activist said that her husband felt responsible for the whole family’s salvation, and that he behaved like a coach, “either you’re on the team or you’re not.” She remained married for 24 years during which “I lived with that kind of having to subjugate myself to that kind of will.”

Garrison rejected the claim, made by Factcheck.org and other critics of the “Taliban Dan” ad, that Grayson’s campaign took Webster’s words out of context. “This is the very thing that made my husband such an asshole,” said Garrison.

…Like Getting Out of Hell”

Gothard insisted to me that he does not teach that wives must submit to their husbands. Yet the ATI website’s “Family Support Link,” responds to the question, “How can a husband help preserve his marriage?” with “key areas of loving leadership,” citing Ephesians 5:23–25, one of the core texts for that teaching that is endorsed, and debated, widely in evangelicalism. But Gothard maintained to me that he didn’t know what submission theology was. “When you get into theologies, you get all kinds of baggage,” he said. “Even the statements of faith. I believe in the commands of Christ. They’re inspired and when they are applied they bring tremendous results.”

Despite his efforts to circumvent the submission discussion, though, the ATI site, outlining “The Seven Basic Needs of a Wife,” counsels, “a wife needs a husband who demonstrates spiritual leadership,” adding, “As your wife sees you establish Godly standards in your life, she will be motivated to set similar standards in her life and to submit to your leadership.” In response to the question “how can a wife help preserve her marriage?” the ATI website lays out “seven key areas of respect and submission.” These include “accept your husband as your spiritual leader” and “accept your husband’s efforts to protect you.”

Venoit distinguished Gothard’s submission theology from more conventional complementarian theology because more mainstream theology would not, as Venoit says he’s heard Gothard say, tell women they should even submit to spousal abuse.

Gothard reacted to that with another jargon-loaded evasion, saying that problems within a marriage are caused by four “levels” of problems, and if a man “repents” of his “root” problems, it usually fixes the “surface” problem that the couple is fighting about.

“People don’t realize how scary these teachings are,” said Garrison. “The Duggars seem rather innocuous, they seem like a whimsical friendly family.” But, she said, getting out of a patriarchal marriage “is like getting out of hell.”

Wavy Hair, No Dating, No College

“Eliza,” now in her late 30s, was exposed to Gothard’s teachings her whole life, through her parents’ homeschool materials and attendance at Gothard conferences. She attended ATI conferences with her family from the time she was 12 until just two years ago. In the ATI courses, she said, Gothard’s teachings became more “wacky.”

ATI provides both homeschool materials and training courses all over the world on wide-ranging topics, including law, landscaping, music, food service, interior design, and “eternity arts.” But it’s in the gender-separated seminars that Gothard’s vision for women becomes clear: they are taught how to “radiate the brightness of the Lord Jesus Christ through their thoughts, words, and actions,” become “virtuous women,” and recognize the importance of “falling in love with the Lord, accepting your design and realizing your unique gifts.” Gothard, who teaches that dating is wrong, and that couples should engage instead in “courtship,” maintains “the purpose of courtship is to determine a couple’s readiness for marriage and to discern the will of God for a covenant marriage that will benefit the world.”

Many ATI conferences last for days or weeks at a time. Eliza said, “I didn’t realize you could control people’s minds by sleep deprivation, lack of good food, and pumping way too much information as they could pump into them without giving them time to think… You’ve got kids there for goodness sake!”

ATI families “basically ate, breathed, lived, and slept ATI and Mr. Gothard,” said Jack.

Among other things, Eliza said, Gothard would not permit boys and girls to talk to each other, demanded a strict dress code, taught that girls should never run, and demanded that girls style their hair wavy—not straight or curly—because “wavy hair is attractive and becoming—it causes you to focus on the woman’s face instead of her body.” Gothard’s approved wavy hairstyle is meant, she said, “to attract men to your bright eyes, which will attract them to God, instead of your body.”

Eliza elaborated on how she was required to live under her father’s authority, even in adulthood. “Girls should be serving their fathers and at times they should do ministry things under their father’s direction—while they were single,” she said. “Make the most of your single years to serve God.” She remains single, something she attributes in part to her parents’ adherence to Gothard’s teachings.

As a result, she said, she never attended college (she had been educated in Christian schools until fifth grade and homeschooled for the duration of her education) and never learned skills with which she could earn a living for herself. Gothard discouraged college, she said, because he said parents shouldn’t expose their children to “alternative philosophies.” Women were expected to be under their fathers’ “authority” until marriage; because she wasn’t interested in marriage, she remained at home until very recently, but said that not being able to earn a living for herself “at this stage of my life is very scary.”

Gothard, who has never been married, teaches that dating is prohibited (a rule echoed by the Duggars on their television show) “because you’ll give away too much of your heart.” As the blogger Hopewell wrote on Garrison’s blog, the Duggars “view dating as unhealthy, leading to a diminished capacity to love your eventual spouse… They view adulthood as something that begins with a parent-approved marriage and at no other time.”

Indeed sex is so taboo it’s not even discussed—even to condemn homosexuality. “To even mention the name of [homosexuality] was a sin,” said Jack. “To talk about sexuality in general was wrong. The ‘S’ word as we called it was in my family absolutely never mentioned. Things like masturbation—I didn’t even know what it was until I was 19 or 20. Sex was considered bad and wrong and almost like the boogeyman that you don’t talk about.”

Gothard’s own brother, who worked for IBLP, was dismissed from his organization after it was discovered that he was having sex with students, and the former head of the homeschooling curriculum, Jim Voeller, was dismissed for leaving his wife and seven children for his secretary.

Prof. Allen argued in his critique that Gothard’s “repressed views of human sexuality” neglect even biblical descriptions, such as in the Song of Solomon, of the “beautiful eroticism” and “delight in human sexuality,” instead making it “a disgrace even to speak of such.”

A “Hedge of Thorns” of Protection Against Satan

Webster boasts of how his “commitments,” based on Gothard’s teachings, cause his enemies to fail. In the ATI video, he recounted making “commitments” that included never watching TV in a hotel room, getting up early in the morning, and praying for a “hedge of thorns of protection” around his Florida district so that he would win reelection. (Both Webster and Gothard have made much of the fact that for several of his reelection bids in the Florida legislature, Webster ran unopposed.) Webster said that he prayed for anyone considering a run in his district to “lose interest.”

That “that hedge of thorns has protected me all these years,” Webster continued, even when his political opponents referred to him and allies as “conservative, gun-toting Bible thumpers.” He claims that “pride is so destructive,” yet seems quite proud that his “hedge of thorns” has made his political career a success.

Razing Ruth, another anti-biblical patriarchy blog, describes Gothard’s teaching on the “hedge of thorns”:

Bill Gothard teaches that Satan can gain “jurisdictional authority” over a person’s soul. When a father or husband, as the authority and spiritual protector of the family, fears that this (Satan attempting to get ja) has happened or may happen, the man is instructed to “pray a hedge of thorns” around his wife/family/son/daughter. In doing so, Gothard teaches that the man will have created a “stronghold for Christ.”

Jack said the “hedge of thorns,” based on Hosea 2:6 and popular in conservative circles, is meant to “’lead the wayward back to himself with a ‘hedge of thorns’ in other words, ‘God make their life miserable so that they recognize the error of their way and come back under God given authority.’” While most traditional conservatives believe this is in reference to unfaithful spouses, “Gothard and IBLP extended it to cover all ‘wayward souls.’”

Gothard also extends the “hedge” in a segment on about how to teach children to “resist temptation.” He tells fathers, “Your own obedience to God is a key factor in protecting your sons and daughters from evil. If you fail morally, you will give Satan access to those who are under your authority” (emphasis in original). He then suggests a prayer:

Heavenly Father, I ask you in the name and through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ to bind and rebuke Satan and to put a hedge of protection around me and each one in my family.

Power of One Accord

Jack said that one of the new twists Gothard added recently that contributed to his decision to break from the organization was “One Accord,” another topic that Webster has lectured on at ATI.

The idea, said the young man, is “based on Acts 2, is that when everyone is in ‘one accord,’ God unleashes His power on behalf of those gathered together.” Dissenters, then, “must be removed so that we can have the power. This has become his [Gothard’s] latest bludgeon to keep people in line with his agenda.”

But that bludgeon was an impetus to leave. Jack worked and talked with others at ATI as part of his decision to break from the group, he said. “We were all falling out of love with Mr. Gothard and really finding ourselves and finding a reason to live,” he said. Out of Gothard’s teachings, and the circles of his followers, “a very deep, complex morass of people and ideas and theology coming together and creating for a lot of people an experience that was devastating emotionally and spiritually and otherwise.” He added, “the huge devastation of ATI and IBLP is the emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage—the stuff they can’t be held accountable for.”