Bill Gothard’s sexual coercion is a feature of Gothardism

Bill Gothard’s sexual coercion is a feature of Gothardism March 20, 2014

For quite a while when I was a kid I thought that Bill Gothard and Bill Gaither were the same person and people just pronounced his last name differently.

That led to some confusion on my part, since Bill Gaither’s Southern Gospel was kind of folksy and fun and he seemed like a nice guy. I couldn’t figure out how to square that with the awful things my dad would say about Bill Gothard.

Dad’s comments made a lot more sense once I figured out that Gaither and Gothard were two separate people. Bill Gothard, I finally realized, wasn’t a singer, but rather a weird guru revered by some of the strangest, unhappiest people I knew.

I grew up and was baptized in a church that was independent, fundamentalist and Baptist. But it was not an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church — not part of the IFB and its authoritarian cult. Our church had most of the main ingredients of any fundie congregation — the King James Version was considered the inerrant, infallible Word of God; the Earth was created in six days, 6,000 years ago; the Rapture could come at any moment; patriarchal “headship” and wifely submission were the default assumption; and we’d end a service with an altar call even when we knew for a fact that every single person in the room was already a born-again member of the church who’d already been baptized there and had already re-re-re-dedicated their life to Christ enough times over that going forward again seemed more like a running gag than an act of devotion.

But for all of that, our church lacked the militant, mandatory conformity that marks the more strident fundamentalism of IFB churches. I’m not saying it was spiritually healthy, mind you, just a bit healthier that the IFB. Most of the people in our church believed most of the things the church taught, but not everyone believed everything. A handful of scientists from Bell Labs were members of the congregation, and some of them would sometimes hint that it was perhaps possible to be a Christian and believe in science. Some folks questioned our muddled form of Calvinism that somehow also accommodated those Finney-esque altar calls. And rumor had it that at least one member, Mrs. P–, was a Democrat.

Plus there were a few folks, like my dad, who publicly disagreed with the church’s official teaching about womanly submission. His disagreement on that point was almost less of a problem than the fact that my mom did not disagree with the church — meaning she disagreed with Dad. Mom could never get past the clobber verses cited to “prove” that women shouldn’t be allowed to teach anyone other than other women. She taught Sunday school every week, but always in the “Berachah” class — informally better known as the “old ladies class.” (Berachah is a biblical place name. It means “blessing” or “blessed.” I don’t know if the old ladies class still goes by that name, because I’d imagine some folks at that church wouldn’t be comfortable having a Sunday school class sharing the same name as the black socialist in the White House.)

My parents’ disagreement on the role of women in the church created a logical conundrum that affected the “complementarians” in our church the same way the liar’s paradox affected Harry Mudd’s androids. It was unbiblically unsubmissive for a woman like my mom to disagree with the spiritual teaching of her husband. It is her biblical duty to submit to his teaching, so she must agree with what he says. But they also believed that what he said was wrong — an unbiblical denial of biblical submission — and so therefore my mom had a biblical duty to disagree. But then …

It’s all about hierarchy, which is to say it’s all about power.

Our congregation also included some folks who didn’t think the church’s teaching on the role of women went far enough. Among them were a handful of Gothardites — people who followed the strict nonsense of Bill Gothard’s “Institute in Basic Life Principles.” They believed that the relationship between husband and wife was basically the same as that between a king and his subject. Gothardism also placed daughters under the totalitarian reign of their fathers until the day they married someone else, at which point they traded one king for another.

My dad had zero patience for those folks. He liked to repeat a joke about Bill Gothard teaming up with Bill Bright to rewrite Campus Crusade’s famous Four Spiritual Laws tract — so now it says, “God loves you and has a horrible plan for your wife.”

Mostly, though, when it came to Gothardism, Dad wasn’t in a joking mood. I finally figured out what it was about them that made him so angry when I overheard him and Mom talking about one of those people, Mr. N—,  joining the board of directors at my Christian school. “We don’t need a wife-beater serving on the board!”

Oh. And Mr. N., it turns out, was not an isolated case or even an anomaly among the Gothardites. There were many such stories involving many such men who subscribed to Gothard’s toxic teaching. Sometimes this was a story that everyone just sort of knew. In other cases, almost no one outside the family knew. My dad, as an attorney, knew more such stories than most of us. Like a parish priest, he knew a lot of dark secrets he wasn’t allowed to talk about, and he kept those secrets — only revealing them, occasionally and elliptically, in his fierce dislike of Bill Gothard and his suspicion of any man attracted to his teachings.

But the truth is that no one needed the privilege of attorney to know that something was deeply, deeply wrong among the Gothardites. We could go around in chicken-and-egg circles debating whether this was a pathology that abusive men learned from Gothard’s teachings or if those teachings just attracted many men who were already pathologically abusive. Both, probably, but it doesn’t really matter which. Either way, the living nightmare was the same for their wives and daughters.

The ugly truth is that the correlation between abuse and Gothardism has been an open secret since the 1970s. If you ever heard of Gothard’s Institute and his teachings, then you also heard rumors or stories about some of the families involved with all of that. It cannot ever be said that it is a surprise to hear such stories — either in particular cases or in general. Gothard’s teaching is all about hierarchy, which is to say it’s all about power — power over other people. It attracts and creates adherents who crave power over other people. Bullies, in other words — abusers, predators, and little petty tyrants of every sort.

In the preview for season four of Game of Thrones, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau describes his character’s son, the odious tyrant Joffrey, as “clearly the last person on Earth you would want to have any kind of power.” That’s a good description of Joffrey, and it’s a good description of the kind of men who are drawn to Gothardism. They’re little Joffreys, little tyrants and bullies, and the last people on Earth who should ever be trusted with power over others. Gothard gives them that power, by divine right, and encourages them to wield it over their wives and daughters. And most of them handle it about as well and as honorably as Joffrey does.

We already knew all that. We already knew all that long before the latest revelations of sexual abuse and abuse of power by Bill Gothard himself:

Gothard’s resignation from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, according to a letter sent to families affiliated with the ministry he founded, comes a week after he was put on administrative leave. According to an organizer involved in the whistle-blowing website Recovering Grace, 34 women told the website they had been sexually harassed; four women alleged molestation.

RNS spoke with several women who alleged they were sexual harassed, including one woman who alleged that Gothard molested her when she was 17.

This is not a surprise. The particular details of what Gothard did were previously unrevealed, but the general truth that this is who and what he is has long been known.

But, as Libby Anne wrote, “Bill Gothard is only part of the problem.” The problem is not that the Institute in Basic Life Principles was being run by a sexual predator and serial abuser. The problem is that the Institute in Basic Life Principles is an organization that teaches sexual predation and abuse and it has always been an organization that empowers predators and abusers. That is it’s purpose and it’s function. That is what it is for. It’s adherents include hundreds of other men who are guilty of all that Gothard has been accused of, and of far worse.

That whole evil apparatus needs to be dismantled. Shut it down, raze it to the ground and salt the earth.


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