“It sounds like the Taliban.”
That was my oldest son’s response when I told him about the latest scandal in the Christian world: the resignation of Bill Gothard. Gothard was the founder and president of IBLP (Institute for Basic Life Principles) and ATI (Advanced Training Institute). ATI, an educational institution, supports a fair amount of the home schooling and quiverful (have as many children as possible) movements.
The Duggar Family, of TLC 19 Kids and Counting fame, are adherents and followers of Gothard’s institutes. I understand that during an episode of that show in 2013, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar sent one of their sons to Gothard’s military boot camp for young men because he was showing signs of “rebellion.”
Oh yes, this man has mightily influenced that “famous” TV family who are making sure their girls have training for nothing other than being a mother and home-maker, and no outside education other than what their parents permit–all coming from Bill Gothard’s teaching.
That’s where my son’s comment came from: The Taliban has nothing on the Gothardites.
Why the resignation? A bundle of women finally came forth and told their stories of this man’s forty year pattern of crossing sexual and emotional boundaries in one of the most egregious illustrations of hypocrisy yet perpetuated by a “Christian” leader.
Gothard systematically plucked young woman, all with slim bodies and long curly hair, from their parent’s homes, invited them to work (without compensation, but food and housing provided) at his headquarters in Oak Park, Illinois, and carefully cultivated them so they listened to no one but him. In the process, he cut them off from all outside influences, emphasized his absolute authority over them, often personally picked them up at 5 am, and kept them until midnight, working alone and unprotected in otherwise silent offices, made extremely inappropriate physical advances toward them, and manipulated them emotionally.
I don’t know if this is still the case, but in the past, the young women brought to the headquarters were housed in girls dormitories. Gothard would often come to individual rooms after the young women were already in their nightclothes. He gave these vulnerable and innocent young women long, lingering “good-night” hugs, all the while proclaiming that sexual purity meant that a young man and a young woman should never be alone together or even exchange a kiss until their weddings. Before the actual wedding ceremony, only side-to-side hugs are permitted and all meetings must be chaperoned by parents.
This patterned continued after Bill Gothard’s brother, Steve, was finally outed in the late 1970’s for his multiple sexual relations with these young women. Apparently, after some had fallen out of favor of big brother Bill (or he had found a fresher, more nubile target), they’d be sent to Steve’s working place in Michigan, unprotected and isolated–and were horrendously taken advantage of.
Big brother Bill, after covering this up for five years, learned nothing that restricted his own despicable behavior.
It gets worse. Gothard created a theology that opens the door for men to systematically abuse women and children, and then blame those very women and children entirely for the process.
Please take a hard look at this graphic, Gothard’s schematic for dealing with those who claim to have been abused.
Please note that the Scripture Gothard tells those who have been sexually abused to study reads this way:
If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut. 22: 22-24, NRSV).
So, we have one of the most female-debasing scriptures in the entire Bible used as a basis for telling victims of sexual abuse that it was their fault for not “crying out.” The abused caught in this wicked web were simply to be grateful that such things had happened to them because it would give them spiritual strength.
This is called a cult.
There was a period of time when up to 300,000 people a year took a week off work to attend one of his Institutes. Millions have attended. And believed him.
I admit that this story is personal to me.
In the early seventies, I worked at a Dallas office for what was then the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. Fortunately, I had no actual contact with Mr. Gothard directly, although I was slender with long curly hair! However, I very much remember the young women who did work for him closely–and, in retrospect, can easily see how much they were caught up in the cult of Gothard.
I also vividly remember one of his teachings: if a wife were being beaten by her husband, she should in no way fight back, but simply submit and receive the beating quietly, doing nothing to restrain her husband or protect herself. Gothard believed strongly in the chain-of-command within the household: the male exercised God-given and supreme power over his wife and children. Daughters were to stay under their father’s “umbrella of protection” until handed over to a new “umbrella” i.e., their husbands, on their wedding day.
No such thing as a single woman living on her own. Ever. Or making independent decisions.
Gothard believed so strongly in this chain-of-command that as President and CEO of the institute, he himself was the Top Banana, without any accountability. He, and he alone, heard directly from God. So whatever he did was right–including his predatory activities with these young and extremely innocent young women, reared to believe whatever the men in their homes told them. Parents trusted him with their children. How wrong they were.
These girls had no wisdom, no experience, no practice in making their own decisions for they had all been made by the (male) authority figures. So when someone like Gothard, very nearly Divine to them, made those kinds of approaches, they had nothing with which to defend themselves except their inner sense that it was wrong.
AND, since in the organization disloyalty was punishable by firing, and critiques were labeled “disloyal,” there was no place for healthy questions of the all-powerful leader. So abuse can, and did, stay hidden for years.
Organizations like this spring up all the time. Mark Driscoll, the foul-mouthed wonderkid pastor in Seattle (whom I’ve heard United Methodist clergy praise because “his church is growing and therefore God must be blessing”) is showing signs of exhibiting the very same cult-like behavior and need for absolute authority. Men, and men only get to make the decisions and have a voice. Those who disagree with Driscoll are routinely weeded out.
Most of us know the story of Jim Jones and the tragedy into which he led his followers. The Roman Catholic church today is making significant progress in cleaning up its act, but the same ethos there prevailed for centuries: no women’s voices permitted, all-powerful top leadership, no real accountability or questioning permitted; dissent punished by banishment. The Mormon church appears to have operated this way for quite a while, and women are starting to ask some really hard questions about these practices.
What is the attraction to cult-like religious groups?
Well, I easily remember so wanting Bill Gothard to be right–that if I followed his principles for living, I would live successfully and without stress. It played perfectly into the pathological underpinnings of my first marriage: I needing someone to tell me what to do; he needing to control every aspect of his environment, particularly his wife who clearly had a rebellious streak that must be erased by whatever measures possible.
Neither of us were particularly bad or evil people, but in time the relationship itself became evil beyond possibility of repair. Much of that destruction was driven by Gothard-based theology, who was a strong influence on my early marriage decisions and patterns.
Such theology is a set up for abuse, domination, cover-ups, manipulation, lies and deceit.
Cults promise relief from the messiness of life, and release from the pressure of self-responsibility. Just obey the leader, do not question, and all will be well. This is why dissenters must be either silenced or dismissed.
But life is not neat, no matter how many principles or laws we adhere to. It is never stress free or unmarred bliss. It is crammed with hard work and wrong turns and never-ending challenges.
I’m glad Gothard has been finally outed. And I bet he experiences no repercussions in the long run. He’s 84, has amassed great wealth on the backs of the vulnerable and naive, and has a long pattern of escaping consequences for his actions.
This is why I refuse to be silent when I see injustice. I know the horror of living in a situation where I have no voice. I must speak out when I see others in the same situation.
Yep, I have paid for it over the years, and paid a high price.
But I’m free. And no price is too high for that.