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The Fundamentalist Trap

Allegations of sexual harassment brought down Bill Gothard, a leading figure of the Christian right. But his fall also revealed the diminished influence of fundamentalism in the Trump era.

Julie was 16 years old when Bill Gothard, the founder of the fundamentalist Christian organization the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), pulled her aside at an IBLP event in 1996 in Dallas, Texas, to compliment her “bright, shining countenance.” She was 18 when Gothard, then 64 years old, invited her to work at IBLP’s sprawling headquarters near Chicago. Julie spent her days in a greeting lobby, often alone. Every time she began to connect with her on-campus roommates, Gothard moved her to a new room. Despite being a conscientious rule follower, Julie was immediately considered “rebellious” by the other staff, one of the worst labels possible within IBLP’s world of unquestioning obedience. She was called into her supervisor’s office and yelled at almost every day, despite being on her best behavior.

Julie, who asked that her last name be withheld, believes that Gothard was isolating her socially so that she would only feel safe with him. It worked. Julie, now 38 years old, remembers Gothard being the one kind face in a miserable existence. He frequently asked her to stay in his office with him until well past the 9 p.m. curfew, a shocking breach of protocol in a culture where simply talking to a member of the opposite sex could lead to a public shaming, or, worse, being sent home. One night, as Julie was transcribing Gothard’s dictation, she noticed he had gone quiet. When she looked up, she saw that Gothard was staring at her intently, his erection exposed.

Julie had been sheltered all her life and didn’t know precisely what Gothard was proposing. But she felt unnerved enough to tell Gothard that it was getting late and that she needed to leave. It was only well into her marriage that Julie realized what Gothard had done. And it was only many years later that she saw the similarities between that moment and the stories of ten plaintiffs who had accused Gothard of sexual harassment and molestation, including rubbing their breasts and genitals while clothed and placing their hands on his groin. Some of the plaintiffs were minors at the time.

IBLP parted ways with Gothard in 2014, following an internal investigation that, while finding no evidence of criminal activity, claimed that Gothard had acted in an “inappropriate manner” with members of IBLP. The organization has refused to release its findings, but Gothard has been blacklisted from all IBLP events and locations. When Gothard spontaneously showed up at an IBLP event in in Big Sandy, Texas, in April, the police were called to remove him.

The plaintiffs’ suit was dropped in February, and Gothard’s camp declared vindication of its longstanding claim that the lawsuit was a coordinated conspiracy by a group of disillusioned, bitter women. The plaintiffs stated that they were not withdrawing their allegations of sexual harassment and assault, but that the lawsuit had been dropped due to “unique complexities ... including the statutes of limitation.”

Still, IBLP hasn’t entirely renounced its former leader. The IBLP website celebrates Gothard’s seismic influence on the organization specifically and the fundamentalist movement in America more broadly, going back decades to when he packed arenas with thousands of Christian conservatives eager to hear how his seven basic principles could shield their families from the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early 70s. Even when IBLP announced Gothard’s removal from the organization, it was quick to add that his departure in no way tainted the proud legacy of Gothard’s works.

Ben Ziesemer, a longtime IBLP employee, told me that “you have to separate the truths that Gothard taught, the Biblical principles, from a man’s personality.” But the question facing IBLP and other fundamentalist organizations is whether theology, personality, and an organization’s culture can exist in isolation. The scandals that have emerged from some of this country’s preeminent fundamentalist institutions—Paige Patterson’s Southwestern Theological Seminary, Bob Jones University, and Sovereign Grace Churches, just to name a few—suggest that they cannot. This is partly why the wave of Christian fundamentalism that washed over America in the 1970s and 1980s—a movement that intertwined moral purity and political activity—is in retreat.

IBLP is a case study in how a religious culture can implode when an authoritarian theology allows the most vulnerable to be targeted by predators. But the fall of Bill Gothard also reflects a larger shift in the way many evangelical Christians are engaging in American culture and politics—abandoning the call for moral rectitude in favor of a more purely partisan antipathy, which has found its greatest expression in the Christian right’s support for Donald Trump.

Gothard founded the Institute in Basic Life Principles (first called Campus Teams, then the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts) in 1961. Beginning in 1965, he purveyed his teachings in a conference called the Basic Seminar, through which he created a loyal group of adherents who found safety in his rigid approach to a changing world. While Billy Graham was filling stadiums with the good news of salvation, Gothard was preaching a staunch countercultural ode to the lost virtues of a Christian society, which he said emphasized personal responsibility, the value of suffering, and submission to authority. Gothard attracted a following in major cities across America, usually visiting them twice a year. The Los Angeles Times estimated that, by the early 1980s, more than 250,000 Californians had attended the biannual Basic Seminar conference in L.A.

Gothard’s principles went beyond the common fundamentalist warnings against alcohol and tobacco, calling on adherents to remove televisions from the house and to avoid music with a “tribal” beat. Men had to be clean-shaven, and women had to meticulously conceal their sexual appeal—the most valuable, and dangerous, attribute they possessed. All these instructions were, Gothard claimed, pulled straight from Scripture. They were what God wanted.

Gothard’s fundamentalist message gained traction at a time when conservative Christianity feared it was losing its privileged position in American culture, and Gothard’s success soon spread into the political sphere, in ways still felt today. Mike Huckabee has long been a Gothard supporter. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says in an online review of a Gothard book, “Nothing besides Scripture itself played a more important role in the daily guiding and leading of our family than Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles.” The Christian-owned company Hobby Lobby donated millions of dollars and multiple properties to IBLP. Gothard’s institute even entered pop culture consciousness in 2015 when the Duggar family of reality TV fame sent their son Joshua to an IBLP campus in Arkansas for “counseling,” after discovering he’d sexually touched four of his sisters as well as a babysitter.

As Gothard’s dreams for IBLP grew, so did its reach. It began with two main properties in Michigan and Illinois in the early 1980s; over the years the organization added an array of campuses and offices throughout the United States and eleven additional countries, including Romania, Australia, and Russia. To help followers apply the wisdom of the Basic Seminar to daily life, Gothard launched the Advanced Training Institute International (ATI), a national network of homeschooled families committed to educating their children and organizing their homes around Gothard’s principles. While IBLP has declined to release numbers on the program’s size, the ATI conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, was at its pinnacle attracting more than 15,000 attendees every year.

The ATI curriculum is built on “wisdom booklets,” which claim to provide practical instruction in linguistics, history, science, law, and medicine. In reality, students are taught a twisted form of Jesus’s teachings that focuses on themes of guilt, shame, fear, and self-flagellation. In one ATI booklet students are taught how to properly mourn by reflecting on 26 different categories of sin. For students raised under the ATI curriculum, the message—both stated and implicit—is this: If you are suffering, it is because you are outside of of God’s will.

Students who leave or criticize IBLP often find themselves excommunicated from their own families. Others know not to mention the abuse they’ve experienced, since their families still deny or minimize their claims. Survivors who publicly share their stories on Recovering Grace, a website and support group for former IBLP students, have been harassed by Gothard’s small but aggressive band of loyal followers. Because of all this, nearly every interviewee for this story asked that only their first name be shared. Others would only talk off the record.

One of these survivors is Johanna, whose father physically abused her for years. When she went to the pastor of her church, which was full of fellow ATI families, for advice, she was told her dad’s abuse was the result of her not “being submissive enough.”

Like all ATI students, Johanna was taught the “umbrella of authority” principle, which states that all authority comes from God, who then doles out that authority to parents (but mostly fathers), then pastors, then police, then higher government officials. Each human’s duty is to stay under their particular “umbrella of authority.” The authority’s decisions can technically be appealed, but in Johanna’s case that meant groveling before her abusive dad, hoping he would eventually relent.

When I asked Ziesmer, the longtime IBLP employee, about what a girl like Johanna should do, his skepticism of such claims of abuse was apparent. “If the situation is abusive enough, a child can appeal to a government agency to intervene in their family,” he said, but added, “That is assuming that this young lady is not someone just wanting her own way.”

The idea that victims of abuse were to blame was rife at Gothard’s organization. The IBLP pamphlet “Our Most Important Messages Grow Out of Our Greatest Weaknesses” asks this question: “What if a wife is the victim of her husband’s hostility?” And the answer: “There is no ‘victim’ if we understand we are to suffer for righteousness.” In ATI Wisdom Booklet 36, students are taught that if a woman doesn’t “cry out” while being raped they are “equally guilty with the attacker.”

Johanna suffered silently through severe abuse, because in this system of beliefs there were no victims, because suffering is the way to righteousness, and because it was probably her fault anyway. Then her father punched her sister in the sternum so hard she couldn’t breathe, a moment of clarity for Johanna, who eventually left home. Another former ATI student described Gothard’s ATI program this way: “It turned every homeschool father into a cult leader, and their home into an island.”

Most ATI girls are expected to become a wife and a mother, via a courtship process facilitated by the father. Finding an afterschool job or preparing for college are either frowned upon or outright forbidden. However, as a generation of children raised in ATI entered their teenage years, another option emerged: working for IBLP.

For ATI families, Gothard was a celebrity, a teacher, and a spiritual guru who took on godlike proportions in the minds of children. Some girls, like Johanna, were personally recruited by Gothard to come work for him. She was one of several girls known around headquarters as “Gothard’s girls,” a rotating group of attractive, teenage girls who functioned as personal assistants. Johanna had only known a chronically abusive father; in comparison, Gothard was, Johanna said, “the nicest man I’d ever met.” At one point Johanna told him he was like a father figure to her. Gothard squeezed her hand, looked deep in her eyes, and said, “I can be that for you.”

Many of the ten women who filed suit against Gothard in 2015 were once part of Gothard’s personally curated collection of teenage girls. But the damage he caused was not restricted to sexual abuse, or to the girls who surrounded him; throughout IBLP’s organization women were subjected to multiple forms of emotional and psychological abuse, and physical neglect.

Several people interviewed for this article described how their health was permanently ruined by their time at IBLP. At the age of 24, Lauren found herself on the leadership team for EXCEL, an eight-week program for teenage girls that focused on intensive spiritual training. Lauren routinely worked 80 hours a week, and sometimes as many as 100, believing that she would be held accountable to God for those who didn’t hear Gothard’s message and went to hell as a result. As Lauren’s endocrine system slowly collapsed from exhaustion, she began having intense suicidal thoughts to the point where she wouldn’t drive alone, for fear of what she might do. When she finally was taken to a doctor Lauren was told her body might never recover from the damage. She suspects this trauma is the cause of her infertility now.

IBLP’s Northwoods campus, a retreat center in Michigan, is the site of one of IBLP’s most notorious stories. Gothard’s younger brother Steve had been caught at IBLP headquarters having sex with multiple women on staff, an already egregious violation of Gothard’s moral code, made worse by Bill regularly sending young women to the isolated Northwoods campus to serve on his staff. The women sentenced to serve as Steve’s sexual victims included Bill’s out-of-favor personal assistant Ruth, who claimed that Steve psychologically abused her for months before she was finally coerced into having sex with him. After leaving IBLP, Ruth had chronic nightmares of her experiences, and when she was 37 years old developed stage 4 breast cancer that ultimately killed her. Her husband Larne believes that the extreme traumatic stress she had experienced in her nine years working for Gothard made her more susceptible to the disease at such a young age.

When asked for comment, Steve Gothard told me, “I just wish this would all go away. I don’t see what the point in bringing it back up is.” (Gothard later claimed he had never spoken to me.)

For years, the largest numbers of volunteers for IBLP ended up at the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC), a former hotel that housed several of Gothard’s projects, including a school for teenagers deemed “rebellious.” Parents temporarily suspended their rights as authority figures and gave all their authority to ITC. One of the rights ITC claimed was sentencing teenagers to solitary confinement—benignly labeled a “prayer room”—sometimes for days on end. One former ITC resident named Karis remembers her roommate being sent to prayer room for breaking curfew. “The whole thing was traumatic,” Karis recalled. “My roommate was different when she got out. Before she had this bubbly, happy personality, and you weren’t allowed to be happy at ITC. Because happiness was a sign that you weren’t as spiritual as you were supposed to be. Joyful is different than happy.”

Students were always fearful one of their peers might report them to the head of ITC, Rodger Gergeni, who three different interviewees for this article independently referred to as “evil.” In 2002, local Indianapolis news affiliate WTHR reported allegations that students were handcuffed, sat on, beaten, and locked in prayer rooms for weeks at a time. An investigation into the allegations by the Indiana Family and Social Services, however, said the allegations were “unsubstantiated.”

Gothard would often recruit girls from ITC to come work for him at IBLP headquarters. Multiple students recalled joking about Gothard’s “harem.” One student named Micah said, “I saw him pick out young women who were obviously vulnerable and hurting—but also very attractive. I heard him promise them they’d be right at the center of the next big thing he was planning. Those plans never came to pass, but I saw the girls come and go.”

When I talked to Bill Gothard on the phone in August, he was full of hope for the future of his ministry. He is in his eighties, but he believes his best days are ahead of him, telling me that God will let him live until he is 120. While Bill has lost access to the IBLP email list, which is full of potentially sympathetic ATI families, he is working hard to rebuild his following. Over the past few years, he has written 26 books, which are for sale on his website, and there are more on the way. He is waiting for word on a property in Mexico that, due to legal maneuverings, could be returned to him. If that happens, Bill could build a new base of operations.

It seems unlikely, though, that this will come to pass. As a generation of ATI students have grown into adults, they’ve fled the program en masse. Some have found a more liberating form of the Christian faith, while others have left religion altogether. If Gothard were given the keys to IBLP tomorrow, he would find a dwindling number of true believers left. IBLP, meanwhile, is frantically selling off its properties to make ends meet.

Other Christian fundamentalist organizations are in similar straits. Paige Patterson, long lauded for saving Christianity from the clutches of liberalism (and who once wrote positively on Gothard’s doctrine of authority), was fired this past May as president of the influential Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for a series of misogynistic comments and his dismissive, allegedly abusive handling of sexual assault claims. Patterson was a pillar of the old guard Southern Baptist movement, one of the Moral Majority’s most powerful cultural influencers. But this legacy is being rejected by a new generation of Southern Baptist pastors. New SBC President J.D. Greear is the youngest president in 40 years, and has publicly stated that the SBC’s history of political involvement was a damaging distraction from the church’s mission to preach about Jesus.

While Bob Jones University continues to be a fundamentalist hub at the intersection of conservative politics and Christian movements—both Ted Cruz and Ben Carson spoke there in 2015—attendance has dropped 26 percent since 2001, and a $4.5 million budget shortfall led BJU to lay off 50 employees in 2018. Meanwhile, students at Liberty University, headed by Donald Trump enthusiast Jerry Falwell Jr., have publicly expressed their disgust with Falwell’s surrogacy.

While data on the spirituality of millennials suggests that younger generations still gravitate toward religious belief, including personal spiritual practices such as prayer, there is an increasing abhorrence toward religious authoritarianism. For Christians like myself, who have rejected the Moral Majority’s approach to the culture wars as well as Gothard’s repugnant twisting of Jesus’s teachings, this is a hopeful trend.

But these changes do not mean fundamentalist Christianity has necessarily turned a new leaf. If the culture warriors of yore expressed their opposition to liberal America through a loud, righteous embrace of Christian values, they have now thrown their weight behind the decidedly un-Christian Donald Trump. Indeed, white evangelical support for Trump has increased during his presidency, despite his unashamed acceptance of a lifestyle abhorrent to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, and his sneering at traditional Christian virtues like forgiveness, humility, and a compassion for the “least of these.”

It goes well beyond Trump. The same religious leaders who railed against the collapse of decency during the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings in the 1990s, declare their support for badly tainted political candidates now, like Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who was accused of sexually abusing minors.

Gothard’s religious teachings are increasingly ignored today, even within fundamentalist churches, thanks in part to the various abuses they engendered. But the public sphere is another matter. Rather than reject misogyny, abuse, or patriarchal authoritarianism, a sizable segment of modern Christianity appears ready to tolerate these traits in its political leaders, as long as it is all in service of fighting the “enemy,” which is usually a shorthand for “liberals.”

Gothard’s legacy is not his thousands of pages of bizarre dogma, but the insight he offers into the way the Christian right once responded to the threats posed by liberal America. He was celebrated by the culture warriors for promising stability in a changing world, all while he warped the message of Jesus to build an empire for himself and prey on the vulnerable. The victims of his abuse are still waiting for justice—and watching as many of their fellow Christians show, in their actions and their politics, that they really don’t care.