by Mark Hollis, Ocala (FL) Star-Banner, March 10, 1997
TALLAHASSEE -- Deep in the Ozark Mountains, Bill Gothard's religious
institute runs a "log cabin ministry" for troubled teens that
government officials helped create. For six months, youths live
isolated in the piney woods of northern Arkansas -- turned off from
television, tuned out of rock music and shut away from friends.
In downtown Dallas, with the backing of the city's mayor and
commission, Gothard's Institute in Basic Life Principles puts on an
eight-week "Proverbs 31" training program for the "daughters" of its
Christian ministry. Girls who attend learn to become "obedient and
virtuous women" by following a strict interpretation of the Bible
passage, which the group says stresses that a woman's role is in the
In Oklahoma City, Gothard's organization teaches Bible-based
"character traits" to students in public schools.
A judge in Indianapolis gives young criminals a choice: get sent off
to state detention centers or sign up for religious instruction at yet
another of Gothard's juvenile rehabilitation camps.
Throughout the country, Gothard's Chicago-based religious sect has
pursued alliances with government officials. Among them: Florida House
Speaker Daniel Webster.
Civil libertarians, both in Tallahassee and elsewhere, have expressed
concern about the institute's apparent determination to use
relationships with government officials to implement its programs in
Webster has yet to display any reason to support these concerns and
has said he does not intend to force his beliefs on others.
Nevertheless, Webster, for 14 years, has associated himself with this
multimillion-dollar Christian assembly which adheres to strict moral
precepts and promotes itself by constructing ties to government. Those
relationships develop, in part, through invitations to the institute's
programs, legislative seminars and events such as a national mayor's
conference Gothard put on last month in Indiana.
The institute so blurs the line between church and state that even its
logo blends icons of government and religion: an eagle soaring over a
book of Scripture.
Larry Spalding, a Tallahassee-based lawyer for the American Civil
Liberties Union, describes Webster, a Southern Baptist, as a "bright
and sensitive man" who would be unlikely to inject his personal views
into the business of the Legislature "during this session."
However, Spalding says there are reasons why the public ought to be
aware of the institute and its relations with government leaders.
"I think this institute symbolizes a radical shift in the
fundamentalist and evangelical Christian movements in this country,"
said Larry Spalding, a Tallahassee-based lawyer for the American Civil
Liberties Union. "For years, they were totally distrustful of
government and wanted nothing to do with it. Now, they have overcome
that. Their objective is to become a part of government as major
Webster, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has attended
numerous seminars and taught for the institute. He recently hired four
House staffers with links to the group. The Orlando Republican has
made a video for Gothard. And last summer, Webster traveled with
Gothard to South Korea as a "government ambassador" for the
Whether it's Gothard's unorthodox views on dealing with troubled
youths, his charming persona or his promotion of home schooling, the
evangelical founder of the institute has been welcomed to communities
from Florida to Michigan and beyond by hundreds of government
Gothard's organization claims it goes only where it has been invited.
But that's almost all over the globe. Already, for instance, more than
70 of Gothard's young leaders teach religion in the public schools of
Moscow under a contract with the Russian government.
Since founding the institute after working with Chicago gang members
in the 1960s, Gothard has amassed a vast ministry as well as a growing
reputation in the criminal-justice and education-reform movements.
Just this year, Gothard's advocacy for teaching public school children
character qualities such as obedience, gratefulness and attentiveness
brought him to a southern state capitol.
But Little Rock, Ark., had already been established as friendly
terrain for Gothard. Two of his long-time admirers -- Republican Gov.
Mike Huckabee and Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, a Democrat -- are
loyal advocates of Gothard's agenda and have encouraged him to expand
juvenile rehabilitation programs there.
Gothard has described his meeting in Little Rock as the start of
something big. He said it laid the groundwork for "the most exciting
opportunity I can imagine" to merge the institute's teachings with
In a letter published on the institute's Internet site, Gothard said
his organization has been asked to "present a plan and contract to
restructure (Arkansas') welfare program, their educational system and
their juvenile justice methods."
He also claims that Gov. Huckabee's aides "have already begun taking
steps" to put the proposal into action.
Arkansas officials, however, aren't so sure.
Huckabee's press aide and other senior members of his administration
say the state has no welfare-related contract with Gothard or the
Others also say that Gothard is overstating his achievements.
"Gothard has taken advantage of our meeting (in Little Rock) with the
most overglorified spin that you can possibly put on something," said
David Robinson, superintendent of the Sheridan, Ark., schools. "He's
going around saying that his concepts of teaching character traits
will lead to a revolution in education. That's not right. That is just
way out there."
Gothard's credibility may be an issue. But people who advocate a clear
separation between church and state are more worried by the nature of
Gothard's public-education endeavors. In particular, there is anxiety
over the institute's plan to teach moral absolutes -- such as
character qualities based on the Scriptures -- to children in public
Regardless, the institute's character-education program will be tried
next month in the 1,720-student school district of Warren, Ark. School
officials there readily admit they have more to learn about the
"I don't know nothing about them, really," said Mary Jo Wisener, whose
job entails reviewing curriculum used in the Warren schools. "I'm
trusting that they're not a cult."
The teaching of religion in public schools is an issue in Oklahoma
City, where the institute has tweaked its Christian-based home-
schooling textbooks just enough to win approval from the school board.
Whether it will pass a court's muster is yet to be tested.
"What we have done is to rewrite our materials and tailor them so that
we might meet constitutional limits," said Larry Guthrie, a curriculum
writer and full-time employee of the institute who lives in Wisconsin.
"Our intent is not to break the law in any way."
The Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles calls on members
to educate their children at home and isolate them from people outside
their families. The religious group also calls for teen-age boys to
undergo military-style training and demands that women be
"submissive." Among the group's followers is Daniel Webster, Florida's
speaker of the House. This final story of a two-part series examines
the organization's increasing number of alliances with political
leaders such as Webster.
Copyright (c) 1997, 2004 Ocala Star-Banner