Cultish Christian Leader Teaches Women Should Submit to Husbands -- Victims of His "Submission Theology" Speak Out
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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.