Jeri Lofland blogs at Heresy in the Heartland. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”, “His Quiver Full of Them”, “David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock”, “The Political Reach of Bill Gothard”, and “Bill Gothard on Education”, and “Ken Ham: The Evolution of a Bully“, “In Which the Pieces Come Together”, and “Jim Logan: The Stephen King of Fundamentalism.”
“So I tell you, ask, and God will give to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will open for you. Yes, everyone who asks will receive. The one who searches will find. And everyone who knocks will have the door opened. If your children ask fora fish, which of you would give them a snake instead? Or, if your children ask for an egg, would you give them a scorpion? Even though you are bad, you know how to give good things to your children.”
Luke 11:9-13a (NCV)
My parents had only been married five years when they attended their first Youth Conflicts seminar: 40 hours of lectures over six days. Living in a new city with three preschoolers but few friends, they were lonely, stressed, and probably sleep-deprived. They were eager to be “real” Christians, to differentiate from the mainstream Protestantism of their parents, to keep their marriage intact, and to raise the best family possible. They went searching for truth, and Bill Gothard and his Institute offered them an ideal, peppered with scripture references. Surely this was bread indeed!
They became avid Gothard fans, my parents. Not into sports or other strong alliances, their allegiance was to God and the Bible. Where an extreme sports fan might display the mascot or colors of their favorite team, we had an enormous sign over our garage proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” in hand-painted crimson letters on a white ground. And they were always eager to invite people to attend IBLP seminars.
It is difficult to tease apart the teachings my parents first heard from Gothard from those they picked up elsewhere.
Suffice it to say, Bill reinforced much that they had already accepted and added plenty more of his own. When they decided to enroll in ATIA in 1987, I was not enthusiastic. I had had enough of Bill Gothard’s anecdotes and teachings, which Dad often reenacted with our Fisher-Price people, from his notes.
I knew Gothard was behind Dad throwing a rock through the face of our television. And making me wear dresses instead of jeans and my favorite pink shorts. And not letting us eat sausage anymore. And our sleepy pre-breakfast attempts to hunt for “nuggets of wisdom” while reading Psalms and Proverbs aloud to each other. And selling our big, new house with four bathrooms because having a mortgage was unbiblical. Instead, we moved to a rented farmhouse with its very own cattle lot and temperamental plumbing. The good things my parents wanted us to have were intangible: good character, the blessing of God, spiritual protection, true wisdom, eternal life. Everything else was worthless when compared with these.
I had already adapted to homeschooling, using workbooks we ordered from conservative religious publishers. Mom had her hands full with potty-training, breastfeeding, checking papers, feeding five kids, and teaching my little brothers to read. I was largely on my own. My subject assignments were written on cards for each day of the week, and once they were completed I had the rest of the day to do what I liked. It was far different from my two years in public school, but I didn’t mind.
Now, everything changed.
For at least an hour every morning, month after month for years, my poor mother tried to study the Sermon on the Mount with us via the Wisdom Booklets sent from ATI Headquarters. We reacted to the questions—which seemed designed to manipulate or to trip us up—and even more to the answers that made no sense. We knew the Bible well, and trusted it; this “material” coming from Gothard was something else entirely. Thus began endless debates and arguments. Mom identified personally with the ATI program and felt her authority was being challenged when we criticized Bill Gothard’s [mis]interpretation of scripture and the “educational” projects we were required to complete together: learning to judge other people based on appearances and reading sermons about what wretched sinners we were (Charles Finney), what a monster God was (Jonathan Edwards), and how puny our minds were compared to his (A.W. Tozer).
With the exception of grammar, school wasn’t a lot of fun after that.
It didn’t feel like “school”, with every aspect of my life (social life, entertainment, exposure to music & literature, transportation & shopping, academic grades, political bent, bedtime, menu & meal portions, time in the shower, chore list, sex education, and religious guidance) all in the hands of the same two people who had been entrusted with my soul by God himself. I argued with Mom a lot, and she called me a scorner and I got plenty of spankings and I blamed Bill Gothard for making all of us miserable. I hit puberty and had new questions, new interests, new desires, and new guilt. I was desperately lonely and looked forward to summer when I could spend more time with other girls my age.
After two years of protesting and challenging, I was tired of feeling like an outsider in my own home. I really did want to be on God’s side, whatever that was. My parents noticed that my resistance was crumbling. They decided it was time for me to attend my first Seminar. I sat beside my very pregnant mother and dutifully raced to fill in all the blanks in my workbook. When we closed our eyes and Gothard asked us to raise our hands for each of his Seventeen Basic Commitments, I was keenly aware of my mom’s presence. Would it be possible for her not to know if I had raised my hand or kept it in my lap?
I didn’t follow everything Gothard said—some of his euphemisms went over my head—but I made a lot of commitments. I gave God my right to have friends. And I was brought many degrees nearer to the inner circle of the Institute in Basic Life Principles cult.
I was looking for a fish, but had unknowingly grasped a snake.
Over the next two years, I was thoroughly assimilated. Pressured by guilt within and parents without, I gave up my own interests and desires and adopted the cult mentality. I accepted, until I truly believed, that my parents were God’s voice to me. I dressed in navy skirts and white blouses whenever I could (the dress code for Mr. Gothard’s staff), grew my hair according to the style Gothard recommended, and listened to cassettes from IBLP headquarters while I did my chores. I now tolerated the Wisdom Booklets, though the inconsistencies and poor writing still bothered me. And, to keep my Walkman, I even agreed to follow Gothard’s rules about avoiding rock music, though I still puzzled over how my favorite Christian tunes could be tools of Satan.
We attended several ATI conferences in Knoxville, TN—pep rallies where we dressed in navy suits despite the July heat and heard about the latest nations begging for instruction in good character. Knoxville conferences were exciting for teens because there were thousands of others who also did Wisdom Booklets and wore long dresses and had umpteen siblings and knew what their motivational gift was.
With a grueling schedule and impossible logistics, the week was an effective brainwashing tool.
There was a choir for students who wanted (or were forced) to participate, an orchestra, and special music performances on pianos, strings, handbells, and more. Families in matching clothes sang harmony together, dozens of “reversal babies” were put on display, and the ALERT team made emotional mothers cry by rappelling from the ceiling in their uniforms unfurling an enormous American flag.
One year we all clapped when a speaker announced that Clarence Thomas had been nominated to the Supreme Court. He was young and conservative, we were told, so we rejoiced. In another session, a pastor with three grown daughters outlined a model daily breastfeeding schedule while we all took notes. A woman with no children of her own offered a hypothetical schedule for homeschooling a brood of five. Jim Logan made us shiver with tales of his encounters with talking demons. David Barton fired rapid-fire historical quotes at us to convince us that we could take America back for God.
In the separate meetings for students (where 12- to 28 -year-olds sat segregated by gender), we listened to Gothard tell stories about his girlfriends in high school and college. We raised our hands to commit not to marry a divorced man, and to postpone dating so we could serve the Lord longer instead. Gorgeous young men and women gave “testimonies” about quitting college to come home and learn with their families, about submitting to parents and not keeping secrets from them, about getting along with their siblings, and about putting off marriage in favor of ministry. Gothard showed us film clips about England’s Civil War, warning the girls to close their eyes if the violence was too much. “Fellas, drink it in,” he said.
It wasn’t long until I was teaching Gothard’s materials myself–to children in Russia and in the United States. I memorized Bible passages by the chapter. I completed my Journal of Faith and started working on my Journal of Virtue, an introspective study of Gothard’s 49 character qualities, with examples of how I had demonstrated (or failed) each one. I read the ATI newsletters carefully and studied the photos of the girls held up as godly examples. I prayed and waited and wondered when I would be called upon to teach character to the nations, or assist government leaders with changing the world.
College was strongly discouraged as a place where youth rebelled against authority, yielded to lust, and lost their faith but I did spend a year and a half enrolled in ATI’s unaccredited and spanking new correspondence law school. The stress of three weeks at an IBLP training center landed me sick in bed for weeks with headaches that lingered for months. A few months later my mother had a postpartum mental health crisis. For a week, while studying for a state exam, I was left in charge of a house full of younger siblings so my parents could seek “counsel” from staff at an ATI training center in Indiana. Though my grades were good, I found solitary “homeschool college” to be incredibly stressful. I wearied of fighting anxiety and boredom simultaneously and eventually gave up on getting a degree.
At age twenty-two, I was finally invited to volunteer my services for IBLP.
By the time I attained my dream and landed a job at Mr. Gothard’s headquarters, I was jaded and disillusioned. Gothard was a salesman who was not strictly honest, and was a poor judge of character. He cared little about the credibility of his sources, which he rarely documented. He was quick to discharge staff who expressed alternative points of view. He overworked employees and made it difficult for them to participate in local churches. Gothard was embroiled in legal battles with partners in ministry as well as with the neighborhoods where the Institute operated. He disdained government authority, only following the rules (construction permits, building codes, employment regulations) when pressured. Employees were encouraged not to report overtime. Despite the “non-optional principles” that were supposed to ensure loving family relationships, Gothard was estranged from some of his siblings.
Gothard was controlling of his staff to the point of criticizing the hue of a female employee’s fingernails, (while coloring his own hair a noticeably unnatural shade of burgundy). Gothard surrounded himself with willowy, long-haired, very young women. Appearance mattered a lot to him. One young woman who had been invited to join the ATI staff in Russia got a fresh and cute haircut right before her trip. When she reached Chicago, she was pulled from the group and hidden away at a small campus in Indiana until her hair grew out to an acceptable length. I was appalled by her story, but she blamed herself for not considering her hairstyle more carefully.
I could look past many disheartening inconsistencies because I had been trained to believe that God himself spoke through men with power.
I was doing God’s work at IBLP, God had sent me there at last. And in spite of the overbearing rules and constant meetings and curfews and dress codes, in many ways I still had a lot more autonomy than I had ever tasted at home. So it was a blow when Gothard fired me late one night—by calling my parents hundreds of miles away instead of speaking to me, though I slept just yards from his office. Gothard found me the next day, after I’d packed up my belongings from my room and emptied my new desk. My parents wanted me to come home, he said, though they’d told me Gothard wanted me gone. I felt rejected and lied to.
Since “bitterness” was a great sin to be feared, I tried to absorb the blow and see God’s hand in it. But I cried myself to sleep for weeks afterward. It was years before my husband (whom I met while working for IBLP) and I could admit we had given years of our lives to a cult. Years of unlearning the guilt, of trying to push away the rubble of legalism to find out if our faith still survived, of accepting our humanity instead of trying to live as spiritual beings, of rejecting abuse in the name of love, of discovering that women have as much right to autonomy as do men and that children are not possessions, or extensions, of their parents.
The “Bread” we had asked for turned out to be nothing but rocks, dead weight we carried for too long. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his followers to be “fruit inspectors”. And, more clearly as time passed, we could see that the fruit of Gothard’s teaching, even when followed with the best of intentions, was of terrible quality. Humbling as it was to realize, we had been raised in a religious cult that drew in our parents and then absorbed our youthful energy, feeding on our desires to please both God and our parents.
I no longer identify as a follower of Jesus, but I am still a fruit inspector.
You will know these people by what they do. Grapes don’t come from thornbushes, and figs don’t come from thorny weeds. In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit.
Matthew 7:16-18 (NCV)