Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Political Reach of Gothard

With Bill Gothard's ceaseless emphasis on authority, obedience, and chain-of-command, it should be no surprise that he is compulsively attracted to men (and more rarely, women) whom he perceives to be in a position of power. He believes without question that his organization has answers that can solve the problems faced by any public official, if they can only work together to promote Gothard's vision.

This characteristic has resulted in an extensive mycelial network whereby Gothard silently influences public policy across the country. Its reach is difficult to measure, however. While Gothard loves to privately advertise his latest affiliations, he always exaggerates their scope or significance. And he frequently drops an old project when something shinier comes along.

Below I list some of Gothard's better-known political alliances*. Since I left the organization in 1999, there are undoubtedly more fibers of connection now than I am able to trace here. As time passes, however, we can also see more clearly whether his "new approach" has yielded "lasting solutions" for those who have advocated them.

*There is no doubt that Gothard favors conservative political causes. I once heard him describe Rush Limbaugh as "our man on the radio".


During his two terms as mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith partnered with Gothard to create the Indianapolis Training Center, selling a city-owned building to IBLP for a token $1 around 1993. During Goldsmith's unsuccessful bid for Governor, ITC staff (many of them minors, most from other states, some salaried by the non-profit IBLP and others paying for the educational opportunity of working there) assisted the mayor's campaign, running a mailing center from the top floor of the hotel and handing out campaign literature at polling places on Election Day. Some even registered to vote in Marion County to support him.

George W. Bush later made Goldsmith his chief domestic policy adviser. Goldsmith "helped formulate the president's 'faith-based initiatives', which give tax dollars to churches." In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose Goldsmith to be his deputy mayor of operations, a position which included oversight of law enforcement agencies.

Goldsmith's domestic policy came into question when he was arrested for assaulting his wife, Margaret in their home. Though Margaret later recanted her story, Goldsmith was pressured to resign. According to Mr. Bloomberg, "I think that domestic violence is a phenomenally serious scourge on our society. We work very hard to attack the problem of domestic violence and the implication — the accusation — unfortunately made it untenable for him to continue to work for the city." Stephen Goldsmith filed for divorce earlier this year.

Back in Indianapolis, Margaret Goldsmith had worked for juvenile court judge James Payne, who used his court to send delinquent Marion County youth to the Indianapolis Training Center as an alternative juvenile detention facility. Despite investigations into allegations of child abuse at the ITC, Judge Payne was made Director of Indiana Department of Child Services, a post from which he resigned last year after charges of interference with a DCS neglect case involving his grandchildren.


With support from followers Rep. Steven Wise (R-Jacksonville) and now-Congressman Dan Webster (R-Orlando), Gothard considered opening a similar youth training center in Jacksonville, Florida in 1997. Though that never materialized, Jacksonville children were sent by the court system to the correctional residential program at ITC.

Delinquent youths were designated "Leaders-In-Training" and spent their days studying the Bible, watching Bill Gothard lecture videos, doing the chores necessary to run a hotel, filling in homeschooling workbooks from Accelerated Christian Education, memorizing character qualities, and dressing up for dinner. Denim, television, and rock music were strictly forbidden. Discipline reportedly included solitary confinement in "prayer rooms" and spanking without parental notification.

According to The Cult Education Institute, former Florida governor Jeb Bush "implemented Gothard's controversial character education program, Character First!, at his charter school in Liberty City. The governor also publicly encouraged the Palm Beach County School Board to approve Character First!, which is also listed as a model program in state law."  (Watch for more on the Character Training Institute in a future post.)


Gothard touts former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee's name on materials promoting his "Character Cities" initiative. The two were photographed together at a private campaign luncheon in Houston in late 2007.

For years, Gothard cultivated close ties to Huckabee, an alumnus of Gothard's "Basic Seminar", and to Jim Dailey, mayor of Little Rock. With encouragement from Mayor Dailey, Gothard opened his Little Rock Training Center in an empty VA hospital purchased by Hobby Lobby and donated to Gothard's Institute.

Despite Gothard's grandiose vision, the enormous structure was in poor repair and was never utilized as fully as the Indianapolis facility. Still, it served as a base for the Institute's prison ministry. Gothard quotes Governor Huckabee's support for conducting his seminars for Arkansas inmates: "I am confident that these are some of the best programs available for instilling character into the lives of people." Having gotten his foot in the door in Arkansas, Gothard combined forces with CCA, the nation's largest operator of privatized correctional institutions, to promote his intense lecture-based seminars inside more prisons. (The relationship between IBLP and CCA has provoked a lawsuit in New Mexico.)

Gothard was enthusiastic about character education being made mandatory in Arkansas schools and visualized schools restructured into age-integrated "learning teams" instead of age-segregated classrooms. The Institute also operated a secretive character-building Eagle Springs program for youth in rural Altheimer, Arkansas. (The Eagle Springs program was later moved to Skiatook, Oklahoma. Many allegations of corruption and abuse have been made by girls who participated in the program involuntarily.)

Another Gothard devotee is Jim Bob Duggar, a Springdale Republican who served two terms in the State House, now best known for the reality show "Nineteen Kids & Counting". Not only are the Duggars enrolled in Gothard's homeschooling program, the Advanced Training Institute, their family website links to at least twenty Institute programs and calls Gothard's organization their "#1 Recommended Resource". Jim Bob and wife Michelle are featured speakers at ATI national conferences.

Though Duggar lost his last two election bids, he hasn't abandoned politics. During the 2012 presidential primary, Jim Bob and his well-known family campaigned for candidate Rick Santorum. Duggar's oldest daughter has worked closely with the current IBLP indoctrination program for girls, while his oldest son now directs political lobbying for the conservative Family Research Council.


The Family Research Council was founded by Jerry Regier* in 1983. He was succeeded as president by Gary Bauer and eventually became a versatile member of Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating's administration. Regier was Keating's Cabinet Secretary of Health and Human Services as well as Acting Director of the State Department of Health, tasked with reinventing "the scandal-ridden" agency. Like Mayor Goldsmith in Indianapolis, he is a proponent of partnerships between government departments and the faith community. Under his leadership, Oklahoma became inundated with materials from the Institute's character training program, which was largely created at Gothard's training center campus in the heart of Oklahoma City.

According to an article in the St. Petersburg Times, "Regier brought Character First! management training to the Department of Juvenile Justice [in Oklahoma]. In this program, employees are recognized on their anniversaries and birthdays for certain character traits they exhibit. He encouraged the use of several of Gothard's programs with juvenile offenders before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1996, including a "log cabin ministry" that places juvenile offenders in cabins in the wilderness with peers who are trained by Gothard's Advanced Training Institute."

Like the Indianapolis Training Center, the Oklahoma building was formerly a hotel. It was purchased by Kimray, Inc. and leased to IBLP for $1 a year. Kimray is run by Tom Hill, who served on Gothard's Board of Directors for over a decade and piloted the secular adaptation of Gothard's "character qualities" in his company. (Click here to learn more about Character First and its connections to Bill Gothard.)

Gothard gathered support from numerous state and local officials prior to establishing operations in Oklahoma. A 1994 news article lists several:
Several local officials wrote letters to Mayor Ron Norick supporting Gothard's program, including state Rep. Carolyn Coleman, R-Moore, and Sen. Howard Hendrick, R-Bethany. Both joined other local officials in a visit to Gothard's juvenile education center in a renovated Indianapolis hotel last spring.
With them were Richard DeLaughter, assistant Oklahoma City police chief, and John Foley, director of Oklahoma County's juvenile division.
DeLaughter said... the facility emphasizes the Bible "so it obviously is not for every kid and every family. " "I don't think anybody thought it was the end all and be all answer for every one of our juvenile problems," he said. "As an option, it was pretty good. "
Rep. Joan Greenwood (R-Moore) was a homeschooling mom who used Gothard's curriculum. Howard Hendrick later served as Director of Oklahoma's Department of Human Services. At Hendrick's retirement, he was replaced by former Oklahoma City prosecutor Wes Lane, who has been a speaker at Gothard's "Character Cities" conferences. On the DHS Commission, Lane was responsible for investigations into cases of child abuse and neglect.

Congresswoman Mary Fallin (now Governor of Oklahoma) joined Tom Hill and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in welcoming attendees at a Character First! conference. That 2009 conference was held at the refurbished hotel where I served as an ATI student volunteer in 1999. I remember the character posters on the walls in the lobby, and reciting Bible passages to one of the "adults" (I was in my twenties) before dinner--the only meal offered on Sundays--was served in the dining room.

*(Governor Keating later recommended Jerry Regier for a post in Florida Governor Jeb Bush's administration. When Bush made Regier his Secretary of Children and Families, Regier quickly implemented the CharacterFirst! program within the department. Regier now works in the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.)


Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, has spoken at national IBLP conferences. The Insurance Commissioner for the State of Georgia, Ralph Hudgens, is not only an ATI homeschooling dad but also sits on the Institute's mostly harmless Board of Directors.


Another "advisory board" member whose name no longer appears on the IBLP website is San Antonio billionaire Dr. James Leininger, a shrewd investor described as "one of the most powerful people in Texas politics". Leininger and Rick Perry have had a rewarding symbiotic relationship for many years as Perry rose through Texas state politics. See a photo of Bill Gothard and Mike Huckabee with Dr. Leininger at his Houston home on Flickr.

Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX) formerly chaired the IBLP board and has recognized Gothard's Institute from the House floor.

In 2005, Governor Rick Perry himself spoke at Gothard's ATI conference in Big Sandy, Texas, challenging homeschooling parents "to continue seeking excellence".


  1. J, your research and clarity never fails to amaze me. I know most of these situations and people, but stringing them all together is rather gobsmacking. Wow.

  2. I worked (involuntary labor) to prepare the Little Rock, AR center for its grand opening, served tables, and huddled in the background watching Bill Gothard shake hands with city officials and proudly announce his "vision" for the coming years. We were emphatically told to never speak to anyone and remain in veritable secrecy the entire time. Police officers found us a mystery and one concerned officer spoke to me asking questions (to which I gave the acceptable dodging replies, for fear of punishment) and handed me a keychain from the Little Rock police department. I still have it today, along with a brochure from the grand opening and photographs.

    I was also sent to the Eagle Springs "L.I.T." program. I am one of those alleging abuse. I have a decade of psychologist reports verifying what it's done to me (severe PTSD). Abuses included deprivation or extreme limitations of food, water, sleep, clothing, possessions and even bathroom facilities; solitary confinement for weeks at a time; mandatory and menial labor (up to 16 and 20 hour shifts at a time in many cases); threats with a shotgun; regular interrogations; and classic brainwashing techniques using cult and cult-approved materials; and overall forced captivity for years at a time, while lying to any outsiders and threatening or locking down anyone who might dare to cry for help in any way (for example, refusal to allow contact with parents until "students" were properly broken and too terrified to speak up). I filed a detailed report with the authorities in Oklahoma and they basically scratched their heads and never got back with me.

    I'd be very interested to hear about the international "delegates" that Bill Gothard paraded out to us every year at Knoxville, international programs such as the Yarra Training Center and its own little-known LIT program (LIT programs were all very secretive, but it was known among a few that there was one there), as well as Bill Gothard's military force based in Big Sandy, TX known as ALERT (and allegations of neglect/abuse within the program) - shockingly little has been said about these programs and I believe it is well worth looking into.

    1. It is absolutely worth looking into.

      Thank you for posting your experience. I am so sorry you were abused, and then ignored. :(

  3. Thank you for mapping out these connections so well! Funny enough, I had a meal at the OKC training center sometime in 1998 or 1999--not sure when exactly. My parents were heavily influenced by Gothard, but could never bring themselves to do ATI; too much accountability, I suspect. When things started to fall apart eventually (I left the fold, my younger brothers were not getting with the program), my Dad went there to seek counseling for the family. Because I was living in OKC at the time and had always been curious (and a little envious) of the immaculate image of ATI people, I agreed to meet my Dad there for a meal and an evening program. I'm grateful now, of course, that my family didn't have it together enough to be formally involved with IBLP organizations (beyond the seminars). In the meanwhile I've also learned something about life and how false the appearance of perfection usually is. Nevertheless, I've wondered about the people I met there at the OKC training center in a where-are-they-now kind of way. I'm fascinated by what journeys out of those kinds of totalitarian systems look like.

    1. "Where are they now?" is a great question. All over the map, to say the least. They are pastors, entrepreneurs, homeschooling moms, artists, bloggers, models, non-traditional college students...

      A few are atheists or agnostics while others have moved toward mainstream Christianity (and careers). Some are even still working for CharacterFirst!

  4. When I was volunteering at the Oklahoma city training center, every week a team from the training center was sent to mow then LT GOV Mary Fallin's lawn, weed her yard and wash her cars. I had this blessed opportunity on several occasions.

  5. Wow, brilliant research! I live in Oklahoma, and the infestation of oppresive ideology is very real. My old church used the L.I.T. program in their children's program. Most of the children were homeschooled or went to a Christian Charter School. Thus, having limited access to education or information outside of the church. Many of the Churches in our area worked alongside the foster care system. I later found out the church leaders were on a first name basis with the Director of DHS in that county. Often recieving preferential treatment and favors from each other. It doesn't stop there though. The reach of their power is frightening. It's at every level of government, just about every position of authority. It's a religious and social power monopoly.
    Oklahoma's public school system is in shambles. There is a push to move Oklahoma to a Charter School system, and encourage more homeschooling (which is completely unregulated in this State). I can't even begin to imagine the damage such a move would cause. I know the damage Christian homeschooling, and private schooling caused in my life.