Cult of Character

How the 'secular' Character Training Institute is working to build evangelist Bill Gothard's vision of a First-Century Kingdom of God--one city, one state, one school board, one police force and one mind at a time.

In These Times (Chicago)/January 9, 2006
By Silja J. A. Talvi

From the outside the bland, unmarked exterior of the Character Training Institute's headquarters blends remarkably well into its immediate surroundings. This is a section of Oklahoma City that hasn't yet benefited from the nearby, upscale urban development intended to draw both tourism and business to the area. Both the downtown Greyhound Station and the county jail are situated a few blocks from here, which explains the number of forlorn, transient men and women wandering down West Main Street. For the most part these folks seem to have more immediate priorities than paying attention to the dozens of foreign-looking visitors entering and exiting the 10-story Character Training Institute (CTI), which also serves as the headquarters of the International Association of Character Cities (IACC).

But one elderly woman wearing mismatched clothing and a weathered plastic visor ambles across the street to get a closer look. She leans against the wall and tries to peer inside, but the heavy double doors, darkened windows and drawn shades make it nearly impossible to do so.

"What's going on in there?" she asks a young man with a military-style haircut walking toward the door. He takes a polite moment to explain that this is a very important "Building Cities of Character" conference, sponsored by the IACC. Many people, he adds, have come from all over the world to be here. And with that, he disappears into the building. The woman tries, one last and unsuccessful time, to see what's going on inside.

"The sin of witchcraft"

Inside the institute, Arizona state treasurer David Petersen takes to the conference podium to tell how his state's Family Services Committee passed "Character Education Legislation."

"All schools now have it implemented," he says proudly. "We're fighting for the soul of this nation." Petersen is not being hyperbolic. He attributes his passion for "character" to a personal meeting with evangelist Bill Gothard.

Gothard, the 74-year-old, unmarried man at the head of the Oak-Brook, Illinois-based Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP)--which brings in an estimated profit of at least $63 million annually--has been in the evangelism business since 1964. Originally named the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, IBLP changed its name in 1990. All totaled, IBLP boasts that at least 2.5 million people have attended the organization's seminars and ministries in the United States and other countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Romania and Taiwan.

Although legally and fiscally independent, the CTI is for all intents and purposes a "secular" front group for Gothard's IBLP. In the last decade, the CTI has quietly gained entry into hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools, state and city offices, corporations, police departments and jails.

Though he never uses the term, Gothard's ideology fits into the framework of the burgeoning "Christian Reconstructionist" movement, which aims to rebuild society according to biblical mandates. Within the Christian Reconstructionist worldview, modern-day chaos is directly attributable to the division of church and state and the consequent degradation of individual character.

For Gothard, the solution is restoring the United States--and then the rest of the world--to something that he calls "The Sevenfold Power of First-Century Churches and Homes."

The concept of obeying God-granted authority runs through virtually all IBLP-published materials. "The key to understanding authority is identifying four areas of God-ordained jurisdiction: parents, government, church leaders, and employers," reads an introductory passage to Basic Life Principles Seminar. "When a decision is to be made, we must ask, 'Whose jurisdiction is this under?' God gives direction, protection, and provision through human authorities. If we rebel against them, we expose ourselves to the destruction of evil principalities. ... This is why 'rebellion is the sin of witchcraft.' "

According to Gothard's interpretation, first century Roman Centurions were admirable figures of authority who followed their orders without question--the prototypes for the kinds of police officers that CTI instructor Ray Nash, the sheriff of Dorchester County, South Carolina, wants to create in his state and elsewhere.

Nash has conducted "Police Dynamics" training for numerous U.S. and international police departments.

"Really, what Police Dynamics is, in a nutshell, is biblical wisdom that's been packaged into a law enforcement message," Nash told Rev. Mark Creech in a November 2004 article for Alan Keyes' RenewAmerica Web site.

Character Cities Conference

"Leaders around the world are increasingly concerned by the decline in society's standards," CTI founder Thomas A. Hill writes in his introduction to the brochure inviting people to the IACC conference. "As you reflect on the past, you may ask yourself, 'Where did the good old days go?' and 'How did we get to this point?' The answer is rooted in a growing lack of personal character."

Anyone wanting to explore such questions and willing to fork over $360 for this annual three-day conference would be buzzed in through the double doors into an oddly serene and well-ordered environment.

Decorated in a faux-Victorian style, the lobby is spotless and dust-free, complete with displays of fake flowers in vases, rows of couches and psalm-quilted pillows. Low-level classical and hymnal music is piped in, but there are no television sets, radios or wall clocks to be seen. A busy group of young, unadorned women in ankle-length tan skirts, flats and dark polo shirts--and their adolescent male counterparts in pressed shirts and slacks--seem to make sure that everything runs on schedule. It doesn't take long to notice that the female roles are rigidly secretarial and/or service-oriented.

When they arrive at the lobby desk, registrants are handed their Character First! plastic binders. The cover announces "a new paradigm for personal growth," while the introductory letter from IACC Director Steven Menzel thanks attendees for their "commitment and determination to revitalize your community based upon the timeless attributes of character."

Over the course of the next three days, attendees will come to learn that absolutely everything bad happening in our society--from crime to divorce, from drug use to school shootings--can be explained by lack of character.

Instilling character

The CTI was founded in 1996 by Kimray Oil and Gas tycoon Thomas A. Hill. A tax exempt, nonprofit educational organization, the institute's mission is to instill 49 "Character Qualities" into four major civil institutions: family, business, education and law enforcement. In 1998 the CTI spread its wings and established the IACC, which aimed to make local governments "commit to develop character."

The Character Cities concept has caught on quickly: 160 cities ranging from Compton, California, to Hamburg, New York, 31 counties, and seven states--Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina--have now passed "character" resolutions and proclamations based on CTI's teachings and materials.

Nor has the CTI's influence been limited by American borders. Forty-seven international cities have already declared themselves Cities of Character, and at least one-third of the approximately 100 people attending the IACC conference arrived from foreign countries, including Romania, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Argentina, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Many have gone so far as to brand their localities with Character First! symbols, plaques, flags, pins, posters, brochures, books, mouse pads and calendars.

Understandably, the Character Training Institute tries to obfuscate the links between its work and Gothard's reconstructionist Christian vision.

"This is not religion, these are character traits," says John Thomas, vice president for global infrastructure services for Perot Systems Corporation, during one of three successive business-oriented presentations at the IACC conference.

Speakers emphatically and repeatedly stress that Character First! training has nothing to do with promulgating religion. Instead, attendees are told, the training promotes great character and, as a side benefit, drives up corporate profit margins. The Character First! DVD is chock-full of tales of incredible savings to businesses: Kimray's Hill, for instance, talks of workers' compensation dropping from $24,000 per month to a mere $2,000 to $4,000, while Todd Anderson, the vice president of C.P. Morgan, a home construction firm, brags about a tenfold increase in profitability attributable directly to CTI training.

The list of Character First! seminar attendees already reads like a who's who of top corporations and government institutions: McDonald's, Burger King, Aflac, Costco, Coca Cola, the Correctional Corporation of America, the Better Business Bureau, Tyson Foods, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the Arkansas Prison System and the U.S. District Attorney's office are all mentioned, in addition to more than a dozen school districts (including Denver, Memphis and Ft. Lauderdale), and eight healthcare companies and hospitals.

At the conference, attendees are told that the IACC exists "to support government and community leaders who want to develop character in themselves and encourage it in their families and communities."

Oklahoma City--and the state of Oklahoma in general--seems to have truly taken this to heart. Here, even the local county jail's elevators feature Character First! posters in Plexiglass displays, and juvenile detainees study character concepts with the jail chaplains. Each employee receives a Character Bulletin with his or her paycheck, explains Chaplain Argyle Dick. "We hire for character, and we fire, most of the time, for lack of character. ... We are always looking for new ways to saturate even more of our employees with character."

The Character Council of Central Oklahoma has even entered into a "covenant" with the regional career tech programs, covering 12 campuses. "That's our plan for getting character qualities into the hearts and minds of all students," explains Dr. Earlene Smith, the Education Committee chairman for the council.

Other examples abound throughout the conference: McDonough, Georgia, flies a City of Character flag outside of city hall; Owasso, Oklahoma, police squad cars sport a "City of Character" emblem on each vehicle; and the Character Council of Florida has ensured that all elementary schools will incorporate CTI training by 2006, and expand from there to higher grades.

Sign of the eagle

On the surface it does not appear as though Gothard is at all involved in the "secular" character training that the CTI provides to countless schools, city councils, state agencies, corporations and law enforcement agencies across the world. Hundreds of cities have also passed their own character resolutions, modeled on the IACC's materials. None of the CTI/IACC materials mention Gothard's name, but the more obvious attempts to hide the connections end there.

CTI founder Thomas Hill is also the board chairman for the IBLP--alongside other influential board members, such as Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas).

There’s also an omnipresent eagle symbol, identically illustrated for both organizations, with different acronyms encircling the image of the bird taking flight. Each group also uses the exact same 49 Character Qualities—CTI’s Character Qualities delete all the references to Jesus Christ. Several of Gothard’s books (and other Christian books, including Bill Burtness’ The Third Alternative: Christian Self-Government) are for sale in the back of the CTI/IACC bookstore.

Then there are the shoutouts that Phil Heimlich, a conservative pro-lifer and former Cincinnati city council member, gives to both Hill and Gothard at the IACC’s “Building Cities” conference. One of the longest presentations at the conference is delivered by George Mattix, the international director for the IBLP’s missionary efforts. He describes the extent of their successes in bringing IBLP teachings to children and teens in at least 30 countries, under the initial pretense of teaching English and character training.

Obedience, not willfulness

By the first day of the IACC conference, the main meeting room resembled a mini-U.N., complete with simultaneous translation for each of the non-English-speaking attendees.

The Philippines has one of the strongest international delegations here, led by attorney Francis Tolentino, the former mayor of Tagaytay. (His brother now holds the same office.) Tagaytay became a City of Character back in 2000 and, with Tolentino’s assistance, the first nationwide Character Conference was held in the Philippines in 2002, with conference materials provided by the IACC.

Tagaytay not only has an official “character oath,” but an “official jingle, so that the character program will always be inculcated in the minds of the people.” Tagaytay police officers wear a City of Character badge, says Tolentino, and the city now requires character training before a marriage license will be granted. Mayor Sally Lee of Sorsogon City speaks of similar initiatives in her city, where her “goal and objective [is] to really push through this kind of program.”

Most of the domestic or international attendees seem familiar with the concepts espoused; indeed, the vast majority represent city and character councils, state or local agencies, school districts or businesses that have already bought into ongoing trainings and supplementary materials.

It’s hard to ignore how much money there is to be made in this enterprise. To give a few examples: the Character First! resource disk set runs $40 per month, and the framed character posters cost $89 per month. The actual display cases for the monthly character qualities run from $435 (aluminum) to $685 (oak or cherry). For law enforcement, Sheriff Nash’s “Police Dynamics” character concept-based DVD sets run $595 for each series.

But for those of us who aren’t yet in the loop—or convinced yet that we need to buy into the whole package—the conference organizers make sure to drive “character” as close to home as possible. Each presenter is introduced by name, and then by how many years he has been married, and by the number of children and grandchildren he has. (There are only a handful of female presenters; each is introduced in similar fashion.) All presenters are given a certificate at the end of his or her presentation, and a CTI official announces which one of the 49 Character Qualities best describes that person’s accomplishments. During some of the presentations, the word “character” is repeated anywhere from four to six times a minute.

As if that weren’t enough, attendees are told constantly to refer to the laminated, pocket-sized list of the 49 Character Qualities that are essential for true success in life.

“Obedience: Quickly and cheerfully carrying out the direction of those who are responsible for me,” reads one of the 49 Character Qualities. “Justice: Taking personal responsibility to uphold what is pure, right and true,” reads another.

Each of the 49 Character Qualities is not only contrasted with its opposite (“Willfulness,” for instance, as the opposite of “Obedience”); they are also paired with colorful animal figures and simplistic descriptions of how those animals represent these concepts. A mother wood duck and her ducklings represent “Obedience;” and “Justice” takes the form of a bull African elephant. Oklahoma City proclaimed September 25 a “ZOOrific Day of Character,” with billboards and advertisements throughout the city encouraging parents to bring their children to the city zoo to learn about how various animals illustrate character traits.

The animal imagery isn’t just reserved for the children’s material; gigantic posters of the animals are plastered throughout the CTI headquarters, adjacent to posters featuring historical figures, such as Louisa May Alcott and Martin Luther King Jr., who, like the animals, are lauded for having displayed true character. (Little Women author Alcott, the poster explains, wrote to end her “monetary problems,” but never lost sight of her primary responsibility to take care of her extended family.) It’s not really about the animals

Chuck Coker is an authorized Character First! trainer. He is one of the first to start muddying the “secular” concept by mentioning that he engages in missionary work in the IBLP Moscow orphanage, among other locations. But Larry Rhoads, the executive director of Character First!, quickly brings the focus back to both business and the family. One story moves the audience to wild applause: He describes how he realized how important it was not to leave his dirty socks inside out before leaving them for his wife to wash, something he had apparently been doing for their entire married life. The true measure of character, as it’s repeated in mantra-like fashion, is what you do when no one is watching.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Dr. Joseph Ahne, another certified CTI trainer, decides to be upfront about everything on the last day of the conference, over a breakfast of pancakes and syrup eaten under poster-sized animals.

“They don’t tell you this here, but it’s all biblically based,” Dr. Ahne says. “They use the animals to illustrate the points that are all from the Bible. You see, it’s about becoming like Christ. Through teaching the character, we’re teaching people how to be like Christ. We could all use that.”

A former Methodist preacher, Dr. Ahne says that he has devoted his life to spreading the teachings of the IBLP and the IACC, which he translates into Korean. Every year, Ahne leaves his home in Chicago and spends five months in Korea, where he has a staff of six full-time employees. Ahne says that they have already reached 18,000 Koreans with a combination of character-based trainings. He explains that he has brought teenage boys to the United States for further education at the IBLP’s ALERT training ranch in Big Sandy, Texas—as well as sending teenage girls to the IACC in Oklahoma City for their own form of service training. Home-schooling, he adds, is one of the biggest emphases of IBLP worldwide because the organization prefers that young people never get exposed to the pernicious influences in the public school system.

“We use this,” he says, pointing to the Character First! binder in the middle of the table, “because we can’t take religion into schools and government. But it’s all based on the same thing.”

Gothard’s vision

Each of the 49 Character Qualities in CTI’s secular materials have their exact counterpart in IBLP materials. In books like Gothard’s Power of Kingdom Living and The Sevenfold Power of First-Century Churches and Homes, they are typically referred to as “The Laws of the Kingdom.”

The IBLP’s “blue book,” formally titled The Power for True Success, is carried around by many of the IACC officials. It explains the imperative for learning the 49 character qualities this way: “Character reveals the Lord Jesus Christ, since He is the full personification of all good character qualities.” It continues, “understanding character explains why things happen to us, because all things work together for good to conform us to the character of Christ.”

This book is now in the hands of most of the 1,200-strong Cincinnati police force, courtesy of a life insurance salesman and CTI cheerleader named Mike Daly who, along with Phil Heimlich, helped turn Cincinnati into a City of Character. The two worked hand-in-hand to implement the CTI training into nearly all facets of government and secondary education. During one of his trainings, Daly gifted curious officers with the religious books while telling them to become “apostles for character.”

In the blue book and other IBLP materials, the 49 character qualities take on a more strident and extremist tone. “Obedience” is defined as the “freedom to be creative under the protection of divinely appointed authorities. All legitimate authority comes from God. He is the One who sets up rulers and takes them down. … God ordained government to carry out his will in matters of justice.”

“Those who violate God’s laws are like citizens who commit crimes,” Gothard explains in Sevenfold Power. “They are still citizens, but they lose certain rights and privileges that they otherwise would have enjoyed.”

Apparently, sometimes the sinners and the criminals are one and the same. In recent years, IBLP has expanded into highly controversial religious juvenile boot camps and, most recently, into a partnership with the private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, which has announced its intent to bring the teachings to all of the prisons it owns.

To take but one example, the workbook materials distributed to the prisoners in the CCA-run Grants, New Mexico, women’s prison include a breakdown of “basic life principles,” including “Moral Purity,” “Yielding Rights” and “Proper Submission.”

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord,” reads one of the biblical selections. Emphasis is placed on “courting” rather than “dating;” on women obeying their husbands; avoiding the “addiction” of all forms of music except for those written and/or approved by the IBLP; preserving marriage at all costs; and on the need for Christians to respect, obey and submit to church and government. These institutions and their rulers, as the workbooks explain, exist because of God’s will.

Again, here is the fundamental premise: what the IBLP hopes will come of these myriad efforts on secular and religious fronts is a patriarchal, hierarchical Christian government that truly has no place for dissent, for disbelievers, or for those whose character qualities fall short of expectations. Government, from this viewpoint, is akin to the right hand of God: Nothing or no one should stand between the two entities, or question their right to rule over our lives.

“God ordained government to carry out His will in matters of justice. Rulers are to praise those who do well and punish those who do evil,” reads the IBLP’s Power for True Success. “Because civil authorities derive their power from God, they will be judged if they violate the Laws of God.” Church leaders, fathers and husbands, and even business leaders, are given nearly the same power in this conception of a well-ordered society: “Employees are to obey employers with wholehearted service.”

As Bill Burtness writes in a book sold in both the CTI’s bookstore and through the IBLP, The Third Alternative: Christian Self-Government, civil government is “an institution ordained and given by God … [and] Christians are the stewards of civil government as an aspect of their stewardship of society.”

It is worth noting that the IBLP is just one organization whose ideals fit within the broader Christian Reconstruction movement. But Gothard and the IBLP, unlike many of their fellow organizations, do not appear to be looking for Christian allies in their quest. On the secular front, they alone seem to have accomplished more toward their end goal than most of their Christian Reconstructionist contemporaries, and the profit-making aspects of this large-scale venture cannot be underestimated.

The strategy, in this sense, has proved to be ingenious. After all, who wants to argue with “character”? What kind of person would object to such an innocuous-sounding concept? Couldn’t we all benefit from having a bit more ethical character in the way that we conduct our day-to day-lives? Of course we could! And that’s precisely the reaction that both the IACC and the IBLP have bet on.

IBLP’s master plan appears to be well underway. That is, until inquiring minds finally begin to ask where, exactly, all of this is headed. What, pray tell, lies behind the smiling bears, elephants and zebras so ready and eager to deliver their character traits to you, your children and your community?

If they could talk, they might be able to tell you that all’s not well in the peaceable kingdom, no matter how innocent it might look at first glance.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times, an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of publications nationwide, including The Nation, Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. She is at work on a book about women in prison.

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