One of the lessons for today is obedience, and the first graders at the school inside the First Christian Church building in Fort Lauderdale sing about it quite obediently.
While the students at the Charter School of Excellence are divided fairly evenly between blacks and whites, they dress alike, with the boys in dark blue pants and green buttoned-up golf shirts and the girls in white blouses under plaid jumpers. All eyes are focused on their teacher, Mrs. Blocker, who leads them in song:
Obedience is listening attentively,
Obedience will take instructions joyfully,
Obedience heeds wishes of authorities,
Obedience will follow orders instantly.
For when I am busy at my work or play,
And someone calls my name, I'll answer right away!
I'll be ready with a smile to go the extra mile
As soon as I can say "Yes, sir!" "Yes ma'am!
Hup, two, three!"
While singing about obedience and orderliness, they march in place, stand up straight and occasionally salute in unison, giving the class a slightly militaristic feel. The boys and girls are indeed in a war of sorts: They stand on the front lines of an ideological battle -- popularly known as the culture war -- for the souls of America's children.
The lesson they are learning this morning has nothing to do with math or science or history; it's about values, about morality, about set ways of how to conduct oneself. In addition to instantly obeying authority, the students are to be grateful for the chance to follow orders ("I will show appreciation/ To my authorities/ I will write them notes of gratefulness/ For all they've done for me"). They also are taught to "guard my eyes, ears, words and thoughts," and are ordered to "abstain from anything which might damage or pollute my mind or body."
The curriculum is called "Character First!" and has more ties to religion than the fact that it's being taught inside a church building. Character First! is published by Character Training Institute (CTI) in Oklahoma City, which itself is an offshoot of the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The Chicago-based IBLP is the brainchild of a 64-year-old evangelical Christian guru named Bill Gothard, who boasts some 2.5 million "alumni" of his Bible-based seminars, and he promises to give the world a "new approach to life." The Character First! curriculum is directly based on Gothard's teachings -- but with overt references to God and Christianity edited out.
It is also the prototype for a form of instruction proposed as a requirement in all of Florida's public schools.
Gothard has been accused by fellow Christians of everything from misinterpreting the Bible to ignoring spousal abuse to being a borderline cult leader. According to materials Gothard has published, his more radical ideas come from his belief in a "chain of command," which holds that authority figures -- from preachers to politicians to middle managers -- are put in their elevated positions by God, and are therefore to be obeyed. Gothard doesn't focus on the Ten Commandments -- he teaches his seven "universal, non-optional Principles of Life," and he extends those principles to what food to eat, what clothes to wear, what music to play; the "backbeat" common in rock music is evil, according to his teachings, as are chords played in the minor key, which is a subversion of God's harmony.
Follow the rules, go to Heaven. Break them, and Satan will get a foothold on your soul.
Gothard disdains "knowledge," which he says only "puffs up a man," in favor of the more abstract "wisdom." "The reasoning of man will bring destruction," he tells people during seminars. To guard his followers from the evils of public schools, Gothard sells his own brand of Bible-based home-schooling. He also has his own unaccredited law school and college where his unique brand of Christianity is taught.
Two years ago CTI embarked on the Character First! campaign to bring Gothard's beliefs into public schools. It might be assumed that Gothard's views would place him firmly on the outer fringes. Not so. Character First! has been taught in more than 250 public schools across the country, according to CTI's representatives.
State Rep. Tracy Stafford and Sen. Howard Forman, both Democrats from Broward County, have introduced bills that would force every public elementary school in the state to teach Character First! -- which is mentioned by name in their bills -- or, as the bill vaguely puts it, a program "similar" to it. The cost: $5 million to $7 million dollars in tax money. A bill encouraging the use of Character First! in public schools passed unanimously last year in the Legislature. If that is any indication, then a Character First! bill will likely land on the desk of Gov. Jeb Bush, who, according to a spokeswoman, would support the bill. Indeed, Bush is implementing Character First! into his own charter school in Dade County.
Bush and the two legislators were introduced to Character First! by Hamilton C. Forman (no relation to Howard), the millionaire patriarch of a family that has, more than any other, shaped Broward County. Forman, a devout Christian who made his fortune in land speculation and has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns during the past half-century, founded the Charter School of Excellence, which receives some $800,000 in state tax dollars annually, and is the man behind Florida's Character First! legislation. "I'm building a prototype," Forman says. "When I get through, I intend to make it available to every city. I'll say, ‘Here it is -- all you have to do is add students, teachers and money.'"
Teachers at Forman's Charter School of Excellence say Character First! has been a success and has helped to bring good behavior and discipline into the classrooms. "The word obedient, they just know what that means," says first-grade teacher Blocker, who spends about two hours a week teaching Character First! "They really get into it. I could just look at them and ask, ‘Are you being attentive?' and they'd know what to do."
David Clark, the spokesman for the 65,000-member Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, says he's not against values-training in public schools but adds that "extremists must not take over that agenda." An extremist is exactly what Bill Gothard seems to be, he says.
"A lot of these things `in Character First!` hit you wrong as it relates to the understanding and appreciation of tolerance and issues of diversity in our culture," says Clark from his Tallahassee office. "We are suspicious and leery of those types of things. This is not Mao's China. It sounds innocent on its face, but it smacks of thought police and a lock-step mentality."
To pass the time on one of his numerous drives to the state capital, Rep. Stafford listened to a tape of Bill Bennett's "Book of Virtues," a bestseller full of fables. Stafford is the first to say that he and Bennett, the former secretary of education and "drug czar" under presidents Reagan and Bush, have little in common, but the fables, he says, took him back to his boyhood, when the world seemed simpler and better.
"The stories were familiar to me," he says. "And it seemed to me that they had been lost somewhere. I don't know that what we are exposed to as children is the sole determinator of what kind of adult we will become, but we do know that they are exposed to pretty rough video games, R-rated movies and very little parental supervision.
It was Bennett who pushed the idea of a "culture war" in the early '90s. While writing of the "cultural elite" pushing smut, violence and a left-wing agenda on the American public, he also led the charge to bring character training back to public schools. Dozens of character-training curricula have been developed during the past decade. Orange County Public Schools launched a pilot program in character education last year; the Seminole County Public Schools' program, begun in 1992, has become such a strong model that Seminole founded and will host the second annual Florida Character Education Conference later this month to share its success.
Bennett has his own set of educational tapes for children based on his "Book of Virtues." One of the most popular programs is "Character Counts!," which is also named in Stafford's bill. (Seminole County reviewed both Character First! and Character Counts! before devising its own program; Orange County also created its own and, like the Seminole program, allows for great classroom flexibility in stressing themes such as fairness, respect and responsibility.) Hamilton Forman says he had Character Counts! put into the bills because he thought having a second choice would help get the bill passed. But he doesn't much like Character Counts!, a program that lacks the authoritarian nature of Character First! and wasn't designed by a minister. Rather than obedience, for instance, Character Counts! touts "citizenship."
In recent years, several Southern states have passed bills encouraging some form of character training. Georgia already mandates it.
Stafford -- who has received at least $2,750 in contributions from Hamilton Forman -- and Howard Forman are liberal Democrats and unlikely promoters of Gothard's program. Both say they championed the idea because Hamilton Forman asked them to do it. Neither politician, it turns out, really knew where the programs came from when they introduced the bills, which would take effect July 1 if passed. Asked about Gothard, both Stafford and Forman are stumped; they've never heard of him and didn't know that the man behind Character First! is an evangelical minister. Told about Gothard's emphasis on the "chain of command," Stafford immediately recognizes the danger in such teachings. "I can see how that could lead to a continuation of child abuse," he says.
Howard Forman now says he doesn't believe Character First! should be put in Florida's public schools. "I never heard of Gothard, and I think his ideas sound kind of screwy," Forman says. "I don't support the kind of character training where people sing songs about discipline. I don't support religious extremists of any kind."
Clark, the teachers' union spokesman, says it's imperative that Gothard be investigated before any of his programs become adopted by the state's schools. "Whenever you look at a message, it pays to look at the messenger," he says.
At Titusville's Park Avenue Baptist Church, about 60 people are doing just that. Gothard the messenger isn't here, but a video image of his talking head is displayed on two large screens in the austere room. Husbands and wives, children, and single men and women are in attendance, all looking for an answer.
Hundreds of IBLP seminars are held each year across the United States and around the world. Gothard boasts that his brand of ministry has reached Singapore, Taiwan, Russia, South Korea, New Zealand and Mexico. Each new seminar attendee in Titusville had to pay $60 to enter Gothard's world. The seminars last 32 hours and are spread over six days. Afterward Gothard has plenty of books -- one of them called the "Men's Manual," which he forbids women to buy -- and tapes to sell. Gothard doesn't regularly attend his seminars and rarely updates the videotapes, so he doesn't grow old on the seminar circuit: His black hair shows no gray, his big squarish face remains unwrinkled.
With a calm and rapid delivery, Gothard gets right to business, not even bothering to introduce himself. While he pontificates, his disciples scribble his words in their IBLP seminar workbooks. A third screen flashes diagrams and charts to help them on their way to promised peace and happiness.
According to IBLP pamphlets, Gothard, who has a habit of unconditionally labeling things either right or wrong, began ministering in high school in reaction to his classmates' "wrong decisions." He spent years ministering to youth gangs before developing the seminar in 1964. Gothard has never been married and has lived most of his life with his parents. His institute was rocked by scandal back in 1980 when it was discovered that his brother, who helped create IBLP, was having sex with a half-dozen of Gothard's female employees, according to news accounts. Both Gothard and his brother resigned, but Gothard soon came back to his ministry, and it has since grown enormously.
Gothard's seminar is focused on his seven principles: design, authority, responsibility, suffering, ownership, freedom and success. Violating the rules will lead, he says, to a "life of continuous failure." But if the rules are followed, wealth will likely follow, and bad habits will be broken.
Several times throughout the seminar he mentions "wrong clothes" and says that when a teen-ager is wearing them it means he or she has deep spiritual problems. Same with rock music. Teens are told not to date but instead to "court," a process by which "two fathers agree to work with a qualified young man to win the daughter for marriage."
Gothard teaches in his seminars that obedience brings godliness. Authority figures -- the father, the politician, the minister, the boss -- are to be obeyed as if Christ were giving the orders. Gothard's ideas of family life are rigid, as wives are taught to be submissive and men are encouraged to be the absolute head of the household. Quotes from the Bible are used as back up to his assertions. The biblical justification for always being subservient to the boss comes from 1 Peter 2:18: "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear." Authority figures, according to Gothard, are on a higher spiritual plain than ordinary folk, and obeying them will help one get closer to God. He tells his followers that they are to obey everything, except orders to do "evil." If your boss is dead wrong, Gothard says it's OK to make a "Godly appeal" to him, but if the appeal is refused, the worker must live with it.
As far as "wrathful" parents, Gothard teaches that they serve to develop character in children: "God even works through the wrath of parents to reveal character deficiencies in the son or daughter to develop additional character strengths or to reflect healing."
A number of ministers and theologians have found defects in Gothard's teachings. Christian scholar and psychologist James Alsdurf wrote a book in the late '80s about domestic violence among churchgoers and came to a conclusion: Bill Gothard's teachings can lead to a continuation of domestic violence. Gothard is "a good example of how a segment of the church deals with this issue," Alsdurf told The Washington Post. "What he does is totally dismiss it as an issue by saying there are no victims."
Darrell Bock, a professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, says he's uncomfortable with Gothard stressing authority and hierarchy without tempering it with "Christ-like" qualities. "His view is, ‘I'm right about what Scripture says, and it's not me saying it, it's God, and we need to be obedient,'" Bock says.
Baptist pastor G. Richard Fisher wrote in a published article called "The Cultic Leanings of Bill Gothard's Teachings" that Gothard has a habit of "legislating, directing and regulating just about every phase of life." Some of Gothard's rules that Fisher, a former enthusiastic follower of Gothard, and others have noted:
Married couples are never to divorce for any reason, including adultery.
Adult children are told not to leave home or get married without parental consent.
Married couples must abstain from sex at the following times: during the wife's menstrual cycle; seven days after the cycle; 40 days after the birth of a son; 80 days after the birth of a daughter; and the evening prior to worship. Gothard claims that periodic abstinence will help produce healthier children, can cure infections and decrease "the danger of genetic abnormalities."
Married women aren't to work outside the home.
Borrowing money or buying on credit is forbidden.
Listening to rock, even Christian rock, is wrong.
Gothard even has rules on selecting makeup, preparing shopping lists, planning meals, picking dental plans, and choosing hairstyles and vacation spots. Followers have said in published reports that he bans televisions in homes that buy his home-schooling program and that his ministry denounces almost every book but the Bible.
Adopted children, Gothard teaches, carry the sins of their biological parents with them. According to Fisher, Gothard wrote a letter to his followers in 1986 warning them of the evils of Cabbage Patch Dolls, which were very popular then. The dolls, which are "adopted" by their buyers in a written contract, caused strange, destructive behavior, according to the letter.
"It gets very, very weird," Fisher says. "And these people who follow him are frightened to death that they might break one of his rules."
Some churches have been divided by devout Gothardites who use the seminar book -- commonly called "The Big Red Book" -- more than the Bible. John Miller, a Christian website author, knows all too well about the divisiveness among Christians that Gothard's teachings sometimes cause. Miller went to a basic seminar in 1991 and "absolutely loved it," he wrote in an article titled "Bill Gothard: How His Teachings Will Put You Into the Bondage of Legalism." Miller finally had answers: "I was having problems at work, and Mr. Gothard pointed out that I had failed to submit to the authority of my boss and work the 80 hours a week he demanded. ... I wasn't making quite as much money as I thought I should, and Mr. Gothard attributed it all to a loan that I had taken out and I was receiving God's chastening for violating His principles. ... `T`rouble in some classes ... was because I had gone to public school and listened to rock music while doing so. Marital problems, chalk that up to rebellious music, television and failing to follow God's plan of courtship."
Eventually Miller changed his mind and decided Gothard does more harm than good. He says Gothard's teachings "poisoned" his church in Baton Rouge, La., when a Gothard family left the church because Miller played the drums in the choir and they considered it the devil's music. "He doesn't strike me as a Jim Jones-type character, overtly going after power," Miller says. "He's incredibly sincere. ... But it's his followers. I've heard some say that he's a modern apostle along the lines of Paul, able to tell what God's will is better than anyone else. Does Gothard say that? I don't think so, but his followers do."
In a letter to followers, titled "A Note From Bill," Gothard states his imperialistic goals:
"Now, more than ever before, God has placed you and me in a position where we can turn the tide of American history. The message of the Basic Seminar is being looked to by a growing number of judges, mayors, governors, and international leaders as the only answer to youth crime and family breakdown. ‘We have no answers,' these leaders say."
If Gothard's ambitions sound grandiose, so are his achievements. He's built a Christian empire worth, according to published reports, more than $30 million. And he mixes religion with government almost seamlessly. The symbol of his Institute of Basic Life Principles, for instance, is a bald eagle perched over a Bible. Gothard runs institutes in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Indianapolis and other cities around the world. In Michigan he owns a paramilitary retreat called Northwoods, where he teaches boys the fine arts of emergency management -- a venture that's done little to quell rumors that Gothard is a cult leader.
Gothard's crusade for character training began not in schools but in the workplace. The first Gothard-based character-training program began at a company in Oklahoma City called Kimray Inc., which produces valves for oil wells. Kimray is owned by a man named Garman Kimmell, who bought a $1 million hotel in downtown Oklahoma City for Gothard to begin what has become CTI, the institute that developed Character First!
Numerous requests for an interview with Gothard -- who is known to avoid the media -- were denied, but his secretary said that Gothard told her to say he isn't part of the Character Training Institute anymore. It's a baffling assertion, as the director of the Character First! program, Kent Fahrenbruck, an IBLP member himself, and other CTI staffers say Gothard has the ultimate say over Character First! In addition Gothard actively promotes Character First! in cities across the country and promotes the program in his IBLP pamphlets. The IBLP, in fact, runs the International Association of Character Cities, which promotes Character First!
Regardless of who is running CTI, Character First! is firmly rooted in Gothard's basic seminar. The nine "basic character traits" of Character First! were plucked from the seminar's "positive qualities" and taught with their opposites: Attentiveness vs. Unconcern, Gratefulness vs. Unthankfulness, Forgiveness vs. Rejection, Obedience vs. Willfulness, Truthfulness vs. Deception, Orderliness vs. Disorganization, Generosity vs. Stinginess, Sincerity vs. Hypocrisy, and Virtue vs. Impurity.
The curriculum is taught with recitations, songs, stories, crafts and games. Each lesson includes historically dubious fables about Abraham Lincoln. In the lesson on attentiveness, the kids learn that "Abe didn't slouch in his chair or sit with his feet propped up on his desk. He sat straight in his chair, leaning toward the person who was talking." In the lesson on forgiveness, we learn that "Abe responded with kindness toward the ones who had fought against his armies," a dubious generalization if ever there were one. We learn he also showed forgiveness when he was attacked by a band of escaping slaves who feared capture.
With each trait comes a little mantra, called an "I Will." The "I Wills" for virtue include, "I will abstain from anything which might damage or pollute my body or mind." Another "I Will" for virtue is a variation of the Golden Rule: "I will treat others as I would want them to treat me." The song for forgiveness contains the most blatant biblical reference. In it the kids sing, "I will turn the other cheek." The songs are sung every morning at the Charter School of Excellence, right after the Pledge of Allegiance.
Character First!, says Barry Weinstein, a rabbi in Baton Rouge who was appointed by the mayor of that city to sit on a Character First! steering committee, seems to be teaching blind obedience. "We all know that following orders in some situations is not the ethical thing to do," Weinstein explains. "Example: Nazi Germany. Example: My Lai. Another example is when an abusing spouse orders the other spouse to do bad things. Or in the case of an abusive parent. There are times where it would be wrong to take orders."
Still, nowhere have Gothard's teachings taken deeper roots than in Baton Rouge, which touts itself as a Character First! city. Mayor Tom Ed McHugh and the administrator of its anti-drug campaign, Robert Gaston, have developed "Character First! Baton Rouge," wherein all government employees and police officers are trained in Character First!, and it is encouraged in public schools and the area's businesses. The city advertises Character First! on the radio, television and billboards.
Other cities that use Character First! as training include Compton, Calif.; Little Rock, Ark.; Temple, Texas; and McDonough, Ga. In Indianapolis, juvenile delinquents are given a choice: Go to Gothard or go to jail. "We take what we can from Bill Gothard," says Gaston, a former deputy superintendent of Louisiana public schools. "It's our goal to touch everybody in Baton Rouge with Character First! -- at work, in school, in the home. This is not a religious program, though if a group wants to make it a church program, they are welcome to. We don't stress the religious part of it."
Gaston and McHugh are spreading Gothard's word at mayors' conferences around the country. "Soon we will have spoken to over 500 mayors, and Mr. Gothard is a part of those presentations," says Gaston.
Rabbi Weinstein is curious to know more about Gothard. He says Character First! has had a positive impact on his city, as long as it is toned down in parts. But when told about the Florida bills to force schools to teach Character First! or a program like it, Weinstein says it's a bad idea.
"I wouldn't legislate it," he says. "Encourage it, maybe. But I don't think it's smart to legislate character."
Legislating character is precisely what Hamilton Forman, who stands in his fifth-floor office suite in the Port Everglades administration building, is determined to do.
Human bones carved into knives, an old human skull with designs artfully carved in it, and meticulous figures cut from stone are part of the magnificent clutter on the shelves lining the mirrored walls of Forman's office. Forman, who'll turn 80 on April 3, has collected these things during his travels. "The Lord has blessed me with beautiful things," he says, sitting in a carved-wood chair from Thailand. "Now, I'm afraid I don't have much time."
He wears a brightly colored tropical print shirt, unbuttoned down to his chest, showing golden necklaces. But Forman isn't a gaudy man, just supremely confident. During the past half-century, he's controlled huge tracts of land and developments. He's run the North Broward Hospital District. He started Nova University. And he's made millions in the process.
"I just told `Stafford` if he introduced it, I'd pass it," Forman says, in his rather thin patrician voice. Asked why he's determined to get Character First! into the schools of Florida (and the nation), he expounds on the current state of public schools. "Today you can pick up any newspaper and you see anarchy in our schools," he says. "The teachers are under attack. They can't teach. There is no respect for authority."
He picks up the curriculum and leafs through it.
"Look at this: ‘generosity.' Now, what's wrong with generosity? Being generous is good. Here you have ‘gratefulness.' I've always said that being grateful unlocks the doors of Heaven and Earth." When it comes to "orderliness," he smiles and throws up his hands. "As you can see, I'm not orderly. I'm cluttered. I need to learn that lesson. Every so often I get it orderly, and it's much nicer that way," he says before getting back to the traits. "How can you argue against virtue vs. impurity? ... Who wants a liar? ... You've got to be sincere."
He doesn't see anything wrong with the authoritarian stance of Character First! and believes drilling kids to obey instantly is just what they need. "That's the problem -- we've got complete freedom and nobody listens to anybody anymore."
Forman does concede, after cajoling, that there may be a problem with teaching absolute submission to authority. But it would be a problem for only "1 percent" of the students. He says he expected some criticism from teachers' unions, as some teachers are "too damn lazy to do anything. They don't want anyone to tell them what to do."
As for the fact that it's the work of a radical evangelical minister, Forman said he's met Gothard, went to his seminar about 15 years ago, and thought he taught a lot of "good stuff."
"I don't believe in Bill Gothard," he says. "I'm a believer in what he did here `with Character First!`. ... I'm a believer in God. ... I don't believe we're cosmic accidents. I believe somebody employed a design."
That is what Forman is doing: Employing a new design for the social engineering of the state's children. Forman believes Character First! will save the nation.
"The bill," he assures, "is going to pass."