What Webster’s Wife Can’t Say About Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Skills

My apologies to those who received an announcement of this article in May 2015.  It is from 2010. 

“In today’s society, the father has not assumed his role of spiritual leadership. Thus, his discipline is without scriptural foundation; the mother has become dominant . . .” —Basic Youth Conflicts Syllabus [Notes on female submission from the program that provided corrective counseling for Josh Duggar after his sexual boundary violations.]

God's Hierarchy from 1974When congressman Alan Grayson launched an admittedly disingenuous Taliban Dan ad against Religious Right rival Dan Webster, Webster’s wife pooh-poohed the idea that her husband expects submission from her. As a dutiful wife, Sandy Webster can’t acknowledge that her husband is deeply ensconced in one of the most proudly authoritarian organizations in the country, where women are taught to be obedient and virtuous and to submit to the “servant leadership” of their husbands in an arrangement called “complementarianism.”

Webster is a thirty year student, teacher, and emissary for the Bill Gothard Institute of Basic Life Principles. He is quoted as saying “I respect (Gothard) as much as anybody.” When Webster made the remarks that Grayson quoted, he was addressing a group of men in a training aimed at establishing biblical hierarchy in the home: men submit to God; wives submit to God and men; children submit to all three.  Besides wifely submission, these trainings promote the idea that women shouldn’t work outside the home and they should have as many children as possible.  Children are subjected to strict authoritarianism including biblically sanctioned corporal punishment. Webster homeschooled his six children according to Gothard’s curriculum, and the Patriarchy movement’s best known family, the Duggars of TLC’s 14 Kids and Counting have similarly praised and used Gothard’s work.

Since the 1970’s, the Institute of Basic Life Principles (formerly Basic Youth Conflicts) has been running a highly successful program of training seminars that teach Gothard’s commandments for biblical living. (There are seven; it’s a more perfect number than ten.)  I had the misfortune of attending one of Gothard’s trainings as a teenager and can still evoke the visceral guilt that hung over my life during the seminar and for weeks afterwards.  Not only was I being taught as a female that I was to submit myself to God and men and Gothard’s “nonnegotiable principles”, but I also was expected to engage in a cult-like ritual of scouring my soul for minor sins (all major in God’s eyes) and confessing things like mean thoughts out loud to the people I had transgressed against so that I could obtain cleansing forgiveness.

Thousands, perhaps millions of women have been damaged by the rigid, puritanical, sexist dogmas that Gothard and Webster espouse.   One woman wrote about Gothard during her process of recovery from what is now being called Religious Trauma Syndrome.  She kept a journal about the seminar:

September 30th – Oct. 5th, 1974  

This was the week of Basic Youth. This was the week my life did a turn in the road. The first thing he talked about was rebellion. I was feeling so convicted I wanted to go through the floor. Then he talked about the chain of command and all the sudden I knew and wanted to be under an authority.

. . . The biggest battle for me in my new, born-again beliefs was sexuality and sexual desire. I became determined to “bring the flesh into submission” and thought of my body as an enemy to be conquered. Gothard was very clear that sex outside of marriage is sinful and unclean. He provided definitions for such words as concupiscence, lasciviousness, sensuality and fornication along with biblical verses, as he did with all his teachings, to back it up.

I think the teachings in this area, not only Gothard’s but discussions and bible studies within my circle of friends, is what did some of the worst damage to my early formation of beliefs These beliefs led to the progression of my unhappiness and eventual detachment with sexual intercourse during the religious years. I thought I was the worst of sinners. . . .

Writing and Healing: A personal journey of religious addiction and Spiritual abuse recovery –Goddard College – 2006

Or consider this comment at ReligiousDispatches.org by someone who identifies herself as a former Gothard follower:

I’ve been through Gothard’s seminar, both basic and advanced. My parents raised me on his materials, though we did not participate in ATI. It did very much damage: neither my brother nor I are currently speaking to them as they cannot accept that we are adults who are no longer under their control, and we do not wish to follow in their footsteps. It’s every bit as bad as portrayed and then some.

Cynthia Kunsman, who blogs at Freedom for Christian Women Coalition describes herself as a four year participant in a Gothard identified church.  She offers this analysis.

Gothard’s additional errors contribute to the overall harmful nature of his ideology. Because favor with God must be earned through works of submission, one must have a structure that requires submission. He misinterprets key Scriptures about authority, perceiving that the church and the family operate under a military-style, chain of command authority structure. Because one must work to accumulate this mystical substance of merit, mistreatment and abuse merely provide needed mechanisms for accumulating merit. Unless an authority requires a Christian to commit an overt sin, Gothard teaches that all authority must be obeyed at all costs.

. . .  Those who live at the top of the food chain fair well, but in the process of this chain of command/humility system, those who fall at the lower end of the hierarchy are required to submit and suffer all manner of injustice to improve their character and work God’s mystical and often indiscernible divine plan.

This is the philosophy and structure that Dan Webster has put at the center of his life for over thirty years.  Did Grayson take Webster’s words about submission out of context in his Taliban Dan ad?  That depends on whether context means sentence and paragraph, in which case the answer is yes, or whether it means values and actions.  I know which one I want to matter in D.C.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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12 Responses to What Webster’s Wife Can’t Say About Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Skills

  1. Fil Tribble says:

    Two clicks through to your references here, “Factcheck.org concludes. ‘But Grayson crosses the line when he uses manipulated video to cast Webster’s views in a false light.'”

    I am no fan of any use of the word Biblical, and I have seen authentic and mind-expanding good spirituality come out of the Christian context, but your blog post focuses on one facet of this incident that your own references refute as “out of context”.
    Please, Valerie, continue your tradition of thought-provoking, sensible critique but do not lower your bar to allow the Religious Right a free pass out of the critical eye. This post misses a great opportunity.


  2. Kristen Armstrong says:

    Oh man, V, I did read this one….when I saw “Bill Gothard” I was too curious to skip over it! Wow, this brought me back to two years of indoctrination with the BYC seminars, up at the Oakland Colliseum, attended with my mother and my siblings, and then I think a third year, of BYC II. Three summers in a row, or maybe it was two summers, with one of them being a 2-week stint. Then the poring over the syllabi afterwards, and trying to fit into what they were teaching.

    You know, this is the research that we need to be doing (we being psychologists with an understanding of religious teachings and practice): looking at the phenomenon of indoctrination, and what evolutionary processes and structures are at play here. Whether it’s ISIS or Orthodox Judaism or Conservative Christianity or out-there Buddhist and other sects, or whether it is Marxism or totalitarianisms of various sorts, there is some sort of common theme of authoritative teaching, a clear rubric/structure within which to place oneself, clarity about roles and functions, and a story line that pulls it all together in a somewhat meaningful whole. I can recall not liking many of the teachings, even as a junior high and young high school aged girl, but simply accepting that this was the way of things, and I’d best get my rebellious spirit into line if I wanted to be godly (and I did, very very much so).

    My parents’ harshness and authoritarianism were put on steroids by these seminars, I think. And oh, the damage they wreaked on our lives…all of us. I’ve just sent your post to my sisters, along with my recollections of Bill Gothard et al. My guts are pretty wrenched, still, even these decades later, to recall the confusion and pain these teachings engendered.

    I’m not following the political warmings-up to the next presidential race, but assume the interchange you mention to be related to such things heating up.

    Sending warm thoughts. Thank you for this post.


    Kristen Armstrong kristen@kristenarmstrong.com 707.363.6552


  3. Sha'Tara says:

    I had somehow lost my subscription, so here I am, back again, re-subscribed! After reading the above article, I can reiterate this: earth has a major problem, actually two. The first is the believed-in concept of the predator-prey. A “necessary” aspect of nature, so we are brainwashed to believe which I have proven to myself is utterly false. The second, which stems from the first, is misogyny. This is as blatant as a sore thumb, and needs addressing as of first importance since few people are knowledgeable enough to realize they need not be predators. Recently I had a discussion with a born-again evangelical Christian. The topic: God. God’s GENDER is MALE, and note: that is of first importance for these people: their god has to be a male. Following from that fiat: FAMILY VALUES. The FAMILY is the way to God, and God is the head of man as man is the head of the family. If you follow, that means that God – a MALE – is the totalitarian ruler over MAN – and in like fashion, MAN is the totalitarian ruler over the family. Looking into this from a deeper perspective, it is clear that this whole set-up has nothing to do with any divinities, real or imagined, but it has everything to do with a sociopathic need for one group – namely MEN – to completely dominate and mind-control another – WOMEN and CHILDREN. This basic set-up dictates how all the rest of man’s religio-politico-socio institutions operate. My discussion with this Christian showed me that this urgent necessity to be in control of his wife and children is nothing short of what is called ponerology. We are dealing here with a social sickness of mega proportioned that leads to mega global dysfunction. This belief system is the source of all wars and genocides; of all oppression, extortion, in short, all inhumane abusive conduct among Earthians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sha'Tara says:

      Thanks Richard, and thanks for pointing out, again(!) how your people managed to balance their presence among nature, never taking more than an area could manage, keeping enough space between clans so no one need prey on the other. You are correct in stating that it was the “circular” power sharing of the clan mother leadership that made this possible. So, then, if one believed in evolution re: the Earthian creature (I definitely do not since it makes absolutely no sense at all) then one would have to believe that because of (xxx) circumstances, different groupings of Earthians evolved with different sets of values and philosophies (or lack thereof) with the Mediterranean basin and Europe getting the short end of the stick: violent power mongers, exploiters, mass murderers who glorified war, terror, raping and looting – a mindset which sent itself across the oceans to pollute the entire planet in due time, destroying anything that made sense or lived in balance with the environment. Now the entire earth is infected with a disease I call the maggot mentality which is currently thriving because the earth is dying and the MM is feasting. Just a matter of time now before the maggots have nothing left to eat and they die. Then balance will be restored, if it takes tens of thousands of years. At this late stage and considering the more than volatile political/military situation on the planet, why mince words?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. richardzanesmith says:

    someday I hope sociologists will look a little closer and a little more seriously at our traditional Wendat and Iroquoian forms of society and government that existed for hundreds of years. I think people would be amazed at the gender balance of powers and the power a clanmother held in her village, her nation and confederacy of nations. Patriarchal governments are always top down.Matriarchal governments are circular and use the strengths of each gender ,more as the yin and yang understanding of energies. When the feminine is suppressed the world suffers.


  5. Lowell Bushey says:

    Wow! There haven’t been many comments regarding this article! Bummer, because sometimes I like to wait and see what others say.

    IMO, as a general rule, there are very few institutions more misogynistic and sexist than religious ones. Nonetheless, when I speak of fundamentalists as “crackpots who think they speak for God”, or talk of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, it generally strikes a negative note.

    Therein, IMO, lies the problem: Many, if not most, people have a benign attitude toward religion; they ignore the awful things said by by the founders of the major religions, and assume that things are somehow different, because it happens to be the 21st century.

    Lowell Bushey


  6. Lowell Bushey says:

    Thanks for the “heads up” on the You Tube video. I watched the first 58 minutes of it. Indeed it was interesting. It was fun watching the minister try to extricate her foot from her mouth regarding the Bible’s endorsement of slavery. It was also quite enlightening to watch the Historian’s account of what actually happened with regard to religion during the Revolutionary War.


  7. Allan Avery says:

    Ummm, Good Grief!! Thankfully, I simply missed out on most of the referenced (and alternate) religious damages. (My parents were small town school teachers in the1920’s and 30’s, where they attended church simply because you did so. Then in my early school years in the early ’40s they sent me off to “Sunday school;” likewise. Early on with that, (probably because I seemed either to be a lost cause; or maybe a specially good candidate), the SS teacher kept me after class one day, for special instruction. So, returning home I announced “I don’t want to go back there. Ever.” And that was OK with Mom and Dad.) Anyhows, either there or elsewhere, I also missed the “Predator/Prey” theory of human evolution. Which, with our big brains, I doubt we are bound by. Of course, Moneyed political power, our current scourge, could be considered our modern equivalent. And Yes, generally the “religions” that I’m aware of are hugely and cruelly misogynous, in myriad ways. Bad! Plus I admit to taking a long, long time growing into my current opinion that generally women are the “wiser” and thus generally the more capable of the genders among our species. Better!. Then, the above mentioned attraction of separated, smaller communities, self sufficient with their own “bounded” resources, as a mode for of avoiding conflict? I suspect that it was, and is, never to be. Naturally, and painfully, as so much of all life was and is. But let’s draw the lessons from the past that we can practically apply now. Much that’s fundamental seems foregone simple to me. Like hey, What’s the Meaning of Life? To continue it. What’s the Purpose of Life? Likewise, to survive and continue our Evolution. Well then How? Regrettably, all of the “means” are vastly complex. (Far more than we can currently fathom. with the current and future explosion of data. Imagine the manner of Human life, here, in 100 years?? Good luck.)
    We’ve likely a couple generations at most, before we have to evacuate Home Globe (and try to do better elsewhere?) So How Indeed? Here’s the Project. Build a world community comprising infinitely diverse citizens, all or nearly with the “necessities” of physical and psychic life; organized with considerable broad community compromise of behavioral values and standards, at some realizable level with cross-community acceptance. Meantime, while I and we all go on learning “what’s going on now,” at some point we have learn how to listen more, to understand unwelcome viewpoints, in order to negotiate and reach compatibility.


  8. Patti says:

    Personally, I found Bill Gothard and Basic Youth Conflicts very enlightening and I feel I gained 10 years of Christian growth in one seminar. I don’t understand what others are complaining about. If you want to complain about something, be brought up as a Catholic during the 1950’s onward. If people take Basic Youth instruction as bad, perhaps it is because you want your own way rather than what God’s says is His /the right way. We need to choose who/what we follow……..what we think is right, or what God does. I choose God, even though I have failed Him many times. I thank Him for saving me whenever I stray.


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