I often hear Christians dismiss Bill Gothard and his teachings as legalistic, fundamentalist, bizarre, and dangerous. Rightly so, especially in the wake of his alleged sexual misconduct. But many of these same Christians support Hobby Lobby or the Duggars for their “Christian values”, perhaps not realizing how closely they are connected to Bill Gothard.
This week, I’ve heard Christians hailing Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court win as a victory for religious freedom. It’s a narrative of good Christian business people going up against the bullying of a tyrannical government — and winning.
Throughout this all, I’ve heard one phrase over and over again: “sincerely held religious beliefs”
I’m not going to wade into the issues of constitutional law or religious liberty involved in this case; others have addressed those points better than I ever could. But I do want to talk about those “sincerely held religious beliefs”.
Hobby Lobby & Bill Gothard
Following this week’s Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby, Mother Jones published a piece detailing the connection between the Green family and Bill Gothard. Though they are not the first to make this connection (Heresy in the Heartland reported on it last year and Sarah Jones wrote about it back in March), I was surprised to see just how deep the connection was:
– Through various trusts and corporations, the Green family / Hobby Lobby donated millions of dollars worth of real estate to the Gothard organization beginning in 2000. This includes the Little Rock Training Center, the Nashville Training Center, the New Zealand Training Center, and the Big Sandy Campus.
– David Green (Founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby) is listed on Amazon as an endorser of Gothard’s 2010 work The Amazing Way.
– In 2009, Steve Green (President of Hobby Lobby and son of David Green) shared the stage with Bill Gothard at the Big Sandy Regional Conference. In 2012, he was listed alongside Gothard as a speaker at the Business Leaders Seminar, held at the IBLP Headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Steve Green is also a featured speaker on Gothard’s online Embassy Institute.
– In 2009, Bill Gothard was invited by David Green to speak to Hobby Lobby employees and distribute IBLP materials to employees at one of their retail locations.
– According to Bill Gothard, the Greens are “friends” and their support of IBLP “really helps with the bottom line.” (via Mother Jones)
The relationship between the Hobby Lobby owners and Bill Gothard is not limited to a few donations nearly fifteen years ago. By all accounts, it is a reciprocal partnership that has continued until very recently and may well continue today. The Green family are supporters who have tremendously advanced the reach and success of Gothard’s “ministry”, and Gothard’s teachings have influenced the Greens (by their own testimony) at both a personal and business level.
Certainly, there is nothing to indicate that the Greens had any knowledge of Gothard’s alleged sexual misconduct stretching back nearly three decades; to imply that they are somehow guilty by association would be unfair. However, it is not only Gothard’s private actions that are troubling, but his very public teachings and interpretations of the Scripture. It’s these teachings that the Greens appear to gratefully accept and generously support.
These Religious Beliefs
At the heart of the Supreme Court decision is the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of the Green family. As Justice Alito stated:
“We must decide in these cases whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permits the United States Department of Health and Human Services to demand that three closely held corporations provide health-insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies’ owners.”
And what are these sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies’ owners? According to a 2012 statement from Hobby Lobby founder and CEO David Green:
“The Health and Human Services “preventative services” mandate forces businesses to provide the “morning-after” and the “week-after” pills in our health insurance plans. These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith, and our family is now being forced to choose between following the laws of the land that we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful and have supported our family and thousands of our employees and their families.”
This is the same David Green who, in an endorsement for Bill Gothard’s The Amazing Way (pub. 2010), stated:
“Through the example and teachings of Bill Gothard and the Institute in Basic Life Principles, we have benefited both as a family and in our business. It is as we take those lessons from God’s Word that Bill clearly articulates that we live the full life that God intends.”
Is it possible, then, that the Green’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” that they went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend were directly influenced by “the example and teachings of Bill Gothard”?
According to Gothard, the Greens became involved in his “ministry” after their family attended one of his seminars. In addition to teachings on finances, relationships, and religious practice, the Gothard seminars include detailed teachings on sexual and reproductive practice. For example, Gothard teaches that Christians must follow the Levitical law regarding uncleanness and abstinence:
(If you spend much time at all around Gothard’s teachings, you’ll notice a common theme of teaching that Christians must follow Levitical law while simultaneously dodging all criticisms of legalism.)
Gothard goes on to say that concern about finances is a “selfish reason for not having children” (pg. 197) and that Satan is attacking the “hidden design of marriage fruitfulness” because Satan’s goal is “pleasure without responsibility” (pg. 189). He also describes “fear of pregnancy” as “unhealthy and unscriptural” (pg. 181) and states that “God assigns a special woe to those who reverse His pronouncements” by using contraception (pg. 181).
Then he says:
“There is no question that many birth control methods and devices simply kill the conceived child. Chief among these is the IUD. It comes as a shock to many couples, however, that taking the pill also results in aborting a conceived child.”
(It should be noted that the latest research regarding the function of both “the pill” and the IUD is significantly at odds with Gothard’s claims, which are based on research from the mid-70’s. His assertion that birth control can cause abortions is also extremely questionable.)
So when the founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby cites “the teachings of Bill Gothard” as influential in how they run their business, and when these teachings are notably similar to the “sincerely held religious beliefs” that the Green family took to the Supreme Court, the connection is worth noting. Whether the Green family’s beliefs were shaped by Gothard or whether they chose to support Gothard because their beliefs were already closely aligned, the relationship — and the shared ideas — are troubling.
Let’s Talk About the Duggars
As a high-profile Christian homeschooling family and popular reality TV stars, the Duggars are literally poster children for Bill Gothard.
Like the supporters of Hobby Lobby, Christians who would never endorse Bill Gothard or his teachings will happily support the Duggars as they live out those same teachings on television. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
Gothard engineered a machine to produce families that appear perfect, well-behaved children with pasted-on smiles. The Duggars may be wonderful, kind, sincere people, but the system of which they are a part is toxic. There’s nothing charming about that.
Unsurprisingly, the Duggar’s sincerely held religious beliefs regarding contraceptives are similar to those of both the Green family and Bill Gothard. On their website, they relate the following story behind their decision to have so many children:
“Between her second and third month, Michelle miscarried. When the doctor told us the miscarriage probably happened because she had conceived while still on the pill, we were devastated. To us, it meant that something we had chosen to do—use the pill—had caused the end of the pregnancy. As conservative Christians, we believe every life is sacred, even the life of the unborn. Due to our lack of knowledge, we destroyed the precious life of our unborn child.”
They go on to share “The Hidden Message of the Lost Pearl”, saying that it had a “tremendous impact on us after experiencing our miscarriage“. And this story about the Lost Pearl? It’s from Gothard’s Advanced Seminar Textbook, just a few pages past his teachings on how “guilt comes by discovering that abortions were unknowingly committed”.
It is tragic that the Duggars were “tremendously impacted” by Gothard’s shame-based teaching in the vulnerable time after their miscarriage. It seems that this guilt and shame have been the motivation driving them to seek absolution by giving birth to nineteen more kids (and counting).
Why It Matters
Millions of people of faith object to various forms of contraception on religious grounds, so does it matter that the Green family, the Duggar family, and Bill Gothard share some of these objections? I believe it does. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. And Bill Gothard’s ideas have had a demonstrably harmful effect on his followers.
Thirty years ago, the “sincerely held religious beliefs” that Bill Gothard taught in his seminars were being criticized by even conservative Christians. After attending a seminar in the 1980’s, Ronald Allen (Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Western Baptist Seminary) warned:
“Given Gothard’s low view of the body and his repressed views of human sexuality, it is not surprising that he neglects entirely the Song of Solomon with its beautiful eroticism and its delight in human sexuality.
If ever there were a reason for a women’s movement in the evangelical church — this is it. This… is a parody of patriarchalism.
Lost is all concept of mutual submission and inter-relatedness of wife and husband which the Bible truly presents; instead there is the basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context.
Women are stripped of dignity other than that which they have in their husband; children are to be broken; the husband is to be permitted tyranny over the grin-and-bear-it little woman. Gothard has lost the biblical balance of the relationship between women and men as equals in relationship.
His view is basically anti-woman.”
So why does it matter? Because the Duggar family listened to these anti-woman views and have gone on to become the poster family for conservative Christian homeschooling. The Green family attended Gothard’s seminar, which included these anti-woman views, and decided that this was a “ministry” that they would generously support for the next fifteen years. Now they’ve won a Supreme Court case that is also being described as “anti-woman” as well.
Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Bill Gothard’s repressed view of human sexuality and his oppressive teaching on the role of women are damaging to those who follow them, whether those views are received directly from Gothard himself or diluted and passed along second-hand from his supporters. True Christian values should affirm the worth and freedom and humanity of women, rather than burdening them with sexual shame and narrow, patriarchal gender roles.
“The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”
This is why it matters. Bill Gothard’s “selfish ends” have come to light, and his manipulative, shaming, victim-blaming teachings are being exposed for the evil that they are. But many of those same teachings have a way of seeping into broader Evangelicalism where sincere, well-meaning Christians support them as “Biblical values”.
Of course, none of this should have been taken into account by the Supreme Court in their ruling on the Hobby Lobby case. It’s not up to the State to determine the validity of one’s “sincerely held religious beliefs”; the charitable donations and affiliations of the Green family should have no bearing on the SCOTUS decision.
However, we as Christians are not exempt from this same diligence. When the ideological underpinnings of those “sincerely held religious beliefs” share significant common ground with Bill Gothard’s chauvinistic, patriarchal, anti-woman teachings, we’d do well to consider whether they are truly “Christian values” worthy of our support.
Poison Flows Downstream
I’ve seen the effects of Bill Gothard’s teachings. I drank his poison; I shared it with others.
I’ve seen families destroyed by shame, guilt, manipulation, and every sort of abuse – physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. I’ve watched as many from the generation that was supposed to change the world spiraled out of control, into sexual addictions, substance abuse, self harm.
I’ve listened to the stories of the once bright-eyed youth who now speak of crippling shame, fear, and regret decades later. Contrary to everything he promised, the teachings of Bill Gothard did not produce a generation of miraculously godly families and spiritually strong young people. They produced broken families and spiritually crippled adults.
So when these toxic teachings of Bill Gothard are promoted by folks who have become mascots of American Christianity, I am deeply concerned. Where many Christians see “sincerely held religious beliefs”, I see poison. Where many see charming old-timey family values, I see a cult-like system of abusive and authoritarian beliefs.
I’m not suggesting that those who agree with the Hobby Lobby decision are in agreement with Gothard. I don’t believe that those who maintain religious objections to certain contraceptives are anti-woman or abusive (though I do believe they may be misinformed). I’m not writing this to shame the Duggars or the Greens for their values or convictions.
But I’ve seen what Bill Gothard is selling, and it’s not good. I’m tired of seeing Christians buying the same poison wrapped up with a bow and sold in a craft store or on reality TV.