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Twelve Characteristics of Fundamentalist Societies that Shelter Sexual Abuse
How could he have fooled so many people, so thoroughly?
How did the abuse go on for so many years, unacknowledged?
Whenever a leader at this level is ousted or steps down, questions like these come to mind. In the wake of revelations of sexual harassment and abuse pouring in from survivors of Bill Gothard’s ministry, many of us are asking ourselves, “How could I not have seen this sooner?”
Though I was homeschooled, I personally was only ever on the fringe of the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). I had close friends who wore the long skirts and collared shirts, and for whom “quiverfull” and “courtship” were an engrained way of life. Fast forward through my studies at a small private Christian college, and my training as a professional counselor to the year in which I found work at a local rape crisis center and began to specialize in survivors of sexual trauma. I hadn’t thought of Bill Gothard or his ministry in years, until a Facebook post from Recovering Grace came up in my feed.
Though I hadn’t ever subscribed to Gothard’s message, it was still a shock to me that he was alleged to be guilty of sexual harassment. My parents had spoken with me about some of the things that were “off” about Gothard’s message, most notably that a single man had so much to say on marriage and child-rearing. But sexual abuse? That had never crossed my mind. But once I began to consider the issue in light of my experience working with survivors of sexual abuse, it all began to make a great deal of sense. The reality is that the essential nature of a fundamentalist society like “Gothardism” functions to shelter and sometimes even perpetuate sexual abuse. Characteristics that are basic to its existence are exactly the right breeding ground for sexual predators to thrive.
So why didn’t any of us see it sooner? The simple fact is that almost everything about the way the organization was structured kept abuses from coming to light.
Black and White Thinking
In Bill Gothard’s world, nothing is gray. A thing is either all good or all bad, from God or from Satan. There is no room for learning discernment and discrimination. In this world, a kiss before marriage is nearly the same level of sin as having multiple sexual partners, and a woman working outside the home cannot possibly also be a good mother.
In psychology, this phenomenon is called “splitting” and is a hallmark of borderline personality disorder. The typical borderline patient may come into her doctor or therapist’s office praising them and calling them a gift from heaven one day, and the next day may hate them completely and refuse to even speak to them. When I see all-or-nothing thinking in my counseling office, it’s one of the first things I make it a point to address, because it is extremely difficult for the person who thinks only in absolutes to achieve the recovery they seek.
The black and white thinker is constantly afraid of recrimination, or given to condemnation of self. Their goals are unrealistic and unachievable; they are set up for failure. When black and white thinkers are in leadership, all under them are subject to this roller coaster ride. The person who takes a position of even slightly questioning—such as reporting sexual misconduct—must be opposed and blacklisted immediately. In this kind of environment, few hear from those who have experienced abuse. Instead, these dissenters are silently edged out of the group before anyone has the chance to consider the truth of their position.
Surrender of Decision-Making
The famous “umbrella of protection” provides an effective example of the way of life approved by Gothard and his followers. You are not supposed to be making your own choices; that is up to the person in charge of you. Gothard is famous for the totalitarian level of prescriptive control he exerts over his followers. There are prescriptions for proper marital abstinence, the way to apply cosmetics, how to run the household, and how to create a grocery list. There is almost no situation in which you are not specifically instructed to use a Gothard-style teaching as opposed to your own individual decision-making process.
This creates a situation in which people are literally programmed to respond with conformity, especially young people, who may have never been taught how to think for themselves. Inappropriate behavior by Bill Gothard or Gothard leadership? There isn’t anything in the Wisdom Booklets about that. So what can a young woman do? When your only resource is leadership, and the leadership is at fault, where can you turn?
Many more learned than I have better explained the many hermeneutic problems with Bill Gothard’s teachings. But if I can attempt to summarize, one of the major problems is a tendency to use unrelated facts as the “proof” needed to unequivocally pass judgment.
A great example of this is in the Recovering Grace blog article, Judging 101. ATI students were instructed, as part of their educational curriculum, to write down assumptions they could make about individuals they saw exiting a grocery store, based on those individuals’ outward appearances. Apparently, we are supposed to judge a book by its cover.
Anecdotal evidence is as good as any other in this system, as long as it conforms to the party line. When critical thinking is discarded in favor of how well a position agrees with an idealized standard, anyone who doesn’t fit in with that mentality will not be given credence. Who’s going to listen to the person reporting wrong behavior when anyone can simply declare that he or she has malicious intent? Without an objective standard, it just becomes your word against theirs.
False Projection of Objectivity
The fact that Bill Gothard’s teachings are subjective is made doubly destructive by the fact that, though they are based on one man’s opinions, they are presented as being taken straight from the Bible. The IBLP “What We Do” page states, “The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) was established for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ, and is dedicated to giving individuals, families, churches, schools, communities, governments, and businesses clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” [Emphasis mine.] The lack of objectivity in Gothard’s teachings is hidden by the overt declaration of Scriptural basis.
To illustrate further, let me give a potential contrast. Though this article written today is in an IBLP-like 12-point format, it is based on my opinion and experience working with sexual assault survivors. I do not pretend to be objective in any way. In contrast, Mr. Gothard’s explanation of the 49 character qualities is presented as fact, when in reality, it is an interpretation of Scripture based on Mr. Gothard’s own lens. Some of these interpretations might be good, but they are not objective fact.
I am a mental health therapist and my husband is studying to be a medical doctor. It is important to both of us that our patients always understand we are fallible human beings who have joined professions in which we share our experience and training so that the individual can make their most informed decision. When people in leadership, like doctors, therapists, and pastors, do not practice this kind of self-disclosure, people are apt to defer to their opinions at their own peril.
It’s called the authority bias, and it’s one of many cognitive biases that our brains use as shortcuts to help sort through the many, many decisions we’re asked to make on a daily basis. If they’re wearing a white coat, a police uniform, or standing behind a pulpit, our brain automatically wants to trust them, because we’re taught that those in authority have our best interests at heart. When that is not the case, many people end up doubting the non-authority in favor of the authority. For the survivor of abuse, that means that he or she suffers from being on the wrong end of the authority bias.
The message of Bill Gothard could be characterized as, the world is full of sin and therefore a good Christian must separate from it. The emphasis on the evils of rock music, television, and higher education are just a few examples of potentially innocuous cultural realities that are wholeheartedly rejected by those who follow his teachings.
But when a group cuts itself off from the culture around them, they lose perspective and potentially helpful outside resources. As a result, no one trusts outside support services like Child Protective Services, the police, and state-sponsored sexual assault response centers. The only people they have to go to are those who are aligned with the abuser.
Sadly, every female who has been even loosely involved with a fundamentalist society understands immediately what I mean if I say the words, “eye trap,” or talk about “causing a brother to stumble.” From a young age, conservative Christian women have been taught that it is mostly our fault if a man lusts after us.
It has been just this year, after almost five years of marriage, that my husband has looked over my outfit and said, “That looks like a shirt with a normal neckline. You would have never worn that a few years ago.” To my shock, I realized he was right. Due to one incident in my homeschool group when I was 14 or 15, I had been ashamed and self-conscious of my body throughout my teenage years and into young adulthood. I still remember the pretty, striped, square-neck sweater I was wearing when our group leader pulled me aside and said that I was causing boys to think inappropriate thoughts by what I was wearing. I felt so ashamed that day as I buttoned up my coat to my neck despite the heat. I was grateful for it. If I hadn’t had my coat with me, I would have been required to wear a giant baggy t-shirt they had on hand for just this purpose, effectively branding me as a rule-breaker and temptress to the rest of my classmates.
Again, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood that, at that age, boys are going to think about that topic all the time. It wasn’t until I was practicing as a therapist that I realized why the concept of personal responsibility was so important. When you blame one person for another’s actions, you are effectively setting them up to fail. There’s no way to control another person’s choices. It can’t be done. So the shame spiral in the person blamed never ceases, and the person being “caused” to sin blissfully goes on, absolved of the consequences of their choices.
Now, in my case, I have no doubt that those teenage boys in my homeschool group had no idea of how I was supposedly tempting them. They were used to shame me into conformity without their knowledge, because honestly, their knowledge wasn’t needed. When the concept of borrowed responsibility is introduced to a sensitive personality, no additional push is needed. The self-blame will perpetuate on its own.
Sexual abuse survivors are, as a group, one of the most susceptible to blaming themselves for the choices of another. I still remember when a client of mine, who was sexually abused by her biological father, confessed that she blamed herself for being a pretty child, as if a four- or five-year-old was capable of seductive behavior. In my work with survivors, I’ve found that survivors come in all shapes and sizes, all levels of attractiveness, and all ages, from infants to the elderly. There is no characteristic about a survivor that is to blame for sexual abuse being perpetrated upon them. But if you take that tendency to self-blame in survivors and add it to a milieu of borrowed responsibility like Gothard’s ministry? You have a recipe for shame, self-recrimination, and hiding the truth. Gothard’s leadership functioned to shelter ongoing sexual abuse because those who were victimized knew they could potentially be blamed for another’s wrong behavior.
Purity as a Behavioral Concept
Is purity something you inwardly have, or something you attain by external characteristics? Though I have no doubt Gothard would claim the former, I would argue that his actions and the actions of those under his authority lead to the latter conclusion. The emphasis in his teachings on courtship demonstrate a legalistic bent that is not a shock to any graduate of his programs. If you flip on TLC at any time this month, you will see the awkward promos for 19 Kids and Counting on the subject of Jessa Duggar’s courtship with Ben Seewald. Most cringe-worthy is when father Jim Bob point-blank asks the young couple where they draw the physical lines. Is it kissing? Holding hands? Side-hugs? While actions give us clues to our inward thoughts, they are not exact manifestations of our inner state. For example, in this culture, kissing before marriage is practically a kind of prostitution, “giving pieces of your heart away.” But it’s simply not that simple to link behavior with your inner state.
For example, one common way to deal with past sexual violence for women is to seek out further sexual partners or participate in dangerous sexual behavior. Yet to call that action to “promiscuity” would be extremely reductionistic. In reality, sexual violence survivors may take on unsafe sexual behavior as a way to try to control past abuse memories by making new ones, or to feel in power because they are haunted by past feelings of extreme powerlessness. This is usually not healthy behavior, but it is not the same as simply being “promiscuous.”
When purity is a matter of body parts rather than a matter of the heart, those who have been sexually victimized will want to hide or minimize what they went through because to admit it is to immediately be soiled. In a world where you cannot hold hands with the one you might even marry because it invites sexual thoughts, how can you begin to share with others your experience of a spiritual leader putting his hands on you?
Fundamentalist societies tend emphasize hierarchy of authority, with the older or male person serving as the authority over the younger or female person. The “umbrella of protection” is Gothard’s illustration of this hierarchy. Violating this principle is compared to being “worldly” and inviting disaster into your life. The umbrella of protection, however, ends up protecting abusers better than it protects those vulnerable to abuse. In the article “When Asking “Why” Does Not Bring Answers,” Lisa shares how her fear of being disobedient kept her from telling her mother about her grandfather’s abuse.
All who participated in ATI & IBLP-affiliated programs were aware of the taboo of violating the chain-of-command. The chain-of-command dictates a worldview in which leadership is not earned, but given by divine right. This means if the leadership errs, you are not to correct him or her, or get yourself to safety, but to continue to submit in order that your leaders see the error of their ways and correct themselves.
Let me make an entirely subjective statement from experience: Sexual abusers do not self-correct. While they may make changes to their lives given correction and accountability, I have never heard of an abuser that chose for themselves to change until acted on by an outside force. That being the case from my perspective, I see chain-of-command as a scenario in which people already hurt by abuse continue to be abused, while one man at the top continues to hold power without accountability. That is yet another way that fundamentalist societies, despite their intention to protect, can shelter sexual abuse.
Worship of Tradition
When I was younger, I found it simply annoying that so many homeschooled folks seemed to feel that anything that was older was necessarily better. It was odd to me that things like old movies, old books, old ways of dressing, and traditional hymns rather than modern music seemed to take precedence over anything developed since 1960. With the perspective of adulthood, I find it dangerous to dismiss wholesale the developments of a modern age in favor of something from a bygone era. It is assumed in most fundamentalist societies, and certainly in Bill Gothard’s, that the old ways are better.
The problem with elevating tradition is a combination of black and white thinking and cultural isolation. When you ignore anything newly developed, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater and protecting yourself from a potentially helpful development. I understand and respect those who wish to be in charge of their own children’s sexual education. I do too, when the time comes. But there are quality educational materials out there that don’t teach “sex ed” per se, but teach how to protect yourself from sexual predators. The “Good Touch, Bad Touch,” curriculum is one such program, teaching young children in age-appropriate ways how to distinguish a hug or a pat on the back from someone touching them in inappropriate places.
While I will never support any interpretation of abuse that blames the victim, it has become clear to me that if more young children and teens knew the words for what was happening to them and how to approach an adult with this information, more abuse could be avoided. I doubt that this kind of curriculum would even be encountered in Bill Gothard’s world, because of the cultural isolation of living in the past. Please correct me if I’m wrong on this account, but so far in my research on Gothard’s teachings I have seen only omission or unhealthy information related to sexual abuse.
The perception of the past is that “things like this just didn’t happen then,” which is part of the rationale for living in that era. But it’s not true that abuse didn’t happen, it just wasn’t talked about, which is exactly what happened during the abuses that allegedly occurred at the hands of Bill Gothard. It happened. But nobody talked about it. That’s the danger of elevating the past without thoughtful discrimination.
Rhema. Courtship. Defrauding. Wisdom searches.
Each society, to some degree, develops its own language. These languages develop for a purpose: to bond a group and to better communicate within the group. This can be harmless, or used with the purpose to obfuscate a true meaning and disempower individuals. Proverbs 17:9 [AMP] states, “He who covers and forgives an offense seeks love, but he who repeats or harps on a matter separates even close friends.” Under the special language of Gothardism, this passage comes to mean that “slander” is redefined as “Telling the truth with a design to hurt.” As anyone with a passing amount of legal knowledge can assert (and my knowledge is merely passing, I assure you) a charge of slander can only be pursued if the statement is known to be a lie. This twisting of the definition produces the disgusting result of someone who expresses abuse allegations being transformed into a slanderer with malicious intent. There’s no allowance for the other meanings of reporting abuse: desire to protect others, desire to help the abuser correct his or her behavior. It’s simply slandering, or “false report.” I could have overlooked it, but at least from my research I’ve never seen a word in the Gothard special language for “telling the truth in love.”
Special language, like all language, is designed to aid communication. But when necessary words are deliberately left out, the result is that communication is shut down, hiding the truth. In this case, that is another characteristic that ends up sheltering sexual abuse.
Denial of the Individual
In fundamentalist societies, the corporate body is both preferred and promoted. Selflessness (perhaps because of black and white thinking) is something that must be practiced at all costs, even when it perpetuates abuse. When the individual asserts his or her own needs, it’s not considered standing up for themselves, it’s considered selfishness. This is how women continue to feel the need to bear more children after a doctor or multiple miscarriages clearly indicate that it is time for some kind of sensible end to childbearing. It can result in scenarios in which older children in large broods of kids lose any desire to raise children on their own, having already been worn out by raising their brothers and sisters.
And of course most pertinent to this discussion is the result of extreme selflessness as it relates to sexual abuse. In this scenario, one’s own needs for justice or personal safety do not seem anywhere near as important as protecting the image of the community as a whole. And in some cases, abusers can use the perspective of subjugating oneself as justification for enacting their own perverted “needs.” Outside of a fundamentalist group, my clients have reported that their abusers whispered in their ear that if they didn’t submit to the abuse, the abuser might be “forced” to prey on a beloved sibling or friend. The individual that is victimized is thereby convinced that their sacrifice protects another. While selflessness if practiced in moderation is an extremely worthwhile value, when not balanced by protecting basic needs of safety, it can easily be used to shelter abusers.
Formulaic Response to All Problems
In Gothard’s world, there is a numbered solution to every problem, and it is presented as full and complete. To contrast once again, my 12 characteristics today are not in any way meant to be construed as a complete set of characteristics. For all I know there could be 13 characteristics or 37! And I’m okay with that, because I don’t think I have all the answers.
However, Gothard’s position couldn’t be more clearly opposed to that. He writes on his website about the seven basic life principles: “Every problem in life can be traced to seven non-optional principles found in the Bible. Every person, regardless of culture, background, religion, education, or social status, must either follow these principles or experience the consequences of violating them.” [Editor's note: the quoted language was recently removed from the current Seven Basic Life Principles page on billgothard.com, but the archived version can still be viewed here.] On page 13 of the One Accord Manual, it states that you should recruit members to your team with the question, “If you could receive training that would guarantee success in your life, family and finances, would you be committed to learning it?”
Here’s the problem with living life by a formula: you’re deceived into thinking that by doing so, you are safe from all problems. I have seen—repeatedly—how people can literally do everything “right” and still be hurt by life. The Recovering Grace article “How the Teachings of Emotional Purity and Courtship Damage Healthy Relationships,” explains how it is taught “1 + 1= 2. Emotional purity + Biblical courtship = Godly marriage. But life doesn’t work that way. ” And in the series “Courtship Promised to Protect Me,” Joy shares her heartbreaking story of how the rule of courtship failed to protect her from hurt.
This false feeling of safety is one of the worst perpetuators of sexual abuse and harassment, because it assumes that “it can’t happen here.” The reality is that you can be doing everything according to the ATI or IBLP formula and still suffer sexual abuse. But no one will know, or no one will believe, because if you’re living by the rules, how could such a thing happen?
What to Take Away
I wrote this article for two reasons, though only one was clear to me from the beginning. The first reason is to help survivors free themselves from self-blame based on their responses to the abuse. Individual sexual predators routinely demonstrate “grooming” behaviors towards their intended child victims. These are actions designed to break down the intended victim’s defenses and resistance, such as isolating them from their families, giving them gifts, making them feel special, testing their ability to “keep secrets.” The characteristics I have described here today are simply an example of grooming at a higher level.
You would not blame a lonely child for responding to grooming behaviors; it is natural for those behaviors to mislead. Yet most sexual abuse survivors, and certainly many within the Gothard community, will blame themselves for not seeing what was happening to them sooner or for somehow acting in a way that allowed the abuse to continue. This article was written to encourage you to set yourself free from that kind of self-blame.
No matter what you or anyone else did or said, only the abuser and those who deliberately overlooked the abuse are at fault. As a member of Bill Gothard’s organization, you were involved in an environment that provided a shelter for abuse. I don’t assume that that was the intention, but that was how it ended up. You could not have seen it coming.
Whether you reported and were not believed, did not report and/or hid the abuse, felt that you in some way participated in the abuse, or blamed yourself for any other reason, you need to know this: You were not at fault, and you did nothing to deserve this.
My second reason, which I didn’t realize until my second pass through the article draft, was to encourage fundamentalist thinkers to set up protection for survivors within their societies. Whether you are a church or homeschool leader, mother or father, or even still operating within the Gothard community, you can take a stand to protect children and others from sexual predators.
I have absolutely no doubt that the majority of IBLP and ATI leadership did not want to shelter abusers in any way. They got into fundamentalism for the same reason as many others, in a search for the right way of life for themselves and their families. But through simple ignorance of the methods abusers use, they may have sheltered abuse by accident.
No one is born knowing how to protect yourself from sexual abuse, or how to protect your children. But you can learn. Here are some simple suggestions to help anyone involved in a fundamentalist society group protect their members from sexual predators.
- Educate your children from a young age to understand that their body is their own, and no one else is allowed to touch them in a way that makes them feel dirty or bad. If you do not feel that outside material on safe touching is appropriate for them to read, create your own.
- Create a safe line of communication with children and young people you shepherd, letting them know that if they ever come to you with a story about abusive behaviors, you will believe them and investigate what they told you.
- Teach yourselves and your children that there is a difference in purity of heart and someone else violating your body. Children at least up until the age of 13 or so only understand morality in black and white terms and may not understand that someone else’s choices are not their responsibility.
- Create a special language of your own for positive concepts like “telling the truth to protect.”
- Take the opportunity to educate those in your group and your family about “special situations” in which the rules don’t apply the way they normally do.
- Mothers especially, model a balance of humility and self-respect for your children. Even something as simple as taking time for something you need for your emotional health could plant the seed in your daughters that it is okay to meet your own needs.
- Consciously educate on the topic of personal responsibility, and don’t make your children apologize for something that they aren’t responsible for.
Above all, practice grace! Even if you have very high standards for lifestyles that you find appropriate, there is never a need to shame another person. Never. Correcting behavior is far different than shaming the soul. There is hope and there is healing. If you were hurt by a group structure that sheltered abuse, you can change the future and become a part of the solution.