The crafts store chain and its owners gave millions in backing to controversial evangelical Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles.
For a decade or so, Hobby Lobby and its owners, the Green family, have been generous benefactors of a Christian ministry that until recently was run by Bill Gothard, a controversial religious leader who has long promoted a strict and authoritarian version of Christianity. Gothard, a prominent champion of Christian home-schooling, has decried the evils of dating, rock music, and Cabbage Patch dolls; claimed public education teaches children “how to commit suicide” and undermines spirituality; contended that mental illness is merely “varying degrees of irresponsibility”; and urged wives to “submit to the leadership” of their husbands. Critics of Gothard have associated him with Christian Reconstructionism, an ultrafundamentalist movement that yearns for a theocracy, and accused him of running a cultlike organization. In March, he was pressured to resign from his ministry, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after being accused by more than 30 women of sexual harassment and molestation—a charge Gothard denies.
The Institute traces it origins to 1964, when Gothard designed a college seminar based on biblical principles to help teenagers. The ministry says it was established “for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ” and to give individuals, families, businesses, and governments “clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” The group, which operates what it calls “training centers” across the United States and abroad, says more than 2.5 million people have attended its paid events, which have brought in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Gothard and the Institute have drawn support from conservative politicians, including Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. The Duggar family, the stars of the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, have been high-profile advocates of Gothard’s home-schooling curriculum and seminars. (One of Gothard’s alleged victims has called on the Duggars to break with Gothard and the Institute.) Don Venoit, a conservative evangelical who has long been a critic of Gothard, contends that Gothard’s approach to Christian theology emphasizing obedience to authority creates a “culture of fear.” In 1984, Ronald Allen, now a professor of Bible exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, observed that Gothard’s teachings were “a parody of patriarchalism” and “the basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context.” He added, “Gothard has lost the biblical balance of the relationship between women and men as equals in relationship. His view is basically anti-woman.”
According to the 79-year-old Gothard, the Greens and Hobby Lobby—which this week won a landmark Supreme Court case with a decision ruling that the firm does not have to adhere to the Obamacare mandate requiring companies to cover contraception in their employee health plans—have supported the Institute in Basic Life Principles for 10 to 15 years, primarily by obtaining four or five facilities for the ministry. In 2001, the Greens, through a family trust, sold Gothard’s group a 2,250-acre campus in Big Sandy, Texas, for $10. The campus, which has a landing strip and aircraft hangar, now houses the Institute’s International ALERT Academy, a boot camp where young men train in disaster response techniques. The academy also runs a program for girls 15 and older. The website for that program notes that “skirts are required to encourage the girls to remain feminine in an active lifestyle.” The application—under the heading “mental health”—asks girls if they are struggling with “day dreaming,” “fantasy,” or “lustful thoughts.”
In 2000, Hobby Lobby donated a 529,717-square-foot building in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Gothard’s outfit. The company had purchased this property, a former Veterans Affairs building, two years earlier for $299,000. The Institute now runs a prison ministry out of this location, providing curriculum to a faith-based Arkansas Department of Corrections program known as Principles and Applications for Life. For about a decade, according to Gothard, the Institute leased the ground floor of the building for $1 per year to the Little Rock Police Department for use as its downtown station. Now, Gothard says, the police are paying a regular rental fee.