Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) is running as the alternative to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House. He also has a decades-long affiliation with the Institute in Basic Life Principles, the controversial ministry whose founder, Bill Gothard, resigned last year after more than 30 women accused him of sexual harassment. As TPM reported earlier this month, IBLP subjected young followers to victim-blaming “counseling” for rape, as well as grueling work schedules at its facilities for little or no pay, requiring women to engage in gendered tasks that included scrubbing carpets on their hands and knees.
Webster’s association with IBLP and its homeschooling program, the Advanced Training Institute, made national headlines when he first ran for Congress in 2010. Alan Grayson, the firebrand incumbent Democrat, criticized Webster, who had served 28 years in the Florida legislature, in an ad characterizing him as “Taliban Dan.” The ad showed clips from a Webster speech to an IBLP conference during which he spoke of a biblical command that wives submit to their husbands. Webster, who went on to win the election, insisted the clips were taken out of context.
But IBLP’s teaching on wifely submission is just the tip of the iceberg of the ministry’s authoritarian ideology, which includes opposition to, among other things, public education, “humanistic” laws, contraception, and even rock music. Despite downplaying his adherence to a core Gothard teaching, Webster has been, as a 1997 St. Petersburg Times article put it, “an enthusiastic supporter” of IBLP.
Webster’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In a 2003 speech at an IBLP conference, “Discover the True Qualities of Leadership,” Webster boasted of how he diligently conducts both his private and public life according to the “commitments” he made to the principles he learned at IBLP seminars. By his own account in the speech, and according to statements in ATI newsletters, Webster began his affiliation with IBLP when he attended a seminar for legislators at IBLP’s Northwoods Conference Center in Watersmeet, Michigan, in 1984. A few months later, Webster said during the speech, he attended an IBLP “basic seminar” in Tampa, Florida. His family later joined ATI, and his wife homeschooled their six children with the curriculum. (Webster’s first legislative achievement in Florida was a bill legalizing homeschooling, which became law in 1985.)
In the 2003 speech, Webster said he “made every commitment” Gothard asked of attendees at his seminars. “I raised my hand every time, because it absolutely changed my life,” Webster said.
The thinking of the organization that Webster joined in the mid-1980s is laid out in the nearly 400 pages of the 1986 textbook for IBLP’s “advanced seminar,” which is required for parents who want to enroll their families in ATI. The textbook, which parents were also encouraged to consult in educating their children, provides advice on things like “conquering” the “sin” of masturbation. It dictates that, as the Alan Grayson attack ad highlighted, “the wife is to submit to the husband in order not to blaspheme God’s word” and that “equal authority” in a marriage is “Satan’s goal.” Applying IBLP’s “principles” to law and policy, the textbook reads, “laws legislate morality, either God’s or man’s. God’s laws promote life; humanistic laws promote death.” It cites Roe v. Wade as being based on “humanistic reasoning.”
While IBLP is vehemently anti-abortion, its teachings against contraception are even more striking, given Webster’s support for defunding Planned Parenthood and the Republican threat to condition government funding on it. The Advanced Training textbook warns against the use of any birth control, claiming that God “assigns a special woe” to those who use it, including “the physical, psychological, and spiritual destruction of modern birth control methods.” It encourages reversals of tubal ligations and vasectomies, claiming both cause long-term health problems and interfere with “God’s planning.”
In a booklet on birth control and infertility, published in 1994, IBLP advised “barren” couples to engage in a “Levitical” time of abstinence during and after the woman’s period, which would ensure that the man “would have the optimal amount of seed available at the woman’s most fertile time.” (In fact, research has shown that abstinence makes no difference for men with normal sperm counts, and can actually impair sperm mobility for men with low sperm counts.) It also recommended, to counteract infertility, removing “occult objects and rock music from their homes” because “the rock beat originated in voodoo worship” and that the backbeat “produces an addictive tension.”
The booklet also claimed that intrauterine devices and birth control pills cause abortions. Even if they didn’t, the booklet goes on, these methods are still unacceptable because they are in conflict with God, “who is the author of life” and “who is in control of the womb.” The text then warns of the lessons from God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Despite these unsubstantiated assertions, IBLP represents its teachings as superior to what one would learn in college. In a January 1988 newsletter from ATI (then called the Advanced Training Institute of America), Webster, who at the time served in the Florida House, was advertised as teaching a communications seminar for the ATIA. The same newsletter advised that a father who “does not have any goals for the education of his sons and daughters” will “tend to abandon his responsibilities to a four-year program which is usually infiltrated with humanistic presuppositions.” In contrast, ATIA’s program is described as providing “character and skills [that] are far more valuable in the job market and the ministry than simply having a college diploma.”
Webster has claimed that the “Hedge of Thorns” prayer he learned at the legislative seminar has protected him, his family, and his congressional district from Satan. A 1990 ATI newsletter also describes how Webster “began to pray in the name and through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, that God would rebuke Satan and all his principalities from any evil attack in his district.” Webster and his family were featured in a 2002 newsletter, which described how he “looked to the Lord for a campaign plan, studying the Scriptures in Psalms and Proverbs that relate to leadership and government.” He continued to speak at IBLP seminars, including in 2007 and 2010. A former ATI member recalled Gothard inviting the entire Webster family to the stage at the 2007 Nashville conference, declaring, “Wouldn’t it be great to one day have a President Webster?” That, she said, was met with “loud applause.”
Despite scrutiny over the years that culminated in Gothard’s 2014 resignation and declining enrollments, IBLP continues to keep committed families, including Webster’s, under its wing. One of Webster’s sons, John, married Alyssa Bates, daughter of IBLP board member Gil Bates, patriarch of another mega-family and friends of the Duggars, which has its own reality television show on the UpTV network. Another son, Jordan, met his future wife, Olivia Fredrickson, while both were working at IBLP headquarters, according to the couple’s blog.
In May 2014, two months after Gothard resigned from IBLP, Josh Duggar—who a year later would himself be embroiled in a sex abuse scandal—spoke at an IBLP conference in Nashville. Duggar, who at the time was the executive director of Family Research Council Action, lamented Congressional gridlock but acknowledged the presence of an ally at the conference.
“I know Congressman Webster is here,” said Duggar. “We know that our duty is to do what God has given us to do. We have to leave the results up to Him.”
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. Her reporting and commentary on religion and politics has also appeared in the Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, Politico, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Nation, and many other publications. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.