At 9 o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning in mid-May, about 40 parents, students, and community dignitaries lined up behind a banner that said, “Burleson: A City of Character.” Led by a high school drum corps and a one-car police escort, they paraded down the empty streets of a downtown residential neighborhood. It was fitting that the annual March for Kids and Character began at First Baptist Church and ended at a parking lot near City Hall. For all its secular posturing, the Character City program is based on authoritarian, fundamentalist Christianity with ties to an evangelical organization. And it’s seeping into government, law enforcement, public schools, businesses, and nearly every facet of Burleson civic life.
“Burleson heralded as city of character,” boasted the headline in the April 28, 1999, edition of the Burleson Star, the town’s newspaper. The City Council, school board, Chamber of Commerce, and Ministerial Alliance Auxiliary had signed a resolution making Burleson a City of Character. “I do think it’s a religious deal, and I’m not afraid to say it,” Jeff Turner, then-superintendent of the Burleson school district, was quoted as saying.
Based in Oklahoma City, the International Association of Character Cities (IACC) has designated 13 communities in Texas and more than 200 worldwide. Many are Character Cities in name only, passing symbolic resolutions and hanging a plaque on the wall, but many Burleson city and community leaders follow the program to the letter. Based on the “Character First!” school curriculum, the training materials emphasize 49 character traits ranging from alertness to obedience to wisdom. A character trait is highlighted each month, whether in a bulletin distributed in government offices, as a topic at special character employee meetings, or as instructional time in school classrooms. Employers are encouraged to hire, promote, and even fire workers based on character.
“A lot of this was taught to us when we were kids, but society is drifting away from it,” says F.A. Schad, an associate character trainer and member of Burleson’s Character Council. A Navy veteran and retiree, Schad teaches the Character program for free, charging only for the instructional materials, ranging from $12 for the hardback book to $1 for the Character pocket guide. Full-fledged Character trainers charge for their services, but according to the IACC, fees vary. Businesses with 100 to 200 employees can pay $4,000 to $5,000 a year for the training; schools pay $120 to $135 annually per classroom.
“We have a character problem,” Schad says. “It’s a generational thing, an ‘I-me- mine’ mentality.”
The IACC feeds into the Christian Reconstructionist nostalgic notion that if America could rebuild as a Christian nation on biblical principles, then social ills could be cured. Although the IACC strategically dodges the separation of church and state issue by eliminating explicit references to Christianity or religion, the character traits, while on their face innocuous guides to good behavior, have fundamentalist overtones.
“These are biblical principles,” acknowledges Steven Menzel, director of the IACC. “Character qualities set standards of morality and ethics, which has been hands-off for many years. Communities are finding out that being hands-off isn’t going that well.”
Former Mayor Byron Black is among those who signed the 1999 resolution. An ardent supporter of the program, Black acknowledges that its character traits are “Bible-based,” but says they can apply to Christians and non-Christians. At a recent meeting of the Character Council, Burleson’s moral rudder that meets monthly at City Hall, Black said, “If there are religious aspects, that’s OK. Governor Bush stressed character in the schools, and he can’t be wrong.”
The IACC was established in 1998 as a division of the Character Training Institute, a subsidiary of the Institute of Basic Life Principles, a religious organization with $80 million in assets led by evangelist Bill Gothard. The IACC generates about $1.7 million in revenue annually from the sales of training materials, and conference and speaking fees. Although it is now legally and fiscally separate from the Illinois-based institute, IACC founder Tom Hill, CEO of oil and gas company Kimray Inc., sits on the institute’s advisory board, as does San Antonio millionaire and ultraconservative James Leininger, who spreads his considerable financial largesse among right-wing political candidates. [See, “Wrath of the Soccer Moms,” March 24, 2006.] U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, a Republican from the Texas 3rd District, is the chairman of the board of directors; he twice recognized Gothard and the institute on the House floor and entered his hallelujahs into the Congressional Record.
Menzel says the IACC’s motive to build communities and families is open and earnest: “There are people who assume there is a hidden agenda to infiltrate governments. We’re not going to subvert or overtake anything.”
Except perhaps the Constitution. While Burleson’s Character City certificate is emblazoned with a pledge that reads in part, “I will always uphold the Constitution,” City Councilman Stuart Gillaspie, who also sits on the Character Council and is the son of Lighthouse Church Pastor Gloria Gillaspie [see “The Passion of Johnson County,” May 21, 2004] says the modern courts have misconstrued the document, which Christian Reconstructionists interpret to mean the state can’t interfere with religion, not vice versa. “There is no such thing as separation of church and state,” Gillaspie says.
“That’s taking a page out of Christian right rhetoric,” counters Jeremy Leaming, spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the federal courts have cited that metaphor, and it’s been upheld by the courts, even by judges appointed by Republicans.”
For citizens to enjoy freedom of religion, they must also have the option to have freedom from religion. Any attempts to unite church and state, such as publicly stating that character traits are biblically based, could set up Burleson for a lawsuit. Although the city hasn’t directly funded any Character First! programs, such statements, Leaming says, “undermine their position that it is a secular project.”
Mayor Ken Shetter, who won his second two-year term in May, is more circumspect. He disagrees with Gillaspie, whom he defeated by 24 votes in the 2004 mayoral race. Shetter says that the Character City program wasn’t an issue in the contest, but that separation of church and state was. Shetter ran newspaper ads announcing his support for the constitutional principle, while Gillaspie rallied his base around opposition to it.
“It is the city’s position that we will honor and abide by the law of separation of church and state,” Shetter says. “The Supreme Court has clearly interpreted that, and it is required by the First Amendment.”
That’s not Shetter’s only issue with the Character program. While he supports raising awareness of accountability in government, he is bothered by the way Character First! defines certain character traits—particularly obedience.
Obedience figures largely in the Character materials. In the book, How to Build Character as a Family, obedience is mentioned no less than 10 times in a 68-page discussion of character traits, and is described as a protective force. Security: “I will look to my authorities for protection.” Flexibility: “I will respect the decisions of my authorities.” Honor: “I will obey cheerfully.” Justice: “I will respect the authority of the law.” Loyalty: “I will not mock authorities.” Obedience: “I will obey my authorities immediately.” Enthusiasm: “Not only does enthusiasm brighten the face and give light to the eyes, but it also acts as a natural medicine that builds strong and thick bones.”
Each character trait also has an opposite. The opposite of obedience is willfulness, which Shetter says might be desirable for some employees. “I don’t want a city manager who will do whatever City Council says,” he says. “And if I hire a finance director in charge of auditing, I want someone with a degree of willfulness.”
Despite the authoritarian tone of the training materials, Menzel contends “we’re not trying to dictate what morals or ethics are. If a community says, we don’t want to talk about obedience, then don’t. We’re not hitting people over the head with character two-by-fours.”
Character trainer Schad, who served a term as a justice of the peace, teaches the program to court-referred truant students and their parents, who can take the class instead of paying a fine. “When I was a JP, it was a shock to me to see the students didn’t honor their parents or the school authorities,” Schad says. “We don’t teach blind obedience. We teach them how to appeal to authority, about punishment and forgiveness, and how to get them under the protection of authority.”
The emphasis on obedience echoes that of the institute, which demands that wives be submissive to their husbands, and women, in general, assume passive roles. Institute materials used in New Mexico’s women’s prisons prompted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit, to sue the state and Corrections Corp. of America. In institute workbooks, says foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, “even if authority is wrong or corrupt, it says you must obey it and let God deal with the authority.”
Honoring and obeying authority is “an important biblical concept,” Gillaspie says. If supervisors were to ask employees to violate their morals, “then you take that to a higher authority, but always do it respectfully.” Ultimately, he says, employees must be obedient to God.
However, neither the institute nor the IACC has always practiced what it preaches. A sex scandal involving Gothard’s brother and a female staff member rocked the institute in the 1980s. In Indianapolis, parents alleged their children had been spanked, restrained, and put in “prayer isolation” at an institute-sponsored facility for troubled youth, though city investigators later said the allegations were unfounded.
Arizona State Treasurer David Petersen, a Republican, has been under criminal investigation for allegedly receiving $4,000 in commissions for selling Character First! curricula to public schools and misusing state property to push the Character program. (File under Generosity: “carefully managing my resources so I can freely give to those in need.”)
These missteps haven’t deterred Burleson’s Character Council, which has formed a nonprofit foundation under the Chamber of Commerce so it can solicit donations. United Cooperative Services, a publicly owned electricity distributor, recently donated $1,300 to the council for a law enforcement character series, including one video produced by the institute. The council is ramping up efforts to involve more businesses and promote character training through its adult education program, which Schad acknowledges “has yet to catch on with the public. The community hasn’t been sold.”
It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the Character program. The goals set out in the mission statement include raising voter participation, but according to the Burleson Star, only 1.99 percent of registered voters turned out for May’s mayoral and council election.
Some Burleson residents are even holding the Character City designation against city government. During a recent meeting at which city leaders were considering annexing outlying areas, angry citizens countered the city’s proposal by saying, “If you were of good character, you wouldn’t annex us.”
Shetter isn’t dismissing the program, but he says it’s not the government’s role to legislate character: “You shouldn’t assume you can solve all your problems and be the perfect city on a hill just by promoting good character.”
Lisa Sorg is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and the former editor of the San Antonio Current.