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all photos by Lisa Sorg DATELINE City of Obedient Character BY LISA SORG 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 munities 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-memine’ 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 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 14, 2006