Oct 11th, 2021, 11:38 PM

American Cult Survivor Shares Her Experience

By Jacob Shropshire
Red upholstered pews are seen from the front of a church.
Image credit: Unsplash/Andrew Seaman
A feature on the dangers of toxic religion in the Institute in Basic Life Principles.

Elizabeth Hunter largely grew up immersed in religious fundamentalism. From when she was adopted at the age of 9 until she was 18, she spent hours every day reading the Bible, working through an extensive religious homeschooling program, and doing devotionals with her family. She regularly woke up at 6 a.m. in the morning and never went to sleep after 9 p.m. at night. Her house did not have a TV and she was not allowed to listen to any music other than non-contemporary Christian music.

"It was very boring," she said, "it was a very boring life."

Hunter was part of the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a fundamentalist Christian organization created in the '60s by Bill Gothard. IBLP was established, according to its website, "For the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ." It holds seminars, hosts educational programs, and provides printed literature to families homeschooling their children through the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), IBLP's education wing.

Hunter sees IBLP as a cult, and she considers herself to be a cult survivor.


Families who are officially integrated into IBLP are required to sign a contract, Hunter recalled. The contract requires that the family not have a television in their home, that the children in the family wear only navy and white clothes when they left the house, and instead of pursuing a job out of the home, that the wife stay home and teach the children. These families don't listen to any music other than non-contemporary Christian music, they seldom read books that are unrelated to the Bible in some way, and drinking is strictly prohibited.

Dating is banned too. Instead, boys who are looking to get married must initiate the "courtship" process. According to a post called "How does courtship work?" on the IBLP website, the courtship process begins with a boy discussing with their parents (or in the absence of parents, a religious leader such as a pastor) the girl he wants to marry. If they agree that she's a good fit, he would then reach out to the girl's father to ask permission, and if he grants it, the two are allowed to spend time together. It's recommended that, "A lengthy courtship should be avoided," because the longer the courtship takes, the more emotionally attached the couple might become and, "It will become more and more challenging to manage emotional attachment and remain objective," in the decision to get married.

Image credit: IBLP website


IBLP teaches, "Dads are in direct communication with God and in every household, the wives submit to their husbands and the children submit to the mothers and fathers," Hunter said, "and if you step out from under that umbrella of protection that God created, then you are going to be open to attacks from Satan and all sorts of failures."

Hunter recalled when her father would sometimes withhold communion from their children if they "detected a spirit of frustration" from God. "That was really, really, extremely frustrating to me, but I assumed all the other dads in the church were doing it," she said. When she was in college at Bob Jones University, an evangelical university in South Carolina, she told the story to one of her professors. 

"And he was like, 'Well, your parents are in ATI, right?' And I was like, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Elizabeth, I need you to never move back,'" Hunter described. She said that that professor encouraged her to stay in South Carolina over summer breaks and to put up barriers between her and her parents so they didn't have control over her spiritual state of mind.

Hunter said that threats of being disowned were used frequently by her father, even when she was well into college. She recounted needing to take out student loans to pay for her second semester of college and believing that if her parents found out, she would be disowned. "They had no idea I was in debt when I graduated," Hunter said.

Image credit: Creative Commons/DonkeyHotey


Hunter also recalled being encouraged to volunteer for the Republican party. "I was super involved in my county Republican Party and I was super involved in Texas politics," she said.

Hunter was a delegate to every state Republican convention from the time she turned 18 and was nominated to be a delegate to the National Republican convention in 2016, but she ended up getting a friend to go instead, saying she wouldn't have felt comfortable voting for then-candidate Donald Trump. At the time, she said, no one judged her for it. "Now, I don't think it would be that way," she said.

IBLP has a list of Republican political players who have supported and defended the organization, including former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Arkansas Governor and Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and San Antonio billionaire & GOP megadonor Jim Leininger.

Everything IBLP teaches was originally taught by Bill Gothard when he began a series of seminars in the 1960s at Wheaton College, Gothard's alma mater. According to the IBLP website, these were meant to specifically teach, "Young people make wise choices," presumably within the scope of Gothard's evangelical Christian faith. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

These seminars gained significant popularity through the years, and eventually the program expanded to include several seminars nationwide, as well as a prison ministry program, an international ministry program, and a home education program. IBLP estimates that 2.5 million people have attended these seminars since their inception. 

But in 2012 participation in IBLP saw a significant downturn, owing mostly to a sexual harassment scandal that Gothard was the center of. The allegations held that he had surrounded himself with young female staffers, which was sometimes jokingly referred to as his "harem" of girls, who he would sexually harass. In some instances, this included teaching an almost deification of him to the girls.

Eventually, in 2014, he resigned from his position, only admitting to a violation of trust. An internal investigation found that he acted inappropriately, but not criminally, and the charges against him were dropped due to complications in the statute of limitations in the case. 

Hunter said she was somewhat isolated emotionally from the sexual harassment incident only because she had a friend who was personally harassed by Gothard and never completely bought into him as an individual in the way her family did. However, she also said that her parents refused to believe the story, dismissing it as gossip and that her dad even still refers to Gothard as "Brother Gothard." "Their respect for him is astronomically high," Hunter said. 

Hunter has since distanced herself from the IBLP movement. She has since shifted her theological beliefs away from those of IBLP. During this time she has also come out as a lesbian, something she described as easier than coming out as a non-Republican. 


Hunter emphasized her ultimate message to people who didn't undergo the same experiences she did was to hold abuse of all kinds accountable. 

"Listening to each other's stories is so important," she said. "I think we should hold people who abuse authority and create toxic environments accountable, and I think holding them accountable, part of that is sharing our stories because if we're silent then what they did is acceptable. But if we speak out then we name the abuse that happened, and in naming it we bring accountability and light on their actions."

The Institute of Basic Life Principles did not respond to a request for comment.