Raising Up an Army for God
The rise of the new homeschooling movement
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell At Me a newsletter about politics and personhood written from red state America. This week’s newsletter analyzes America’s reactionary home school movement. If you value this work, subscribe.
The early days of homeschooling were ruled by fear. In 1972, the Supreme Court had ruled in Wisconsin v. Yoder that compulsory education laws violated a parent’s right to give their children a religious education. But it wasn’t until 1993 that all 50 states had made homeschooling legal.
The push to legalize homeschooling was spearheaded by Christian fundamentalists. Rousas Rushdoony founded Christian Day Schools in the 1960s. Historian Anthea Butler writing for MSNBC described Rushdoony’s motivations: “He saw homeschooling as a way to cut the government out of educating Christian children and to prepare them to take their place in a theocratic government.”
It wasn’t an accident that Rushdoony’s vision of schooling outside the influence of the government caught on in the 1960s. Recent studies have examined the correlation between the rise in homeschooling to school integration. One 2007 article published in the Journal of Black Studies found that states where there was a higher level of integration were more likely to pass laws legalizing homeschooling than in states with lower rates of integration.
While Rushdoony provided the framework and much of the curriculum, Michael Farris spearheaded the legal fight. Founded in 1983 by Farris, the Home School Legal Defense Association provided funds for homeschooling parents to defend themselves and to work to change the laws. They worked largely on catalyzing a culture of fear; the HSLDA sent mailers with stories of homeschooling parents who had their parental rights stripped from them simply because they had chosen to keep their children out of school. Ferris, who would later advise President Donald Trump on his attempts to overturn the election, saw religious homeschooling as a way to train up a generation of theocratic leaders who would help enact what they saw as God’s laws on earth.
As the homeschooling movement grew, religious leaders stepped up to fill in the gaps of curriculum and Christian-focused entertainment for children. Shows like McGee and Me, VeggieTales, and radio series like Witt’s End were all created with one goal in mind—to train young children to become Christian fundamentalists.
I was homeschooled until high school and raised in this world. I can still sing almost every song from VeggieTales. My parents told us that the Christian books we read and TV shows we watched were necessary counter-programming to the world of liberal indoctrination. But this simply wasn’t the case. Moves by companies like Disney to add more diversity to their movies and television shows were simply an effort to reflect the lives and culture of Americans rather than influence it. Books like Heather Has Two Mommies sought to tell children that queer people existed. (And they do.)
Conservatives were quick to spin these efforts into conspiracy. In 1999, former Vice President Mike Pence described Mulan as an effort to undermine gender roles. And while that is an easy argument to mock, a similar argument appeared in the New York Times opinion section in March when Ross Douthat argued that a lack of romance plotlines in movies would undermine the desire for people to get married. Again, also easy to mock for its moral panic that women won’t want to marry men if they realize they can just have friends instead. And the answer to that panic is to make them watch Cinderella rather than raise men to be better partners. But the arguments, over 23 years apart, reveal a cultural refrain—children need to be indoctrinated to be conservative.
The new home school movement, just like the first one is motivated by deep-seated religious and cultural beliefs that the only way to fix America is to raise up children to be free-market-loving Christian fundamentalists.
While it’s easy to “both sides” the efforts, this wasn’t a different side of the same coin. One set of literature sought to teach children what to do and how to act. To quite literally enact a Biblical command from Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way they should go.”
The other set sought to acknowledge the truth—that different races and religions and sexual orientations exist in America, that poverty and racism exist and are present in our social and political systems.
That truth-telling is seen as an inherently political act reveals how powerful acknowledging America’s history is and continues to be.
Media coverage of the early days of the first homeschool movement focused on independent learning and the studies that showed homeschoolers outperform their public school peers on standardized tests. Those studies were and are inherently faulty and untrustworthy, but provided a narrative of homeschoolers as nerdy social outcasts. A fringe movement and nothing more. Something to be gawked at and made fun of, but not taken seriously. Meanwhile, American conservatives raised a generation of children to believe in theocracy, and we are watching that vision play out with the reversal of Roe.
Additionally, closed systems invite abuse of power. It’s not an accident that Farris was one of the lawyers who sought to overturn democracy and block the election results. It’s not an accident that one of the most high-profile homeschooling families in America, the Duggars, from the TV show 19 Kids and Counting has been torn apart by abuse allegations. Or that Bill Gothard, on of the architects of Evangelical homeschooling curriculum has been hounded by abuse allegations.
Many of the children who were raised in that child army of homeschoolers are now ex-Evangelicals and are writing books and speaking out about the harm that ideology caused. (See the end for a list of some of these works.)
Fear is ruling America again. A combination of backlash to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the 1619 Project has once again created a racist panic. There is a new push to homeschool, one tied to this current moment of racial and homophobic panic. The renewed effort to encourage families to flee public schools is finding fertile ground in parents frustrated with school closures, a lack of childcare, and exhausted and burnt-out teachers, women being forced out of the workforce, and parents afraid of gun violence in America. And it will destroy public education. Already the scaffolding is being built—states are seeking to cut school funding, are outlawing CRT and discussions of LGBTQ issues in the classroom.
It’s worth noting that not all homeschoolers are motivated by religious ideology. But 77 percent of homeschooling families say they are motivated by a desire to provide moral education and 64 percent want to provide their children religious education.
In June, Christian fundamentalist activist Kirk Cameron launched a documentary titled “Homeschool Awakening,” which declares public education to be America’s number one enemy.
But even before that, I knew something was happening when my kids started telling me about The Tuttle Twins, a series of books they were reading with their father. I read the books and watched the livestream to understand what my children were reading. Written by Connor Boyack, the founder of the libertarian think tank The Libertas Institute, the books seek to indoctrinate children into libertarian and religious ideology. In a recent newsletter, Boyack claims the books have sold 3 million copies and a history textbook is in the works.
Boyak markets his books as the antidote to the poison of socialism in the classroom, inventing a problem that simply does not exist. But he plays into parental fears depicting children reading Karl Marx in public schools.
In one book, Tuttle Twins and the Food Truck Fiasco, rules governing food safety are presented as cruel acts of protectionism and trying to destroy the free market. While protectionism does exist, food regulations are a direct result of food contamination and exploitative labor practices. And this is how I found myself explaining corporate cover-ups to grade-schoolers on a Tuesday.
Writing for Current Affairs, economics professor Rob Larson offers a comprehensive analysis of the books. The books seek to explain concepts like protectionism to 7-year-olds, but without nuance or detail, the arguments quickly fall apart when thought about too hard.
Larson explains another book:
In The Tuttle Twins and the Road to Surfdom, dedicated to little-known selfless philanthropist Charles Koch, the Tuttle family is dismayed to find the road to their beach house is highly congested, and the stores nearby are closing down. “Ethan and Emily like playing at the beach, but they loved shopping at La Playa Lane.” The displeased vacationing white family soon learns that “a few years ago, voters approved a Master Transportation Plan,” which in addition to building a new road to another beach town nearby, bizarrely closed off the existing road. This is the kind of contrived parody of public planning that market fundamentalists imagine is to blame for capitalism’s problems.
The books continue like that. There is even a knock-off choose-your-own-adventure series.
Again, this would be easy to write off and laugh at if it weren’t serious. Money of course is a motivation. But any analysis that fails to take into account that these efforts are serious misses the point. The new home school movement, just like the first one is motivated by deep-seated religious and cultural beliefs that the only way to fix America is to raise up children to be free-market-loving Christian fundamentalists.
And there is simply no corollary on “the other side.”
David Forum 🦅 🇨🇺 @zlingraygotta say regular newspapers printing “attacks on proud boys are unamerican and unfair” seems like a pretty bad sign
I remember going to a Christian camp when I was 18 and being trained to debate my liberal professors in the classroom. One of the gotchas was to turn to the liberal idea of pluralism. If I felt I was being discriminated against, I was to say that these supposedly tolerant professors and classmates weren’t being “tolerant.” If I was accused of “intolerance,” I was to say something along the lines of it’s okay to be intolerant, God is intolerant of sin.
This little game of gotcha is still at play in a media environment that seeks to give ideas equal weight, where that equality simply doesn’t exist. And it’s a trap that still has America captured in a prison of theocracy.
I wrote a whole book on religion and politics in America, and I am very closely connected to the world of Christian fundamentalism. If I forgot to list anyone’s work, it was an oversight, not a personal slight. I’ll update this list; don’t be mad at me. Not for that anyway.
The work of Tori Glass helped me see and understand my own experience being homeschooled in a new light.
The Coalition for Responsible Homeschooling has done so much work to illuminate the real impact of homeschooling on children.
Nicole Hemmer, associate research scholar at Columbia University and author of the book Messengers of the Right, wrote about the Tuttle Twins and the renewed push to indoctrinate children for CNN.
Again, Anthea Butler’s op-ed on the renewed push for homeschooling is illuminating.
I contributed to the anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, where many ex-evangelical writers told their stories.
Chrissy Stroop is an author and co-editor of that anthology and much of their work focuses on deconstructing the world of Christian fundamentalism.
Emily Joy Allison’s book #ChurchToo is a wonderful work the deconstructs the sexual politics of Christianity. (Full disclosure: I wrote the intro to this book.)
Linda Kay Klein’s Pure is a comprehensive look at the Evangelical movement. (Another disclosure: Klein interviewed me for this amazing book.)
In her newsletter, the Sword and the Sandwich, Talia Lavin interviews Eve Ettinger about the influence of fundamentalism. And Talia also wrote a comprehensive look at the consequences of Charles Dobson and Focus on the Family advocating corporal punishment.
Also, so much of Eve’s work is focused on this topic (What topic? All of it! Faith, fundamentalism, homeschooling!).
Jeanna Kadelec’s memoir Heretic is an incisive look at living inside of Fundamentalism and puts the movement into historical perspective.