“I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not follow the statutes of your parents or keep their laws or defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.'”
The following is the text of the speech I gave at Veradale United Church of Christ on March 20, 2022.
Thank you so much for having me today. I appreciate the invitation and I really respect Veradale for dedicating your attention to the important and pressing issues of extremism and deradicalization for Lent.
This morning I will be discussing how homeschooling radicalized my family and friends. I will also discuss what I do today to counter that radicalization through child advocacy and child liberation theology. My goal is to help you understand part of the puzzle of the increasing extremism in the United States: the role of religious education of children and how evangelicals use it to further their sociopolitical agenda. And I will give some practical suggestions for how we can most effectively counter that agenda in our everyday lives by getting loud about children’s rights.
I want to begin with a disclaimer:
Homeschooling is not inherently bad and not all homeschoolers are extremists.
I am going to describe to you how homeschooling can radicalize, but the key word is “can.” Homeschooling can radicalize—but it doesn’t have to. Homeschooling can also, when done right, be an amazing experience. I am pro-homeschooling despite everything I am about to say. Because I know homeschooling can provide children with a safe, nurturing, and engaging education. But unfortunately, that’s not often why most people are homeschooling.
Most homeschoolers are right-wing evangelicals who are homeschooling to insulate their children from perceived evil influences in a secular and racially diverse world. They are also homeschooling for the purpose of “dominion”: to raise an army of loyal foot soldiers to fill and overwhelm every power structure in the United States with right-wing evangelicals.
Of course, homeschooling did not begin as a reactionary, extremist movement. It actually began among progressive child advocates. In the 1960s and 1970s, John Holt—a liberal and early advocate for children’s rights—began calling for the liberation of children from institutional, especially public, schools. His books How Children Fail and How Children Learn caused uproars for suggesting that forcing children to learn makes them self-conscious and disinterested in learning. Holt also advocated for an “Underground Railroad,” appropriating that term from Black Americans and applying it to institutional schools, arguing that we should create opportunities for children to leave them.
At the same time that Holt pushed for a child-centric form of homeschooling, R.J. Rushdoony was similarly calling for the removal of children from public schools. He called them “government schools.” But Rushdoony had a very different vision of education than Holt. Rushdoony saw education as a tool of dominion, as a way to re-Christianize the United States. Known as the father of Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony advocated for the destruction of democracy and replacing it with a theocracy based on his understanding of Mosaic law. According to Rushdoony, the federal government should never be in the education business. That business belongs solely to parents. For Rushdoony, then, homeschooling was parent-centric. It was a way to shore up parental rights, not children’s rights.
Rushdoony’s vision caught on the most. By the 1980s, following desegregation and bans on racial discrimination and religious activities in publicly funded schools, white evangelicals were desperate for a way to teach their children in the ways they wanted: free from secular and non-white influences. Thus they flooded the homeschooling movement. By the mid-1980s, white evangelicals had solidly commandeered the movement, becoming the most dominant group. This transformed the movement from a crusade against compulsory education, like John Holt originally intended, into a crusade against secularism and pluralism.
By 1990, 85-90% of homeschoolers were conservative Christians.
Today, evangelical homeschoolers are quite upfront about their purposes. Michael Farris, the founder of the most powerful homeschool lobbying organization in the United States, the Home School Legal Defense Association, has written the following about his goals for homeschooling:
“Homeschool freedom is not the end goal. It is a means to a far greater end…
“If the Christian homeschooling movement is to call itself a long-range success, then it must produce a generation of great faith. While the personal faith of each person and family is the key, we should see works that illustrate and validate the vibrancy of that faith…
“How should we judge our success? Do we see our children administering justice, gaining what was promised, shutting the mouths of lions, and quenching the fury of the flames? Is our weakness turned to strength? Have they become powerful in battle? Have they routed armies? …
“In short, the homeschooling movement will succeed when our children… engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take the land.”
Farris, not coincidentally, is now the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, the organization responsible for bringing Dobbs v. Jackson before the U.S. Supreme Court—the court case that could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. Farris also was handpicked to help attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, after former president Donald Trump appointed Farris to his 1776 Commission on “patriotic” education for children.
The reason so many homeschoolers are right-wing evangelicals is because right-wing evangelicals run most of the important power structures in homeschooling: the lobbying organizations, the convention companies, the curriculum companies, and the national and state support groups.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced many families into homeschooling who normally wouldn’t, homeschooling demographics have diversified in the last several years. For example, Black homeschoolers are one of the fastest growing segments of the population. However, this growing diversity in the population is not reflected in homeschooling leadership and power. Homeschooling leadership and power still resides almost entirely in the hands of white evangelicals.
Additionally, the recent right-wing moral panics about Covid-19 public health measures and critical race theory in childhood education have inspired a new, large wave of white evangelicals to homeschool. I think this new movement of white flight will more than offset the growing diversity in homeschooling.
Because right-wing evangelicals run most of the power structures, their influence is both ubiquitous and overwhelming. It is difficult to homeschool without encountering that influence at least somewhere. That influence, like water against stone, slowly but surely erodes resistance to extremism.
For example, my family began homeschooling simply because they didn’t like our local public school. My older brother, myself, and my younger sister were all vaccinated. We began homeschooling with diverse and inclusive groups of people. But a decade later, when my youngest brother was born, my parents had decided birth control was evil, vaccinations were dangerous, nearly all our friends were white evangelical homeschool children, and we were literally being groomed to “take back the United States for God.”
This is not uncommon.
I have seen many moderate and liberal families begin homeschooling, and then years later they are indistinguishable from right-wing evangelical homeschoolers in many aspects.
This is particularly interesting because many homeschooling parents will tell you they homeschool to keep their children away from peer pressure. But the peer pressure between adults in homeschooling is very real and hard to both avoid and resist. People are regularly blacklisted from conferences and other networking events for breaking from evangelical beliefs or speaking out about abuse by popular figures in homeschooling. Despite this fact, no one talks about adult peer pressure in homeschooling.
So what can we do? What can we do to stem the tide? To reach homeschooling families who are being radicalized? And to make homeschooling better—and by “better,” I mean good for children, not good for evangelicals’ sociopolitical goals?
Something I have learned about de-escalation techniques in my work as a child advocate is that you should never just tell people, “No.” People don’t react well to, “No,” whether they are children or adults. It is more effective to offer options.
We need to show people who are being radicalized that they have other options. In her important book Welcoming Children, Joyce Ann Mercer points out how conservative parenting materials flooded moderate and liberal faith communities as those communities were not prioritizing the issues of children and families with the same intensity as their conservative counterparts.
This needs to change—and it is beginning to change. People like Mercer and Cindy Wang Brandt and Janet Pais are challenging progressive faith communities to develop more resources for families who reject the authoritarianism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that pervades conservative materials for children and parents. But we still need a lot more help.
For my part, I write about child liberation theology.
I think it is important for Christian leaders and parents to see that there are different ways of looking at the Bible and understanding God that aren’t all about authority and control. I think God and Jesus and the Bible tell us a story about liberation: a story about rising above the injustice and evil around us and finding hope and healing in empowering one another—children included.
There are a bunch of different liberation theologies. Each one addresses the needs of a particular marginalized group. For example, there is a liberation theology for people with disabilities. There is a liberation theology for Palestinians. Black people write Black liberation theology. LGBTQIA folks write queer liberation theology.
I believe children are also marginalized. By this I mean children are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect. And I think God, Jesus, and the Bible have something to say about that fact. To love and follow Jesus means that we love, protect, and empower children. Like Jesus placing a child in his disciples’ midst, we, too, ought to consider how our religious beliefs and practices impact children.
That is child liberation theology in a nutshell. I have recently signed a book deal with Eerdmans to publish a book on the subject in 2023. I hope my book shows Christian leaders, theologians, and parents that there are alternatives to the prevailing attitudes and practices promoted by evangelicalism concerning children. And I pray that it will improve the lives of children everywhere.
I also advocate for homeschooled children.
I hope you will join me in being interested in this particularly vulnerable group of children. To be frank, homeschooling intersects and connects with just about every other issue of child abuse and neglect. Because right-wing evangelicals have dominated the conversation about and legislation concerning homeschooling, there is virtually zero oversight of homeschooling. For example, in 48 of the 50 American states, it is perfectly legal for a convicted child molester to homeschool their children. Yet not a single state requires homeschooled children to have regular contact with a mandatory reporter outside their family.
This has enabled and empowered abusive and neglectful parents to take advantage of homeschooling to hide and intensify their cruel and evil treatment of children. Homeschooling has shielded child labor traffickers, child sex traffickers, white supremacists, parents who abuse adoptees, parents who neglect children with disabilities, and I could go on.
I don’t say any of this to tell you that all homeschoolers are like this. They are not. There are some wonderful homeschooling families full of love and nurturance and safety. But what you need to know is that most homeschoolers—even the moderate and liberal ones—refuse to talk about these problems. And we can’t let their silence win.
If you know a homeschooling family, don’t let them isolate themselves, especially their children. Isolation is a red flag. Get involved in their lives. Be a friend to the children. If you ever worry there’s abuse or neglect going on, please, please report it to Child Protective Services. I read so many news stories about abuse in homeschooling families and there’s almost always some neighbor interviewed who says, “I always thought something was off, but I didn’t report it.” Don’t be that neighbor. If you’re worried, make a report.
If you’re a homeschooling family and you’re “not like that,” get loud about it. Join with homeschool alumni who are fighting to bring attention to abuse and neglect in homeschooling. Start fights in your homeschool groups when they won’t let that gay kid join. Demand child protection policies and background checks in your homeschool co-ops. Boycott the evangelical events and organizations and start investing in alternative power structures. And remember: Homeschool alumni are not your enemy. Abuse is your enemy. The best way to protect your right to homeschool is to ensure that abusive and neglectful parents can’t take advantage of your right.
Finally, if you care about children’s issues, start thinking about how you can incorporate the issue of homeschooling into your work. Partner with the homeschoolers you know and build mutually supportive relationships. If you’re a social worker, for example, offer to give a presentation about child protection to your local homeschool group. If you’re a public school debate coach, volunteer with your local homeschool debate league. If you’re a faith leader, make intentional efforts to include homeschooled children in church activities, which may be the only context in which they interact with mandatory reporters.
To conclude: I chose Ezekiel 20:18-19 as the scripture for today’s service because it’s an example of a Bible passage we rarely even know exists. Yet the verses are profound, provocative, and show us how God continually surprises us by upending authority and power structures.
What I find striking about the passage is how strongly it flies in the face of everything evangelicals teach about parenting: God explicitly tells children to disobey their parents. Yet growing up in evangelicalism, I never heard a single sermon preached on this passage. I vividly remember sermon after sermon about how I as a child needed to obey adults. But never was I told that God actively encourages us to rebel against adult authority when that authority is doing evil.
I could have used that sermon. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I could have benefited from a faith community that gave me permission and empowered me to speak up when adults hurt me. But that didn’t happen.
Instead I was taught to submit. To obey. To see myself as broken and dirty and depraved from birth.
Today I know better. Today I know that the Bible, like homeschooling, is a tool. It can be used for evil or for good. To radicalize or liberate. It depends on the person wielding it.
I want the Church to understand, confess, and repent for how it has used the Bible for centuries for evil against children. And not only must that stop, but there is also a better way. We can use the Bible to protect and liberate children. We can use the Bible to empower children to become prophets, leaders, and thinkers who participate in our faith communities as fully as adults do. Because children are not the future of the Church; children are the Church. The Kingdom of God already belongs to children. The Kingdom of God is, as my new book argues, a Kingdom of Children.
To get there, we must pay more attention to verses like Ezekiel 20:18-19. We must read the Bible with child liberation as our lens and children themselves as active agents in their own liberation.
I began with the disclaimer that not all homeschooling is bad. So let me end with a disclaimer to that: homeschooling will always be bad when it places the interests and wants of parents over the needs and rights of children.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of homeschooled children, has found in their research that, “Homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than are traditionally schooled children.” Until homeschoolers stop sacrificing the well-being and lives of children on the altar of freedom and parental rights, we will continue to see widespread and increased rates of abuse and neglect in homeschooling.
To stop these sacrifices, all of us—us homeschool alumni, those of you who homeschool your own children, and everyone else who cares about children because Jesus said we should—we need to get loud. We need to demand better for children. We cannot continue to remain silent. We must speak up and advocate for all children everywhere.
The Kingdom of God is at hand. And it already belongs to children. The question is, will we continue to beat the image of God out of children with belts and Bibles so we can replace God’s image with our own, or will we fight to recognize the image of God in children?