Traumatic Homeschooling: How Evangelicals Use Education to Totalize

The following is the text of the speech I gave at the Conference on Religious Trauma on April 30, 2022.

I’d like to begin by thanking Janice for inviting me to speak here and I’d like to thank my fellow panelists as well as Caleb for moderating. Religious trauma is such an important topic and childhood education is a key vehicle for passing that trauma on from generation to generation.

I will speak to you today about homeschooling, specifically evangelical homeschooling. I will speak about homeschooling because homeschooled children and alumni are intimately familiar with religious trauma. This is because the vast majority of homeschoolers are evangelical Christians. Consequently, many homeschooled children have experienced corporal punishment, threats of eternal hellfire, educational neglect, molestation and rape, and other human rights abuses—all in the name of glorifying the evangelical god. 

In fact, due to the intentionally deregulated state of homeschool laws in the United States, homeschool parents have nearly absolute power over what they can do to and teach their children. Homeschooling has thus become a tool for what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called “totalism.” Totalism is the end goal of authoritarian and totalitarian movements and organizations: it is the total control of human action and belief.  By enabling homeschoolers to use homeschooling totalistically, deregulated homeschooling has created the perfect storm for abuse and neglect to thrive in homeschooling communities.

To understand how this became the case, a short history lesson is in order.

From the very beginning of the modern homeschooling movement, paths diverged. 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 provoked controversy for their criticisms of compulsory education for children. Holt advocated for an “Underground Railroad” that would help children leave institutional schools and pursue their own interests.

At the same time that Holt was imagining a child-centric form of homeschooling, R.J. Rushdoony was similarly calling for the removal of children from public schools. Rushdoony 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, 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.

While homeschooling began with diverse founders, it was ultimately Rushdoony’s vision that dominated. White evangelicals were desperate in the 1980s 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 to choose homeschooling. This transformed the movement from a revolt against the institutionalization of schooling into a project to build a parallel, Christian society.

By 1990, 85-90% of homeschoolers were conservative Christians. When Salon reported on homeschooling in 2000, all four “pillars of homeschooling” listed (Michael Farris, Sue Welch, Brian Ray, and Gregg Harris) were evangelicals. And probably most importantly, the most powerful homeschool lobbying organization, HSLDA, was run (and continues to be run) exclusively by white evangelical men.

Founded in 1983, HSLDA has fought for decades to promote what HSLDA attorney Michael Donnelly refers to as a “minimalistic regulatory approach” to homeschooling in the United States. In short, HSLDA believes homeschooling should be entirely free of any government oversight. This parental rights absolutism is a fundamental conviction that has roots in Rushdoony’s worldview of Christian Reconstructionism, a worldview shared by HSLDA founder Michael Farris (now President of the designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF).

HSLDA’s efforts have been extraordinarily successful. There is no federal oversight of homeschooling whatsoever. Homeschooling is regulated only on the state level, and most states have either minimal or no oversight over homeschooling. An analysis of state homeschool laws by ProPublica in 2015 found “fewer than half require any kind of evaluation or testing of homeschooled children” and “just ten require parents to have a high school degree.” Only two states prohibit convicted child abusers like child molesters from homeschooling. There are no states that require homeschooled children to have regular contact with mandatory reporters. When states do have minimal oversight, most of the time the oversight has few to no enforcement mechanisms.

This lack of oversight has essentially created a loophole for child abusers: child abusers can remove their children from public school during open child abuse or neglect investigations and thereby eliminate the chance that their children will ever be in contact with mandatory reporters again. Because homeschooling has become the perfect way to isolate and hide an abused or neglected child from those who could help the child, it has become a breeding ground for crimes against children. 

Since 1986, there have been at least 172 child abuse and neglect fatalities in homeschooling settings—suggesting homeschooled children have a greater risk of dying from child abuse than other children. A 2014 survey of 3,702 homeschool alumni also found that around half (51%) experienced childhood abuse and a further 26% reported knowing another homeschooled child who was abused. And a survey of extreme cases of child torture conducted by pediatrician Barbara Knox in 2014 found “47% [of the tortured children] who had been enrolled in school were removed under the auspice of ‘homeschooling.’” “Homeschooling,” Knox observed, “appears to have been designed to further isolate the child.”

As the first few generations of homeschooled children have come of age, we have begun to hear and see the results of deregulated homeschooling—or as HSLDA’s Donnelly calls it, a “minimalistic regulatory approach” to homeschooling. Starting in the early 2010s, homeschooled children, by then adults, began calling for reform based on their experiences of abuse and neglect. 

As someone homeschooled kindergarten through high school graduation by evangelical parents, I am intimately familiar with this history. I lived it. I am also very familiar with the growing movement of homeschool alumni who are speaking out about their experiences and demanding communal and legal reforms to protect future generations of children. I helped found several national nonprofit organizations to fight for the rights of homeschooled children. And what I see as the common thread between all the stories of abuse and neglect in homeschooling is the issue of totalism.

Totalism is a concept first developed by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Totalism is related to totalitarianism, and signifies a psychological form of totalitarianism — the totalitarian monitoring and control of another individual’s behaviors and thoughts. Lifton uses the term to describe the attributes of ideological movements and organizations that aim for total control over people’s behaviors and thoughts. While these movements and organizations may vary in design and goals, they follow common patterns and cause predicable types of psychological damage to those within them.

Evangelical Christians—as well as other extremist groups—are drawn to homeschooling because it gives them either absolute or nearly absolute power over their children. They would describe this power as “freedom”—and indeed, to some extent that is true. Marginalized groups like Black families are also attracted to homeschooling because it does give them freedom to teach things public schools cannot or will not teach, such as Black and Native American history. But that freedom is a double-edged sword. By giving absolute power to parents, homeschooling can be used to control children as much as it is used to free children. And evangelical Christians are interested in control.

Evangelical Christians are interested in creating a parallel society. They are interested in creating safe spaces, essentially, where their children will never encounter people or ideas that contradict their teachings until those children are properly equipped to defend those teachings and not stray from them despite any evidence that they are wrong. This is why evangelical Christians invest significantly in fields of study like apologetics and worldview studies. There are books and homeschool curricula and summer camps and college programs all dedicated to keeping children and young adults from straying from white evangelical Christian values—usually defined as white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, capitalism, and the supremacy of heterosexual marriage and sexuality.

By giving evangelical Christians absolute power over their children, homeschooling enables and empowers these parents to create these parallel societies in the most efficient and effective manner. Homeschooling parents literally control every aspect of their children’s lives, for better or for worse. For evangelical parents, this means they can ensure their children never leave their safe spaces until the parents feel confident the children are adequately totalized. Should children ever become rebellious or ask too many questions, it’s off to worldview camp or a troubled teen program for them. 

I regularly hear from fellow homeschool alumni that they literally never encountered someone who was not a white evangelical until they were well into adulthood. That is how successfully white evangelicals have mastered totalism. With the existence of many white evangelical colleges and graduate schools, this parallel society has the potential to cocoon a person from birth until their mid-20s, even their 30s. 

But cocoon is the wrong word. This parallel society isn’t something that protects children from the elements and predators until the children become exactly who they want to be. This parallel society constricts. That is, it slowly but surely constricts children into the model of what white evangelicals are supposed to be: Christian Nationalists, fervent capitalists, and in no way queer.

I know I don’t have to explain to you that constricting children for the sake of religious beliefs causes trauma. You all know that constricting children into what adults want and need is the best way to traumatize a child for life. Add religion on top of that and you get the circumstances that make conferences on religious trauma an increasingly common phenomenon. 

But let me take this a step further and suggest that when you intentionally inflict religious trauma on children it is child abuse. And that’s what evangelicals are doing here: they are intentionally using totalistic education and all its related tools to traumatize children in the directions they believe children should grow and mature. You don’t want unbelievers, so you threaten eternal hellfire. You don’t want talking back, so you beat your children. You don’t want independent thinking, so you break children’s wills. And you definitely don’t want your children to realize how isolated and abnormal their childhoods are, so you homeschool and your children only interact with others who live through and accept similar traumas.

Intentionally inflicting religious trauma on children is what Janet Heimlich and the Child-Friendly Faith Project call “religious child maltreatment.” It is real and it is pervasive in homeschooling circles and, make no mistake, it is devastating. Furthermore, there’s no excuse for it. Religion doesn’t have to hurt children. You always have a choice whether to use religion to liberate children or to radicalize and traumatize them.

I know it is common these days for evangelicals and other conservatives to carelessly throw around the word “grooming,” and as a child abuse survivor myself and someone with a Master’s in Child Protection, this infuriates me. The carelessness is bad in itself. But the worst part is knowing that the whole point of evangelicals’ parallel society is to break their children’s wills, to disempower them, to make them like clay—moldable and pliant to adults’ wishes. And I cannot think of a better way to prepare a child for future abuse and trauma than that. 

By stripping children of their wills, by supplanting their children’s unique and diverse identities with the identity demanded by white evangelical leaders and other power holders, evangelicalism is teaching—and homeschooling is enabling and empowering it—that children have no rights to themselves. That they are not their own. That they owe their bodies, minds, and souls to those more powerful than them.

As a child protection professional, it doesn’t evade me that these messages are textbook definitions of either grooming or outright emotional or religious abuse. Yet these messages are also central aspects of many religious teachings, especially when it comes to evangelicalism. There are many beliefs inherent to evangelicalism that require adults to intentionally inflict religious trauma on children. That’s more than a red flag. It’s a sign that the foundation of evangelicalism is compromised and corrupted.

And unless we take a serious look at how evangelicals and other religious extremists take advantage of childhood education—including homeschooling, private schools, and public charter schools—as a primary vehicle for inflicting religious child maltreatment, we will be powerless to stop it. The lack of any meaningful oversight over childhood education when it is draped in religion cannot be sustained except by the blood and tears of more children. 

This is why it is so important to include and listen to the voices of those who experienced and survived and are now speaking up about the real-life impacts of education that’s all about what adults want children to be, rather than education that’s motivated to find out who children really are and what they want to learn. So I am grateful for being included here; I am grateful for the voices of fellow homeschool alumni here as well like Jerusha and Luna. I hope you hear in our stories not just our own pain, but our hope that we can do better for future generations of children.

Thank you.