Homeschooling: A Scheme to Take Over America

What do Sarah Palin, Gordon College, and Christian homeschoolers have in common? According to evangelical-turned-atheist Frank Schaeffer, they are all “still fighting a religious war against their own country.” I’m no homeschooler or Palin fan, but Schaeffer’s accusations just don’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

Schaeffer’s most recent broadside appeared in Salon. In his article, Schaeffer blasted a wide range of “far-right” institutions. When parents choose to pull their kids out of public schools to indoctrinate them at home, Schaeffer charged, it amounts to nothing less than “virtual civil war carried on by other means.” As Schaeffer put it,

the evangelical schools and home school movement were, by design, founded to undermine a secular and free vision of America and replace it by stealth with a form of theocracy.

According to Schaeffer, this nefarious plot spreads beyond the anti-democratic practice of homeschooling. The “far-right,” Schaeffer insists, turns women into submissive breeding mares. The Right has opened its own colleges and universities as part of its plan to take over civil society. Jerry Falwell himself, Schaeffer relates, explained his reasons for opening Liberty Law School. “Frank,” Falwell confided, “we’re going to train a new generation of judges to change America!”

Is the sky really falling?

Is the sky really falling?

Inspired by the apocalyptic rhetoric of wild-eyed prophets such as Rousas Rushdoony, and marshalled by irresponsible self-aggrandizers such as Sarah Palin, the Christian Right will not stop until it has taken over. Conservative religious folks, Schaeffer insists, want nothing less than to impose a rigid theocracy on the United States. They will not be content until they have dictated the morals and mores of their neighbors as well as those of their children.

Are Schaeffer’s charges fair?

Certainly, he has the right to boast of his insider connections. His father, the late Francis Schaeffer, really did inspire a fair bit of the social philosophy of today’s conservative evangelicals. Schaeffer Senior articulated in the 1970s and 1980s the notion that US culture had been infiltrated by a sneaky “secular humanist” worldview. In order to properly live as Christians, then, Schaeffer Senior advocated a wide-ranging rejection of modern social mores. Perhaps most important for day-to-day culture-war politics, Schaeffer Senior along with C. Everett Koop denounced abortion rights as equivalent to murder.

At times, Frank Schaeffer seems blinded by his own imagined influence. In this Salon article, for example, he shamelessly name-drops his connections to writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Mary Pride. He claims to have been “instrumental” in bringing together the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such unpleasantness aside, however, do Schaeffer’s charges stick? Are Christian homeschooling and evangelical higher education part of a long-ranging plot to undermine American traditions of pluralism and tolerance?

Short answer: No.

Before I offer a few examples of the ways Schaeffer’s breathless expose doesn’t match reality, let me explain my background for those who are new to ILYBYGTH. I am no apologist for fundamentalist Christianity. I’m no fundamentalist, not even a former fundamentalist. When it comes down to it, I will fight hard against fundamentalist-friendly school rules about prayer or sex ed. I don’t homeschool my kid. I don’t attend or teach at an evangelical college. I’m only a mild-mannered historian, with the sole goal of deflating hysterical culture-war accusations.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of Schaeffer’s claims.

First, is Christian homeschooling really as sinister as he claims? Schaeffer suggests that homeschoolers have been inspired by the work of leaders such as Mary Pride and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The point of homeschooling, Schaeffer charges, is to train girls and women to submit to fathers and husbands, to glory in their second-class role as child-bearers and house-keepers.

There are indeed homeschoolers who adopt these notions. But anyone who follows the work of historian Milton Gaither can tell you that the world of homeschooling—even the more limited world of conservative evangelical homeschooling—is a kaleidoscope of missions, strategies, and techniques. I don’t doubt that some Christian parents hope to impose a rigid patriarchal vision on their children. What falls apart, though, when looked at carefully, is the notion that these folks are somehow the “real” reason behind Christian homeschooling. What falls apart are accusations that Christian homeschoolers are some sort of monolithic force scheming to take over the rest of our society. In reality, Christian homeschoolers are a remarkably fractious bunch.

Second, what about Rousas Rushdoony? As Schaeffer correctly points out, Rushdoony was the intellectual force behind “Reconstructionist” theology. In short, Rushdoony believed that Christians should impose true Christian morality on all of society, including Old-Testament-inspired laws about sex and conduct. In reality, though, the direct influence of Rushdoony’s social ideas has been rather limited. As scholars such as Michael J. McVicar have argued, Rushdoony has had far more influence on liberal pundits than on the conservative rank-and-file.

Next, are evangelical colleges really training a generation of conservative culture warriors? As I conduct the research for my next book, I’m struck by the ways evangelical colleges have been battlegrounds more than training centers. In other words, evangelical colleges and universities have had a hard time figuring out what they are doing. They are hardly in the business of cranking out thousands of mindless drones to push right-wing culture-war agendas.

For one thing, evangelical colleges have usually insisted on maintaining intellectual respectability in the eyes of non-evangelical scholars. Even such anti-accreditation schools as Bob Jones University have used outside measures such as the Graduate Record Examination to prove their academic bona fides. As historian Michael S. Hamilton noted in his brilliant study of Wheaton College, this desire prompted Wheaton in the 1930s to invite outside evaluators such as John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago to suggest changes at the “Fundamentalist Harvard.” This need for intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream intellectuals has continually pulled fundamentalist schools closer to the mainstream. Such colleges—even staunchly “unusual” ones like Bob Jones—have been much more similar to mainstream colleges than folks like Schaeffer admit.

Schaeffer uses Gordon College in Massachusetts as an example of the ways Christian colleges train new generations of young people to see the US government as evil. But as I found in my recent trip to the Gordon College archives, the community at Gordon has always been divided about the purposes of higher education. Back in the 1960s, Gordon College students held protests, sit-ins, and “sleep-ins” to change Gordon’s policies and attitudes. As one student put it during a 1968 protest, “we want to be treated like real college students.” How did the evangelical administration respond? By commending the students’ commitment to “activism over apathy.” To my ears, that does not sound like a brutal and all-encompassing mind-control approach.

The world of conservative evangelicalism, of “fundamentalism,” is one of continuous divisive tension. There is no fundamentalist conspiracy of the sort Schaeffer describes. Or, to be more specific, there are such conspiracies, but there are so many of them, and they disagree with one another so ferociously, that the threat Schaeffer warns us about is more fiction than fact.

Does Christian homeschooling really serve as a first step in a long-ranging scheme to take over America? Only in the fevered imaginings of former fundamentalists such as Frank Schaeffer.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  January 22, 2015

    As if atheists don’t have any vision of America that they wish they could impose on the rest of us.

  2. Does he realize that homeschoolers consistently score higher on standardized tests? Arguments against homeschooling are so easily dismissable just based on raw data.

  3. Tim

     /  January 24, 2015

    I read the Salon article, and was pretty unimpressed with Schaeffer’s ability to tell a coherent story. I get that he was involved, with his father and other important figures in the Christian right for many years, and that gives him some insight into their ideas, strategies and expectations. However, I’m not sure that he gets that the many individuals who read his father’s books or who decided to homeschool may not have all been mind-controlled drones who swallowed every word without thought. Actually, to the contrary, someone who decides to do something as unconventional as homeschooling may be less likely, on average, than the typical citizen, to precisely follow the instructions of some authority. Bottom line, Schaeffer may have been part of some conspiracy, but I think, in practice, it was probably much less effective than he imagines it was.

  4. I agree with Tim. There are certainly highly-influential patriarchal and dominionist leaders in homeschooling, but they have not been so effective as they or Schaeffer gives them credit for. Rather than becoming a stronghold of fundamentalist Christianity, homeschooling seems to be becoming more and more diverse, and the graduates of homeschooling are anything but uniform in resolve.

  5. I don’t get the impression Schaeffer was bragging about his connections — he seems truly anguished about his past work and ties, and there is really no way to tell his story as an insider without “name dropping.” No need to villainize him.

    He does exaggerate a lot, but the basic facts of Schaeffer’s writing are accurate. He’d be on the mark to say that a significant minority of conservative protestants in homeschooling or K-12 private schools are pretty open about their patriarchal, “racialist,” dominionist, and/or theonomist ideologies — and that this was more of a thing in the 1970s and 1980s. There are colleges that espouse these things too but arguably none of any great size or standing even to the level of the usual top villains — Bob Jones University or Patrick Henry College. Even within those institutions you’ll find different views and changes in overall vision and identity over time. That does not mean they are completely benign however.

    You are correct that among the Evangelical colleges with ambitions, mainstream credibility and credentials tend to militate against religious extremism, so what you find is both forces clashing together beneath the surface. Nearly any of the better evangelical colleges today will be composed of at least a sizable minority of faculty and administrators who are comparatively critical of the religious right whose kids they are teaching and who they are essentially working for, often without the safety net of tenure. The parents if not the students, trustees, and financial backers are typically the conservative centers of gravity. Parents truly are often sold on these colleges as prophylactics against secular worldviews and an opportunity to marry within the tribe; many students, faculty, and administrators are completely aligned with this vision. Others are not. As you can imagine this sort of culture results in complicated pressures and tensions especially when politics, science, or sex/gender/reproduction issues are in play. But to say these institutions and their cultures are incapable or very unlikely to generate theocratic or theonomic political irruptions is just not accurate. If anything, recent events over “gay marriage” and Obamacare suggest that countercultural reactions from the conservative protestant school institutions is becoming more common even if there is a generational shift afoot (as their seems to be) of younger evangelicals toward less militant and adversarial relations with the larger society.

    If there is one thing to be concerned about the true militants, it is that they have a pretty comfortable home alongside mainstream political, cultural, and religious conservatives. Dominionist rhetoric is adopted more widely than the ideology is fully understood or embraced on the right, but there is also a kind of legitimacy given to extremists by moderates and even self-identified liberals. This comes at a certain cost. For racialized and religionized “dogwhistle politics” to work it requires this “no enemies on the right” practice — essentially a lack of party discipline. On the right, validating or simply not-disagreeing openly with people who believe in young earth creationism, rigid gender roles, a looming apocalypse starting in the mideast, etc. is all tolerated to degrees that were unimaginable before the mid-1970s. Politicians who say rape does not result in pregnancy unless the woman enjoys it seem to define the outer limit of tolerance, but they also demonstrate how open the right and particularly the religious right is to false facts to support nonsensical theories and misanthropic visions of history and society. Home schools and religious schools are not exclusively to blame for this, but it is often true they are powerful incubators.

    These views do not just come out of nowhere; they come from deeply alienated, angry, fearful people in a rural backwaters where a limited form of “theocracy” is sometimes still possible among old boy crony networks — the last holdouts of white protestant monocultures that scream ever more loudly as their seemingly inevitable demise looms. I wouldn’t call them harmless or unworthy of note, but maybe the worst they can do is persecute gay or minority neighbors who don’t keep their heads down, or help elect a Rick Santorum to a position where he could do some real damage. They want nothing more than a national leader who seems as dedicated as they are to smashing the idols and cleansing the land with the single-minded fury of a John Brown.

    Regarding Rushdoony, you seem unaware of his major living torchholder and billionaire, Howard Ahmanson. Ahmanson funded the Rutherford Institute in the 1970s and 1980s to build the Christian legal infrastructure Rushdoony advocated. Many of their legals cases involved homeschooling. Ahmanson went on record about ten years ago as being in favor of some countries executing gay people — either by stoning the Bible way or by other methods. He was the major backer of California’s Proposition 8 and has been influential abroad through his role in anglican/episcopal church politics. The criminalization of homosexuality as a capital crime in some African countries recently is partly the fruit of Ahmanson’s labors and wealth. He and his wife are heavily involved and invested in more mainstream Evangelical institutions and projects, as are the founding families of Amway. Amway’s leaders have been notorious for supporting home schooling and other things they see as reactions against the secular / gay / liberal agenda of their wayward nation. Their financial and family connections to Falwell/Liberty, the Moonies, the Washington Times, and old unreconstructed neo-confederate paleoconservatives are a matter of public record too. You cannot call these people either mainstream or representative of religious conservatives as a whole, but they are insiders and influencers who have had a real impact.

  6. willbell123

     /  January 26, 2015

    I think everybody has a tendency to see one’s enemies as a monolithic force when really internal divisions prevent cohesion. I’ve heard the Sino-Soviet Split came as a surprise to many people because they could not imagine ‘commies’ disagreeing with one another.

  7. Donna

     /  January 30, 2015

    “But even worse, they see ordinary Christians as having been manipulated by evil Christian leaders and will vote in whatever way those leaders want. They believe that those leaders are trying to set up a theocracy to force everyone to accept their Christian beliefs.”

  8. Gordon

     /  November 17, 2015

    @Adam — Maybe you should take a look at the background and career of this Schaefferian, Quiverful pastor within homeschool and theonomy circles:

    This article appeared yesterday in the NYTimes about his call for making homosexuality a capital crime.

  9. Bill Bell

     /  May 20, 2017

    I have followed Frankie’s career with a certain amount of interest. I was a student at Liberty University when he came through in the early 80s and I can sincerely say that he was a persona non grata with the fundamentalist crowd. A slight book that he had written, Addicted to Mediocrity, was unwelcome in those circles, and as a student I was struck by how mediocre that book was. I spent a summer at L’Abri in 1980, and spent a long time with his father, talking about the difficulties with the alliance with the Moral Majority. The people who worked at L’Abri were also highly exercised by A Christian Manifesto when it came out and seriously pissed off by Whatever Happened to the Human Race, a film that Schaeffer Jr directed scripted by his father. My estimate? Here’s a guy who’s made a career out of sensationalising his role in the New Religious Right, even to the extent of airing dirty laundry about his parents for the same of professional gain. He was an accessory to teh New Religious Right, I suppose, but his role was far more insignificant than his self-fashioning suggests.

  10. Say what you want in ad hominem, but Frank’s insider account and assessment of the insurrectionst tenor of much of the religious right, including the home school movement, is accurate. If you’ve lived it, none of this is far out. I’d be impressed if Laats’ right of center go-along to get-along neoliberalism is still self-assured in 2017 to stand by this post without major caveats. Put more simply, he was wrong.

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