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.


Were the Fundamentalists Right All Along?

Is it time for atheists to celebrate? ThinkProgress calls a recent federal court decision a “major win” for them. In that decision, Oregon’s Judge Ancer Haggerty declared that Secular Humanism deserved to be counted as a religion.

But isn’t that what fundamentalists have been saying for decades? Is this decision really a long-term win for conservative religious folks, who have long argued that secular humanism is a religion? If SH is a religion, it can’t be promoted in public schools. Will fundamentalists be able to use this court decision to demand SH-free textbooks and state standards?

SH SchaefferI take a detailed look at this anti-SH school campaign in my upcoming book. The notion that SH functioned as a religion was popularized among fundamentalists by evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer. In his 1982 book A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer defined SH as a religion that made the terrible error of denying God and making humanity the “measure of all things.”

Mel and Norma Gabler, the school watchdogs who pushed Texas’ schools in profoundly conservative directions during the 1970s and 1980s, denounced SH as a “religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.” Beginning with John Dewey in the 1930s, the Gablers believed, humanists had taken over schools and pushed leftist, amoral ideas on generations of schoolchildren. SH was not a neutral arbiter between religions, the Gablers argued, but rather a pernicious religion of its own. As such, it should not be allowed to do its damning work in public schools.SH Gablers

Tim LaHaye agreed. The blockbuster fundamentalist author argued in his Battle for the Public Schools (1983) that SH taught kids in public schools to be “anti-God, antimoral, antifamily, anti-free enterprise and anti-American.” By 1980, LaHaye wrote, humanism had achieved a “stranglehold” on the US government. As LaHaye put it,

Public education today is a self-serving institution controlled by elitists of an atheistic, humanist viewpoint; they are more interested in indoctrinating their charges against the recognition of God, absolute moral values, and a belief in the American dream than they are in teaching them to read, write, and do arithmetic. I call these people humanist educrats.

SH LaHayeThis claim among fundamentalists has become ubiquitous over the years. Conservatives insist that public schools are only interested in freezing out real religion. False religions, especially SH, receive special treatment. Kids in public schools, fundamentalists insist, are not actually in a neutral environment. They are, instead, effectively in an SH madrasah.

So here’s the $64,000 question: will last week’s federal court ruling fuel this fundamentalist fire? In coming years, will fundamentalist activist groups be able to prove their claims about SH and schools by citing Judge Haggerty’s argument?

It will help to look at the specifics of the case. In this case, an SH prisoner complained that he was being treated unfairly. He had demanded similar privileges for his SH group to those given to a list of religious groups. If Catholics, Shias, Sikhs and Druids could have special meeting times, Secular Humanists should too.

The judge agreed. In Haggerty’s words, “Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.” That is, as far as the Constitution is concerned, the government cannot favor any one religion over another. Judge Haggerty pointedly noted that his decision was in line with earlier court decisions that differentiated between Secular Humanism in general and organized groups of Secular Humanists who demanded equal treatment. It does not matter if SH in general is a religion. Those who claim equal privileges to religious groups deserve them.

So, in short, the judge did not decide that SH was or was not a religion. His decision was based on the notion that any religion or non-religion deserves equal treatment by the government. But here’s my hunch: For the coming few decades, fundamentalist pundits will refer to this case as proof that SH is a religion. They will ignore the niceties of Judge Haggerty’s decision. We might even see a re-do of the Mozert v. Hawkins County case from the 1980s. In that case, fundamentalist parents insisted that school textbooks pushed the religion of SH on their trusting children.

A new generation of fundamentalist activists might take heart from this decision. It is proof, fundamentalists might conclude, that they’ve been right all along.

“Awash with the intolerance of enthusiasm:” Michael Ruse Takes on the New Atheists

I don’t think I’d like to be Richard Dawkins in a dunk tank.  The provocative and prolific New Atheist, though, seems to relish his role as cultural provocateur.  Dawkins is well known for his biting and vicious jabs against faith.  One of his most famous books derides “The God Delusion.”  In 1996, Dawkins told one audience, “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”  Elsewhere, Dawkins opined, “I think there’s really something very evil about faith.”

A recent article by philosopher of science and anti-creationist Michael Ruse takes Dawkins to task for being so fanatically religious in his atheism.  Ruse argues that the virulent anti-religion of Dawkins and his followers awkwardly conceals “the enthusiasm of the true believer, and this encourages a set of unnerving attributes: intolerance, hero-worship, moral certainty and the self-righteous condemnation of unbelievers.”

Ruse himself claims to be more atheist than Dawkins, more Darwinian.  Ruse has fought tirelessly against creationism in schools and culture.  Yet he insists that Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face atheism misses the point.  Instead of condemning religion as fit only for the ignorant or insane, as Dawkins likes to do, Ruse insists, “I think my religious friends are mistaken, but I don’t think they are stupid or crazy or ill or evil simply because they are religious.”

Though Ruse claims this is not a personal issue, his feelings have clearly been hurt.  Dawkins and allies such as Jerry Coyne have made it personal.  As Ruse complains,

“I, and others of my ilk, am reviled in terms far harsher than those kept for the real opponents like the Creationists. We are labelled ‘accommodationists’ for our willingness to give religion a space not occupied by science.”    

Ruse makes a powerful argument that the “enthusiasm” of the New Atheists resembles nothing so much as religious sectarianism.  But he strangely conflates the New Atheism of Dawkins and his allies with a far broader Humanist movement.  There are certainly connections, but it does not make sense to use the two terms interchangeably.

And, as Ruse must certainly be aware, his diatribe will likely be most celebrated by the very creationists he and Dawkins both condemn.  The notion that humanism itself is a religion has long been a central strategic point of conservative religious activists.  For example, in the early 1980s, evangelical Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer condemned “humanism” as a set of ideas that placed humanity at the center of all things, and made humans the “measure of all things.” Fundamentalist school activists Mel and Norma Gabler similarly denounced humanism as “a religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.”  And as blockbuster fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye insisted in his 1983 book The Battle for the Public Schools:

“Don’t be deceived into thinking that humanism is merely a philosophy.  That is a masquerade humanists have utilized for over three centuries to deceive millions in the Western world.  And don’t be duped into thinking that because religious people believe in God, those who do not believe in God are not religious.”(pg. 75).

My hunch is that Ruse would not relish the intellectual company.  All the more since such arguments about the essential religiosity of humanism have long been at the core of conservative strategies to transform public schooling.  Most famously in the 1980s case Mozert v. Hawkins County, religious conservatives had initial strategic success portraying humanism as a religion.

If humanism counts as religion, the argument went, then public schools have no Constitutional business promoting it.  Textbooks with an evolutionary perspective, books that promote a notion of material origins of humanity, schoolbooks that teach the primary importance of human reason, such things smack of government instruction in the religion of humanism.

Strange bedfellows.

As Professor Ruse notes in his essay, his anti-creationist credentials are impeccable.  Yet just as sectarian disputes among religious folks have provided some of the most profound and influential arguments against religion in general, so the clash between these atheistic Darwinists will likely provide the very best reasons to include more creationist-friendly ideas in public schools.