How Christian Schools and Homeschooling Teach Supremacist Conspiracies

The Christian schooling and homeschooling environment is an established breeding ground for the far-right white supremacist conspiracies undergirding QAnon.

A QAnon follower at a pro-Trump rally in D.C., November 2020. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

QAnon and other conspiracy theories are gaining ground. According to a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute, 29 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of white evangelicals believe core aspects of the debunked conspiracy theory, such as that former President Trump is covertly crusading against a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophile Democrats. Approximately half of white evangelicals contend that Antifa was behind the Jan 6 Capitol riot—despite FBI officials’ insistence there is no such evidence. A late December poll found that 39 percent of Americans accepted there was a “deep state” operating to undermine President Trump.

Scrambling to explain the mainstreaming of such preposterous views, the national media has pointed the finger at hyper-partisan conservative news and social media platforms, such as Fox News, Newsmax and Parler. But some religion scholars and “ex-vangelicals” warn of another, more established breeding ground for the far-right, anti-State, white supremacist conspiracies undergirding QAnon: the Christian schooling and homeschooling environment.

The “Christian Right has been doing ‘alternative facts’ since before it was cool,” writes Chrissy Stroop, who was raised in a high-control evangelical community. “It would be remiss of us to approach the ‘where were they radicalized’ question without addressing how the Christian schooling and homeschooling movement, along with many white churches and other evangelical, LDS, and [traditional] Catholic institutions, fostered the subcultures that created the demand for hyper-partisan ‘news’ outlets like Fox News.”

White Christian Supremacy and the Dominion Mandate

In January, Christian schooling alumni Mel Garman told HuffPost she experienced déjà vu when confronting the imagery and rhetoric of the Capitol rioters. The equivalence of Christian and American flags, and the claims to be simultaneously saving one’s country and fulfilling divine prophecy by defeating one’s enemies seemed to “have come straight out of one of her childhood classrooms, where … she was taught a distorted version of history with nods to white Christian supremacy.”

Remarking on the righteous violence on display, Garman added, “That whole belief system revolves around the idea that you want the rest of the world to think like you. … It’s a ‘the ends justify the means’ type of thing.”

Such a belief system stems from the “dominion mandate”—the idea, popularized by 1960s homeschooling advocate R. J. Rushdoony, that Christians have a moral imperative to conquer the world and control all human institutions, in addition to reigning supreme over the natural world. The dominion mandate pervades conservative Christian textbooks.

And so do alarming claims about American history and culture, the HuffPost found. A high school textbook from BJU Press, one of the leading Christian publishers, contends that President Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter activists’ “divisive rhetoric” are responsible for any racial discord in America. (With regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, there is nary a mention of police brutality.) An eleventh-grade Abeka textbook largely lays the Iraq War protests at the feet of then-president George Bush’s haters in Hollywood and liberal media, rather than Bush’s policies. The same textbook warns of the post-2000 rise of “immoral ideologies” such as environmentalism.  

Scrambling to explain the mainstreaming of QAnon conspiracies, many have blamed conservative news. But another breeding ground for the conspiracies is the Christian schooling and homeschooling environment. (Michael Fajardo / Flickr)

The antipathy toward “secular” science and social justice are not new. Previous textbooks from the same two publishers, who supply materials for approximately one-third of Christian schools, in addition to dominating the homeschool market, dismiss evolution as junk science, insist upon a literal six-day creation (something most Christians reject), describe modern psychology as satanic, portray Nelson Mandela as a “Marxist agitator,” and minimize the traumas of slavery and native genocide. Some Christian textbooks go so far as to suggest that certain Black Americans were better off under slavery, as they had the moral guidance of Christian masters. Others suggest that God intervened to prevent Catholics from becoming dominant in North America. (See this Twitter thread for other jaw-dropping propaganda.)     

As Stroop and others, like religion scholar Julie Ingersoll, have demonstrated, such extremist, white supremacist curricula is the product of a decades-long crusade to deregulate home- and private-school education, the fruits of which are visible in such phenomena as QAnon, COVID denialism, the Capitol riots, and the plagiarized 1776 Commission Report, Trump’s last-gasp effort to enforce “patriotic education” before leaving office.

This is history that Americans can no longer afford to ignore, as the pandemic has presented homeschool advocates with an unprecedented opportunity to recruit “culture warriors.” In order to protect against the further radicalization of Americans into militarized, conspiracy-spewing white nationalists, and in order to protect youth from the varied traumas of high-control religious environments, progressives must understand and resist the culture of disinformation and abuse that conservative Christian schoolers have built.  

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The Beginnings of the Homeschooling Movement

Homeschooling, as a movement, first began to grow in the 1960s, when religious Americans sought an alternative to secular education and secular Americans desired more psychology-based educational methods for their children. In the case of the former, it was both the Supreme Court’s ending of school prayer and the desegregation of schools that outraged. Conservatives based their arguments for homeschooling on Deuteronomy 6:7, which urges parental authority. Their logic was that children’s mothers and fathers—not atheistic schoolteachers—should guide their lives.

In 1983, homeschooling advocate Michael Farris established the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to expand parents’ rights to operate unfettered. Across the nation, the HSLDA successfully lobbied states for the freedom not to notify the state of the intent to homeschool and not to be subjected to assessments, among other liberties. More recently, the organization has managed to roll back bills requiring medical tests and interviews with state agencies.

For decades, the HSLDA has pushed the message that homeschooling is a moral imperative; and bulletins warn the practice is under threat, leading many parents to be wary of any and all state representatives. Past literature even provided parents with tips to dodge social workers appearing at their doorstep.

As if this wasn’t enough, Ferris wrote a novel dramatizing two families who faced persecution at the hands of the child welfare system and the godless United Nations, which had recently ratified the radical “Rights of the Child.” The book jacket for Forbid Them Not (1996) reads, “It could happen to anyone!”

Homeschooling: A Culture of Abuse

What actually did and does happen in many homeschooling families is abuse, as numerous tragic cases have revealed. In 2011, the underweight 13-year-old Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died after being beaten with a plumbing supply line. Her parents, HSLDA members, had gleaned the idea for such punishment from the Christian parenting manual To Train Up a Child. Authors Michael and Debi Pearl advise spanking children with quarter-inch tubes to “break their will,” along with denying food and subjecting children to a cold garden hose. (The book has been blamed for two other deaths besides Williams’.)

In 2014, a woman claimed to have been sexually abused by Doug Philips, a chairman of the HSLDA, while working as a nanny for his children. That incident, which resulted in Phillips’s resigning from his ministries, was eclipsed by the even more high-profile scandals of TLC’s Josh Dugger, who sexually molested four sisters, and David and Louise Turpin, who were convicted of torturing their thirteen kids.

Such tragedies have emboldened scores of survivors to share stories of abuse in Christian homeschooling environments; and there now exist many support communities for such survivors, such as Homeschoolers Anonymous (HA), founded by Ryan Stollar in 2013. In 2014, HA’s parent organization surveyed thousands of Christian homeschooling alumni, finding that 5 percent had endured sexual abuse, 16 percent had endured physical abuse, and 30 percent had endured physical abuse.

The pandemic is poised to intensify the dual crises of abuse and Christian nationalism, which are two sides of the same (dominionist) coin. Over the course of crisis, the HSLDA has aggressively touted itself as a champion of parents who make the brave, responsible decision to withdraw their children from failing public schools. “Just remember that Home School Legal Defense is here for you,” writes one advocate.

The organization has offered discounted tuition for its K-12 online academy, in addition to pushing extremist curricula on new homeschool families. Its leaders and those of the similar Public School Exit have been open about the “historic opportunity” before them. Stroop ascertained their heavy-handed tactics as early as March 2020, then writing, “While public schools work heroically to adapt to the challenges of providing remote instruction, far right-wing organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association are recruiting.”

Take Action

But the radicalization of further swaths of the population isn’t inevitable. Members of the public can take action, such as by calling upon legislators to deny state and federal funding to homeschooling programs and private schools that lack reasonable oversight. They can press lax state education departments to require homeschooled children to be seen by medical providers and other service-providers outside the home.

People can also support organizations like the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a conglomeration of homeschool alumni, researchers and educators who promote oversight of curricula; and they can widely share secular homeschooling resources, including those provided by Scholastic, the National Education Association and Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers.

As the January 6 riots made clear, the stakes are too high for Americans to sit idly by as the far-right spreads disinformation and hate. 

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Audrey Clare Farley is the author of the forthcoming book, The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt (on-sale April 20, 2021). She is also a writer, book reviewer, and historian of twentieth-century American fiction and culture. Having earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park in 2017, Farley occasionally lectures in history and literature at local universities. Her essay on Ann Cooper Hewitt, published in July 2019 in Narratively, was the publication’s second most-read story of the year. Her writing on the eugenics movement and other topics has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Public Books, Lady Science, Longreads, and Marginalia Review of Books, where she is a contributing editor. She lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania.