As we speculate about the ways that our world will be different when we emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to keep an eye on the way that right-wing authoritarians at home and abroad are exploiting crisis conditions to grab or consolidate power. The dictatorial powers granted to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán by the Hungarian Parliament in late March are an obvious example. But the subtler ways in which right-wing authoritarians are exploiting pandemic conditions for their own ideological ends may be even more insidious.
Anti-government ideologues in the United States have long awaited the kind of catastrophic system failures that they believe will position them well to gain power and influence in a destabilized society. Some on the Christian Right see our current crisis as an opportune moment to strike a death-blow against public education, one longstanding target. 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.
The single most important Christian Right lobby that most Americans have never heard of, HSLDA is largely responsible for the extent to which homeschooling has been deregulated since the 1980s. Under its advocacy, U.S. Christian homeschooling has become the province of rigidly fundamentalist beliefs, widespread failure to vaccinate, and apologia for the abuse and neglect of children. And, as a number of states have further relaxed what little oversight of homeschooling they required prior to the coronavirus outbreak, HSLDA isn’t alone in seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to further advance its illiberal agenda.
As a March 31 press release from the new Christian Right advocacy group Public School Exit put it, “With coronavirus shutting government schools, millions of parents have a historic opportunity to try homeschooling and non-government alternatives.” But while the press release claims that PSE is a “new movement,” in fact it’s just the latest rebranding of a racist, patriarchal, and virulently anti-government movement whose adherents have spent decades working to destroy public education in the United States.
One of PSE’s co-founders is Alex Newman, a John Birch Society member and contributor to the Birchers’ flagship magazine The New AmericanE. Ray Moore, Jr., executive director of Exodus Mandate, a project of his Frontline Ministries, Inc., which was granted tax-exempt status in 1995.
Like PSE, Exodus Mandate encourages U.S. families to abandon public schools for Christian schools or homeschooling, and Moore has a long history of employing bombastic rhetoric for the cause. In a 2009 video, he argued, “Just as British soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, today, 75-80 percent of Christian children are trapped in the state-run public schools.” In the same video, he urged Christians to focus “on extracting Christian children from the pagan, godless public schools.” Moore is a member of the education committee of the Council for National Policy: a secretive group of influential conservatives who, in the Trump era, have advocated for dismantling the Department of Education.
But now, amid the pandemic, it’s clear Moore and his fellow travelers believe their moment has arrived to grow the homeschooling movement “by millions.” “In all my years in this movement, I’ve never seen an opportunity like this,” Moore remarked in the press release, describing an “incredible chance to rescue millions from anti-Christian indoctrination,” which is how Christian Reconstructionists and other Dominionists refer to public education.
When I asked Newman what he would say to critics who saw PSE’s call to action as the exploitation of human tragedy, he chided me: “Shame on you. Nobody is celebrating a pandemic, and there is no possible way for an honest person to misinterpret our remarks in that way.” Yet, he continued:
This is an opportunity for millions of parents to provide a superior education for their children, which will result in stronger families, as well as a better-educated and more moral citizenry. The economic disruption and loss of life are a tragedy, but the growing exodus from government schools should be cause for joy among all those who hope that as many American children as possible will receive a high-quality education.
PSE’s Dominionist Politics
PSE’s use of the phrase “government schools” (in their press release and on their website) as a pejorative replacement for “public schools” is a hallmark of Christian Reconstructionism, a movement founded by R.J. Rushdoony that has exerted powerful influence on the development of homeschooling and Christian school curricula over the last half-century. In so doing, Christian Reconstructionists have managed to mainstream their Dominionist vision within U.S. evangelicalism, as University of North Florida Professor of Religious Studies Julie Ingersoll has thoroughly documented in her book, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction.
Over the last several decades, Ingersoll explained in an interview, many parents have been pulled into what she refers to as “the Christian Homeschool Movement”—not representative of all homeschooling by any means, but rather “homeschooling with a Christian nationalist, theocratic, anti-science, and anti-public education agenda.” But what began as a small movement has since grown so influential, she continued, that “even secular homeschoolers have reported that finding homeschool communities and materials not rooted in Christian fundamentalism, not inflected with its theocratic views, is difficult.”
While PSE doesn’t identify as Reconstructionist—and Newman refused the label for either the organization or himself—the movement’s influence is evident in its members’ backgrounds and work. Newman coauthored a book called Crimes of the Educators: How Liberal Utopians Have Turned Public Education into a Criminal Enterprise, which approvingly cites Rushdoony and pushes the conspiratorial narrative that John Dewey and “his fellow progressives” designed America’s public school system “to produce little socialists and collectivists instead of little capitalists and individualists.”
Two other PSE “sponsors” identified on the group’s website have similar far-right bona fides. Duke Pesta is a member of the John Birch Society’s National Council and a right-wing radio host. And Dran Reese is president of the Salt & Light Council, a tax-exempt religious organization that focuses on “biblical citizenship,” has promoted Liberty Counsel (which notoriously defended Kim Davis when she refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses after the Obergefell decision), and has asserted outright lies in pursuit of an anti-transgender school agenda.
Then there’s Moore, a retired Army chaplain who’s waged war on public education for many years. In her book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, PRA’s Kathryn Joyce characterized Moore’s ideology as exhibiting “an explicitly secessionist ethos.” Through his decades of work with Exodus International, Moore “aims for the ultimate removal of Christian families from state rule—leaving ‘Pharaoh’s school system’ for the Promised Land.” In the meantime, however, people like Moore call for “Christians to remove their children from public schools as a ploy to collapse by attrition what they consider a wicked, humanist institution”—precisely the goal of PSE.
Why would the backers of a project like PSE see the current moment as a “historic opportunity” to advance their illiberal vision for the future? While Newman refused to identify PSE as a Christian Reconstructionist organization, in Quiverfull, Joyce observed, “Michael McVicar, who studies Reconstructionism and has written about R. J. Rushdoony, sees Moore’s homeschool ministry as one of the most direct embodiments of Rushdoony’s ideas.”
“Reconstructionists take a ‘long view’ of history,” Ingersoll told me, “imagining their efforts to spread the Kingdom of God in terms of centuries rather than elections cycles. They have long anticipated a cataclysmic event that creates a vacuum in which they can makes rapid progress in transforming culture to conform to their reading of the Bible.” This view is particularly associated with Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law who served as an economic adviser to former Congressional Representative Ron Paul. (Interestingly, Paul blurbed Newman’s Crimes of the Educators.)
According to Ingersoll, North “predicted economic or social collapses in which ‘the world’ would look to ‘well prepared Christians’ to know how to respond. In terms of the spread of the Christian Homeschool Movement, COVID-19 presents just such an opportunity.”
Newman described PSE’s main goal to me as “rescuing children from the indoctrination, dumbing down and sexualization of government schools,” and offering strong support for “educational liberty and parental rights.” But what about the rights of children in these homeschooling families—frequently subjected to “alternative facts” in their daily education, and at elevated risk of neglect and abuse?
Children’s rights advocate Torah Bontrager, founder of the Amish Heritage Foundation, ran away from her Amish family in order to escape abuse and pursue high school and advanced education—something unavailable to many Amish children ever since the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder enshrined the right of Amish communities to stop educating their children after eighth grade. To Bontrager, who hopes eventually to see Yoder overturned, PSE is “just another organization in the long string of actors sacrificing children on the bloody altar of power and control.” She continued, “The children preyed upon by Public School Exit will be indoctrinated with beliefs that contradict scientific evidence” and “will grow up not understanding the full spectrum of their rights as American citizens.”
Ashley Schnarr Easter, an abuse survivor advocate who grew up in a Quiverfull family, expressed the additional concern that isolation made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic—like the isolation that already exists in many homeschooling homes—can leave children vulnerable. For one thing, she said, “Not every parent is equipped to home educate their children properly.” For another, she added, “As an abuse victim advocate I’m getting messages from women quarantined with their abusive partners. Imagine what this is like for children in abusive homes.”
Advocates like Easter don’t want to see homeschooling banned, but they do want to make sure that the children in homeschooling families receive a full, robust education without being subjected to abuse and neglect. And that means reasonable standards of accountability for what children are learning, as well as ensuring that homeschooled children are regularly seen by medical professionals and checked on by mandated reporters in order to minimize physical and sexual abuse. “Homeschooling, as it is right now in many states,” notes Easter, “fails to protect children who may come from abusive homes.” She blames organizations like PSE for “using fear tactics and claims that public schools are a great evil,” even as they refuse “to look inward at safety issues in homeschooling.”
It’s a difficult problem to address, said Bontrager. “Organizations like Public School Exit create a feedback loop that fosters a system of generational abuse. The children grow into adults who repeat that cycle of educational deprivation and its accompanying abuses against children, and they successfully lobby Washington to increase extreme educational exemptions in the name of religious freedom.”
While homeschooling can be done responsibly, for decades the Christian Right has successfully used it as a vehicle to radicalize parents and children alike. The coronavirus crisis is proving to be just one more opportunity, and parents should be wary as they seek to continue their children’s education.