Why This Simone Biles Homeschool Success Meme Is Disrespectful to Homeschool Alumni (And Simone Biles)

Editorial Note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on August 15, 2016.

Edited by Wende Benner, HA Editorial Staff.

Meme features picture of Simone Biles with this text: But how will homeschooled kids ever compete in the real world? 

 Pretty well, I guess.

Speaking as a homeschool alumna, this meme is disrespectful to homeschool alumni—including Simone Biles—for a multitude of reasons. And yet, it’s being shared by homeschool parents across Facebook as a way to show how awesome and amazing homeschooling is. For years now, I and other alumni have been calling attention to problems in the homeschool world—children left unprepared, young adults struggling—and for years we’ve been poo-pooed and talked over by homeschool parents who would prefer to share self-righteous memes like the one above than to talk about the actual issues homeschool alumni face. You know what? I’m not letting this one slide.

First of all, Simone Biles—pictured in the above meme—didn’t want to be homeschooled. Not only that, when she actually was homeschooled—a decision she cried over—she hated it. That’s right, she hated being homeschooled.

First, look at this excerpt from an article:

To advance to the elite level and be on that cover, [Simone Biles would] have to be homeschooled, Nellie told her. There would be no prom, no after-school activities, no hanging with classmates. The decision was hers. After a weekend of crying, she told her parents she would do it. ‘I was just so lonely all the time,’ Simone says. ‘I missed, like, all my friends at school and stuff. But I mean, in the end, it worked out.’

Next, watch this excerpt from an interview.

Can you see how holding Biles up as the poster-child of homeschool success might be a bad idea? Biles was homeschooled because she had to be to compete at an Olympic level in her sport, not because she wanted to be homeschooled and not because she liked being homeschooled. Indeed, Biles “hated” being homeschooled and missed her active social life and the experiences her peers had in public high school. If she hadn’t been an Olympic-quality athlete, she never would have been homeschooled.

There’s another issue, too. Biles isn’t competing in “the real world” mentioned in the meme. She’s competing in the Olympics. Only a very small fraction of athletes make it to the Olympics, and their shelf life tends to be short—most gymnasts don’t attend the Olympics more than twice, if that. I’m as proud of Biles’ success as everyone else! I’ve watched her incredible floor routine with my jaw hanging open more than once this week. She’s amazing. But when people ask whether homeschool graduates will be able to compete in “the real world” they’re not talking about Olympics—and when 99.99% of homeschool graduates enter “the real world” they’re entering a very very different world from that currently occupied by Simone Biles.

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school. I have many friends who were also homeschooled. I know homeschool alumni who went to MIT, and homeschool alumni who have struggled with homelessness. I know homeschool alumni who are earning good, stable incomes, and homeschool alumni who are jumping from minimum wage job to minimum wage job trying to find something that works. I know homeschool alumni who have gone on to graduate school, and homeschool alumni who have struggled with applications to community college. I know homeschool alumni who hate academic learning, after years of filling out mindless worksheets at the kitchen table, and homeschool alumni who thrive on academic learning, having grown up with innovative, rich academic experiences.

When it comes to homeschool alumni, there is no one result. Pointing to specific homeschool success stories while ignoring homeschool alumni who are in jail, struggling with addiction, or homeless is incredibly disrespectful to those alumni. It’s also disrespectful to homeschool alumni struggling to pay for community college, desperately afraid they’re going to be fired from yet another minimum wage job, or barely staving off eviction and fearful about what their future looks like without the most basic of educational qualifications, not to mention an extreme feeling of social otherness and, in too many cases, oft-lurking depression.

Are there individuals who attended public school who experience all of the above? Absolutely! But we acknowledge that. We admit that our public schools are failing some children, and that some schools are failing more children than others. We don’t point to prominent successful individuals who graduated from public schools—Hillary Clinton, or Steve Jobs—and act like this proves something. Instead, we admit that experiences vary, and we put in hard work to improve the experiences of public school students who are being left behind.

Can homeschooling work? Yes. Can homeschooling fail? Yes! Does Simone Biles’ Olympic success tell us anything about the “real world” success of homeschoolers as a group? Absolutely not. It has now been almost four decades since the beginning of the modern homeschool movement in the late 1970s. What do actually we know about homeschooling? A lot, and almost nothing.

We know that homeschooled children can succeed, but we don’t know how homeschooled students score academically on average, and there are to-date no studies on homeschool outcomes that use random samples rather than recruiting volunteers. We know that homeschooled students score slightly better than public school students on the SAT, particularly in reading, but we also know that a surprisingly small number of homeschooled students actually take the SAT—less than 10%. Studies of homeschooled students’ college performance are mixed, some showing higher GPAs and some showing more ambiguity, but even studies with positive findings point to other concerning statistics—there are fewer homeschool alumni in college than there ought to be, and they are less likely than other students to pursue STEM fields than other students. There’s a math gap. There’s also a gendered achievement gap. And there’s a lot we still don’t know.

But homeschooling parents don’t want to talk about any of this. They’d rather talk about Simone Biles. And on some level, who wouldn’t? Celebrating a success story is far more pleasant than putting in the real work necessary to ensure that students don’t fall under the radar and disappear, only to surface later with deficient educations and a future full of dead ends. As for me, I’m here for the students who have no one rooting for them. I stand with my fellow homeschool alumni, and I’m not giving up.

I Was Raised To Be A Conservative Culture Warrior. Then I Jumped The Political Fence.

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Grufnik.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog. It was originally published on July 11, 2016.

I grew up in a conservative homeschool family and religious community firmly ensconced in the Christian Right. I was raised to be a culture warrior. I was raised to create change, to be a mover and a shaker. But only for the conservative side of things, of course, and there’s the rub, because I’m no longer conservative. My mother recently told me she thinks I should write historical children’s books—she’s always suggesting careers that she thinks would allow me to work from home and homeschool my children—but she had a caveat. “Just so long as you leave religion and politics out of them,” she said. I almost laughed out loud.

As a young teenager, I enjoyed writing fiction, including historical fiction. The story I developed most fully was set in the present. It was about a teenage boy who finds an island off the coast of the United States. In my story, this island is inhabited—I’m not even kidding—by a community of large conservative Christian homeschooling families that fled the wickedness of the United States to establish a secret colony of sorts on an island that had somehow never landed on people’s maps. I cringe when I think of the book, because its content consists primarily of painfully obvious religious and political platitudes.

Still, there was a reason the book looked like that. I was raised to change the world. I was explicitly taught that I, and my fellow Christian homeschoolers, had a mission to “retake” the United States for Christ. I was taught (by Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, among others) that our parents were the Moses generation, taking us out of Egypt and homeschooling us in the wilderness, and that we were the Joshua generation, tasked with retaking the promised land. When Farris founded Patrick Henry College, he strategically chose the majors he did so that we, the products of the Christian homeschool movement, could infiltrate and target key areas of government and culture in our battle to remake the country in a Christian image.

My parents were political as far back as I can remember. I walked in more parades than I can count, put up yard signs, worked the polls, attended rallies, and staffed phone banks. I spoke with reporters and we ran campaigns out of our home. My parents counted my work on various political campaigns for high school government credit on my homeschool transcript. One year, I was a delegate at our state convention for the Republican Party. Conservative officials at the state capital started referring to us as their local welcoming committee, because we were always there ready to show our support when they visited our area. I assumed I would always be in politics, most likely as the wife of a political candidate.

This was not accidental. My mother sometimes told me that the reason she and my father weren’t out changing the world as missionaries, pastors, or politicians was that they were instead investing their time and energies in raising me and my burgeoning collection of younger siblings to do those things. We were to go out and change the world as missionaries, pastors, and politicians, with multiplied impact. But we had to be trained and prepared first, and that, of course, was why we were being homeschooled. Some of my siblings grumbled at this expectation, and checked out at an early age—though they were still required to attend functions and participate in political activism. Me? I was excited. I was motivated. I was passionate.

As a teen, I attended a number of conservative summer camps that touched on politics. I went to one anti-government summer camp that consisted primarily of lectures on the evils of environmentalism (a trumped up plot to control the world) and the failed socialism of programs like Social Security. We used pebbles to form slogans like “Get the U.S. out of the U.N.” on the ground outside of our cabins to gain cabin inspection points. I also attended Constitutional Law Camp at Patrick Henry College. At one point during a session, Farris pointed to various sections of the room, waving his hands over us, and declared that those students over there would be Congressmen, someday, and those up in the front would be Supreme Court Justices, and so on. The messianic vision was strong and our mission was clear.

It does something to you, when the weight of the world is put on your shoulders. You can no longer just stand back and let things happen. You feel responsible to fix injustice and actively work to make the world a better place.

At this point, you can probably see why I almost laughed out loud when my mother suggested that I write historical children’s books, but only if I included no mention of religion or politics. She would never have suggested such a thing to me when I was a teen, nor would I have considered it if she had. I did think about writing, sometimes, even about writing historical fiction, but my writing would have been religious and political of necessity. I was taught, after all, that I was to use my talents and skills to change the world—to win converts and to sway the public, to restore the United States to its (at least partially fictional) Christian, small-government past. To write a piece of fiction, especially historical fiction, without any mention of religion or politics would have been almost blasphemous.

In 2008, the Obama campaign somehow ended up with my parents’ home phone number. I was no longer living at home, but it’s theoretically possible that I may have put that phone number on a form I filled out with them. I got a cell phone comparatively late, and was still in college at the time. And so it happened that the Obama campaign called my parents’ home and asked for me. And that is how my parents learned that my politics had changed. In the eight years since then I’ve become increasingly willing to voice my progressive politics on social media, and, sometimes, in conversations with my parents. I’ve also informed my parents that I attend a Unitarian Universalist Church (I wouldn’t have told them, except that they had to keep asking about church attendance).

It seems my parents’ desire that I be a culture changer was conditional on my sharing their view of what our culture should be. I’m not surprised, really. Still, it’s fascinating to see it laid out that way—we know we raised you to be a culture changer, but now that you’re all progressive and such, we’d prefer that you stay silent on religious and political issues, thanks. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

I still have the weight of the world on my shoulders. I still feel responsible to fix injustice and actively work to make the world a better place. I can’t just turn that off.

About My Homeschool Success Story . . .

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Illinois Springfield.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on February 24, 2016.

I posted earlier this week about David McGrath, a college professor who used to be anti-homeschooling but became avidly and uncritically pro-homeschooling after having a homeschool graduate in his class who impressed him with her academic work and interest. Here is the relevant quote from his article:

All that changed when I started teaching at the college level, on an evening when I came home from work, slipped off my shoes, collapsed into the recliner and announced to my wife that the best student in my college composition class had been home-schooled.

An 18-year-old only child, who had been educated by her parents for all 12 grades, chose a seat in the front row on the first day of class.

The following 16 weeks, she maintained eye contact throughout lectures and discussions, listened intently to me and her classmates, raised her hand to offer an observation, an answer or to ask a question when no one else would, followed instructions to the letter, communicated verbally and in writing more clearly than everyone else and received the highest grade on every assignment.

She was the first student to arrive, had perfect attendance the entire semester and was a catalyst for every lesson I ventured.

In his piece McGrath goes on to praise homeschooling up and down, and to argue that homeschooling de facto provides a better education. In my response, I noted that the student he is describing could have been me as an undergraduate ten years ago, and that I am not okay with homeschool success stories like mine being used to erase the many stories of homeschool educational neglect that I saw growing up or have heard from other homeschool alumni since.

Homeschooling does not de facto provide a better education. Homeschooling is only as good as the parents who use it and the resources they have access to.

But there’s another point that needs to be made as well. The comment section on my post filled up with statements like this:

It’s also possible to be a “homeschool success story” while having experienced educational neglect. I had great SAT scores, was offered lots of scholarships, and graduated college with a perfect GPA. I got used to presenting myself as a poster child for the homeschooling movement. But now, looking back, I think my success was in spite of my home education, not because of it.

I was expected to teach myself most subjects – with absolutely no guidance, little supervision, and inadequate materials. As in, my parents handed me an outdated college-level science textbook when I was 15 and expected me to teach myself the material.

But if a homeschooler is successful in her studies and in her future career, that must mean that her parents did an amazing job and that homeschooling is the best educational option, right? I mean, what other explanation could there possibly be?

In comment after comment after comment after comment, other homeschool alumni who had also been “homeschool success stories” shared tales of educational neglect or the inability to fit in socially. “I didn’t take the subjects I was under prepared in,” explained one while another described her college experience as “so crushingly lonely that at times I couldn’t breathe.” I had left this side of things out of my post because I was focusing on the problem of using homeschool success stories to erase stories of debilitating homeschool neglect, but this too—the frequent surface-level nature of many homeschool success stories—is a tale that needs to be told.

One thing I wondered when reading McGrath’s piece was whether he ever asked the girl he described whether she had liked being homeschooled, or whether she considered herself better off for having been homeschooled, or whether in her estimation there were any inadequacies in her education. I have seen so many people go on and on about how wonderful homeschooling is without ever asking a single homeschool alumni for their thoughts. But then I remembered that, given that many if not most homeschooled students are raised to defend homeschooling to the teeth, asking is unlikely to get a straight answer.

I spent my entire college experience praising my homeschool upbringing. I was a model student with a perfect GPA. I believed homeschooling had gotten me there and fully intended to homeschool my children too. I believed that homeschooling was a better educational method than any other (and also that sending your children to school every day was akin to abandoning them and handing them over to teachers to be raised, of course). But then, one day, Sean (my then-boyfriend, now-husband) put a question to me that stopped me up short.

“Well yes, Libby, but don’t you think, given your parents’ educational backgrounds, the value they put on education, and your drive and motivation level, that you’d have done just as well academically if you’d attended public school?”

I had never once considered that, but in that moment I realized that he was right. I succeeded not because I was homeschooled but rather because I had parents who cared about education, who promoted academic learning, and who expected me to succeed. I excelled academically not because I was homeschooled but rather because I was a motivated and driven learner, ready to consume any knowledge I could put my hands on. And if I’d attended public school, I’d have had actual math teachers during high school, rather than be left struggling through textbooks teaching myself, alone.

For all that I was a model student, there were some important things missing from my homeschool experience. I have no criticism of my early years—my mother worked hard to teach me and siblings and I learned reading, grammar, math, history, and science thoroughly and in ways that were interactive and fun. But my high school years I was mostly on my own. I had an instructor I met with once a week for languages—Latin and Greek—and I attended a weekly homeschool co-op that covered choir, band, and art. I also attended speech and debate club, and two homeschool moms served as our coaches. But other than that, I taught myself. I was self-motivated and driven, so this wasn’t entirely a bad thing, but there are a number of areas where I would benefited from having an instructor or a more structured class.

Government? My parents counted my volunteer work on various political campaigns as government, along with reading the Federalist Papers on my own. Economics? My parents had me read Whatever Happened to Penny Candy and complete some consumer economics workbooks, once again on my own. Actually, I’m pretty sure my parents counted the anti-government summer camp I attended as government and economics credit as well. History? My mom counted my independent reading as history, which she figured was okay because I was a bit of a history nut. In college I lapped up the history survey courses like I’d never tasted water before, even as most of the students around me were bored because they’d already had history survey courses in high school. I hadn’t. Much (if not most) of what I was learning was new.

Once in college I avoided the subjects I wasn’t good at (as another commenter noted), and that meant staying the hell away from math. In high school, I had been expected to teach myself out of math textbooks. Because I’m a quick learner, this worked for a while, but then I hit calculus. I finished the book and we put it on my transcript, but I had completely lost track of what was going on. If I had majored in math, I would have started out behind. I’m a quick learner, and hadn’t had an instructor for math since grade school, so it’s possible I might have caught up quickly, but I preferred not to try. I chose to stick with subjects I knew I could handle.

But actually, we need to talk about English too. I never had an English class the way you would in a public high school. Most of the books everyone read because they were required for high school English classes I never even touched. I never analyzed themes in literature or studied the history of literature. And critically, I never learned how to do footnotes or write a research paper. My freshman year, I had my college friends read every single one of my papers before I turned them in, and I found myself at the writing center asking desperately for someone to please show me how to do footnotes. Do you know how confusing it is to have to figure out how to write a research paper for the first time ever, completely by yourself? I’d done timed essays, sure, and I knew basic grammar. But this? Nope. This was new.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: Some homeschool graduates excel in college because they are intelligent and driven and college is the first time they’ve had access to instructors and education. They drink up education because they’re starved for it.

And then there’s the social element. Early on in college I formed a sort of community for myself with a number of other highly motivated and academically inclined students who shared my evangelical beliefs—everyone else thought I was weird, and I had trouble fitting in with other groups socially. Going to college felt like moving to another country. I didn’t understand the culture, but I also didn’t know the language. It wasn’t just that the other students were different from me—though they were—it was also that I literally did not know how to behave in social situations. I mean I could be in those situations, I just didn’t know any of the rules. And so I would sit in class surrounded by strangers I didn’t know how to interact with—and was in some sense afraid to interact with—and then return to the safety of my small circle of friends to study or hang out. If I hadn’t made these close friends quickly, my social experience would have been completely different.

But let’s talk about those friends for a moment. My friends were, like me, model students. And yet, they had graduated from public schools. It wasn’t until after Sean’s question about how well I thought I would have done in public school that I really thought about this. My college friends were just as driven and prepared as I was—if not more so—and they had attended public school. And if I’m honest with myself, a number of them were more prepared and more well-rounded than I was. Indeed, their high school education was objectively better than mine.

And yet, I would never once have criticized homeschooling during my college years. I was raised on such a strong strong dose of homeschool supremacism (I’m honestly not sure what else to call it) that I could not easily shake my belief that homeschooling was superior and public schooling was always sub-par. It’s all to easy for a homeschooling parent to see any criticism of homeschooling as criticism of them, but it was more than that. Having been homeschooled was part of my identity, too, and to admit flaws in that experience was simply out of the question. It was years—years—before I was able to reach a place where I didn’t feel like I had to homeschool my own future children. Actually, my oldest was two or three before I was able to reach that point—the point where it felt like an option, not a mandate.

When I put my oldest in public school, my mother cried. Wept. Please, next time you talk about homeschool graduates, remember that many if not most of us are in a position where our parents will see any criticism we may have of homeschooling as a direct attack on them. And I didn’t even criticize homeschooling, I simply put my kids in public school—but that was enough. Even now, I think carefully before mentioning any of my children’s school activities or accomplishments to my mother, because I never know how she’ll react—or whether such mentions will cause her further pain.  Those who use successful homeschool graduates as evidence of how awesome homeschooling is never stop to think about the tightrope we must walk.

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school, and I went on to excel in college and now graduate school. I am to all accounts a homeschool success story. But that is not all of my story. My story is also one of flaws and struggles. Would I have been better off if I had attended public school? I don’t know. Homeschooling gave me some opportunities I would not have had had I attended public school, even as it removed others. Do I wish I had not been homeschooled? At this point, no. I have walked through a lot of crap, but having been homeschooled is part of what makes me me, and I like where I am today, and who I am.

But I can say that there were things about my homeschool experience that were subpar, and that while I must have seemed like a model student to every one of my professors, there was something about that that was only skin-deep.

Stop Using My Homeschool Success Story to Erase Others’ Educational Neglect

CC image courtesy of Flickr, CollegeDegrees360.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on February 22, 2016.

In a commentary piece in the Chicago Tribune, David McGrath, a college professor, explains his transition from believing that homeschooling deprives children of their right to an education to believing that homeschooling is superior to other forms of education. Here’s the bit that stopped this homeschool graduate up short:

All that changed when I started teaching at the college level, on an evening when I came home from work, slipped off my shoes, collapsed into the recliner and announced to my wife that the best student in my college composition class had been home-schooled.

An 18-year-old only child, who had been educated by her parents for all 12 grades, chose a seat in the front row on the first day of class.

The following 16 weeks, she maintained eye contact throughout lectures and discussions, listened intently to me and her classmates, raised her hand to offer an observation, an answer or to ask a question when no one else would, followed instructions to the letter, communicated verbally and in writing more clearly than everyone else and received the highest grade on every assignment.

She was the first student to arrive, had perfect attendance the entire semester and was a catalyst for every lesson I ventured.

McGrath could be describing me as an undergraduate a decade ago. I, too, had perfect attendance, sat in the front, listened carefully, followed instructions perfectly, raised my hand constantly, and got the highest grades on every assignment. I was every professor’s dream student. I graduated college with a stellar GPA and went on to graduate school at a research university. But you know what? I am not at all okay with the way McGrath is using my story and that of other homeschool graduates like me.

Take a look at this bit, for example:

In the past 15 years, I’ve known of over a dozen home-schooled students in my college freshman and sophomore classes. All were competent in social interaction, and all had already developed their own methods of inquiry for independent learning.

Do you know who McGrath didn’t meet? Homeschool graduates so severely educationally neglected that college was completely out of the question.

According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, there are actually a number of reasons to believe that homeschooling depresses college attendance rates—potentially by a lot. The number of homeschooled students who take the SAT and ACT is surprisingly low, and the only extant random-sample study of homeschool graduates found that having been homeschooled decreased the amount of higher education respondents went on to receive. But McGrath wouldn’t have any way to know about the educational wellbeing of those other students, because, as a college instructor, he’s only seeing the ones who attend college.

Let me put it more personally. McGrath didn’t met the kids I grew up with who were not educated, and for whom college was simply not an option. McGrath isn’t meeting educationally neglected homeschooled children because they’re not going to college. In a study published in 2010, researcher Michael Cogan found that the homeschool graduates at the private university he studied had higher GPAs than their public or private school graduate peers, but you know what he left unexamined? The question of why only 1% of the students at that university were homeschool graduates when a full 3.4% of students were homeschooled in 2011. In other words, Cogan was looking at the cream of the crop, and the other students were simply missing.

I’m also wondering how McGrath knows that every homeschooled student he has encountered was a good student. I’m a college instructor too, and you know what? I don’t usually know whether my students were homeschooled, public schooled, or private schooled. That’s because I don’t generally have any reason to ask that. I’ve taught roughly 250 students over the past year and a half, and I’m sure at least some of them were homeschooled, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never asked. I suspect that McGrath has also met homeschool graduates who were underprepared for college—and I know plenty such individuals personally—but doesn’t realize it because he assumed they weren’t homeschooled because they didn’t meet his stereotype.

I’m also put off by McGrath’s insistence that homeschooled students are automatically independent critical thinkers who love learning and drink up knowledge. Sure, that describes me and others like me, but what about the homeschool graduates I know whose homeschooling consisted of nothing more than being made to fill out worksheets at the kitchen table for years on end? I know situations where homeschooling killed students’ love for learning. McGrath talks about the benefits of receiving one-on-one instruction, but what of homeschooled children who were one of six, eight, or ten children, who clamored for attention but got lost in the mix because there were too many diapers to change and meals to fix? What of them?

Anyway, McGrath goes on as follows:

While my experiences are anecdotal, clinical studies have arrived at similar conclusions, such as the one conducted by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute. His study of 11,000 home-schooled students found they scored higher, on average, than public school students on national standardized tests by a whopping 37 percentile points.

McGrath is a college professor. He should know better than to fall for shitty statistics. The study he cites used a volunteer sample of students from highly motivated highly educated non-poor families. To match the effect of homeschooling you need to compare these students with demographically matched peers, not the public school average. The results of studies that use from a more comprehensive data set (see the data covered here) or pair students with demographically matched peers (see Martin-Chang here) look far different from those released by Ray, whose National Home Education Research Institute is for all intents and purposes an arm of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

There’s another point worth noting here. McGrath is an English professor. Why does that matter? Because homeschooling appears to decrease students’ math scores while either having no effect or a modest positive effect on their reading scores. And it’s not just me saying that, either. Allow me to quote from an exhaustive research review published by professors Milton Gaither and Robert Kunzman:

Given this persistent corroboration across two decades we might conclude, tentatively, that there may be at least a modest homeschooling effect on academic achievement—namely that it tends to improve students’ verbal and weaken their math capacities.

In other words, McGrath’s experience would likely have been very different had he been a math professor rather than an English professor. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education draws on a variety of different data sources to outline this discrepancy in their post, The Homeschool Math Gap. In fact, there is research to suggest that having been homeschooled even affects students’ choice of major, making them less likely to major in STEM fields. McGrath probably doesn’t know this, but then, has he ever thought to even ask, or to look into it? It sounds as though he did a quick google search, fell for the first statistic that confirmed his anecdotal experience, and determined that there was no need to research further.

McGrath began his essay talking about his doubts about homeschooling and his concern about there being “little oversight of home-schooled students in half of all states” including his own. He finishes his essay with this statement:

An estimated 1.8 million students are home-schooled in the United States, often for religious reasons, or for insulation from schoolyard problems such as bullying. But the best reason may be that they get a better education.

Yes, that’s right, he flat-out states that homeschooled students “get a better education.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad McGrath has learned that homeschooled students can receive a good education! I am just as unhappy with stereotypes that posit all homeschoolers as backward and uneducated as I am with stereotypes that posit all homeschoolers as innovative and well educated. Both stereotypes are wrong. But while McGrath may have decided that there’s nothing at all to be concerned about with regards to homeschooling, I know that this is not the case.

The lack of oversight for homeschooling in most states is a very serious problem, and leaves too many children without an education. I saw it growing up, and I see it today in networks of homeschool alumni such as Homeschoolers Anonymous. Some children thrive being homeschooled while others fall on their faces with no way to pick themselves up. I know homeschool graduates whose parents gave up teaching them algebra because it was too difficult. I know homeschool graduates who had to teach themselves to read at 16. I know homeschool graduates whose education was so spotty that they can’t pull together a high school transcript. And don’t even get me started on child labor law violations, because what I’ve seen is completely egregious. We desperately need accountability for homeschooling parents.

I am not okay with McGrath using homeschool graduates like me as an excuse to display an utter lack of regard for my less-fortunate friends. I am not okay watching my friends and their pain erased in a paean to an educational method that is only as good as the parents who facilitate it. I am not okay with being part of an argument for maintaining a status quo that deprives children of their right to an education.

Count me out.

How Answers in Genesis Shattered My Faith in Creationism

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Tim Evanson.

Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on February 17, 2016.

Earlier today, Answers in Genesis posted an article titled There Is Hope for Atheists! In this article, Ken Ham writes about witnessing to atheists. He explains that when he reads the “blasphemous and vitriolic” comments of atheists he understands that most of them have never heard sound apologetics arguments.

At Answers in Genesis, through our resources, conferences, and other outreaches, we do our best to defend the Christian faith using apologetics against the secular attacks of our day. But in doing so, we need to also point people to the truth of God’s Word and challenge them concerning the saving gospel. We use apologetics to answer questions and direct people to God’s Word and its message of salvation.

There’s no greater thrill in this ministry than to hear how God has used what has been taught by AiG to touch someone’s life—for eternity. Last week, I was introduced to one of our new volunteers, Donna, who is helping sew some of the costumes for the figures that will be placed inside our full-size Ark. She had responded to my Facebook post asking for seamstresses.

I discovered that she became a Christian in 1993 after attending one of my seminars (called “Back to Genesis” with the Institute for Creation Research ministry) at Cedarville University in Ohio. The Bible-upholding seminar was such an eye-opener to her about the reliability of the Bible that she became a Christian.

We asked if she would share her testimony.

Donna begins her testimony as follows:

The Lord opened up this atheistic evolutionist’s eyes decades ago, through exposure to Ken’s ministry.

I was a die-hard evolutionist, completely convinced that the fossil finds in Olduvai Gorge supported the “evidence” that we evolved from less-complicated, early hominid creatures, like the so-called “Lucy”.

To keep a long story short: I attended a Creation Seminar at Cedarville College [now Cedarville University], sat in rapt attention as Ken Ham told me “the rest of the story,” and I realized that all of the fossil finds I believed supported evolution were, in all cases, misinterpreted. I was blown away! So, learning the truth about evolution preceded my realizing that God was real (after all!) and that the Bible was His Word. I became a creationist before I became a believer in Christ.

Ken Ham goes on to write that atheists are “walking dead people” and that he likes to remember, when witnessing to atheists, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and that even so God’s Word can convert atheists. He finishes with this:

If the Lord has used AiG, including our Creation Museum, in your life to bring you to salvation, would you please let me know? Thank you.

So, here’s the problem. I actually credit an Answers in Genesis conference with letting the air out of the last of my young earth creationism. Yes, that’s right, in a sense you could argue that an Answers in Genesis conference led me to give up my creationism. 

I was in college. It was there that I first truly came into contact with individuals who accepted evolution. The only time before this that I’d engaged a defender of evolution in debate was the time I was stuck in a car with my aunt for ten straight hours, and I’m pretty sure she was humoring me. I grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family. I read creationist literature from my church library starting when I was very young. I attended Answers in Genesis conferences as a teen and bought Answers in Genesis literature at homeschool conventions with my own money. I knew my stuff.

The problem was that when I was in college I came in contact with individuals who deconstructed my arguments without any trouble.

It was uncanny. I returned time and again to my creationist literature—the Answers in Genesis website received a lot of traffic from me during those months—and came back with new arguments and information to throw at my opponents, only to have those arguments soundly deconstructed as well.

There was one young man in particular—Sean. I later married him, as my regular readers will know. Sean and I spent hours debating the fine points of creationism and evolution. Sean had been a creationist himself some years before, but high school—and arguing on the internet—had changed his mind. But even as he pointed out flaws in every argument I could come up with, I had hope. I had an incredible amount of respect for Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, and I was sure that if I could just get Sean to an Answers in Genesis conference that would do the trick. You may imagine my excitement when I learned that an Answers in Genesis conference was coming to a church in our area! Sean agreed to come, and I was sure our arguments were coming to an end.

That conference was an utter failure for me on more fronts than I’d realized going in. For one thing, Sean was unconvinced—and it wasn’t because he wasn’t listening, he was. But the real problem was that I was unconvinced. I hadn’t realized that hours of listening to Sean deconstruct creationist arguments would change the way those same arguments sounded to me when I heard going forward, but it did. I sat there in that church sanctuary with an instant rebuttal springing to mind for each point the speaker made, and I knew some of what he said was simply factually false.

I spent some time perusing the creationist literature they had for sale at the conference and kept running into the same problem—I knew rebuttals to everything I saw printed there.

I realized with growing horror that much of the material there was either flat-out lying or skillfully misleading people.

As we drove away from the church, I was quiet—shaken. I had seen this conference as a way of finally convincing Sean that I’d been right while at the same time reinvigorating my own beliefs, and it had failed on both accounts. Not only did this conference not give me new arguments and rebuttals, it shattered my trust in Answers in Genesis in particular and creationist literature more widely.

I spent a few weeks reading and researching, looking beyond Answers in Genesis’ materials to wider scientific resources. Answers in Genesis may have shattered my faith in creationism, but I still had a few questions about evolution that needed answering. After several weeks of study, I was satisfied. I left aside young earth creationism for good and became a theistic evolutionist. It was difficult, at first, because I was afraid my entire faith would fall apart after accepting evolution. After all, I’d heard Ken Ham repeat time and again that Genesis was the foundation of the Bible, and that without Genesis, the gospel story would collapse.

I’m no longer a Christian today, but evolution isn’t to blame there, strictly speaking. I spent some years as a progressive Christian, and even converted to Catholicism. I loved Catholicism’s embrace of the natural world and science, and its willingness to accept historical scholarship on the Bible. It was ultimately the fallout from a near-cult experience that led my faith to collapse. but in a sense, it was the collapse of my faith in young earth creationism that made me willing to see the beliefs I’d been taught as fallible, and open to asking questions.

I can’t speak for Donna, whose testimony is quite above—her journey is her own. Still, I find Ken Ham’s request to hear from his readers about the way “the Lord has used AiG . . . in your life to bring you salvation” highly ironic given my own experience.

How the Magical Rhemas of Bill Gothard Could’ve Prevented the Civil War

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Mark Kaletka.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 28, 2016.

Bill Gothard has been accused of sexual harassment and abuse by literally dozens of women, most of whom were teens under his care at the time the incidents occurred, but while these accusations have forced him to step down from his position with the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), they haven’t prevented him from starting a new ministry, Life Purpose Power Teams. What exactly is this new ministry? The website talks a lot about rhemas, prayer, and accountability partners. According to IBLP, a rhema is “a verse or portion of Scripture that the Holy Spirit brings to our attention with application to a current situation or need for direction.”

But I’m not actually here to talk about Gothard’s new ministry, I’m here to talk about a specific article published on the Life Purpose Power Teams website. It’s unclear whether Gothard or one of his staffers wrote article, which explains “how the Civil War could have been avoided,” but even if it was written by a staffer it was presumably approved for publication by Gothard. And it’s bad. The article lists five things that could have avoided the Civil War. I will list them one by one and respond to each.

1. If every believer had established the daily disciplines of getting a Rhema in the morning and quoting it to God while going to sleep, God would have fulfilled his promise of giving them prosperity and success.

Note that the author does not say that God would have prompted them to own slavery. Nope. Instead, the author states that if they had meditated on the Bible morning and night God would have given them “prosperity and success.”

This actually brings to mind an interesting question—how exactly does the author know believers weren’t doing this?

2. If all believers would have learned and applied Christ’s commands, they would have loved God and their neighbors as Christ loved them. They would have developed the attitude of being a servant to everyone, including their slaves.

Note again that Gothard does not suggest that if believers had truly applied Christ’s commands, they would have ended slavery. No, he says they would have treated their slaves well. Those are two very, very different things.

And you know what? Many southerners defended slavery by arguing that they were treating their slaves well, and that their slaves lived happy lives of plenty and contentment. I get the feeling the author would have listened to their words and then embraced them joyfully as brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. If all believers would have prayed daily for those around them that God would bless them in their personal lives, their marriages, their families, their finances and their health, every American could have been prayed for, including all the slaves.

Oh goodie, the slaves would be prayed for! How nice!

4. If all the slaves would have been trained how to follow these same disciplines of finding and meditating on daily Rhemas, God would have also given them the same prosperity and success.

In case you’re wondering, no, when author speaks of slaves having “prosperity and success,” they are not referring to freedom. In case there is any doubt, see below.

5. With God’s blessing upon the slaves, they would have risen to greater responsibility, influence and freedom regardless of their social status.

Once again, how nice! If the slaves had prayed just so, the author says, God would have made them successful slaves!

I feel compelled to note that many slaves turned to Christianity in their suffering and cried out to God for an end to their captivity. One wonders, does this author believe they were not crying out loudly enough? Or perhaps the problem was that they were praying for delivery rather than busying themselves serving their masters as God intended? The idea that slaves just needed to pray more and study the Bible and then everything would have been all rainbows smacks of victim blaming at its extreme.

After the five reasons comes this lovely tidbit:

How Has God Confirmed This Potential?

One of the most significant accounts in Scripture demonstrates the reality of this potential is the story of Joseph. He was sold into slavery by his envious brothers. He served Potiphar in Egypt. However, he had the fear of God, and he served as unto the Lord.

As a result, God prospered everything Joseph put his hand to. When Potiphar saw Joseph’s success, he gave him more and more responsibility until everything he had was under Joseph’s jurisdiction. All he knew about was the food that was set before him.

In reality, the roles of Joseph, the slave, and Potiphar, the master, were reversed because there are two types of power: the power of position and the power of influence. Both history and experience confirm that the power of influence is greater than the power of position. Joseph had more influence because God blessed all he did.

Huh, that’s funny, because I remember another story about slavery in the same general area of the Bible—a story that inspired Harriet Tubman and others seeking freedom from slavery in the antebellum South. In this story, the Israelites are enslaved to the Pharaoh, who treats them cruelly, and, rather than telling them to be good, faithful, prayerful slaves, God sends Moses to set them free. [Also, as a reader has pointed out, Potiphar threw Joseph in jail at his wife’s bequest after she tried and failed to blackmail Joseph into having sex with her, suggesting that Joseph’s supposed “power of influence” had some very serious slavery-related limitations.]

In the end, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how exactly the author’s points would have prevented the Civil War. It sounds as though the author is suggesting that if all of the parties involved, including southern and northern whites as well as slaves, had simply read the Bible regularly, mediated on scripture, and prayed for those around them there would have been no need for ending slavery. All of the masters would have been kind and all of the slaves would have been successful—in their status as slaves, of course—and that would have been that.

In other words, Gothard contends that the Civil War could have been avoided if people had stopped trying to end slavery. Awesome.

Demons and the Consequences of Feeding Children’s Fears

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 21, 2016.

So, demons. I’ve written on this topic before, but it’s been a while, and when I last wrote on this topic my children were too small to be scared of the dark. When I was a girl, I was taught that demons were real. My dad used to pray a “hedge of protection” around our house, to keep the demons out. My parents told me that there’s an invisible world all around us, in which angels and demons are at war, constantly.

At one point when I was girl, another woman in my parents’ Bible study group told a story about confronting a demon in her hallway late at night. It must have been let in, she said, by some rock music her teenage daughter had been listening to that afternoon. I found that freaking terrifying. I wondered, sometimes, what I might do that might accidentally invite a demon in? I was terrified—utterly petrified—of getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

All of this was brought back to my mind when I read Pat Robertson’s recent comments on whether it’s okay to listen to rock music:

It depends on what rock you’re listening to… Some of the stuff is just evil. They used to talk about killing your parents and there were just some evil things. There were odes to Satan. You don’t want that stuff coming into your mind.

There’s some beat that’s out there that, you know, probably isn’t all that bad, although in one Indian context, they were playing rock music, and the person said, “Why are you calling on the demons?,” because that was the kind of music they used to, you know, summon demons.

And it was so much more than just music. At one point my aunt came to visit and stay for a few days, and brought with her a book she was reading. This was a problem, because the book was Harry Potter. My dad made her leave it in the car lest it invite demons into the house. The irony is that, a decade later, they decided that Harry Potter isn’t bad after all, and my mom is now in the process of reading through the series. But at the time, it was incredibly serious.

My parents are college educated, and my dad, especially, is very intellectual. He was always reading new books, learning new things, and taking in new information. I adored him, and I trusted him, and so when he was the one saying these things—talking about keeping demons out of the house, and praying a hedge of protection around our family—I accepted it completely. And I was frightened.

I’m serious when I say that having to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night was a serious problem for me. I was so profoundly frightened. I would lay in the bed with the covers over my head and my eyes tight shut, afraid I might see a demon if I opened my eyes. I was terrified. But alas, my bladder was such that I couldn’t fall back asleep when it was full. Eventually, terrified, trembling, I would slip out of bed and make a mad dash for the bathroom, do my business, and then run back into bed and pull the covers back over my head.

My daughter Sally is now six, and somehow that makes all this feel only more relevant. Sally has read books about vampires and zombies, and once when it was time for bed, she was scared and told me she was frightened of vampires. I reminded her that they’re not real, talked with her about it a bit more, and then sent her off to bed feeling much better. And then it struck me—I am dismantling my children’s nightmares, as best I can, while my parents only fed mine. They told me that demons were as real as you and I, and taught me that I had good reason to fear. And fear I did.

And yes, my parents also told me that I had the power to cast demons out, in the name of Jesus. But being the studious child that I was, I knew my Bible well, and I knew that in Acts 19 a demon beat up a group of men who attempted to cast it out in Jesus’ name, because those men were not Christians. “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” the demon asked. I suffered from salvation anxiety—the fear that I wasn’t truly, really saved—and those words terrified me. I imagined myself being confronted by a demon at the foot of my bed, attempting to cast it out in Jesus’ name, and then looking on in horror as it laughed at me.

Now I am very sure that my parents had no idea how afraid I was. When I went to my mom about my salvation anxiety, she told me that if I was worried about whether I was saved, I most certainly was saved. That helped, though it didn’t completely fix the problem. And as for demons, well, the literature they encouraged me to read didn’t help, either. Frank Peretti’s books, which depict the demonic world and its integration with the real world, were particular terrifying. I think they thought it was enough that the good triumphed over evil, but the evil still terrified me—especially because I believed those books were a realistic depiction of our world.

I may need to do a page-by-page review of a Peretti book at some point. They’re terrible, and they very badly need picking apart.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. It would be easy enough to say that teaching children that demons are a real and present threat in their lives is misguided at best and abusive at worst, but evangelicals like my parents really and truly believe these things. It’s not as though they set out to terrify me. It’s just that their beliefs were terrifying. If nothing else, I think we need to call attention to the ways religion may affect children in different ways from how it affects adults—and, perhaps, to the fact that some religious ideas are just plain frightening whatever your age.

It’s not just religion, of course. Had I confirmed Sally’s fear of vampires, had I told her I had once encountered one and barely escaped, that could have serious consequences for her mental health as well. I could see Sally always carrying a wooden stake with her at night—she’s well versed in vampire lore—if I were to build up her fears rather than taking them apart. At one point in my childhood I became obsessed with UFOs, and checked out all of the books the library had on them. If my parents had told me that aliens from other planets did indeed roam our back roads looking for humans to kidnap, I imagine I would have been terrified too.

Of course, what they told me about UFOs had its own problems. They said UFOs were illusions created by demons to prepare the way for a mass deception after the rapture—Satan would make those left behind believe that those who had been raptured had simply been kidnapped by aliens, and thus prevent them from gaining true knowledge of what had happened and through it attaining salvation.

But the point I was trying to make before that digression was that I suspect run-of-the-mill UFO enthusiasts could probably easily frighten their children by teaching them to believe all the stories about UFOs and alien kidnappings as literally true. And some probably do. The point I’m trying to make here is that what we teach children matters, and that things don’t always affect children in the way they affect us as adults. We need to remember that.

I mean for goodness sake, when I was in grade school I read a story about a Volcano that grew suddenly in the middle of a field in Mexico, and I spent years having nightmares—nightmares—about a volcano growing in the field behind my house. At least in this case my parents tried to help by explaining that that wasn’t geologically possible, rather than confirming and encouraging my fear.

Kids don’t always process things the way we expect them to, and feeding their fears rather than dismantling them is a terrible idea.

Mary Lambert and the Ups and Downs of Being a Survivor

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 18, 2016.

In the time I’ve spent around survivor communities, one thing I’ve noticed is an alternating feeling of euphoria and despair. It is not uncommon for a person to feel they can take on the world one day and to feel like all they want to do is curl up and hide the next day. I’ve watched this happen in various online communities as someone freshly liberated from an abusive home environment will post one day about how incredibly happy she is, as though she is floating, and the next day she’ll post in tears, struggling with PTSD, fear, and self-doubt and asking if it ever gets better.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon myself.

Anyway, I’ve never seen this up and down illustrated so clearly as in two of the songs in Mary Lambert’s 2014 album, Heart on My Sleeve. These songs, Secrets and Ribcage, present the euphoria and devil-may-care attitude, on the one hand, and the desperate lows encountered as survivors of abuse or trauma on the other. Interestingly, they were intended that way.

First, Lambert’s music video for Secrets. You can read the lyrics here:

Here’s how Lambert explains the contrast between Secrets and Ribcage:

The genesis of “Ribcage” was an interview that followed 2014 Grammy Awards, where Lambert performed her part in Macklemore‘s “Same Love.” Soon after, she was blindsided on TV: “I was asked without relevance or warning about my childhood abuse, as well as being raped in an army barracks as a teenager,” the singer tells FADER in an email. “I tried to respond as best I could, knowing that it was live television, but everything afterward was a blur. As soon as the cameras were off, I went into a full-blown panic attack. I didn’t know it then, but this same situation would happen multiple times in the year.”

“I questioned so much after that interview,” Lambert continues. “Have I done this to myself? Is this what happens when you are vulnerable and open? How do I take back control of the telling of my own story?”

“I wrote ‘Ribcage’ because I was exhausted,” she adds. “I wrote it because my truth was hungover and needed a sarcastic joke. I wrote it because ‘Secrets’ was an optimistic version of vulnerability, and because self-empowerment doesn’t always come wrapped in a bow. I will continue to talk about my own sexual trauma when I feel safe enough to, and when I’m in control. I still believe in the power of vulnerability—that openness is the key to empathy, and that empathy is the key to human connection.”

You can read the lyrics for Ribcage here and watch the music video below:

I love this contrast because you almost can’t believe the same person wrote and performed both songs. The one is so upbeat, so happy, and so peppy while the other is so sad and so dark. I find that extremely validating. In fact, I may start sending this pairing of videos to survivors I see going through this up and down. It’s powerful. It’s real. It’s what vulnerability actually feels like for so many of us.

Since I’m writing about Lambert, it’s worth mentioning her background. In a 2012 blog post, Gay Christians Are Totally Okay, Dog, Lambert wrote the following:

I grew up in a strict Pentecostal home. My parents would speak in tongues and were devout in prayer and we were at church 3-4 times a week. The church was known for ostracizing folks who were said to “go against God”. After a traumatic upbringing, and having my family shunned from the church because of my parent’s divorce, I was decidedly agnostic for many of my grade-school years.

A friend brought me to an Evangelical church in high school, known as Mars Hill, where I fell in love with the music and the bands that played on Sunday evening. The pastor was funny, charismatic, and made the bible seem simple. I was sad that my gay friends were going to hell, but the pastor said that I could still be friends with them. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was the accepted rhetoric. When I fell in love with my first girlfriend, I recognized my sin immediately. She was also Christian. When you’re 17, and you feel like a freak already, and you’re in love with a girl, and high school is a battlefield, you can’t stand to let another part of your life down. I remember making a conscious effort to accept my sin. My recognition allowed me to repent daily. I prayed often, apologizing to God, but accepting that this is who I had always been and always would be. I still went to Mars Hill. I was never hated on, never felt rudeness from the community, but the sermons were difficult to hear.

You can read the rest of Lambert’s post here, but it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I see Lambert as a kindred spirit. By now we’re hopefully all familiar with Mars Hill, discredited evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll’s former church. I look forward to seeing where Lambert goes from here and hope she has a long, fulfilling career.

10 Surprising Revelations in the Lawsuit Against Bill Gothard and IBLP

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 11, 2016.

Last week, I published a summary of the allegations included in an ongoing lawsuit against fundamentalist guru Bill Gothard and the Institute for Basic Life Principles, which he founded in the 1980s and spent three decades running. The lawsuit focuses on Bill Gothard and IBLP’s negligence in failing to report abuse and failing to train their employees to recognize and report abuse, and at its center are allegations that Bill Gothard spent decades grooming, sexually harassing, and molesting teenage girls he employed at his organization’s headquarters.

Having read through the lawsuit in full, I want to take a moment to mention ten things even I found surprising. Many of the allegations included in the lawsuit have been common knowledge since being posted in 2013 and 2014 by Recovering Grace, a website run by graduates of IBLP programs critical of Gothard and his teachings. However, the lawsuit also includes information I had not seen before. I want to focus on these points because of the questions they raise about why Gothard’s abuse was not recognized and addressed earlier.

As a quick note, I would appreciate it if you would keep down the snark in the comments section out of respect for the survivors who are bringing this suit. Their suit isn’t some sort of “gotcha” against Christians or against fundamentalists or even against Gothard himself, it’s an attempt to bring justice to Gothard and ensure that IBLP actually fixes the problems that allowed Gothard’s abuse to go unaddressed.

I want to throw into stark relief the extreme predatory nature of Gothard’s actions. I want us to look at these points and ask how this could have gone on for so long.

1. Gothard once gave his credit card to a girl he was grooming and told her to “fix” her clothes. When she expressed confusion, one of his assistants explained to her that Gothard was unhappy with her ankle length skirts and would like her to buy some that were calf length.

2. Gothard paid for a young woman he was grooming and sexually harassing to have cosmetic surgery to remove two skin blemishes which he called “a distraction.” The lawsuit positions this move as part of the increasing control Gothard was assuming over the young woman’s body.

3. Gothard told an 18-year-old girl who rebuffed his advances that if she had still been 17, he would have called social services and gotten her taken away from her parents.

4. Gothard tried to convince a woman to divorce her husband and take a job at headquarters because he wanted to groom and molest her daughter, who had told him she would not be without her mother. See also above.

5. Gothard once had a girl he was grooming placed in a bedroom opposite his office window “so he would know when she could come to his office, after everyone else had left.”

6. Gothard preyed on girls as young as 13, had parents send girls as young as 14 to his headquarters at his request, and assigned girls as young as 15 to be his personal assistants.

7. In the early 1990s, Gothard asked the IBLP Board of Directors for permission to marry Rachel Lees, a young woman he was grooming. At the time, he was nearly 60 and she was around 20. Gothard did not mention the subject to Rachel herself. It was not until Rachel learned two decades later that Gothard had asked the board’s permission to marry her that she recognized Gothard’s behavior as predatory.

8. Gothard told a victim of childhood abuse “that parents were to be believed over children and that children were to obey their parents no matter what, even if they were being sexually abused.” When Jane Doe II reported her father’s sexual abuse to Gothard, he immediately called her father on speakerphone and asked him if the allegations were true (not surprisingly, her father said they were not).

9. Gothard made a habit of having teenage girls come to his office alone late at night under the guise of “Bible study” or “mentoring.” This isn’t technically a new revelation, but it is striking how many of the plaintiffs refer to these late-night one-on-one sessions. For an organization that teaches that people of opposite genders should never be alone together, it is startling that this practice was allowed to continue for so many years without raising an eyebrow.

10. It was common knowledge at IBLP that Gothard took teenage girls as “pets.” It was also common knowledge that Gothard’s behavior with regard to these girls was not appropriate. At one point in the early 1990s, after Gothard asked the IBLP Board of Directors for permission to marry Rachel Lees, the board barred Gothard from having female personal assistants. This ban was never enforced, and Gothard continued his pattern.

I’m sitting here trying to come up with some explanation for how this went on for as long as it did. People knew this was going on. The IBLP Board of Directors knew, the personal assistant who told Jane Doe III to buy shorter skirts knew, the employee who arranged the room assignment for Jamie Deering knew. People knew something was off. We’re talking about an organization that sent teenage boys home for merely talking to girls, while its leader held late night one-on-one “mentoring” sessions in his office with teenage girls.

Well sure, you say, it was a cult. That’s how cults work. But I want to stress just how widespread IBLP’s influence was within the Christian homeschooling world throughout my entire childhood and beyond. There were hundreds and thousands of families involved who had no idea that anything untoward was happening. This wasn’t so much an insular group like we’re used to thinking about, with its members cut off from contact with the outside. Rather, it was one that faced outward and led wide swaths people across the country to trust it its leadership and its “godly” mission and methods.

I am filled with sudden respect for one of my younger brothers, who approached me five years ago at age 17, worried. He told me that our parents wanted to send him away to a program in Texas, but that he was worried that it was a cult and wanted my advice. (It was Gothard’s ban on rock music that worried him—he played the drums and loved Christian rock music, which my parents grudgingly allowed.) At this point, I hadn’t given Gothard’s name a second thought. I grew up learning about the “umbrella of authority” and I attended a COMMIT Bible study for teenage girls, but my family had never been an ATI family, and I’d paid little attention to his name.

I texted my brother this morning. I wanted to let him know about the lawsuit. I wanted to make sure he knew just how right he had been, five years ago. What made the difference, exactly? How could he see it while so many others—including my own parents—did not? My brother told me, actually, that he and my dad had visited Gothard’s ALERT program headquarters in Texas, in anticipation of sending him there. Apparently my dad was a bit worried there might be something “off” about Gothard’s ministry—my dad by nature is antiauthoritarian, except in his parenting, and I think the focus on a single leader threw him off—but the visit assured him that all was fine, and that the ministry was godly and sound, one he could get behind.

And perhaps that is the problem. For whatever reason, my 17-year-old brother was already starting to push back and ask questions, but to those predisposed to see anything with a “godly” image as de facto good—well, you can see how that might prime people to accept Gothard’s ministry without asking too many questions, especially when so many others were already supporting it—after all, could they really be all wrong? And yet they were. And perhaps that is the biggest lesson for anyone—don’t assume that a leader or organization is legit just because it has a lot of followers, or projects a certain image.

Also, don’t create authoritarian power structures focused on a single leader.

I keep coming back to the fact that there were people close to the situation who knew these things were going on and did nothing. I can better understand people following the ministry without any knowledge that something was “off,” but once you’re in the organization and you see what’s going on—it’s boggling. There are, of course, explanations. Someone who said something might not be believed, or might be kicked out or shunned. Some might have doubted what they were seeing, given Gothard’s godly extra-human reputation. And some, too, might have assumed that if something was actually wrong, someone would surely have spoken up, so it must not be. And then, too, there’s the fact that obedience was central to Gothard’s teachings.

And so, in the end, we have a cautionary tale. This isn’t simply about one more Christian organization beset with sexual scandal, it’s about power structures and beliefs that create a situation where numerous people let significant warning signs go by, either unrecognized or ignored, but unaddressed either way. No more.

Some of my readers may be wondering what came of my brother, and what I told him when he came to me for advice. To tell the story briefly, I googled Bill Gothard’s name to assess my brother’s concerns and quickly came upon blogs written by homeschool graduates raised in ATI voicing their concerns and processing their experiences. It was those blogs that inspired me to start this blog, and it was those blogs that informed the response I gave to my brother. Over the next year I helped him wade through his options and find ways to make his own choices. He never did go to ALERT, and for that I am thankful. And so perhaps, in some small way, the voices of survivors can serve as an antidote to Gothard’s abuses.

Why Public Speculation about the Duggar Children’s Sexuality Should Be Off Limits

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on January 5, 2016.

When Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar signed on with TLC, they put their family before the public as a form of entertainment, and that is how many Americans seem to view the Duggars—as entertainment. I’m not surprised, then, to see people publicly speculating about the Duggar children’s sexuality, but I am concerned. To be clear, I’m not talking about noting that the odds are one of the Duggar kids is going to be gay. I’m talking about public speculation about the sexual orientation of individual Duggar children. I’ve seen fans and critics alike analyze individual Duggar children’s dress, bearing, and other details looking for indications that this one or that may be gay, and then gleefully trumpeting their findings.

There are some very serious problems with public speculation about the sexual orientation of individual Duggar children, particularly those still living at home (whether or not they are minors). First, while Jim Bob and Michelle chose to sign with TLC, thrusting their family into the public eye, their children have never had a choice in the matter. Second, while it may not be obvious at first glance, speculating about the Duggar children’s sexuality is actively dangerous.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a teenage child growing up in a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling household. Imagine, now, that there are rumors circulating that you are gay, rumors based on your appearance or bearing, or your interests or likes. Think for a moment about how such rumors would impact you—because you better believe they would. These rumors might make your local homeschool and church community standoffish and suspicious, and they would certainly lead your parents to crack down on any sign of failure to toe the party line.

Your every move would be scrutinized. 

This is not idle speculation on my part, either. I know of homeschool alumni who experienced exactly what I described above. As rumors swirled in their communities, or as their parents became concerned that they might be showing gay tendencies, they faced consequences—whether or not they were in fact gay. They were shunned by their communities, or had their parents treat them with suspicion and quick judgement or even try to “cure” them of their tendencies. Speculation about a fundamentalist child’s sexual identity isn’t just harmful, it can be outright dangerous.

Roughly 40% of homeless teenagers are gay. Where do you think all those gay homeless teens came from, exactly? There are fundamentalist Christian families out there who respond to having a gay child very very badly. Remember Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen who walked in front of a truck a year ago? Her parents were fundamentalist Christians whose efforts to “cure” their daughter’s gender identity ultimately led to her death. There are other stories too. Homeschool alumni Susie writes this of coming out to her parents:

After a few weeks of gay therapy, I was still gay so my parents did the unthinkable. They both, in my opinion, totally slipped over the edge of reason. I had gone to my therapy appointment and when I came home, as I was pulling in the driveway I realized my driver’s license was not in the console of the car where I usually kept it. So I went inside and asked my mom if she knew where my driver’s license was. Long story short, in an effort to “protect me from myself,” my dad had taken my driver’s license, passport, social security card, birth certificate, credit card and debit card and put them all in a safety deposit box at the bank. I had no legal identity!

I am trying to share enough details to paint the picture, without boring you. So I am going to cut to the chase.

My mom ended up driving me two hours away, in my car, with some of my things and dropped me off with $7 to my name. Tough love is what they called it. I was lucky enough that a friend had a house with two of his friends and they let me stay in an open room. I had no bed, just a pillow and a sleeping bag with some clothes. I didn’t even have a blanket.

Tough love.

Leelah and Susie both chose to come out to their parents, on their own timing. Engaging in public speculation about the sexuality of children living in fundamentalist Christian homes risks forcing those children’s hands, which, again, is actively dangerous. Being a gay teen in a fundamentalist Christian home is a risky proposition even without having to worry about public speculation forcing you out of the closet, especially when the consequences can be astronomically high.

But wait, you say! Speculation about the Duggar children’s sexuality will never actually get back to the Duggars themselves! This is not at all clear to me. It’s fairly clear that the Duggars follow what the media says about them. After the news broke that Josh Duggar had molested four of his sisters as a teen, the girls themselves spoke of feeling re-victimized by the media. The Duggar children still living in the home do have internet access, albeit with certain restrictions. And even if such rumors never make it to the kids themselves, the same is unlikely to be true for the Duggar parents—or for others in their communities.

Perhaps you would still argue that the Duggars signed on for this when they signed with TLC? Public speculation about your personal life is just one more consequence of leading a public life, yes? First, let me repeat, again, that the Duggar children didn’t have a choice in the matter. And second, do you truly care more about your “right” to publicly snark and speculate about the Duggars than you do about the Duggar children’s safety or autonomy? I certainly don’t.

Yes, it is likely, given the sheer number of Duggar children, that one of them is gay. But we need to give that child the space they need to decide when and how to come out, on their own terms, and without having to worry about public speculation about their sexual orientation. This isn’t just about privacy, though it is about that as well. This is also about basic personal safety. Growing up gay in a fundamentalist home is hard enough without the risk of being forced out of the closet by rumors fed or created by public speculation. As homeschool alumni Andrew Roblyer put it:

I often equate growing up gay to growing up in a warzone, where bombs fall all around you day after day after day.  Eventually the abject terror you feel when one lands nearby fades into a constant clenching in your stomach that you don’t even realize, because while you can’t entirely relax, you can’t afford to run at full alert at all times.  I saw and heard so many gay people attacked and condemned by the people I grew up with that my stomach was perpetually clenched, terrified that their rhetoric and doctrine would be used to attack me if they ever found out.

How can we make things better for children like Roblyer? And, presuming that at least one of the Duggar children is gay, what can we do to support that child?

To begin with, we can stop making children’s sexual identities a thing of snark or speculation or a “gotcha” against fundamentalist Christian parents and instead demonstrate our support for LGBTQ youth wherever they are found (and that includes respect for their self-determination of when and how to come out). We can prove ourselves safe people by being safe people. And while we’re at it, we can deconstruct myths about homosexuality or queer identities and criticize the Duggar parents’ anti-gay rhetoric without putting their children in the firing line.

If we care at all about the safety and wellbeing of the Duggar children, and not just about the entertainment value they provide, we need to end public speculation about whether this or that one may be gay.