Connecting Homeschooling and Religious Abuse

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on April 1, 2013.

I was asked a very good question by a homeschooler recently and figured I’d answer it here as well, expanding on it a little bit. The essence of that question (as I understood it) was “Why are you including homeschooling in your discussion of religious abuse? Aren’t those two separate things that you’re mistakenly combining?”

I guess the pattern and argument for why I include them together is very clear to me but I can see how most people would likely view them as two separate things. After all, abuse in a religious context can certainly occur without homeschooling ever being in the picture (Ex. See Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal), and homeschooling can be done without ever even having religion involved, not to mention religious abuse. Homeschooling and child maltreatment based on extreme (and in my opinion pretty warped) interpretations of Christianity (what I’m calling “religious abuse” for the sake of simplicity here) certainly do not have to be connected, and obviously curtailing the former would not stamp out the latter. So why would I be talking like this, like they’re connected? Is it because I am mistaken, somehow conflating factors, or because in some ways they really and truly are?

First off, let me say that I too wish that the issue of religious abuse could be decoupled from homeschooling (which I think is a legitimate and respectable educational option), but I don’t think it can be done as it currently stands. They have become intertwined.

I think that there are some important links and patterns that once recognized, change everything, but if I don’t highlight the pattern of what I see, I imagine it’s easy to conclude that I am just mistaken or generalizing based on my own personal experience. As it is, it’s also easy for me to assume that others will automatically see this system and to get frustrated when people don’t. Then I remember that everyone’s lived experience is a bit different and that I have also read and researched a heck of a lot on this topic in addition to having the lived experience of growing up in it. Additionally, I had six years of training (bachelors in political science and master’s degree in public policy) that taught me how to use certain tools, methods, frameworks, and analysis techniques. So here’s my “policy nerd” reasoning:

If you look at the individual or family level, homeschooling looks like a mishmash of various styles based on personal choice, varying from family to family. The pattern is not very apparent (and I would reach the same conclusion that these are two separate topics) but if you look at it at a system level the situation becomes stark (and to me very disturbing).

Homeschooling started out as a way to “liberate” children from authoritarian and rote desk-based learning, but leadership of the movement has been hijacked and become the main socio-political apparatus of a fringe group that has some very extreme practices and aims and has grown very politically powerful due to this takeover of homeschooling leadership. I mean just look at what kind of stuff the HSLDA advocates for with its dues money and the radical bent of its leaders. For brevity’s sake I will only list five things:

(1) They have said that “everyone” should have the right to homeschool, not making formal distinctions for convicted abusers or others who would not pass a background check or ever be seen fit to teach other people’s children.

(2) They have advocated for what is essentially a dismantling of the child welfare system and an expansion of parental rights in a way that essentially amounts to “ownership” of children, as opposed to simply having and carrying out a duty to raise and protect your offspring.

(3) They have called for a parental rights amendment to the United States constitution essentially saying that parents should not have checks or balances from outside entities. They ignore and paper over the unfortunate yet widely known fact that not all parents are fit or have their children’s best interests in mind and that absolutely awful things can and do happen when there is no mechanism to discern or intervene when things have gone wrong within a family.

(4) The HSLDA has funneled homeschoolers’ dues money and aptitude for activism and volunteerism into fielding political candidates such as Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Todd Akin and supporting others with similar radical socio-political agendas. (This has not just been about homeschooling deregulation either. These politicians’ records and agendas regarding family planning, women’s rights, gay people’s rights, religious freedom, and rape have been clear.)

(5) HSLDA fearmongering and political activism has helped them keep their coffers full and our nation awkwardly keeping company with only Somalia and South Sudan when it comes to not ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The whole recent debacle with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was similar.

So at first this stuff just seems weird, right? I mean why might homeschooling have anything to do with gay people or rights for the disabled or the idea that ordinary children should being treated like actual people deserving of similar protections to any other American citizen? Well, the short answer is it certainly doesn’t need to (well, except that homeschooling might be a desirable option for a disabled kid, or that homeschooling in certain circumstances is used to protect children). The thing is, if you are a fearful conspiracy theorist who also believes that you are the new set of God’s chosen people and you must “take back” our nation so that everyone can adhere to the most fundamentalist interpretations of biblical law, apparently these things have a lot more in common with homeschooling than first meets the eye. Homeschooling is one of the main tools to be used in this agenda. Additionally, if you believe in this stuff, you also think that all the “unbelievers” are out to take your homeschooling away and there is a good chance they are being led by Satan himself in an effort to do so, and as such they must be fought hard, smashed into the ground. If you look at the world this way, the crazy stuff suddenly makes perfect sense. The odd political advocacy goals of the homeschooling leadership suddenly make sense too.

I think Anderson Cooper’s incredulity at Michael Farris and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issue properly expresses what a normal person’s perspective might be when encountering this form of extremism, but the fact is we need to understand it and we also need to do something about it.

Things that normal homeschooling parents might want (opportunities for seamless and easy transitions into and out of public schools, the ability to participate and use public education resources on an “a la carte” basis, assistance with academic subjects that are not their forte, structures that make sure homeschooling kids at least know as much as their public school counterparts and are being given due credit for it, and an option for their kids to join local school sports teams) are not being advocated for by these people. The fringe doesn’t want these things. They want total control over children’s minds, bodies, and souls for their “holy” fight.

Under their leadership, homeschooling is not an educational choice. Instead it is pushed as being a lifestyle but it is really about using people as a culture wars tool. You soon learn that it is ultimately not about having a happy family life but rather about fulfilling “duties” with hope of rewards for it in heaven. I am not even going to get into how certain pastors and homeschool leaders are getting rich and powerful leading this movement. I will say that homeschooling of this sort is ultimately not about the children except that they are seen as tools in this crusade and so that is why it is seen as good to have or adopt as many of them as possible. They are weapons of sorts. This is so bad for children. I cannot overstate how bad this is for children (even when they seem to obey with a smile all the time).

This is why so many grown kids from this movement have totally rebelled against it and anything that even remotely looks like it and why others stay in, don’t question, and operate essentially as automatons working towards the objective. It hurts people in different ways and it’s why the former fundamentalist homeschool kids I know joke about whether someone “is still drinking the kool-aid” or not. It is why so many of us have “health problems” stemming from the years of being threatened, coerced, and told we were not measuring up to being what our parents were told they needed to craft us into if they were “Godly.” Yeah. Like that wouldn’t leave almost anyone with some issues.

I know plenty of homeschooling families definitely don’t buy into this extreme worldview and in fact are just as horrified by it all as I am. They just want to educate their children as best as they are able and enjoy family life. They don’t have some rabid agenda that requires building an “army.” They are more normal than that. The problem is that the crazy is louder than them, so the crazy gets heard and they get ignored or just lumped in and expected to put up with the crazy, as infuriating as that is.

So the bottom line is that an extreme fringe wing of the Christian religious right has taken over the homeschool movement leadership and continues to mold homeschooling as they see fit. They have turned something that was meant to liberate children into something that is often horribly oppressive. This is why the two issues cannot be decoupled – homeschooling is successfully being used as a powerful tool by these people, no matter how many kids their power grab disguised as “advice” hurts.

Anyway, I’m hoping this helps explain why both the religious abuse and homeschooling components are connected, and why I find that discussing them in tandem, with caveats, is the best approach to use when discussing this complicated issue.

I am not criticizing homeschooling as an educational option when I do this. In fact, I think this extreme fundamentalist homeschooling agenda is ultimately as toxic to “real” homeschooling (in all its various forms) as it has been to kids who grew up within this sort of damaging environment. If homeschoolers want to be associated with quality then they absolutely need to make sure they don’t sit back while people with extreme agendas claim to speak for them.

I think right now there is not much public awareness of these connections or how these extreme ideological agendas influence homeschooling (or our nation) as a whole, but in addition to needing to draw a distinction in motivations for homeschooling (and there are a wide range), there is also a huge need for responsible homeschoolers to “take back” the homeschooling movement leadership from the people who see it as a power and “culture wars” indoctrination tool rather than a way to give their kids the best skills and opportunities. I am not maligning homeschooling. I do not have a problem with homeschooling. I do have a problem with the current leadership of the homeschooling movement.

It is the real gorilla in the room.