Evangelical Homeschooling and the Development of “Family Values”

By: Seth Dowland

December 18, 2019

The Culture Wars Today

The American evangelical right coalesced in the 1970s under a “family values” agenda. The phrase “family values” first appeared in the Republican Party platform in 1976 and seemed ubiquitous in the political rhetoric of conservative evangelicals (and the politicians seeking their votes) by the dawn of the 1980s. But where did family values politics come from, and what specific issues did it connote to evangelicals?

Evangelicals and those who study them are quick to cite the (un)holy trinity of feminism, abortion, and homosexuality as the issue at the heart of Christian right politics. These were critical issues, but the earliest campaigns of the 1970s-era Christian right focused on schools. Specifically, conservative white evangelicals worried about the effects of public school desegregation and about the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions that made prayer and devotional reading in public schools unconstitutional. Conservative evangelicals fought liberalizing public school trends on three fronts: by opening private Christian academies, by working to take control of school boards, and by removing their kids from schools altogether in order to educate them at home. 

It took a while for evangelicals to embrace homeschooling. The pioneer of modern homeschooling, John Holt, came from the countercultural left. His 1960s bestsellers, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, called for an “underground railroad” that would spirit students away from the bloated bureaucracy and rigid instruction of public schools. Holt’s “unschooling” vision called for parents to indulge kids’ natural curiosity, and he trumpeted the cause of children’s rights. 

Meanwhile, evangelicals were growing far more concerned about parents’ rights—particularly the right of parents to have a say in their children’s education. In one of the most notable public school protests of the 1970s, Kanawha County (West Virginia) school board member Alice Moore launched a months-long protest against language arts curriculum in 1974. Moore argued that the textbooks chosen by the school board undermined the traditional values of most parents in the county. She lost a contentious school board vote in May of that year, but conservative parents staged a massive boycott when schools opened in September, leading to widespread absenteeism. Coal miners in three counties went on wildcat strikes in sympathy with the book protesters. The newly formed Heritage Foundation promised pro bono legal assistance to the boycotters and helped them secure a meeting with the U.S. secretary of education. 

Yet another flashpoint came nine years later, in 1983. Conservative Tennessee parents led by Vicki Frost sued Mozert County for assigning a Holt, Rinehart, and Winston textbook that pushed paganism and pacifism. They contended that the state was establishing a religion of secular humanism through the public schools. When Frost’s group lost the case, their attorney Michael Farris concluded that it was time for evangelicals to turn their backs on the public schools. Farris formed the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and encouraged conservative parents to pull their kids out of schools. Much like the Heritage Foundation had done in West Virginia, he promised legal assistance for anyone who faced persecution from the secular state. 

By this point, homeschooling was legal in several states and tolerated elsewhere. Since the 1960s, Holt and other homeschooling leaders had worked to disseminate curricula and to convince educational authorities that quality education could happen at home. Evangelical homeschoolers like Raymond and Dorothy Moore had patiently worked for decades to secure arrangements with states allowing conservative parents to homeschool their kids. Farris, however, fanned the flames of controversy, arguing in his monthly newsletter that evangelicals could never rest in their fight for the right to educate children at home. HSLDA charged members a steep $100 annual membership, in exchange for the promise of legal counsel should a family’s right to home school be challenged. This strategy filled HSLDA’s coffers and allowed it to become the nation’s biggest homeschooling organization. 

By the late 1980s, evangelicals comprised close to 90% of American homeschooling families. Most had little in common with the unschoolers of Holt’s era. Conservative evangelicals fled schools not because standardized testing and bloated bureaucracy stifled children’s creativity—the reasons for homeschooling cited by Holt—but because they believed secular liberals were indoctrinating their kids. Evangelicals worried about too little discipline in schools, not too much. They determined to re-inscribe traditional authority by returning education to the home. 

During the 1980s, homeschoolers became a minor but important part of the “family values” coalition made up of evangelicals and a handful of conservative Catholics. This coalition has been critical for the Republican Party for the last forty years. And the GOP has sought to export its version of family values. Since the turn of the millennium, crusaders for traditional values have cropped up all over the world, many of them connected to or supported by conservative evangelical groups in the United States. As the other scholars in this forum make clear, the connection between American evangelicals and Russian conservatives has been among the most fruitful of these relationships. Even as evangelicals lament the loss of the culture wars in America, they find hope in a resurgence of “traditional values” conservatives in Russia.

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