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Betsy DeVos and the History of Homeschooling

Of all of President Donald Trump’s controversial cabinet picks, none has received more public scrutiny than Betsy DeVos, who was only confirmed through a tie-breaking Senate vote by Vice President Mike Pence. Secretaries of Education do not typically garner such popular and media attention. What happened this time?

DeVos, a conservative Christian and billionaire from Michigan, has long used her family’s considerable fortune to try to influence public policy. The basic outlook on the world she possesses was defined and put into action most clearly and effectively in the homeschooling movement in the late twentieth century. To understand it is to understand the philosophical underpinnings of DeVos’ philanthropic work in the past and her policy priorities today.

As recently as the early 1970s very few families in the United States homeschooled, and there was almost no public comment on the practice. In that decade three key individuals slowly connected previously isolated homeschooling families, and gradually a movement was born. Remarkably, the families who came together to work for expanded homeschooling rights in the late 1970s and early 1980s represented a wide spectrum of political and religious opinion. John Holt, whose many writings and tireless activism inspired the left flank of the movement, was the most recognizable national voice for homeschooling until his untimely death in 1985. Raymond Moore, who with his wife Dorothy also wrote prolifically and crisscrossed the country giving lectures and making court appearances, galvanized support among Evangelical protestants, most notably through his many appearances on James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio show in the 1980s. But there was a third leader who worked even more tirelessly, wrote even more prolifically, and organized even more effectively. He has left a permanent mark on the basic outlook many Christian conservatives bring to issues related to government and schooling.

That leader was Rousas J. Rushdoony. Rushdoony was a committed Calvinist, completely convinced that God exerts sovereign control over human history. Furthermore, God’s plan for human history is ultimately that the entire world be ruled according to Biblical law. Since the goal of history is already clear, it remains for Christians today to “reconstruct” the present, making it more and more like the Biblical ideal. Rushdoony believed that two institutions were strategically key to help Christians be more effective “imperialists in Christ,” and he devoted most of his activism toward growing them. The first was Christian legal organizations. The second was independent Christian schooling, in either private schools or homeschools.

Rushdoony’s intellectual edifice continues to shape the thinking of conservative Christians like Betsy DeVos. In Rushdoony’s thinking, God has ordained “sphere sovereignty.” God created three spheres, the Family, the Church, and State, to function according to the Biblical pattern, which calls for each to manage its own affairs. Education is, Biblically speaking, a family and church matter, not a government responsibility, and any attempt by government to regulate education establishes the false religion of “Secular Humanism,” a term Rushdoony appropriated and made into a popular critique of government schooling among Christian conservatives.

In several books and hundreds of speeches across the country from the 1970s through the 1990s Rushdoony popularized his sphere sovereignty/secular humanism argument, making the case that Christians who were being faithful to God’s Word must leave government schools behind and educate their children at home or in Christian schools. Younger homeschooling leaders inspired by his teachings went on to found separatistic homeschooling organizations requiring members to sign statements of faith, legal groups that have fought for decades against government oversight of family or church, and curricula bringing to life Rushdoony’s commitments to young earth creationism and providential history (the view that the United States was created by God to be a Christian nation with a special mission to Christianize the rest of the world). Much of this work has been done thanks to the largesse a few wealthy donors, like Howard Ahmanson, Jr. (who for decades financed Rushdoony’s own Chalcedon Foundation), James Leninger (a major backer of the Home School Legal Defense Association, the now-defunct Vision Forum Ministries, and many voucher-related initiatives), and David Green (the Hobby Lobby owner who was a major underwriter of Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles and the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, along with many other conservative causes). The long-term goal of these and other like-minded donors and the organizations they have underwritten is to train up a generation of Godly Christians who will, in the words of Home School Legal Defense Association founder Michael Farris, “engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take back the land.”

Rushdoony himself was unflinching in the rigor with which he applied Biblical law. If the Bible states that homosexuals and disobedient children must be stoned, then the Christian society will do so. Most Christians who embraced Rushdoony’s claims that Christians should exercise dominion over the earth, that the United States is destined to serve a key role in making this happen, and that getting secular humanist government out of education is a key step in restoring Christian America, were far less forthright. Though he was widely read and extensively copied, many if not most of Rushdoony’s disciples and admirers avoided using his name so as to avoid guilt by association. As a result, Rushdoony’s name and the more extreme implications of his agenda are not well known, even among Christian conservatives who in general have adopted his overall outlook. Betsy DeVos, a Michigan Calvinist whose husband and father-in-law have deep ties to the Council for National Policy and other Christian Conservative organizations in the Rushdoonian orbit, is probably not a card-carrying Reconstructionist herself. But her philanthropic work and current policy priority of privatizing public education and liberating those privatized platforms from any sort of government oversight is classic Rushdoony.

For readers interested in learning more about the fascinating ties between Rushdoony, the homeschooling movement, and contemporary conservative politics, two excellent recent books are available: Michael J. McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism and Julie J. Ingersoll’s Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction.

Milton Gaither is Professor of Education at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. He is a founding board member of the International Center for Home Education Research and has published extensively on the history of the homeschooling movement in the United States.