Amid all the talk of highly unqualified Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s defense of unconscionable $9.2 billion cuts to public education and proposed $4 billion investment in so-called “school choice” (moves that have earned DeVos the well-deserved epithet #CruellaDeVos on Twitter), it’s worth remembering why the Christian Right supports “school choice” in the first place. Spoiler alert: At the end of the day, it’s about killing public education outright. What could motivate a desire to destroy public education, other than greed from the “drown the government in the bathtub” crowd? A motivating factor we should not overlook is the nefarious ideology of Christian Reconstructionism, an extremist branch of Reformed theology.
According to the radical Right Calvinists who identify with Christian Reconstructionism–the most important theorists include R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001) and Gary North (who was once a Ron Paul staffer)–the “Biblical worldview” shows us that God has ordained three “sovereign spheres” for society: the family, the state, and the “civil government.” Reconstructionists argue that any state involvement in family life, including education, represents a usurpation of power by the civil government. There is much more technical detail to all this as well as debates among various Reconstructionist camps, but I won’t go into that here. I will point to resources for those who want to dig deeper, while zeroing in on the centrality of education and the plans laid out by Reconstructionists–plans they have advanced with some success–toward the elimination of public education.
In works by North and others, Christian Reconstructionists have promoted homeschooling and Christian schools as vehicles for the indoctrination of generations steeped in the “Biblical worldview.” Seeing public schools, which they call “government schools,” as not neutral but rather as promoting the “religion” of “secular humanism,” Christian Reconstructionists have been behind the movement to found Christian schools and produce curricula for them that began in earnest in the 1960s. In addition, they, along with organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association, have advocated for the exemption of homeschoolers and Christian schools from state regulations. A key early precedent here was the case of Pastor Everett Sileven of Faith Baptist Church and Faith Christian School in Nebraska. In 1982, after a dramatic battle with law enforcement and the mobilization of the Moral Majority on behalf of Silieven and Faith, the state of Nebraska exempted Christian schools from having to hire state-certified teachers.
The school vouchers supported by #CruellaDevos and her ilk, which frequently pump state money into Christian schools that indoctrinate children in hardline Christian Right ideology and teach young earth creationism, represent another front in this ongoing battle. Meanwhile, Christian schools themselves, even those that do not identify with Christian Reconstructionism, have played a key role in popularizing an essentially dominionist theocratic agenda, as documented by religious studies scholar Julie Ingersoll in her book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction.
I grew up attending Christian schools that drove home the notion, derived from Christian Reconstructionism even though our school was not explicitly Reconstructionist, that Christians had a duty to subordinate all aspects of society to “God’s law.” A significant portion of America’s children are indoctrinated in radical Right Christian schools and through ideologically driven Christian Right homeschooling. Even more important, those of us educated in such environments are taught, in what I like to call “illiberal civics lessons,” to mobilize effectively as activists in pursuit of a theocratic agenda that all too often flies under the radar screen for non-fundamentalist Americans.
In the non-denominational milieu (with strong Calvinist flavor) I grew up in pursuing that theocratic agenda meant advocating for the return of officially sanctioned Christian prayer to public schools (among other things, such as working toward banning abortion). For thoroughgoing Christian Reconstructionists, the goal is explicitly to eliminate state-funded education altogether.
In order for progressives to have a chance at winning the battle we face against a resurgent Christian Right empowered in Trumpism, we have to fully appreciate what we’re up against. A key point here is that even though conservative Evangelicals who would prefer Christianizing public education are more numerous than Christian Reconstructionists, as long as that goal remains out of reach (as it should!) they will help Reconstructionists work toward taking as much state money away from public education as possible in order to funnel more of it to Christian schools.
For more information, I highly recommend reading Julie Ingersoll’s book or her contributions to Religion Dispatches. In addition, with this context in mind, I recommend revisiting the education report produced by the Council for National Policy that received some press coverage back in February. I have made a copy of the report, which was taken down from the CNP’s website, available here.
Finally, see also my recent Twitter thread that starts here: