Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war/With the cross of Jesus going on before./Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe/Forward into battle, see his banners go…
I was supposed to be one of a brave new race of God-fearing, soul-winning crusaders for the cause of Christ. Much like the Old Testament warrior Joshua, the right-hand to Moses and the destroyer of the “wicked” city called Jericho, my parents raised me to be a champion of holy dogma, able to argue with anyone to advance the demands of the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
For my parents, taking me out of the only form of real school I would attend until college–a Christian school in Catonsville, Maryland after I completed second grade–would be the best way to ensure that my mind, heart and strength would be truly devoted to God. Even better, it kept the “heathens” of public school away. My brothers and I were to be homeschooled, caught up in the middle of my parents’ many examples of religious fad chasing at the start of the 1990s.
Yesterday, I was stunned into almost complete silence for most of the day after reading Kathryn Joyce’s piece “The Homeschool Apostates” in The American Prospect, which chronicled the lives of people around my age who broke away from their Christian fundamentalist parents that sheltered them and isolated them from the world around them, seeking to “hold every thought captive” in the fight to save what they believe the country was founded upon; a nation built by “judeo-Christian” holy men that sought to establish a nation entirely built on God’s laws. Joyce’s long-read went deeper than anything I have ever read on the topic:
The family’s isolation made it worse. The children couldn’t date—that was a given—but they also weren’t allowed to develop friendships. Between ages 10 and 12, Lauren says she only got to see friends once a week at Sunday school, increasing to twice a week in her teens when her parents let her participate in mock trial, a popular activity for Christian homeschoolers. Their parents wanted them naïve and sheltered, Lauren says: “18 going on 12.”
Mixed with the control was a lack of academic supervision. Lauren says she didn’t have a teacher after she was 11; her parents handed her textbooks at the start of a semester and checked her work a few months later. She graded herself, she says, and rarely wrote papers. Nevertheless, Lauren was offered a full-ride scholarship to Patrick Henry College in Virginia, which was founded in 2000 as a destination for fundamentalist homeschoolers. At first her parents refused to let her matriculate, insisting that she spend another year with the family. During that year, Lauren got her first job, but her parents limited the number of hours she could work.
What stunned me even more, however, is further in the piece:
“I grew up hearing that we were the Joshua Generation,” says Rachel Coleman, a 26-year-old leader in the ex-homeschooler movement. “We were the shock troops, the best trained and equipped, the ones who were to make a difference in the fight—a fight between God and Satan for the soul of America.” Coleman, who co-founded the watchdog site Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, is writing a doctoral dissertation at Indiana University about children and the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and 1980s. Her parents, she says, told her and her 11 siblings that they hadn’t become missionaries themselves because “they’re raising up the 12 of us to go be pastors, missionaries, and politicians. They’re changing the world through these kids.”
As the first of my parents’ five children, things like duty, morality, faithfulness, and above all obedience became double my portion, for I was the one to lead my brothers and our families after they would go on to “their reward in heaven.” Throughout my adolescent years, I would receive many a lecture from deacons and pastors in the church about who I was to “plant my flag” with. Many questions about my “spiritual life” would come from well-intentioned people hopeful to keep my soul on track. Guess it really does take a village.
Ironically, this is probably the main explanation as to why I was able to read exhaustively long works at age four (my parents put a long book about Billy Sunday in my hands at that age), or where my talents for public speaking, reading and overall grasp of language comes from. Throughout my middle and high-school years, when I wasn’t receiving spankings with a leather weightlifting belt, discipline was meted out by my father’s ordering of us to write “dictionary words”, copying about fifty or so words and their definitions by hand.
Socializing with other kids my age was difficult for me. Aside from the fact that many of the children we spent our Sundays with were from relatively affluent, suburban white households that lived miles away from us city kids, it felt rather revolting for me to be around people who felt as though they could speak morality into my life when only seeing us once a week. I never fit in anywhere, with them or with the kids in my own neighborhood. Many of them, we felt, were beneath us, having come from different backgrounds. I didn’t truly “date” until I was sixteen, as we “commanded by God” to “flee youthful lusts”, which always came right back to rigorous abstinence. My parents told us that we should only date when we were absolutely ready to get married, which was always rather odd given the fact that most people date, go out and fall in love before they decide to wed. Well, at least in the real world.
In the years following my graduation from high school, a lonely event in the sanctuary of the building the church we attended was renting for their own services (I was the only one who graduated in 2000), I tried to hide my homeschooling past by using the name of the school written (by hand) on the diploma. Most people in Baltimore and elsewhere usually stop at just the name of the school, but when the questions of where it was came up, I found myself having to explain the type of legal arrangement it was. What I did not know, however, was just how extensive things would be.
Over the next two decades, homeschooling boomed. Today, perhaps as many as two million children are homeschooled. (An accurate count is difficult to conduct, because many homeschoolers are not required to register with their states.) Homeschooling families come from varied backgrounds—there are secular liberals as well as Christians, along with an increasing number of Muslims and African Americans—but researchers estimate that between two-thirds and three-fourths are fundamentalists.
Among Moore and Dobson’s listeners during that landmark broadcast was a pair of young lawyers, Michael Farris and Michael Smith, who the following year would found the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). With Moore’s imprimatur and Dobson’s backing, Farris and Smith started out defending homeschooling families at a time when the practice was effectively illegal in 30 states. As Christians withdrew their children from public school, often without requesting permission, truancy charges resulted. The HSLDA used them as test cases, challenging school districts and state laws in court while lobbying state legislators to establish a legal right to homeschool. By 1993, just ten years after the association’s founding, homeschooling was legal in all 50 states.
What many lawmakers and parents failed to recognize were the extremist roots of fundamentalist homeschooling. The movement’s other patriarch was R.J. Rushdoony, founder of the radical theology of Christian Reconstructionism, which aims to turn the United States into an Old Testament theocracy, complete with stonings for children who strike their parents. Rushdoony, who argued that democracy was “heresy” and Southern slavery was “benevolent,” was too extreme for most conservative Christians, but he inspired a generation of religious-right leaders including Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. He also provided expert testimony in early cases brought by the HSLDA. Rushdoony saw homeschooling as not just providing the biblical model for education but also a way to bleed the secular state dry.
I would not break free from this isolation until adulthood, making it official by voting for Barack Obama the first time in the 2008 election. It goes without saying that my entire family, from my parents to my brothers (who all are conservatives), were beyond upset when they found out I voted for him. Eventually this year, I would have to cut most of my family completely from my life.
This is why I have struggled with objectivity in my writing, sometimes having to forcibly cool down my rhetoric against the Right. When I tell people that I am a former conservative, the road to my transition in ideology was not merely a matter of going to a secular college and “getting indoctrinated” by some fiercely liberal professor. Nor was my new adoption of liberalism some convenient ploy to get into The People You Follow on Twitter’s good graces; this was the total rejection of something that had been basically encoded into my DNA. Right-wing Christian conservatism may be what raised me, but it most certainly does not define who I am now.
What this does explain, however, is why matters of injustice and oppression–women’s rights, marriage equality, income disparity; preserving freedom of opportunity–are so important to me. Protecting our social contract are not simply matters of good governance, in my view; they are the last defenses against unfettered capitalism, and a decimated culture.
This is how I am able to explain in detail the way the Right thinks and operates, and why nothing surprises me about what they do. This explains my very extroverted nature, and why I love being around people, having been kept from them for so long, having lived in an echoic vacuum all this time. This explains why leaving New York City was more traumatic for me than I realized, and why I have been trying, consciously or otherwise to return there, a safe haven in its largeness.
This is why I despise religion, especially Christianity. It is why my heart aches for my nephew, who through no fault of his own is likely doomed to an existence of patriarchal domineering, unless by some miracle he breaks free.
It is why a “normal” relationship with my parents is likely an impossibility. This is also why I have struggled with the idea of even bringing a child of my own into the world, lest they end up like me; conflicted, confused, and rebellious.
My name is Isaiah L. Carter.
And I was homeschooled.
But now I am free, more free than I ever imagined.