Reagan and the Rise of the Religious Right
How the homeschool movement created today’s politics
by James Hitchcock
While researching an essay about the first month of the Trump presidency, I delved into the political history that led up to this past presidential election. While it was a perfect storm that made possible Trump’s victory, and that storm may have begun blowing long ago. During my research, I remembered there had been a religious movement that seemed completely apolitical at the time, but in hindsight may have played a part in the subject of my essay.
Midway through the Reagan administration, I graduated from college and began my journalism career. I spent most of that career working for small town newspapers. And that wanted to reflect Reagan’s national optimism, lest readers think they weren’t onboard with how great things were in America. Sure they covered the “three Cs of hard news journalism”: crime, corruption and carnage, but always tempered that coverage with lots of positive community news. Predominantly working as a photojournalist at that time, I was told my job was to find great pictures to put above the fold on the front page, where people would see them in the newspaper vending boxes and dutifully drop their 50 cents in the slot to take home a copy.
This was when, in addition to telling me the “three C’s” of hard news, my first editor also taught me the “three T’s” of feature photojournalism: “Tits, Tots, and Tails.”
“Jeeeim,” he would say, drawling out my name, “If you get a picture of a cute kid, it’s good for page 3. If you get a picture of a cute kid and a pretty woman, it’s good for page 1. If you get a picture of a cute kid with a pretty woman and a dog, you’ll win awards!”
Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in schools, where there were plenty of the the first two T’s to photograph. I tried to make great photographs of kids doing slightly less mundane things than writing essays on what they wanted for Christmas. Sometimes I succeeded, usually by focusing in on one individual kid with really good facial expressions. The teachers, however, always thought I should just shoot a posed photo of the whole class, so “all the kids would get in the paper.” On one particular day that I was really hungover and much more in the mood for a Pixie Bitty Burger than working an hour to get a great photo, I succumbed to the pressure, and shot a photo of all the kids with whatever their project-of-the-day was. Somehow, I got one frame of them before they had all pasted on their ‘school photo’ smiles, and it actually wasn’t bad. My editor was beside himself with delight that every parent would buy a copy of that edition for themselves, and most likely copies for the grandparents, too. My fate was sealed.
Turn Right Here
While it may seem that I digress from my point, I wanted to set the scene for what came next.
At the same point in time, the burgeoning ‘Religious Right’ that Reagan had courted and successfully wed to his coalition of corporations and unracist whites began to flex its political muscle. Jerry Falwell’s 1979-founded group the Moral Majority began to get a lot of national press. And it seemed like overnight the homeschool/private Christian school movement took off like a rocket. I began fielding calls from churches and homeschoolers wanting the same kind of coverage of their programs that I was giving the public schools. To me, it seemed like a win:win situation. I needed a steady supply of good photos, my boss loved photos of kids and pretty women, the Christian schools had kids and, I suspected, due to their recent arrival on the education scene, a lot of young female teachers. It was the photojournalist equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.
However, having grown up in an occasionally religious Protestant family, I was totally unprepared for the world into which I now stepped. Eating a meal with people who said grace before they dined made me feel out of place. My world was one where friends wore parachute pants and Chinese character emblazoned tank tops and I wore pastel summer-weight blazers with gray t-shirts and gray sateen trousers that barely broke over my loafers. When not working, my coworkers and I spent our evenings either in a gay bar that had really cheap beer and burgers (even though most of us were not gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that), or watching bands in bars where they removed all the furniture before, and served all drinks in Dixie cups during, the show. It was a fast-moving modern world, and we thought we were on the cusp of it.
My first visit to an Evangelical Christian school was, to me, like viewing a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel through my camera viewfinder. In gaudily-decorated public school classrooms there was a range of children from well-dressed and well-mannered to unkempt and loud, or various mixtures of the two. Rat tails and mullets were big with the boys; big, poofy,layered, hair sprayed helmets of air and hair were popular with the girls, even in grade school. Kids, mostly boys, talked while the teacher talked, loud enough that I could discern the subjects: sports, cars, their favorite band’s new song, and their classmates. Girls talked too, but usually in hushed, giggly tones that stopped if I came too close. There were a lot of male teachers, some of whom I knew from college, and still a good percentage of female teachers, a sub-percentage of which, rather than looking like my elementary school teachers, looked like women I had dated in college.
In contrast, in the minimally decorated Evangelical church classroom, the student were all dressed – if not in uniform – in a very similar, conservative style. The classrooms were almost universally full of white faces; boys with slicked back or military-esque haircuts, girls with long, straight hair, with no more styling that a part down the middle of the crown of the scalp, and maybe a braided ponytail. The teachers were, indeed, mostly young and female, but were almost universally as plain as the students – no makeup, straight hair, and dressed in a way the purpose of which seemed to be to disguise, as much as possible, the fact that they were an actual person who had an actual life beyond being a fixture in a classroom.
I simply had no idea that there were people in the modern era in the United States – beyond of course the Amish – who still lived in such a buttoned up, cloistered world.
Over time, as the shock wore off, and I began to get a feel for the environment, I noticed another difference from public schools, where it seemed teachers encouraged students to express individualism and think up new ideas. During this period, public schools seemed, in my opinion, to celebrate the idea of thought itself. The private schools and homes I now found myself in seemed, in my limited time observing them, to teach curricula that was not just drastically more limited in science and current events, but based around a different social context that placed far less emphasis on individuality and independent thought. Over a period of time I began to get the unsettling feeling that this was not just an effort to rescue children from the atheist clutches of an evil public school system that was failing to educate them. It seemed to me that it was more an effort to groom a new generation to accept an authoritarian patriarchal power structure that taught them what to think rather than how to think. Even the Catholic schools I visited seemed like bastions of modernity – albeit uniformly dressed in carefully-pressed skirts and khakis – in comparison.
The enthusiastic support of the homeschooling boom, and/or creation of private schools by Evangelical Churches began to make sense. Evangelical pastors, who often seem more concerned about developing a cult of personality in which they were the sole interpreters of the Bible than with the spiritual enlightenment of their flock, creating an educational environment that molded children into the sort of adults who would – in a modern world that emphasized individuality – remain loyal to that pastor, was a perfect-fitting piece that dropped into this puzzle growing in my mind.
But when I occasionally voiced my concerns, the editors for whom I worked dismissed my apprehensions, perhaps taking their cue from the national media, which treated the phenomenon as what could only be a positive sign that parents were growing concerned about their children’s upbringing,and taking steps to again become more involved in it. One of my editors went so far as to take me aside, and in what I suspected was the most caring paternalistic tone he could muster, tell me that if I continued to propose such preposterous conspiracy theories, I could only look forward to a career with what he described with a sneer as “supermarket tabloids.”
Being young and inexperienced, I began to question my perception of reality, fearing the insatiable appetite I had for dystopian science fiction in my adolescence, and for LSD in college, had warped it. I dutifully continued covering this subject, producing cheerful stories and beautifully composed photos of what seemed more and more to me to be vacant-eyed Stepford children who seemed to react to me with equal measures of fear of an outsider and fascination that my existence that indicated there might actually be something that existed outside the triumvirate of parents, pastor, and private school teacher that they were taught was the entirety of the world.
Eventually, like all new stories, the local media excitement about this movement seemed to wane, and the schools themselves seemed less and less interested in having an outsider in their midst, documenting what they were doing. I moved out of journalism into marketing and publishing, and by the time I came back to newspapers, the homeschooling/church school movement seemed barely a blip on the radar, replaced by the new fad, charter schools.
It’s Even Worse Than You Thought
When I moved away from journalism entirely to concentrate on writing fiction, I occasionally played with the theme of manipulative education, but really didn’t pay it much thought in the real world. That is, until I was researching this essay, and stumbled onto Kieryn Darkwater’s January 27 piece “I Was Trained for the Culture Wars in Home School, Awaiting Someone Like Mike Pence as a Messiah,” Darkwater, someone raised inside the movement, was the first author I had ever read who validated much of what I had thought, and then some.
It warrants mention of course that Darkwater’s biography describes the author as “blue haired fairy boi you can find making art and being an activist” (the term “boi” is a variant gender expression used by those who understand gender is a spectrum rather than an either/or dichotomy) so this piece is definitely written from a perspective that is antithetical to a movement that strictly believes that cisgender heterosexuality is the only acceptable model. But even stripping away any agenda, the article is chilling in where it takes my original suspicions.
Where I suspected the movement was designed to raise children to be more susceptible to the patriarchal social structure of the Evangelical Christian church, and thereby keep more of them “in the fold,” Darkwater suggests that early on, if not from the beginning, the goal was far more reaching.
“I was taught by every pastor I encountered that it was our job as Christians to outbreed the secularists (anyone not a far-right evangelical Protestant) and take over the government through sheer numbers,” Darkwater writes.
There are several themes in that one statement that deserve to be unpacked.
First, Darkwater’s parents were part of the “Quiverfull” movement, a subculture within the Evangelical Christian community that eschews any form of birth control, including even natural family planning methods. Encouraging procreation as a method of increasing the size of a group, and hence its social influence, is as old as the Catholic Church, and that certainly seems a logical motivation for a social group that feels it is outnumbered and under siege from the society at large. It also seems a logical extension of a philosophy embraced by the Evangelical Christian community at large, that of the anti-abortion “Pro-Life” movement.
While most outsiders would consider the use of birth control and the fight against the legality of abortion to be tangential subjects at best, look at the facts on the ground: the Pro-Life movement long ago won the argument against taxpayer-funded abortion. And logically, someone who is against abortion should be in favor of preventing unwanted pregnancies. But yet the Pro-Life movement continues to attack Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, which merely provides women with health care, cancer screenings, and family planning advice.
If logic doesn’t convince you there’s a connection, consider that a Pro-Life advocate recently admitted to MSNBC’s Joy Reid that the ultimate goal was not just to stop abortion, but to outlaw all contraception as well.
Second, while I suspected the homeschooling/christian school movement was designed to reinforce the church’s paternalistic hierarchy, it is again, a logical extension, that a movement that feels marginalized in a society decides the best way to protect itself is to infiltrate the system that sets the rules of that society. And what could be more American than becoming a part of the representative democracy that defines us?