No Unbelievers Allowed: How Homeschooling Became a Christians-Only Club
Gregg Harris, YouTube.
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
As a child, I remember my family was friends with another Christian homeschooling family. My parents ran a local Christian homeschooling support group. This other family, however, was part of an “inclusive” homeschooling support group. I knew this was a source of tension between my parents and the other parents. Whether accurate or not, my child-brain discerned that since the “inclusive” group was not only for Christians, it was not a “Christian” homeschooling group — and that was a problem.
At the time, I did not realize that this tension between my parents and my friends’ parents about whether to include non-Christians in local homeschooling support groups was a significant debate among homeschoolers. The fact that it was a significant debate can be traced back to one person in particular: Gregg Harris.
The influence Gregg Harris has exerted on the modern homeschooling movement cannot be overstated. He is described by journalists Kathryn Joyce and Helen Cordes as one of the “four pillars of homeschooling” (alongside HSLDA’s Michael Farris, NHERI’s Brian Ray, and The Teaching Home‘s Sue Welch). In his 2006 book Homeschool Heroes: The Struggle and Triumph of Home Schooling in America, the late Chris Klicka of HSLDA describes the exact influence Harris had on the fledgeling homeschooling movement in the 1980’s:
In 1980 Gregg Harris and his wife, Sono, elected to take a giant step and homeschool their son, Joshua… Gregg wanted to start a ministry to encourage other families to homeschool. He saw homeschooling as a means of restoring the model of the Bible-centered family, a place to train future leaders… His ministry, Christian Life Workshops (CLW), offered these two-day homeschool workshops… He urged families to homeschool in order to fulfill God’s command to train our children.
His homeschool workshops at first drew a few hundred… Pretty soon the workshops grew in attendance to nearly fifteen hundred. Over 180,000 families were trained by Gregg Harris from 1984 to 1995. At least thirty-five of the now large statewide homeschool associations got their start as Gregg shared his attendee and mailing lists. Many had their founding organizing meetings at Gregg’s workshops.
Without Gregg Harris’s early influence, I am convinced that the homeschool movement would not be the thriving Christian influence on our society that it is becoming today (21-22, emphases in original).
HSLDA’s J. Michael Smith has also noted that Harris’ “early Homeschooling Workshops inspired…many state homeschool organizations to launch annual state conferences.” According to Harris’ own website today, he has taught over a quarter of a million homeschooling families.
It is because of Harris’ overwhelming influence on both the modern homeschooling movement in general and the Christian subculture within that movement that HSLDA named their Lifetime Achievement Award the “Gregg Harris Award for Leadership.” (This is the award HSLDA bestowed upon accused rapist Bill Gothard in 2010.)
One of the primary ways that Harris influenced homeschooling, as noted above, is his transformation of homeschooling from an alternative educational method to a specifically Christian way of life. In his 1988 book The Christian Home School, Harris directly compares Christian parents who send their children to public schools to medieval Christians who sent their children into actual slaughter during the Children’s Crusade of 1212.*** “A similar slaughter is taking place today,” Harris warns, when “Christian parents send their children to the public school… The result is the same” (11). Because “God has entrusted the care, the nurture, and the education of those children primarily to [parents],” “not to the State” and “not to the Church” (11), Harris sees homeschooling as the biblical method of education.
To Harris, part of making homeschooling a specifically Christian way of life means purging local homeschooling support groups of non-Christians. In The Christian Home School, Harris urges Christian homeschoolers that, “For spiritual support, you and other like-minded Christians will clearly need to meet together in homes or churches as a separate group… We should try not to get entangled in the affairs of unbelieving families” (186-7).
Not being reported for child abuse is also an advantage of shunning “unbelieving families.” In a guest chapter for Chris Klicka’s 1995 book The Right Choice: Home Schooling, Harris argues against “inclusive,” or interfaith, homeschool support groups. He warns that non-Christians do not understand the biblical mandate to physically strike one’s children according to Proverbs. Consequently, “Biblical methods of discipline may be reported by fellow group members to authorities as ‘child abuse'” (188).
For these reasons, Harris recommends in The Christian Home School that support groups create statements of faith. “A disagreement over policy or doctrine or an aggressive intruder can mean a lot of problems for the group,” he writes. “Know who you are and what you stand for when you begin.” This means that, “A statement of faith, which should be affirmed by any potential group leader, ought to be broad enough to include Christians who disagree on nonessential matters (such as eschatology), but narrow enough to exclude people from a nonevangelical framework or who hold abhorrent opinions” (185).
In addition to non-evangelicals (e.g., Catholics), Harris also contends for the exclusion of families with “homosexual and lesbian parents.” LGBTQ parents, Harris explains, “have a history of trying to join Christian support groups and move into leadership under false pretenses.” Since “God’s Word clearly condemns these sexual perversions,” Harris argues, “to keep these people out, you need a clear statement in the founding documents” (185).
Note that these families are being excluded because of parental sexual identity. So even if the parents’ children are straight, if the parents are not straight, Harris recommends casting the whole lot out of one’s group.
Furthermore, Harris wants these LGBTQ families excluded while acknowledging they are isolated and persecuted. He points out that LGBTQ families “are attracted to home schooling because they have been socially isolated and often persecuted. They seem to assume that home schoolers are kindred spirits because of the legal battles related to home education. Needless to say, Christian home schoolers have little in common with such people, but we need to say so” (185-6). He does, nonetheless, advocate for showing LGBTQ families personal kindness: “Respond to them on a personal level, but keep them out of the group” (186).
These sorts of exclusions are what homeschooling forefather Raymond Moore referred to in his 1994 white papers in which he lambasted Harris, HSLDA, and others for causing division in the homeschooling movement. Also known as “The Ravage of Home Education Through Exclusion By Religion,” Moore’s white papers lambast all four homeschooling “pillars” for a “form of bigotry” he labels “Protestant Exclusivism.” Moore gives the following harsh description of Harris:
A “Christian” fired from a homeschool job for fraud began using a statement of faith to split states and obtain a following, His Protestant exclusivist [PE] move was joined by lawyer-preacher Mike Farris and Editor Sue Welch of TEACHING HOME magazine, making money from the move, yet it did not come from the Christ whose flag they wave. Backed by publisher who profit by formal, conventional programs, it destroys the historic unity and quality of the Movement, splitting state groups by requiring a statement of faith.
Sociologist Mitchell Stevens gives a more nuanced take on the disagreements between Harris and Moore in his 2009 book on homeschooling, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. In contrast to Moore’s description of Harris being “fired,” Stevens claims Harris “left” his job with Moore:
As the years passed and Christian home education flourished, other stars began to rise. Gregg Harris, who had begun his homeschool career as a conference planner for Moore, left his employer in a bitter business dispute and began his own fledgling ministry… Moore and his wife were themselves Protestant Christian, but their vision for home schooling was an ecumenical one. The next generation of believer elites had different ideas… By the dawn of the 1990s, Raymond Moore was finding himself on the outside… Ultimately Moore’s more ecumenical vision for homeschooling lost out to a distinctively Christian home education (172-3).
Over the last decade, news articles have proclaimed the religious diversification of the modern homeschooling movement. People often point to surveys that show fewer parents are homeschooling primarily for religious reasons. Nonetheless, it is estimated that anywhere from 70 to 94 percent of homeschoolers are Christian.
*** While this is the description of the Children’s Crusade given by Harris, it is not historically accurate.