We home schooled our children from 1992–2004. During those years, home schooling was not yet mainstream. Like many other families worried about running afoul of truancy laws, we paid our yearly dues to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in order to ensure we’d have access to legal help if we needed it. Their conservative, home-schooling dad lawyers, including Doug Phillips, were regulars on the home school convention speaking circuit. When Phllips left to launch Vision Forum, I understood it to be a related enterprise, but focused solely on a particular theological and social grid toward which they were working to funnel the home school movement: dominionist theological understanding and an aggressively pro-patriarchy family and church structure. He wanted to be free to focus on strengthening the faith and practice home school families in his camp without all the bother of wasting his time on court cases with secular home school families as defendants, which was sometimes the case with the work he did with HSLDA.
Often sharing the platform at home school conventions with HSLDA speakers were various members of the Advanced Training Institute crew, disciples of Bill Gothard. (The ‘19 Kids And Counting‘ Duggars are an ATI family and exemplars of Gothard’s teaching.) This cozy arrangement where the Gothardites got away with presenting themselves as the pinnacle to which the rest of us rank-and-file home schoolers were supposed to aspire made perfect sense, as many of the leaders of the state home school organizations in the states in which we lived during our home school years were ATI families.
The formulas preached by these people were so air-tight. The tribes formed around messages of Phillips and Gothard and others like them were so…well, family-like. For those of us home schoolers trying to navigate doing something still viewed in those days as counter-cultural, there was a great temptation for many home school parents to ally themselves with one of these ready-made
cliques peer groups within the larger home school community. (I alluded to this when I wrote about home school parents a couple of years ago here.)
Our family’s home school experience was shaped by these dominant voices during our home school years. While we were never in the patriarchy camp or had any affiliation with ATI, other than using one of Gothard’s Character Sketches books for morning devotional reading one year, we were surrounded with people who were Gothard/Philips devotees. Those of us who weren’t a part of this vociferous, dominant subset often found ourselves walking on eggshells in order to maintain connection with the home school community around us. No, it wasn’t good for us, and it wasn’t good for most of our kids. The bullies ruled the home school playground particularly where we lived in WI. And we let them, and our fear of them, have too much a voice in our family’s home school experience.
There were bits and pieces of teaching from the Phillips or ATI camp my husband and I could affirm at a far more dialed-down level, like importance of fathers’ involvement in their children’s education or the value of learning to seek and find God in the various things we were studying. But of course, Scripture itself coaches us in those basics, right?
There are other bloggers who have tracked some of the excesses of adherents of these leaders, as well as being used to unmask the sexual sin and spiritual abuse of Gothard and Philips. (Click here and here for a couple of examples; there are plenty more sites out there if you search.) The reading isn’t easy.
Yesterday, Michael Farris, the long-time Chairman of HSLDA and Chancellor at Patrick Henry College, posted this short essay, entitled “A Line In The Sand”. He wrote:
I certainly appreciate the mea culpa. So much damage has been done by these teachings, and by the hypocrisy of leaders like Philips and Gothard. It wasn’t just the families who slavishly followed their lead. The overflow of their teaching flowed into places they never could have dreamed – local home school support groups, small churches divided by the unyielding convictions of some of their followers. It is too bad that it took criminal charges and years of internet outcry from those most wounded by them for another leader to speak out at long last. It is another case of leaders serving other leaders, instead of caring for the vulnerable “least of these” in their charge.
But with these recent scandals in view, we think it is now time to speak out—not about these men’s individual sins, but about their teachings. Their sins have damaged the lives of their victims, and should be addressed by those with the appropriate legal and spiritual authority in those situations, but their teachings continue to threaten the freedom and integrity of the homeschooling movement. That is why HSLDA needs to stand up and speak up.
Frankly, we should have spoken up sooner. How much sooner is hard to say. There is a subtle difference between teaching that we simply disagree with and teaching that is truly dangerous. While we did not directly promote their teachings using our own resources, we did allow Vision Forum to buy ad space to promote their products and ideas. We were wrong to do so. And we regret it.
What has changed our minds are the stories we are now hearing of families, children, women, and even fathers who have been harmed by these philosophies. While these stories represent a small minority of homeschoolers, we can see a discernible pattern of harm, and it must be addressed.
Mike Smith and the HSLDA board of directors join me in apologizing for failing to speak up sooner. We intend to change that, starting now.
While speculating about what might have been if Farris and a few other key leaders would have raised their concerns sooner is a fruitless task, I can say that what I look for in a leader is someone who is willing to put his reputation and security on the line to defend those most vulnerable. HSLDA has spent a generation waging war on laws that prevented families from home schooling their children, but they were blinded by the fact that they had a responsibility to confront enemies who’d set up shop within the nucleus of the movement. Because that’s what real leaders do.
And this failure to lead has application far beyond the boundaries of the home school movement. This is a cautionary tale for all leaders. Silence is tacit approval – and is the exact opposite of the culture of the kingdom to which Jesus calls us. Jesus confronted sin within the camp of his own people, and defended, loved and healed the most vulnerable: children, widows, the sick and oppressed. This is who he is, and it is who he empowers us through his Spirit to be here and now.
How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. – Psalm 82:2-4