Pious Pedagogues: The Evangelical Homeschooling Lobby of Reagan's America

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 4:10 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago)
Lindsey Maxwell, Florida International University
Defined by the ascendancy of modern conservativism in politics and government, the United States in the Reagan Era concurrently witnessed the rise of evangelicalism to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Modern homeschooling, a trend that matured into a movement during that period, became a sizeable segment of the American religious right. Although of central importance to the movement, its Christian underpinnings have remained one of the most understudied topics in historical research on modern American conservatism. This paper showcases findings of a project dedicated to closing a persistent gap in the scholarship.

The paper reconstructs the history of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) as one of the homeschooling movement’s driving forces. Founded as an organization to help protect the rights of homeschooling families in 1983, the HSLDA expanded rapidly after its foundation and counts, at the present moment, 85,000 members nationwide. Established by Patrick Henry College founder Michael Harris, its initial mission was to defend the practice of home-based education against pushback from political actors and state authorities. Harris and his fellow organization leaders promoted an educational model based on Christian reconstructionist ideology, glorifying homeschooling as a bulwark against secularized and corruptive cultural influences.

This paper illuminates how the association’s ideological currents and judicial successes catalyzed its evolution from a legal organization with a defensive outlook to an offensive political think tank for America’s religious right. Tracing the organization’s steady radicalization, it examines HSLDA legacies such as the spread of private Christian colleges and the internationalization of its advocacy. Combining ethnographical approaches with methodologies of institutional history, it reveals the significant influence that one group of American evangelicals exercised on public policymaking. Ultimately, the paper disputes persistent narratives of homeschooling as a symbol of religious freedom and educational self-determination in the United States.