An Army of Home-Schooled "Christian Soldiers" On a Mission to "Take Back America for God"
Reprinted from Write These Laws On Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Kunzman. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
Generation Joshua and HSLDA
“A Few Good Soldiers”
“America is in a culture war. A few good soldiers can make a difference. Equip yourself and come join the battle!” So proclaimed the founders of Generation Joshua, a civics program from the Home School Legal Defense Association begun in 2003. “Our goal is to ignite a vision in young people to help America return to her Judeo-Christian foundation,” its leaders explained. “We provide students with hands-on opportunities to implement that vision.” As I began my homeschooling research six years ago, the birth of Generation Joshua caught my attention. Here was a civics education program aimed at homeschoolers, one that clearly sought to help nurture in students an idea and practice of citizenship informed and energized by their deep religious convictions. Perhaps the homeschooler president of Michael Farris’s dream would emerge from such an education.
Designed primarily for high-school-aged students, Generation Joshua combines online components with periodic opportunities for face-to-face interaction and real-world political engagement. The online elements of the program include extensive civics coursework, adult-moderated “chats” about current events, and thousands of bulletin-board forums where students can post entries on topics ranging from immigration reform and international relations to popular movies and rules for courtship.
This civics education program extends far beyond a virtual electronic community, however. Students are encouraged to participate in summer camps, voter registration drives, regional clubs, and an intriguing feature called Student Action Teams (SATs). These adult-supervised teams of students engage directly with the political process through participation in electoral campaigns. In fact, several victorious candidates for state and national offices have credited SATs with playing a pivotal role in their races.
But assisting with current political contests, while certainly appreciated by candidates, is ultimately a means to a much broader end. An ABC World News Tonight profile described Generation Joshua as developing “Christian soldiers with a mission to take back America for God, ”and GenJ leadership clearly agrees. Founding director Ned Ryun designed a strategy of creating a new generation of leaders who will bring their Christian values and commitments with them into the public square of policy, politics, and culture. “Great movements begin from the grass roots, from the bottom up,” he told one magazine interviewer. “With the homeschooling movement, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. In another ten or fifteen years, we may see a disproportionate number of homeschoolers in positions of highest leadership.” In the first six years of its existence, Generation Joshua has seen steady growth in its membership, with a 2008 roster of more than four thousand students.
Michael Farris sees Generation Joshua as playing a vital role in the long-term goals of HSLDA and conservative politics. “We are not homeschooling our kids just so they can read,” he told the New York Times. “The most common thing I hear parents telling me is they want their kids to be on the Supreme Court. And if we put enough kids in the farm system, some may get to the major leagues.” It was Farris who coined the program’s name. He describes current homeschool parents and leaders as the Moses Generation, the ones who led the exodus from public schools (the equivalent of pharaoh’s Egypt). But just as it was Moses’s protégé Joshua who finally brought his people into the Promised Land, Farris sees the homeschooled youth as the ones who will ultimately “take back the land” for God.
This vision of conservative Christian homeschooling, while still rooted in the primacy of the family and parental freedom to direct the upbringing of their children, reaches beyond to instill a particular philosophy and practice of citizenship. Even on first glance, Generation Joshua— with its battle imagery and strong emphasis on real-world engagement in the political arena—promised to be something quite different from the lowest-common-denominator, controversy-avoiding, inert civics curricula sadly typical of public schools.
So I decided to follow the development of this program, to see how they go about “igniting a vision” of citizenship focused so squarely on bringing their Christian values into the public square. What kind of citizen are they trying to develop? Are students encouraged to think for themselves, or parrot a party line? And how is such a citizen supposed to engage with the diversity of beliefs and perspectives at play in our democracy?
Generation Joshua provides a range of online learning opportunities for students. Their formal curricular offerings include a variety of topics, such as Constitutional Law, Founding Fathers, Campaign School, Revolutionary War-Era Sermons, The Federalist Papers, The Great Awakening, and Democracy in America. For the most part, however, it’s pretty dry stuff. I had high hopes for the Democracy in America course, but like most of the other topics, it essentially consists of selected readings followed by quizzes that can be submitted online, with a certificate of completion awarded at the end of the unit.
The GenJ Book Club offers a yearly reading list, with titles ranging from mainstream historical fare such as David McCullough’s 1776 to more partisan texts such as Mark Levin’s Men in Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America. GenJ staff moderators lead online discussions of the selected books throughout the year; these conversations vary in quality from fairly detailed exchanges about central themes in a text to a series of unrelated and unsupported opinions typed haphazardly by contributors.
The most active online participation, however, takes place on the forum bulletin boards, where GenJ members can share their perspectives on a variety of issues. These “threads” are usually started by student participants, although occasionally one of the adult moderators will pose a question or issue and invite comments.
Forum threads exploring the broad and complex relationship between government and religion appear regularly. The vast majority of forum participants agree that the Founding Fathers intended for the United States to operate according to Christian principles, and many cite political speeches by these men that urged a strong link between government, religious devotion, and Christian morality (the GenJ Web site itself provides a page of over forty such quotes). GenJers recognize freedom of religion as a pillar of American democracy, but don’t see this conflicting with their desire for laws that reflect Christian convictions on topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious references in public displays and the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on. The United States can (and should) be governed by principles of Christian morality, they contend, as long as no one forces people to be Christians.
Approximately 90 percent of GenJers are homeschoolers, so it’s not surprising that threads weighing various forms of schooling would be popular. “Public schools are quite simply humanist churches,” one student writes. Another charges that public schools “have become the Enemy’s tool of indoctrination and demoralization of today’s society.” Some students seek support in their Scriptures, such as one who argued, “The Word of God says that parents are to raise their children in the ‘nurture and admonition of the Lord.’ What does this mean? It means that it is a sin for Christian parents to submit 20,000 hours of their child’s childhood to an influence which teaches them that there is no God.” Another puts it quite simply: “Children are not spiritually strong enough to attend a humanist church five times as much as a Christian church.” While many forum participants sound absolutely convinced that public schools are the worst possible choice and they would never send their kids there, a few wrote about their public school friends whom they see as both good Christians and successful, happy students. “Public schools are a problem right now in this country, but it is a generalization to suggest that they are all failing, miserable examples of schools,” one student asserts. “Remember there are a lot of Christians in the public system as well.”
On the whole, however, cautionary views of public schools and secular society rule the day, conveying an implicit conception of childhood as a defensive posture, protected by parents. Only when they reach adulthood can they step out and contend with the influences of the world. As one student remarks, “It is the job of the adult, who is already steadfast in his/her belief, to do the evangelizing, not of the naïve child who is still being taught about the Bible and Christianity.” A few, however, see the pathway to adulthood as ideally more of a gradual transition. “I believe going to a local high school while you are still living at home is much better than being thrown out into the real world during or after college,” one participant writes. “It provides a nice transition to the real world because your parents are still there to guide and direct you.”
Some forum topics address, at least incidentally, broader philosophical issues such as tolerance, compromise, and ethical reasoning. Arguments against moral relativism crop up regularly, and many students seem unwilling to consider the possibility of moral shades of gray. “Scripture is not neutral,” one insists. “Something is either for God or against God.” Another writes, “We shouldn’t be lukewarm; there shouldn’t be a gray area.” A related thread entitled “What Is Truth?” makes clear that most GenJ participants interpret the Bible literally, and if scientific knowledge or personal experience doesn’t line up with their literal interpretation, the science is flawed or the experience is misunderstood.
While some public school classroom settings approximate the engaging back-and-forth interactivity that these online chat rooms and forum postings provide, Generation Joshua offers participants a much richer layer of experience beyond that. Voter registration drives, Student Action Teams, and GenJ Clubs: here is where the transformative power and lasting impact of Generation Joshua reside, and where public schools have great difficulty keeping up.
One way in which GenJ members are encouraged to become politically active is by conducting voter registration drives in their local areas. One GenJ staff member made the underlying goal quite clear in his advice to students:
If it is a secular realm (a county fair, for example), place a huge Bush-Cheney sign and Republican yard signs in the area. This will make it very unlikely that people will show up who want to vote Democrat. You are not a partisan organization, but you can indeed register voters in a partisan manner. When ignorant people come up, make sure you explain things in such a way that they would feel largely stupid to register Democrat. In other words, tell the truth. :)
The vision of civic education offered here promotes partisan victory at the expense of encouraging full participation in the process.
Perhaps the most powerful impact, however, occurs when Generation Joshua members participate in Student Action Teams, which provide hands-on experience in a political campaign. “The balance of power is so close in America right now that a small army of young people, placed in the right place at the right time, can make a difference,” Ryun wrote in his pitch to get students involved in SATs. “But we can’t make a difference sitting at home. We’ve got to get out of our comfort zones and go for it.” GenJ members get the message that they truly can make a difference, even before they’re eligible to vote: “This Presidential election and the next could dictate the direction America takes for the next generation. There is so much at stake that will influence your life in the years to come, and you can help change the course of a nation by being involved.”
The Political Action Committee of HSLDA identifies “pro-family and pro-homeschooling” candidates to support, and students (and their parents, if they volunteer to serve as chaperones) within driving distance of the campaign are encouraged to join an SAT. Travel expenses are reimbursed, and pairs of Patrick Henry College students serve as team leaders, often supervising as many as one hundred teenagers, thirteen minivans, and twenty-two hotel rooms. Not surprisingly, GenJ requires a strict code of conduct, but it’s easy to see how this would present itself as a great adventure for homeschoolers (or any student wanting to get involved in the political process, for that matter).
Political analysts observe that volunteers are even more important than money in campaign success, and the efforts of SATs would seem to bear this out. In 2006 alone, 1,300 GenJers made more than 400,000 phone calls and knocked on over 100,000 doors. SAT participation was slightly less in 2008, but volunteers still made direct contact with more than half a million voters. Numerous victors in the House and Senate over the past several years have credited SATs with playing a pivotal role in their campaigns. Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn proclaimed, “I’m a U.S. senator today” because of the grassroots volunteers who were “just energized and believed in what we were talking about.” Generation Joshua, he added, “was the most successful thing I’ve ever seen in politics, and my hope is that it’ll continue.”
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