Guest Message by Naomi: "How Christian Education Creates Extremists"
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Before I start, I want to make a bunch of disclaimers, because I deliberately chose an inflammatory title for this message. First, I’m not going to argue here that all Christians, or all Christian school kids or teachers or parents, are extremists. I don’t have data on how many Christian school kids grow up to be fascists or anything like that. Rather, I am going to argue that Christian education makes children more vulnerable to radicalization. I also don’t want to paint my own upbringing as some kind of malevolent, militant indoctrination by self-consciously evil people. For the most part, I enjoyed my time in Christian schools, and most of the adults in my life were, I think, people who genuinely love Jesus and believe that Christian education is good. But people with good motives can still do bad things, and under the surface of my own experience, the waters get a lot murkier. I don’t want to excuse or diminish any of the harms that I’m going to be talking about today, so I’m threading a needle with a very small eye here. This is also a content warning for homophobia, transphobia, violence, and racism.
I also have to confess that, while some of my peers rebelled against the system in which we were brought up, I did not. I was entirely committed to some very toxic ideas well into my 20s. If that colors your impression of me, and all I can say in response is that I deeply regret my past beliefs and actions, and while I can’t ever undo or make up for the hurt I inflicted, I hope I can at least counter those ideas and actions with love and grace.
Finally, I’m going to breeze through a lot of information here and I really encourage everyone to look into it. I’ll post a suggested reading list on the website with links to news articles, opinion pieces, and other resources.
The history of Christian education
The modern American Christian school movement has always been a reactionary one, all the way back to the 1800s when Catholic parochial schools were founded as an alternative to Protestant public schools. It wasn’t until over a century later that Protestants themselves began establishing private schools for their children, in response to a number of social changes that occurred during the 20th century. Many parents objected to the teaching of evolution that became more common in the first half of the century. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court banned mandatory school prayer. Other issues like sex education also played a role in turning parents away from public schools, but probably the biggest factor was the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education in 1955, which deemed racial segregation unconstitutional. Many white families, especially in the South where integration efforts were concentrated, just left public schools for all-white private schools. However, this prompted a long court battle with the IRS over whether those schools could continue to operate as nonprofits. Most famously, Bob Jones University sued the US government in the 1970s for taking away their tax-exempt status because of their racial segregation policies..
BJU, and by extension, all private schools, eventually lost the fight over segregation, and most Christian schools today do not have any explicit racial discrimination, although the underrepresenation of minorities continues to be an issue to this day. And the other perceived social ills – evolution, sex ed, and secularism – continue to play a role in how Christian schools recruit and in what they will and won’t teach. Today, additional factors include trans-inclusive policies, mask mandates, and “critical race theory.”
My experience in Christian schools
I went to a Christian school from second grade until I graduated from high school, and after that I went to a Christian university. Before I moved to Spokane, I was a part-time teacher at a Christian school – the same school where I had been a student. I think this gives me a unique perspective on Christian schools, as I got to see the system from multiple angles over a period of two decades.
As a student, most of my education from grade school through college was filtered through the lens of evangelical Christianity, and in general I have no problem with that. Like, at my college, everyone who took a gen ed math course had to write a paper on what role mathematics played in their Christian worldview. But also, when I was in grade school, one of our math books mentioned Buddha in a story problem and my teacher made us cross the name out.
Bible was part of the curriculum throughout my education. For most of grade school and, sadly, all of college, these classes were supremely boring, as they didn’t encourage anything but the most surface-level understanding and analysis of Scripture. Fortunately, in high school I had a series of Bible teachers who really challenged us to engage with the Bible and with theology in a way that actually provoked critical thinking and basically set me on a path to where I am now by getting me to question what I’d been taught, for which I’m eternally grateful. On the other hand, one of these teachers also suggested that homosexuality was caused by demon-possession – and at the time, I thought this was a compassionate narrative because it painted gay people as victims instead of willfully evil.
In general, though, what sticks out to me about my time in Christian school is the imperative that was placed on imparting a set of values into us. We were very explicitly taught to reject such liberal ideas as abortion rights, welfare, affirmative action, and LGBTQ inclusion. One of my best friends was an outspoken Democrat, and students had no qualms about making fun of her in front of teachers. Our school was nondenominational, but students who came from non-evangelical backgrounds often had their beliefs belittled. A lot of our curricula came from Abeka Books which has a strong anti-Catholic bias. One time one of my own teachers mocked a friend of mine who was vegan about not eating meat until she became physically ill. I’m ashamed to admit that I participated in this abuse.
We went to chapel every week where guest speakers, often local pastors, spoke to the student body. Often it was more or less the same kind of message you’d hear in Sunday school about loving Jesus and being kind to others. Sometimes the speakers were missionaries who talked about the persecuted church and what an amazing testimony it was that people were being martyred for their faith. Once it was a pastor who said Christians shouldn’t get tattoos or multiple piercings – my own Bible teacher disagreed strongly with this idea in class afterward, but I don’t know how the rest of the teachers responded.
As a teacher, my experience was . . . mixed. On the one hand, getting paid to talk about my favorite books and about history – one of my favorite subjects – with a handful of intelligent teenagers was absolutely one of my dream jobs. On the other hand, I received a lot of pushback from parents – not directly, but through complaints they filed with the administrators. Oddly, these parents never criticized my skill as a teacher (and they really should have), but rather, I was told that I was “teaching feminism” and that I was indoctrinating the students with liberalism, even though I was just teaching from the same history book I’d had as a student. One time the principal questioned me about a picture I’d liked and shared on Facebook because the page that had originally posted it was called “Life After Faith.” Another time I got complaints about things Justin had posted online. For a while, I was really afraid that my job was in jeopardy, and so the opportunity to come to Spokane and work for myself came at just the right time.
The ideology of Christian schools
If my experience and the experience of people I’ve talked to is the norm, the culture war is at the forefront of Christian education. Whether it’s opposition to secularism, LGBT people, or mask mandates, these issues have always served and continue to serve as prime recruiting points for conservative parents. The message to them is that public schools are dangerous to children and that Christian schools are safe. To children, the message is slightly different: Christianity itself is in danger, it’s up to you to defend it, and a Christian education is going to equip you with the tools to do that.
This “us versus them” narrative was a major theme of my own education. We were repeatedly told as students that “the world” hated Christians and wanted to destroy us. I can recall multiple conversations in school in which I, as a young teenager, was asked to consider the possibility of my future martyrdom for my faith. The facts that a super-majority of Americans are Christians, that most politicians are Christians, and that every US president has been Christian, were immaterial to this point – these were never brought up.
Christian schools push this narrative by controlling the information students are exposed to. Sometimes that means presenting accurate, but incomplete, information. For example, we were taught that China persecuted Christians, but we weren’t taught about their persecution of any other religion or ethnic group. Sometimes it means omitting information entirely, like how we were never told about the fact that America is, and has always been, predominantly Christian. And sometimes it means teaching false information instead of facts. I learned that homosexuality was a dangerous lifestyle that led to loneliness and drug abuse, but I never learned about the AIDS crisis or the Reagan administration’s inhumane and disastrous response to it.
Another way some Christian schools control access to information is just by giving students an inferior education overall. Two of the biggest publishers of Christian school curricula are Abeka Books from Pensacola Christian College, and Accelerated Christian Education, or ACE, which is largely used by homeschool groups. Both programs focus on rote memorization over analytical thinking, and ACE is just a series of workbooks with fill-in-the blank questions whose answers can be found a few pages away.
The third major publisher in the industry is BJU Press, from Bob Jones University. Its history books, along with those of Abeka and ACE, are notorious for downplaying the horrors of the Native American genocide and slavery, for painting slaveowners and even the KKK in a sympathetic light, and for making heavy-handed and unnecessary moral judgments on contemporary civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter.
Even more than history, science classes in Christian schools differ greatly from public education. To this day, I couldn’t tell you squat about the fossil record, carbon dating, or any other evidence for the theory of evolution, but I could tell you all about what Answers in Genesis or the Discovery Institute have to say. I was taught that evolution is an ideological position invented to destroy Christianity, as evidenced by this actual cartoon that I saw in school, taken from a book by Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis. And my school was not an outlier; Abeka, BJU Press, and ACE all present creationism as the only correct understanding of our origins. I’ve found a few schools that say they teach both creation and evolution, but on closer inspection, this is disingenuous. They teach young-earth creationism as truth, then present evolution as an alternate theory that is scientifically suspect. I actually don’t know what I think about evolution because I was never given the opportunity to make a truly informed opinion.
The impact of Christian education
You may be thinking now, this is all fascinating, but how does it connect to the idea that Christian schools radicalize students? In his essay, Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco created a list of 14 features common to fascist movements. Another disclaimer here, in using this list as a comparison I’m not saying that Christian education is inherently fascist, but that Christian schools that operate in the way I’ve described, create an environment that makes people more susceptible to radicalization. I’ve identified 8 of the 14 points are relating to Christian education.
1. A cult of tradition – fascism is inherently a conservative movement, based on the idea that the in-group (whoever that is) was once a glorious people and that everything used to be great, but that some external degenerative force caused a social decay that has led to the group’s decline. This ties directly in with point 2, the rejection of modernism, and point 5, fear of difference. We have seen how for decades, the Christian school movement has been fueled by opposition to social progress – whether they be Black people, trans people, or even people at high risk for complications from a pandemic. Christian schools, like the Christian conservatives behind them, are notoriously resistant to change, and this worldview rubs off on students by encouraging them to resist change as well.
4.Disagreement is treason – in my own experience, I came to understand that when parents complained about me, it wasn’t for the quality of my teaching or even my teaching methods (which actually deserved a lot of scrutiny), but for the content of what I was saying. Putting up a quote by Betty Friedan while we were discussing second-wave feminism meant I was “pushing feminism.” Discussing how the Great Depression, World War II, and Vietnam affected Black people differently from white people meant that I was “indoctrinating” the students. Sharing a meme on Facebook that originally came from a page called “Life after faith” meant that I wasn’t really a Christian. Christian schools want students to be taught a “biblical worldview,” and that can mean just not teaching material deemed to threaten that worldview. ACE and Abeka curricula focus on memorization and simplistic activities because actually analyzing and critiquing the material they present might lead to a rejection of their values and assumptions.
7. Obsession with a plot, 9. life is permanent warfare, and 11. everybody is educated to become a hero – the culture war is central to Christian education. “The world” hates you for being a Christian and will try to destroy you. One of the most frequently-cited Bible passages in Christian education is the one we read earlier: “always be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope that is in you.” To us this meant training to be able to defend our beliefs, to debate evolutionists or atheists or abortionists in order to conquer their ideas in the court of public opinion – and ideally in the actual courts as well. It was actually kind of surprising to me when I entered the real world and discovered that it was pretty chill. Most people didn’t actually spend every minute of their day plotting how to overthrow Christianity.So when flat earthers or anti-vax conspiracists come along and say, “Yes, there is a plot, and scientists are in on it” – or when Qanon says “yes, there is a plot, and the government is in on it” – or when Neo-Nazis say “yes, there is a plot, and the Jews are behind it” – half the work of recruiting someone with this education background, has already been done.
13. Selective populism – this one speaks to the cognitive dissonance I’ve noticed within conservative Christianity. Through the rejection of evolution, mainstream history education, and the scientific consensus on public health, Christian schools teach students to be suspicious of authority. We’re taught that “the world” wants us all to be mindless robots that just accept whatever the government and the media say uncritically. And yet, at the same time, we were taught to accept without question the authority of the Bible as interpreted by the school. To disagree with an interpretation of Scripture given by your Bible teacher was potentially heretical. A lot of conservatives harbor authoritarian beliefs, and these are the people most likely to support Donald Trump, to praise the January 6 insurrection, even to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Conclusion: What can we do?
Once again, I’m hesitant to make a blanket statement about Christian education as a whole. Apart from science and history classes, my education was in many ways excellent. A few of my teachers in particular encouraged their students to be critical thinkers and to seek truth – even if they had no intention of that pursuit leading us away from the worldview they wanted to instill in us. But I do think it’s clear that at best, Christian schools fail to protect kids against extremist recruitment, and at worst, actively create generations of young people ripe for radicalization.
So what can we do about this? As private religious institutions, the extent to which the government can regulate Christian schools is very limited, and I’d argue that any attempt to do so would be seen by them as yet another proof of the us versus them narrative they’re so keen to advance. Instead, I think it’s important for Christians who want to prevent the radicalization of our youth to present counter-narrative to the Christian nationalism that seems to dominate society.
One of the biggest ways we can do this is simply by supporting public education. It’s no secret that many conservatives are trying to undermine public education, whether through a voucher system that gives public funding to private schools or though creating the CRT hysteria to turn parents against public schools, or by passing legislation requiring schools to teach skewed versions of history and science. Every time we vote for school levies, speak up at school board meetings, and give community support to teachers, we help to mitigate the damage of these actions.
Another thing we should do is to be visible, and this is an area in which I think our church does a really good job. When we show up at Pride events with a sign saying “Jesus didn’t reject people; neither do we,” we are taking away from the narrative that Christians have to oppose LGBT rights. When we put “End systemic racism” on our message board, we declared our community that we stand with Black and Indigenous people of color. Whenever we publish statements in solidarity with the victims of religiously-motivated terror attacks, when we joined Faith Action Network, we showed that we don’t fear or demonize people who think differently from ourselves. I am proud to be a member of this church and I hope we always do things like this.
The last thing we should do, and unfortunately the most difficult, is to talk to other people. Given that I was raised in this insular environment and that for many years I wholly bought into it, you might be wondering how I ended up with a completely different set of beliefs, and the answer is that I encountered Christians who believed different things from me and I talked to them. Debating with other Christians felt less threatening to me than debating with non-Christians because I knew we had at least some ideas in common, and I was a lot more open to listening to those Christians and taking their ideas into consideration because I respected them as brothers and sisters in Christ. If you know someone who is in danger of being radicalized, or who is sympathetic to radical viewpoints, and if it’s safe for you to do so, talk to them. I know that’s not an option for everybody. Some of you are going to get nothing but hate from conservative religious types on the basis of your race, gender or sexuality, and I don’t think you should have to put yourself in harm’s way to try to win people over when just living your life as an out and proud Christian is itself an argument against their beliefs.
I’d like to leave you with two thoughts. First, if there’s anything my experience proves, it’s that people can change. The adults in my life did everything in their power to shield me from encountering ideas they saw as unbiblical or immoral, and I still ended up as a far-left “social justice warrior” who thinks trans children are made in the image of God. Secondly, radicalization can go one of two ways. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”