Sex Scandals, Homeschooling and the Religious Right

10/29/2015 03:44 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2016

Sex scandals keep bubbling up from the Christian home school world and there is an underlying connection you've not yet read about--and believe it or not, it ties into the tea party and the GOP house speaker race.

A lawsuit filed this week on behalf of five women who had served as Bill Gothard interns alleges that the organization for which they worked, Institute in Biblical Life Principles (IBLP), was aware of ongoing "sexual abuse, sexual harassment and inappropriate/unauthorized touching while they were minors," They seek damages from the organization.

According to the complaint, IBLP has closed its offices in Illinois where the alleged abuse occurred, in order to move its assets to Texas. The complaint seeks to preclude that move and secure damages for the five women. Attorney David Gibbs III said the women had been in contact with him while they worked for more than a year to resolve their issues with the IBLP board which, "basically did everything wrong." He also indicated that since the filing more women have contacted him and there may be others that join the suit.

Gothard and IBLP may not be household names but they are broadly influential. In 2010 a Florida Congressional race Tea Party candidate was dubbed "Taliban Dan," for his ties to IBLP and controversial statements statements about women's submission. Webster is now the one candidate the so-called Freedom Caucus likes as candidate to replace House Speaker John Boehner.

Extreme Homeschooling Sex Scandals
Surely you've heard that Josh Dugger admitted molesting young girls (including his sisters) and was later revealed to have cheated on his wife. The revelations led to his resignation from the Family Research Council, the cancellation of his family's reality TV show and, now, according to some reports divorce from his wife, a 27 year-old mother of four.

The Duggars occupied a place among home schooling elites at the nexus of two important ministries that were recently been wracked by sex scandals and abuse accusations: Bill Gothard's Institute in Biblical Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute (also known as IBLP and ATI) and Doug Phillips' Vision Forum. The Duggar's were Gothard homeschoolers and they were ministry partners with Vision Forum, which in 2010 named Michelle Duggar "Mother of the Year."

In June 2014 when Bill Gothard, homeschooling icon and founder of the community youth training program called Character First! resigned from his Institute in Biblical Life Principles (IBLP) last year over sexual abuse allegations, he maintained he did nothing wrong, though the lawsuit claims otherwise.

In late 2013 homeschooling biblical patriarch Doug Phillips was forced to resign from his Vision Forum Ministries when he admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a young woman who had worked for his family and been a member of the church he led.*
That scandal is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

Where are the Authorities?
Central to each of these cases is a homeschooling environment that is intentionally autonomous from oversight and regulation, secured in claims to legal protection religious freedom, leaving young women dangerously vulnerable to would-be abusers.

Gothard's organization offers a home school curriculum and seminars fostering an insular community of alumni that stretches across the country and around the world, and spanning decades. Gothard's world has been Sarah Posner has written about Gothard's authoritarianism, emphasizing bizarre views of science and medicine, and the complete submission of women. Gothard resigned his position a little over a year ago after a series of accusations that he cultivated inappropriate intimacy with young women who worked at IBPL/ATI headquarters.

Phillips' Vision Forum also promoted home schooling materials and conferences that produced an insular community sharing his vision and, at the same time, had fairly broad influence in the larger home school world.

Gothard, Phillips, and the Duggars represent contemporary expressions of the movement established by R.J. Rushdoony, known as Christian Reconstruction, and share what they understand to be a biblical view of authority derived from Rushdoony.
In this view, God delegated specific and separate authority to the family (exercising dominion, the primary aspect of which is raising children), the church (preaching the Gospel and training Christians in the exercise of dominion), and the civil government (punishing criminals). Each sphere is understood as autonomous from the others, with education exclusively within the purview of the family. They oppose any oversight by the civil government as a tyrannical violation of God's law.

Rushdoony wrote this in the 1960s and it was the basis on which he testified in early Christian education lawsuits, successfully arguing that educational autonomy from the state is a matter of religious freedom. It is the fundamental commitment that drives the work of the controversial Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) (where Phillips worked as an attorney.)

A 2009 "Leadership Summit," held at a Gothard-owned facility, brought together like-minded homeschool leaders where speakers traced the homeschool movement to Rushdoony and articulated a distinctly Reconstructionist version of the characteristics of "Christian" home schooling. Phillips argued for the complete dismantling of "unbiblical" Child Protective Services: "The core problem with Child Protective Services is its existence....at the end of the day, the problem isn't simply 'Child Protective Services to get better,' it is eliminating it altogether."

In the Fox News interview Megyn Kelly asked whether Michelle and Jim Bob considered that they might have legal obligations. Jim Bob answered, "You know, what? As parents you're not mandatory reporters." The Duggars' decided to not report their son's crimes to authorities , but to deal with the molestation as "sin," addressing it within their own family and seeking informal "counseling" from someone who shared their particular version of a Christian worldview; someone thought to have come through the Gothard network .

There has been disagreement over whether they had legal obligations and plenty of criticism for not reporting whether they were required to or not. But supporters have opined that they handled the issue correctly as it is, in their view, a family matter. Even days after the scandal broke DHS appeared at the Duggar home on another investigation and the parents apparently refused to cooperate.

At the same time, there is a growing critique among other homeschoolers, some of whom remain conservative Christians, who see this problem, one of whom shared with me the recording of the 2009 Summit.

While sex abuse isn't unique to this world, and I'm not even arguing that it is worse here than elsewhere (though Jim Bob did say that he's talked it over with many families they know and that their situation "happened in lots of them") the view that parents (read fathers) have absolute authority over every aspect of the raising of children, creates a context that can mitigate against discovering and stopping abuse... and which can even serve to protect abusers.

*Full disclosure: I have helped as a consultant for the plaintiff.