In 1982, a small Bible college in Lynchburg, VA, went before the state's board of education to argue that Christian schools should, in essence, be left alone.
The school, Liberty University, was seeking state accreditation for its biology department, which taught that the Earth was no more than 6,000 years old, and had been created by God in six literal, 24-hour days. Accreditation would allow Liberty students to teach science and other subjects in public schools, but the ACLU objected on the grounds that allowing graduates of such a "pervasively religious" school to disseminate young-earth creationism in public schools was a violation of the separation between church and state.
Liberty's founder, the charismatic mega-pastor Jerry Falwell Sr., made no secret of his intentions. “We, with God’s help, want to see hundreds of our graduates go out into the classrooms teaching creationism—of course they’ll be teaching evolution—but teaching why it’s invalid and why it’s foolish, and then showing the proper way and the correct approach to the origin of the species," he said.
The school was eventually accredited, in part because it grudgingly agreed to shuffle creationism out of the biology department and into a newly created department called "History of Life." But the teachings remained, and for decades afterwards, every Liberty student was required to take a class in creationist origins.
(I took this class in 2007, while reporting a book on Liberty, and sat through lectures on the flaws of carbon fossil dating, the co-existence of humans and dinosaurs, and the exact dimensions of Noah's Ark.)
Jerry Falwell Jr. will be leading Trump’s higher education task force. Here’s a science textbook I was assigned at his school in 2007. pic.twitter.com/ba4GY4Lc8M
— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) February 1, 2017
Around the time of the Virginia accreditation fight, Falwell predicted hopefully that in a future America, "we won't have any public schools—the churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them."
But in later years, as Liberty grew into a powerhouse, the necessities of running a big school—maintaining accreditation, attracting competent professors, qualifying for federal grants and student loan programs—required a certain amount of compromise. Despite his stubborn refusal to admit modern science into his school, Falwell seemed to understand that his battle was for independence, not influence. Liberty's focus shifted to preserving its own Christian values, and the goal of putting Jesus in all American schools faded away.
Now, the future of American education may rest in the hands of two people who might actually be able to enact the kind of religious takeover that Falwell once dreamed about. Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over as Liberty's chancellor upon his father's death in 2007, is being tapped by President Trump to lead a task force on higher education, with a focus on "overregulation and micromanagement of higher education." (Falwell had earlier been offered the post of Secretary of Education, but turned it down, saying he didn't want to leave Liberty.)
In an interview with the Washington Post, Falwell said that he would use his White House influence to roll back decades of regulations on colleges and universities, some of which required them to secularize their curriculums in order to be eligible for federal funding or accreditation. Liberty, which now has more than 70,000 students, aleady receives millions of dollars every year in the form of student financial aid, but Falwell still feels excessive pressure from Washington.
“In the Department of Education, there’s too much intrusion into the independent accreditation," Falwell told the Post. “There’s too much intrusion into the operation of universities and colleges. I’ve got a whole list of concerns. It mainly has to do with deregulation.”
Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos, whose nomination for Secretary of Education cleared a Senate committee this week and will soon head to a full vote, is another believer in the Falwellian vision of American education. She and her family have donated millions of dollars to Hope College, a mini-Liberty in Holland, MI, and to The King's College, a conservative Christian school in New York City whose website proclaims a "commitment to the truths of Christianity and a biblical worldview." At one philanthropy conference, DeVos claimed that reforming America's schools was a way to “advance God’s kingdom.”
Doctrinally, there's some space between Trump's education czars—the Falwells are Southern Baptists, while DeVos was raised in the Dutch Calvinist church—but when it comes to education, they share the view that religious schools should not only be allowed to teach anything they want (including young-earth creationism) but should receive taxpayer money to do so.
In the Falwell-DeVos view, the next-best thing to putting public schools in the hands of churches is making Christian education available to as many kids as possible. The "school choice" movement, to which DeVos has devoted a substantial portion of her public life, has its roots in a 1960s effort by Christian parents to protest the court-ordered removal of prayer from public schools by enrolling their children in private schools that better reflected their values. DeVos, like Falwell, believes that taxpayers should help subsidize the cost of private education, making it as easy as possible for parents to pull their kids out of public schools, and giving private schools the resources they need without relying on contributions from rich donors.
"There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education," DeVos said in 2001 during an interview with The Gathering, a group of prominent Christian philanthropists.
Make no mistake: the evangelical Christian "school choice" movement backed by people like Falwell and DeVos may overlap with the pro-charter school movement pushed by advocates like Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy network. But theirs is a much more extreme, sectarian movement, which uses fig-leaf arguments about public school underperformance to conceal its true motive: enabling a mass exodus of students from public schools into parochial schools, where they can be given religious instruction without the pesky intrusions of the ACLU or state inspectors.
President Trump, whose relationship to the Christian church has been tenuous at best, is a bizarre vehicle for this huge shift in educational philosophy. He doesn't appear to care, or frankly understand, what "school choice" means in the context of religious education, and he's certainly not invested in producing a generation of young "Champions for Christ," as the elder Falwell was. But by tapping Falwell and DeVos as his education experts, he's opening the door to a religious revival in American schools, and giving the evangelical schooling movement the influence it's been seeking for half a century.
This isn't to say that public schools will, at DeVos and Falwell's direction, begin teaching that Darwin was a fraud, or mandating prayers over recess. Decades of legal precedent will make explicitly religious public education a near-impossibility. But it does mean that if DeVos is confirmed as Trump's education secretary, the goal of fostering a strong, secular public education system will confront two of its most determined opponents. The Davids of the education movement have suddenly become the Goliaths—and only a fierce battle will save the secularists now.