“How should we judge our success? Do we see our children…become powerful in battle? Have they routed foreign armies? … [We] will succeed when our children…engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take the land.”
~ Michael Farris, The Joshua Generation, 2005
Michael Farris is the most powerful figure in the Religious Right that you’ve never heard of—unless you were a homeschooler. If you were a homeschooler, his name inspires either immense pride or overwhelming anger. This is because Farris—love him or hate him—is very good at what he does. And what he does is coerce people through law to show preference to and enshrine his Christian Nationalist worldview.
About Michael Farris
An activist-lawyer who began his career successfully leading opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and defending sodomy laws, Farris quickly rose to prominence in the Religious Right when he turned his attention to homeschooling. He founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1983, a homeschool lobbying organization that was called “The Most Powerful Religious-Right Lobby You’ve Never Heard Of” by The Establishment. Through HSLDA, Farris led the successful fight to almost entirely deregulate homeschooling in all fifty states. As of today, for example, only two states prohibit convicted child abusers from homeschooling. Because of his efforts, many journalists who document the Religious Right refer to Farris as one of the “four pillars of homeschooling.”
But Farris has not limited his activism to homeschooling. He successfully led the opposition to the U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, arguing it violates fundamental parental rights. This has left the U.S. the only country in the world that has not ratified the Convention. To further cement this victory, Farris founded the Parental Rights Organization, which is attempting to pass constitutional amendments to state constitutions in all 50 states as well as to the federal Constitution, to prohibit states from recognizing children’s rights as a valid legal concept.
Most recently, Farris became the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group due to its support for the criminalization of non-heterosexual behavior and the forced sterilization of trans people. As ADF president, Farris won the 2018 case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission before the Supreme Court, reversing a state order that a bakery had to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. And while Farris originally opposed the presidency of Donald Trump, he eventually warmed up to Trump—and Trump rewarded him by appointing Farris to the short-lived 1776 Commission in 2020. The 1776 Commission’s purpose was to create religious and patriotic education for children—a concept that is very familiar to Farris.
After Trump’s failed insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021, journalists and leaders across political and religious aisles began examining the reality of Christian Nationalism—a reality that many people of color, homeschool alumni, exvangelicals, and scholars of white evangelicalism have tried to shine a light on for decades. But instead of reflecting on his own culpability, Farris issued a statement on Facebook on January 23, 2021 in which he argued that “Christian Nationalism” is merely a “pejorative,” a leftist epithet against “mainstream conservative Christians” who believe in objective truth and morality. The phrase itself, Farris implied, has no inherent or true meaning. Farris described the phrase as “demonizing” because it dares to “equate millions of mainstream conservative Christians with dangerous radicals.”
Farris doubled down on this with an additional Facebook post on March 10, 2021, where he claimed “the left wants the public to believe that white evangelicals are all dangerous radicals.” But no, Farris says, people like himself—“mainstream conservative Christians”—in fact “pose no threat” to others. Everyone worried about Christian Nationalism is just “confused.” While he did not deny that he seeks Christian cultural and political supremacy, he assured us that, “A Christian culture will not produce a tyrannical government.” (Apparently Farris does not consider the enslavement and segregation of Black people in the United States tyrannical.)
Farris’s repeated dismissal of Christian Nationalism—a phrase that perfectly encapsulates his own worldview—is more than just fascinating. It matters—a lot. It matters because Farris is gaslighting us. For decades, Farris has advanced an agenda that is Christian Nationalist through and through. Indeed, Farris’s version of Christian Nationalism is—as we shall see—strikingly similar to the late R.J. Rushdoony’s version of Christian Nationalism, which is called Christian Reconstructionism. (For more about Rushdoony, see Julie Ingersoll’s excellent book, Building God’s Kingdom.) Both Farris and Rushdoony envision a government built on “God’s law,” and by that they mean a white evangelical understanding of Jewish law applied to the United States of America.
To better understand how Christian Nationalism perfectly describes Farris’s own worldview, let us first consider what Christian Nationalism is.
Understanding Christian Nationalism
Christian Nationalism, also referred to as Christofascism, is both an ideological movement and a sociopolitical movement. Ideologically, Christian Nationalism advances the idea of the United States being a Christian nation—a new Israel—founded upon Christian principles and uniquely blessed by God as the protector of freedom worldwide. Some Christian Nationalists, Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes in Jesus and John Wayne, go so far as to argue that, “America is God’s chosen nation” (p. 4). Sociopolitically, Christian Nationalism advocates for enshrining in law a 20th and 21st century white evangelical understanding of morality—often referred to as “Judeo-Christian” morality. Sometimes Christian Nationalism argues we should return to enforcing a white evangelical understanding of Jewish law, but this is not always the case.
Christian Nationalism has, to some extent or another, always existed in the United States. Its origins can be directly traced back through Trump’s overwhelming support from white evangelicals, to Rushdoony visiting the Reagan White House in 1980 to lobby for churches to stay tax-exempt despite their whites-only private schools, to the origins of the Religious Right in the white anti-school-desegration movement in the mid-1900s, to the early 19th century pro-slavery theologians, many of whom were white evangelicals. The history of Christian Nationalism is the history of Christian supremacy and white patriarchy. Christian supremacy and white patriarchy are the dual elements fueling Christian Nationalism in the United States. For detailed histories and analyses of Christian Nationalism, see the books Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Building God’s Kingdom by Julie Ingersoll, and The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart.
Michael Farris’s relationship with Christian Nationalism is similarly extensive. For decades, Farris has fought tirelessly to enshrine in American law his white evangelical worldview, with the claim that his worldview best reflects the intent of the American Founding Fathers. From his humble beginnings trying to keep opera houses from serving alcohol to shepherding Masterpiece Cakeshop to the Supreme Court, Farris zealously pursues a nakedly Christian Nationalist agenda.
To better understand Farris’s relationship with Christian Nationalism, let us look at two of his books: his 1992 book Where Do I Draw The Line? and his 2005 book The Joshua Generation.
Where Do I Draw The Line?
Where Do I Draw The Line? is ostensibly about preserving the religious freedoms of white evangelicals—a group Farris believes is under threat. Indeed, Farris argues that, “Christians are the most-castigated minority” (p. 15). In reality, the book is about protecting white evangelicals’ power to discriminate against groups they believe are dangerous and/or immoral, especially non-Christians and LGBTQIA people. Farris contends the power to discriminate is a right Christians have, one of many fundamental human rights “given to us by God” (p. 14).
While Where Do I Draw The Line? is ostensibly about religious freedom but actually about discriminatory power, that difference makes no real difference to Farris and his analysis. This is because, to Farris, the power to discriminate is the definition of religious freedom. We see this in the 1992 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the drafting committee of which Farris served as chairperson. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has a long, documented history of being used to preserve the discriminatory power of white evangelicals. This is no coincidence. Farris makes clear that this was its purpose. The chapter in which Farris discusses the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “The Battle for Religious Freedom,” is concretely about one thing: ensuring that “religious exceptions will be granted for laws of general application.” To Farris, this means that white evangelicals should be exempt from anti-discrimination law, especially regarding “laws of general application that prohibit discrimination against women in employment” and “a city or state gay rights law” (p. 130).
Throughout Where Do I Draw The Line?, Farris advocates for the right of white evangelicals to discriminate against people who stray from their moral ideals. Farris argues for the power to discriminate against: unmarried couples (p. 12, 109, 116-117); LGBTQIA people (p. 12, 17, 25, 49, 90-94, 110, 130, 142-143, 160-161, 203-204); people who consume alcohol (p. 24, 37); non-Christians (p. 26); Buddhists (p. 45); and women (p. 102-103, 110, 130).
Farris most frequently targets LGBTQIA people. No other group receives anywhere near the same amount of attention and vitriol in this book. Farris promotes discrimination against them over three times more often than any other group. Considering Farris’s long-standing support of sodomy laws, this is not surprising. But it also helps show how Farris’s belief in the right to discriminate relates to his vision of the United States as a Christian nation.
Farris believes that, to be faithful to the God of the Christian Bible, Christians must act as purifiers of the world until Jesus returns. Farris writes, “To be the salt of the earth means that we are to act as agents for purifying society, just as salt is an agent to keep meat pure. If the salt doesn’t do its job, society goes rotten” (p. 29). To keep society from going rotten, therefore, Farris argues Christians must have the right to discriminate against immoral or dangerous people. This is how they redeem the culture and bring us back to what they say is our uniquely Christian heritage.
To Farris, “the Christian heritage of this country” (p. 22) means that “the founders of this country believed that the principles in God’s Word should be used in our nation” (p. 26). And while God intends “for all nations to obey His moral principles” (p. 25), Farris says, the United States is unique because our founders wanted Christianity to serve as the foundation of all American law and government. As an example of this, Farris positively cites Delaware’s state constitution in 1776 that stipulated that government office holders must “profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only son, and in the Holy Ghost” (p. 26). Farris yearns to return to such a time, when only Christians held power.
Farris believes freedom, or rights, are based on God’s Word: “We have the heritage of our forefathers who taught us the principles of moral and political freedom based upon the precepts of God’s Word” (p. 205, emphasis added). This means God’s Word is more foundational to Farris than rights. Rights are subordinate to God’s Word, and thus so is democracy, which is how we achieve those rights. Farris makes this explicit when he takes fellow conservative George Will to task for writing that, “A central purpose of America’s political arrangement is the subordination of religion to the political order, meaning the primacy of democracy” (p. 131). To Farris, Will’s statement—that religion should be subordinate to democracy—is blasphemous. Farris believes the opposite: democracy should be subordinate to religion.
Farris does qualify this somewhat. He says he is “not one of those people” who “advocate the idea that America should enact the Old Testament law right down to the rules for conducting trials” (p. 25, emphasis in original). This qualification clearly has Rushdoony in mind, as Rushdoony does argue for enacting much of Jewish law in the United States. (It is, however, somewhat of a straw man, as Rushdoony never issued “a universal call to implement all of the Old Testament laws—just those that are still applicable.”) But Farris then waters down his disagreement, immediately clarifying that, “I do believe the moral principles of God apply to every age. The principles of the Ten Commandments, for example, will forever be valid and should be honored in modern America” (p. 25). This is exactly what Rushdoony says in his book Faith and Obedience: An Introduction to Biblical Law: “Grace and law remain the same in every age” (p. 13) because the Ten Commandments are “intended to be valid for all time and in every civil order” (p. 23).
Because Farris believes democracy should be subordinate to religion, pluralism—valuing all voices, not just Christian ones—is the enemy to Farris. Farris writes that, “[Francis] Schaeffer warned us that pluralism—that is, what the liberals mean by pluralism—is simply ‘the period of transition from one orthodoxy to another” (p. 16). This is nearly identical to the language used by Rushdoony in Faith and Obedience: “In any society, any change of law is an explicit or implicit change of religion.” Rushdoony, like Farris, takes this to mean that pluralism, or tolerance, is antithetical to a Christian nation: “There can be no tolerance in a law-system for another religion. Tolerance is a device used to introduce a new law-system as a prelude to a new intolerance” (p. 17).
To better understand what Farris thinks should replace democracy and pluralism in the United States, let us turn to his 2005 book, The Joshua Generation.
The Joshua Generation
Written a few years after founding Patrick Henry College, The Joshua Generation is primarily a victory lap on Farris’s part. Farris celebrates the many alleged academic and spiritual accomplishments of the Christian homeschooling movement and how Patrick Henry College alumni are infiltrating every level of American government. But its overarching theme is dominionism, the idea that American Christians have a God-given mandate to “take back” the United States for God. According to one of dominionism’s most well-known proponents, C. Peter Wagner, this mandate comes from the first chapter of Genesis: “The nuts and bolts of dominion theology begin in the first chapter of the Bible,” where “the original stated intention of God was to create the human race so that they would ‘have dominion over…all the earth’” (Dominion!, p. 63, emphasis in original).
Dominionists like Farris often make a distinction between what they call the “Moses Generation” and the “Joshua Generation.” The Moses Generation are the parents of current children. They are preparing their children for mighty things, just like Moses and the Israelites raised up Joshua to do mighty things. The children, in turn, are the Joshua Generation, and must use the education and training their parents give them in order to become capable of and skilled at entering every level of American government and society in order to retake it for God’s glory. Farris makes this all explicit in The Joshua Generation. The following passage lays bare Farris’s motivations:
“On the political front, we should not be content that we have gained recognition of our constitutional right to teach our own children. While these battles are important and will always continue to some degree, homeschool freedom is not the end goal. It is a means to a far greater end…
“If the Christian homeschooling movement is to call itself a long-range success, then it must produce a generation of great faith. While the personal faith of each person and family is the key, we should see works that illustrate and validate the vibrancy of that faith…
“How should we judge our success? Do we see our children administering justice, gaining what was promised, shutting the mouths of lions, and quenching the fury of the flames? Is our weakness turned to strength? Have they become powerful in battle? Have they routed armies? …
“In short, the homeschooling movement will succeed when our children, the Joshua Generation, engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take the land” (p. 10-11).
Just like he tried to do in Where Do I Draw The Line?, Farris tries in The Joshua Generation to distance himself from Rushdoony. Farris qualifies his above statements with the following: “The goal is not a political coup or the establishment of a New Israel” (p. 12). However, he again negates this distinction, stating “although taking the land may certainly include political activism” (p. 12). Instead of a coup or establishing a “New Israel,” which would be using political transformation to achieve cultural transformation like Rushdoony advocates, Farris prefers using cultural transformation to achieve political transformation. Specifically, he wants to use homeschooling and Christian higher education to craft the new generation as soldiers for his culture wars—and obtain power that way. But even still, this means obtaining power at the top of government—and then using that power to advance Christian Nationalism. So it’s the same transformation Rushdoony wants; Farris just uses a different technique.
As Farris explains, he wants to see homeschooled children become, not healthy or mature or intelligent, but powerful. He wants them to become “future senators, governors, presidents, and Supreme Court justices,” people “who will rise to the top levels of government, law, journalism, media, religion, art, business, and science” (p. 1). According to Farris, we “desperately need those who aim for the top” (p. 160). And the best way to do this is through a “farm system” approach to children: “If we put enough of our people into the ‘farm system,’ eventually some will start making it to the major leagues” (p. 161).
The “farm system” Farris wants to use is religious and patriotic education—in other words, exactly what Trump’s 1776 Commission promoted. Farris believes that a proper education should lead to two results: (1) the student becoming a Christian and (2) the student becoming a patriot. Thinking wistfully of early American colleges, Farris says, “Christians and patriots. That was all that was needed. It was on these two core characteristics that early American professors could build the skills that students needed to succeed” (p. 144-145).
What Farris’s Christian Nationalism Would Look Like in Real Life
While Farris says he opposes enforcing Jewish as U.S. law, he nonetheless advocates for theocracy—the same form of government advocated by Rushdoony. In his foreword to his father’s book Faith and Obedience, Mark Rushdoony defines theocracy as “the rule of God” where “the authority of His revealed Word” reigns sovereign (p. 1). This is exactly what Farris wants, too.
Throughout Where Do I Draw The Line? and The Joshua Generation, Farris makes quite clear the sort of world in which he wants to live. He wants to live in a world where white evangelicals can discriminate against anyone, including women, LGBTQIA people, non-Christians, and unmarried couples. He wants to live in a world where only Christians can hold office (Where Do I Draw The Line?, p. 26). He wants to live in a world in which everyone is unified behind a white evangelical worldview, where unity “describes the predominant characteristic of a worldview in which there is but one standard of measure: God Himself, as revealed in His Word and His world” (The Joshua Generation, p. 132). He wants to live in a world where LGBTQIA people would be punished or even killed for being queer (The Joshua Generation, p. 63).
While people like Farris and the late Francis Schaeffer find Rushdoony to be too “extreme,” they don’t differ much in terms of the world they envision. They have quibbles here and there about the details (do they want queer people locked up or stoned or hanged?), but they all believe in the idea of a Christian United States, they all believe God’s Laws are applicable to the United States, and they all support the same twisted version of “religious freedom” in which white evangelicals’ power to discriminate is preserved in law and blood. The difference between Rushdoony and Farris is like the difference between Christian Patriarchy and Complementarianism: the difference is a sleight of hand, a matter of mere degrees and not category.
Why does any of this matter? Why must we call out Farris’s denialism about being a Christian Nationalist? This matters—Christian Nationalism matters—because Farris’s vision for the United States is exactly what led to the January 6, 2021 insurrection attempt. Many people of color, exvangelicals, homeschool alumni, and scholars of evangelicalism have pointed out the connections between the white evangelicalism of people like Farris and the insurrection.
Farris must be held accountable and responsible for his actions and words. We cannot allow him to pretend Christian Nationalism is merely a pejorative used to dismiss mainstream conservative Christians like himself. Christian Nationalism is real. Farris promotes it. And the fact that Farris tries to pass himself off as “mainstream” is exactly the problem. It’s a trojan horse; don’t fall for it.
Farris wants us to believe he’s nothing more than a mainstream conservative Christian, that all he wants to do is give Jesus and freedom to every American. But this, as we have seen, is blatantly untrue. Farris is an extremist who has staked out extreme positions on everything from alcohol to sexual behavior to childrearing for decades. While he likes to portray himself as mainstream, he is anything but.
Mainstream conservative Christians do not believe that only Christians should hold public office. Mainstream conservative Christians do not believe LGBTQIA people should be locked up or killed. Mainstream conservative Christians do not believe children should be “farmed” as culture war soldiers. None of that is normal and we should refuse to let Farris pretend otherwise.
Granted, Farris works hard to make his extremism the new mainstream. His “I’m just a normal, everyday Christian” schtick often works, which enables him to make powerful alliances with people who might ordinarily bristle at Farris’s more extreme positions. That is why it is so important that we call him out on his deception and gaslighting. That we point out, using his own words, that he envisions a theocracy for the United States, just like Rushdoony did. He and Rushdoony are two peas in the same Christian Nationalist pod, a pod that thrives because of how unregulated Christian home and private education are.
Furthermore, with Trump potentially running for President in 2024, and Farris still the head of the ADF, Farris will continue to wield significant power and will therefore continue to advance Christian Nationalism. The least Farris can do is be honest about who he is.