Communicators for Christ: How Homeschool Debate Leagues Shaped the Rising Stars of the Christian Right

Then US Congressman-elect Madison Cawthorn at Turning Point USA's Student Action Summit in 2020. Cawthorn is one of a number of rising stars of the Christian Right who participated in homeschooling debate leagues. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

David Eastman is one of the rising young stars of the Christian Right. Controversial, blunt, and shameless, Eastman has—like his idol, former President Donald Trump—mastered the art of provoking strong, emotional reactions from people with his rhetoric. Born and raised in California in an evangelical homeschooling family, Eastman currently serves as a Representative in the Alaska State House. In that position since 2017, he’s attracted national attention from his refusal to honor Hmong and Black veterans of the American military, his lifetime membership with the far-right militia organization Oath Keepers, his support of child marriage, and his presence at Trump’s Stop-the-Steal rally preceding the January 6th, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol building.

Eastman’s rhetoric, which has twice resulted in him being censured by the Alaska State House (first by Democrats in 2017 and most recently by his own fellow Republicans in 2023), has been labeled “incendiary” by national news—an accurate characterization of his Trumpian arguments that native Alaskan women have abortions to obtain “a free trip to the city,” that Joe Biden is like Adolf Hitler, and that fatal child abuse is “actually a benefit to society because there aren’t needs for government services.” 

But Eastman’s rhetoric is more than incendiary. It’s an intentional and carefully constructed aspect of Eastman’s identity as an alumnus of the evangelical homeschooling movement, specifically the academic debate leagues that have become immensely popular among evangelical homeschoolers.

And notably Eastman isn’t the only rising star of the Christian Right who participated in homeschool debate leagues. Many young people who are gradually assuming leadership in the Christian Right—including Lila Rose, Will Estrada, Alyssa Farah, Madison Cawthorn, and Alex and Brett Harris—are products of this niche milieu. (Full disclosure: I also competed in these leagues in high school and coached in them in college.) 

Recognizing and grasping the culture of homeschool debate is crucial to our broader understanding of Christian nationalism, as the young people who participated are beginning to have a significant impact on American society.

A league of one’s own

Academic debate is neither an exclusively evangelical, nor a homeschool-only, activity. While debate history can be traced back to ancient Greece, traditional team policy debate—where two teams of two debaters argue about a government policy proposal—began after World War II in the U.S. Military Academy. The largest speech and debate organization serving youth in the United States is the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). Founded in 1925, NSDA is open to students from any type of school (public, private, or home) but schools must become members of NSDA in order for their students to participate. Many famous people are NSDA alumni.

Evangelical homeschoolers first took interest in debate in 1996. Christy Shipe, daughter of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) founder Michael Farris, was attending Cedarville University, a conservative Baptist university in Ohio, when she was introduced to debate. During her senior year at Cedarville, she and her father launched a national debate league for homeschooled students through HSLDA. 

A far-right lobbying organization for Christian homeschoolers, HSLDA saw debate as a powerful way to groom the next generation of Christian leaders. Describing the goals of the league upon its founding, Farris declared that he aimed for children to obtain the “ability to stand for the truth of God’s word” and “to help homeschoolers address life’s issues biblically, with God’s glory, not their own, as the focus.”

The very first national tournament for HSLDA’s debate league occurred in 1997 in Virginia. In order to attend the national tournament, debate teams first had to qualify by winning a state tournament. While I was too young to participate in HSLDA’s debate league in its first year, my older brother did participate. He attended the very first state debate tournament for homeschoolers in California—also attended by Alaska state representative David Eastman. 

In fact, the round that determined who represented California at that first national tournament was between Eastman’s team and my brother’s, with Eastman winning. That first year, the national tournament was a significant event, with the final round taking place at the 1997 National Christian Home Educators Leadership Conference in front of 400 homeschool leaders from 44 states.

By 2000, HSLDA’s debate league had grown large enough that leadership decided the league should become independent. So Christy Shipe and California debate coach Teresa Moon co-founded the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA) whose original board of directors included Shipe and Moon, along with Michael Farris, Todd Cooper, Skip Rutledge from Point Loma Nazarene University, Deborah Haffey from Cedarville University, and Terry Stollar (my father) from Gutenberg College.

In 2009, NCFCA was rocked by controversy when leadership decided to hold the national tournament at Bob Jones University, infamous for their history of racial segregation and fundamentalist beliefs. This decision, and how leadership responded to the resulting student protests, was so contentious that the league split in two. Many leaders, debate coaches, and students from (primarily) Western states, led by California, formed a new league called Stoa.

Today, both NCFCA and Stoa continue to operate, with each hosting hundreds of tournaments across the United States. They’re sponsored by overlapping organizations, such as the Classical Learning Test, Patrick Henry College, and Grove City College, and Stoa evidently gave up their opposition to Bob Jones University, holding their 2015 national tournament at the school.

Demagogues. But polite

For most students, debate serves an academic purpose. For Christian homeschoolers, however, debate serves both a spiritual purpose and a sociopolitical purpose.

The spiritual purpose is evangelism. Sarah Pride, a homeschool alumna and daughter of homeschool leader Mary Pride, explained in an article for Practical Homeschooling that debate “prepares young communicators for the specific purpose of serving Christ.” Debate thus becomes a means to accomplish the Great Commission—the idea that Jesus tasked Christians to make disciples of all nations. As a pseudonymous alumna of homeschool debate once wrote, “The larger purpose of all of this was to… eloquently and winsomely communicate a ‘biblical worldview’ in the culture at large—we were supposed to become world-changers and culture makers.”

The sociopolitical purpose is dominionism. Christian Right expert Frederick Clarkson* describes dominionism as “the theocratic idea that… Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” Debate is seen by the Christian Right as a powerful tool for equipping young people with the skills necessary to take control of these institutions. Former Florida debater Kieryn Darkwater states, “They want to create articulate teenagers to take over the world.”

Because homeschool debate leagues put such importance on spiritual and sociopolitical goals, rhetorical delivery becomes the most important part of the activity. This is different from other debate leagues like NSDA which emphasize argumentation and research quality. Delivery quality is of course valued, but it’s not the primary goal. Here’s how Stanford University’s summer program for debate puts it

[T]he benefits of debating are not limited to the skills built while students are speaking… They learn to explain their own ideas and assess different viewpoints… And debate requires students to research their ideas and support them with evidence, teaching them to conduct research and assess sources.    

Because homeschool debate leagues lift up rhetorical delivery, demagoguery—the practice of appealing to the desires and prejudices of one’s audience rather than persuading with quality arguments and evidence—becomes highly effective for winning debate rounds. Artemis Stardust, a non-binary, pansexual, disabled writer and child of nationally known homeschool debate coach Chris Jeub, described to RD how “demagoguery was absolutely celebrated and rewarded, and sometimes it was even a competition of who could be more polite. It was primarily a competition of making a positive impression with charisma and confidence.”

Debate: now with 100% less debate

Former Colorado debater Andrew Roblyer has written for the homeschool survivor blog Homeschoolers Anonymous about how debate fits with the Christian Right’s agenda. He explains

“The dream, espoused to us students many times over the course of our competitive careers, was that we would leave that league trained to do battle against the evil influence of the world, to defend our beliefs, and to convert people to Christianity. It was, in essence, a conservative (and at times fundamentalist) evangelical pipe dream.”

In order to accomplish this, homeschool debate leagues have unique guardrails in place to ensure two things: first, that students only argue about “safe” topics, and second, that they focus primarily on speech performance. Questioning core beliefs is thus avoided. “Due to the limits of the conservative and Christian ideologies of the leagues, their resolutions, and our judging pools, everything was severely one-sided,” Stardust told RD. Consequently, “this debate environment did not encourage open-mindedness, but forced students to defend specific positions even if there was little evidence or support for them.”

Homeschooled students in debate have very narrowly defined boundaries for what topics they can argue about. For example, questioning or criticizing evangelical approaches to the Bible, gender, marriage, or sexuality is explicitly prohibited. This enables students to practice and master speaking skills without risk of destabilizing their carefully constructed and monitored belief system. 

“The goal of debate” for homeschoolers, Stardust argues, is “to bring up the next generation of rhetorical speakers who support conservatism. The content is not about identifying the truth. It’s about reinforcing the beliefs of the audience.”

Homeschooled debaters also face significant restrictions on how they can argue. Students who experiment with advanced or atypical argumentation—for example, introducing philosophical questions during a policy debate—consistently receive stern condemnations from league leadership and even risk losing rounds for such experimentation. This pressure, as well as the league’s emphasis on recruiting lay judges (people from the local community who aren’t familiar with debate) for tournaments, ensures that rhetorical delivery via demagoguery remains the most effective way to win in these leagues. 

Laralee Herron, who competed in homeschool debate in Louisiana from 2003 to 2005, told RD that, in her experience, “there is no true spirit of debate there.” Rather, “most [competitors] merely gave speeches instead of engaging in actual debate. [The leagues were] not used as an opportunity to learn, but rather to affirm and accept fundamentalist ideology.”

When debate backfires

Even with the many guardrails set in place by their parents, debate still exposes homeschooled youth to some opposing viewpoints—and thus can encourage young people to begin questioning the beliefs and practices around them. Former California debater Andrew calls this “the boomerang effect.” 

He described to RD how leadership of the homeschool debate leagues want to equip young people “with the intellectual and rhetorical skill to disarm and defeat their opponents without risking the ‘boomerang effect’ of that same intellectual and rhetorical rigor being used to challenge the underpinnings of their own belief system.”

Nina (name changed to protect privacy) was also homeschooled in California. She competed in both HSLDA’s and NCFCA’s debate leagues and is a good example of this boomerang effect. Nina, who says she was “extremely shy” before debate, was blunt about the potential for backfire: “I think taking a soft spoken, young, Christian homeschool girl and giving her a voice as well as a way to reason is dangerous. Not dangerous to the girl, but dangerous to those who were trying to keep her ignorant. It makes her ask why instead of just passively accepting her reality.”

Nina isn’t alone in identifying debate as empowering to girls especially in evangelical homeschooling. Another alumna of debate has written about how participation in NCFCA encouraged her to fight sexism, stating, “The unintended gift of the NCFCA was a desire to fight for what was good, and right, and true, and a willingness to pursue it regardless of the consequences. So I fought to go to college, and I fought to be heard when others would silence me because of my gender.”

While debate can backfire, it’s important to emphasize that this isn’t the norm. The aforementioned rising stars of the Christian Right (David Eastman, Lila Rose, Will Estrada, Alyssa Farah, Madison Cawthorn, and Alex and Brett Harris, to name a few) still march lockstep with many beliefs and practices from their youth. Participation in academic debate is no guarantee that one’s children will deconstruct or liberalize. 

Due to the leagues’ many guardrails, some students felt they could only parrot the beliefs of the adults around them. Herron, for example, told RD her debate group “seemed to exist purely to indoctrinate the children.” Stardust felt similarly, saying, “I don’t believe that participation in debate backfires very often.” Instead, they added, “most competitors learned to dig in their heels on what they were taught is true.”

But for the rare few, the freedom of debate—even while highly controlled and contained—took them to a very different place compared to someone like David Eastman. For people like Daniel Yoza, debate was the beginning of a lifelong journey of questioning everything. Yoza, homeschooled in North Carolina, competed in the early years of HSLDA’s debate league. 

For Yoza, debate provided first and foremost community: “Up until debate,” he explained, “the only people I had contact with were from my parents’ fundamentalist church and the homeschool groups.” While Yoza’s debate community was still conservative, it was less so than church and school, “which cracked the door open to less conservative ideas.” In fact, Yoza credits conversations with his conservative Christian debate community for the fact that he’s an atheist today.

But like Stardust, Yoza also sees his own story as an anomaly and Eastman’s as more common. “Everyone I still have contact with from debate mostly holds the same beliefs,” he told RD. “Debate gives you lots of tools to rationalize whatever you want to.” 

With Eastman and the other rising stars in the Christian Right, what we’re essentially seeing are those tools—and the corresponding, highly charged rhetorical style—being effectively used in service of Christian nationalism. These young people can be incendiary, yes, but they are also articulate and adept at persuading audiences. Michael Farris’s original vision for the league—to raise an army of communicators for Christ to infiltrate and take over American political and social institutions—appears to be coming to fruition. We underestimate that vision and its adherents at our peril.


*Frederick Clarkson is a senior research analyst for Political Research Associates, RD’s parent organization.