A Mighty Fortress

Fundamentalist Families Are Dropping Out and Creating Their Own Private America
February 27, 2000 |
There is something inspiring about the prospect of an American childhood in which advertising does not invade the imagination so relentlessly, but something claustrophobic about the notion that the only alternative is a sequestered family life.
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A Mighty Fortress

To get to the house where Stephen and Megan Scheibner live with their seven children, you skirt past Allentown, Pa., and drive for another half-hour into the hills above the Lehigh Valley. The Scheibner place is on Blue Mountain Road, a few miles past a forlorn establishment called Binnie's Hot Dogs and Family Food. Standing behind their white clapboard farmhouse, where the backyard unfurls over three and a half acres and where, in summer, you can see a tangled strawberry patch and a tree fort, you could swear you were deep in the country and maybe deep in the past too. The front of the house is a different matter. It's practically on top of a busy road that leads to the local ski resorts; the view is of a housing development under construction.

Inside, there is no such ambivalence. Although the Scheibners are well off and their house is comfortably appointed -- Steve is a pilot with American Airlines and a commander in the Naval Reserves -- what might strike many visitors first is what's missing. In the Scheibner household, where the children are 12, 11, 9, 7, 6, 4 and 20 months, there is no Pokemon or "Star Wars" paraphernalia. There are no Britney Spears or Ricky Martin tapes. There are no posters of Leonardo DiCaprio or Michael Jordan taped to the walls, no pots of lip gloss or bottles of metallic nail polish scattered around. No Mortal Kombat, no "Goosebumps." No broadcast TV -- though the family does watch carefully selected videos, which often means movies from the 1940's and 50's. (The older kids are big Cary Grant fans.) There is no giggling about the cute guys and girls at school, because the Scheibners are home-schooled and besides, their parents don't believe in dating. There is little sign of eye-rolling preteen rebellion, because Steve and his wife, Megan, don't believe in that either, and have set up their lives in such a way that it is unlikely to manifest itself. Katie, the oldest, reads Louisa May Alcott and reissued girls' classics like the Elsie Dinsmore books, and is partial to white patent-leather Mary Janes worn with ankle-length floral dresses. Peter, who comes next, likes Tolkien and the muscularly Christian boys' adventure stories written by the 19th-century author G. A. Henty, and favors chinos and logo-free button-down shirts. Peter wants to be a missionary in Russia, which he describes as a "forsaken" country; Katie wants to be a home-schooling mom. They are each other's best friends. And if they quarrel, it's not in a way that involves the dissing of one another in viciously up-to-the-minute slang.

There is no sports gear lying around the Scheibner household, because Megan feels that team sports breed competitive "behavior that we would not deem Christlike"; more important, they interfere with the weekly rhythm of schooling, service and worship. Holidays don't disrupt much, either. The Scheibners don't celebrate Halloween -- Satanic overtones -- though one year the three oldest children dressed up as a couple of shepherds and a sheep and went door to door handing out evangelical tracts. At Christmas, they decorate the house and take baskets of food to their neighbors and to the poor, but they don't indulge in a buy-fest.

Megan, who is 37, guesses she has been to a mall "maybe three times" in the seven years the family has lived in Pennsylvania, and she can't remember the correct name of Toys "R" Us. For the children's clothes, she does a lot of her shopping at consignment stores because she objects to "the way most girls' stuff looks like it was designed for 20-year-olds and the boys' clothes all have some cartoon character on them." This Christmas, as they have for the past several years, the kids got a shared family gift -- a "Sunday box" of special games and toys they can take out only on the Sabbath. It contained a Noah's Ark puzzle, several books, a tape of Christian children's songs with titles like "Keep Your Tongue From Evil," and a board game called Sticky Situations, a Christian version of Chutes and Ladders based on such moral dilemmas as what you should do if the most unpopular kid you know invites you over.

None of this is what Steve and Megan Scheibner would say first about themselves. What they would say first is that they are Christians -- fundamentalist Baptists who were born again when, as teenagers, they found Jesus Christ and accepted the doctrine of salvation. And yet the way they practice their faith puts them so sharply and purposefully at odds with the larger culture that it is hard not to see the Scheibners, conservative and law-abiding though they are, as rebels.

We have arrived, it seems, at a moment in our history when the most vigorous and coherent counterculture around is the one constructed by conservative Christians. That sounds odd to many of us -- especially, perhaps, to secular liberals, who cherish our own 60's-inflected notions of what an "alternative lifestyle" should look like. Ever since Theodore Roszak first coined it in 1968, the word "counterculture" has retained its whiff of patchouli, its association with free love, long hair and left-wing youth. "The counterculture," as Roszak defined it, "is the embryonic base of New Left politics, the effort to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores . . . new personal identities on the far side of power politics."

Yet today it is conservative Christians like the Scheibners who, more self-consciously than any other large social group, buck mainstream notions of what constitutes a fulfilled life. Indeed, much of what Roszak said of the 60's counterculture could be said of them too. It's true that the "patterns" and "mores" they have discovered are not so much new ones as reinvigorated traditional ones. Parent-sanctioned courtship, the merging of school and home, the rejection of peer-group segregation, the moral value of thrift -- all are ideas that, in the United States, last held real sway in the 19th century. But the impatience that people like the Scheibners display with acquisition, their unflagging commitment to putting the group -- in their case, the family -- above individual ambition, their rejection of pop culture, their characterization of themselves as, in Steve's words, "people who question absolutely everything," make them radical in ways that would be recognizable to some 60's counterculturists too.

There are about 20 million evangelical Christians in the U.S. today; together with fundamentalists, who tend to be more withdrawn from public life and more theologically conservative, they make up about 25 percent of the American population. Many of them lead lives that are far less sequestered and culturally abstemious than the Scheibners'. (Only 6 percent of conservative Christians educate their children at home, for instance, though the numbers are growing.) Some lead even more walled-off lives: at a conference for home-schooling families in Virginia last summer, I heard one speaker urge parents to reconsider sending their kids to college -- even a Bible college -- because dorm life encouraged "fornication" and "homosexual rape." But nearly all evangelicals struggle with the question of how staunchly they should separate their families from a majority culture they believe flouts their values.

A sense of this struggle came to the fore last spring, when Paul Weyrich published his "turn off, tune out, drop out" letter -- the very phrase self-consciously echoing the hippie slogan. Weyrich, a founder of the Christian right, now urged "a strategy of separation," a "sort of quarantine" for Christians who he argued had been trying too hard, and at too much cost to their own morality, to insert themselves into the mainstream. "We need," he wrote "to drop out of this culture, and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives."

In their 1999 book, "Blinded by Might," Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist, and Ed Dobson, a Baptist minister, offered a similar analysis, arguing that "religious conservatives have heard sermons that man's ways are not God's ways. . . . In politics they have fused the two, causing damage to both church and state." In a series of forceful columns, Thomas went on to argue that for Christians, worldly power was "not a calling, but a distraction" from the next world and that the faithful often stumbled in the public square anyway. Consider Prohibition: "Good people diagnosed a social ill, but they used the wrong methods to correct it," he wrote. "The lesson: by and large, the Christian mission should be to change hearts, not laws."

Weyrich, Thomas and Dobson found few adherents among the leaders of the Christian right, but they touched off an emotional debate at the grass roots. Embittered by Clinton's survival of the impeachment scandal, some conservative Christians were despairing of politics altogether: how could Christians hope to influence a polity that supported a manifestly immoral leader? Even those who did not feel quite so deeply estranged from the American electorate still found something meaningful and provocative in the call to concentrate on discipleship, not politics. In an article in Christianity Today, the former Reagan aide Don Eberly wrote, "The greatest fallacy that has emerged in recent years is the expectation that national politicians and other civil authorities should take the lead in restoring biblical righteousness or, worse, using political power to create a 'Christian America.' "

It would be premature to declare the end of religious-right political activism. There are too many issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage, that continue to galvanize the faithful. But it cannot be denied that as a political force, the religious right is flagging. The Christian Coalition is deeply in the red. The two presidential candidates most identified with savvy Christian conservatism -- Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes -- have dropped out of the race, while the protest candidate Alan Keyes blusters on to tiny audiences. Yet even as Christian political movements flounder, the strategies that might be thought of as countercultural -- home-schooling, building up a self-contained pop culture -- are flourishing.

Not long after this debate was under way, I met the Scheibners. I had become interested in the idea of a Christian counterculture, and I wanted to write about a family who seemed to be living it out. I wasn't looking for people involved in a violent or illegal confrontation with the government -- militia types, say -- nor for people who belonged to a tradition with a long history of separateness, like the Amish. What I was looking for were people who were, as Steve Scheibner later described his family, "selective separatists": people who voted and paid taxes, worked in the mainstream world and even did community service, but who quite deliberately chose, as Megan put it, "not to participate in those parts of the culture that do not bring glory to God."

Partly I was interested because as a mother of young children, I had grappled with some of the same questions about what to keep at bay and for how long. TV or no TV? Did I want my 3-year-old to start playing on the computer now so he wouldn't be behind or hold off as long as possible, knowing his life will be colonized by dot-com this and digital that soon enough? Did toy guns lead inexorably to a taste for brutal video games? When you are awash in media and awash in stuff, what hope do you have of picking and choosing anyway? Could you do so only if armed with a totalizing worldview like the Scheibners'? How feasible -- and how desirable -- was it to "drop out" anyway?

When Megan Scheibner answered a message I posted on a Christian Internet discussion list last summer, her e-mail convinced me that I had found the right family. "We don't isolate our family," she wrote, "but we do feel like we are called to shelter them from evil until they are spiritually ready to stand firm." Sheltering them, she explained, meant screening out almost all pop culture. "We have seen the fruit in kind, polite children," she went on to say. "Others have noticed, too, and this has given us many opportunities to share, i.e., one time at Pizza Hut, the man at the next table bought us lunch because the kids were so nice to each other. . . . Only God gets the glory for things like this. Neither my husband nor I were raised in Christian homes, but God has been faithful to show us his desire for our family, and then as we obey, He has blessed us abundantly."

On a rainy Sunday morning in August, I arrived, with my husband and son, for my first visit to the Scheibner house. The family was busy conducting its own Sunday school, and Megan sent Emma, then 8, out to greet us. Like all of the Scheibner children, Emma addressed me as Mrs. Talbot and my husband as Mr. Talbot. It seemed pointless to insist that they call me by my first name, and downright mean to introduce the idea that my husband and I have different last names, so there it stood. Of another 8-year-old, it might be fair to say that she bounded out of the house, but Emma walked delicately, on the balls of her feet, self-consciously ladylike. With a curtsy, she conducted us inside. All seven of the Scheibner children, and three of their friends, sat cross-legged on the tan carpet in the living room, reviewing their catechisms and listening to a sermon delivered by their father.

It may be because he is a pilot or because he has spent much of his adult life in the military or because he believes so firmly in parental authority, but Steve Scheibner seems at ease in the role of teacher and preacher to his own children in a way that few parents I know would be. Not that anything in his appearance or demeanor suggests an old-fashioned patriarch. He's a young-looking 39, slim, sharp-featured and dark-haired; he can be sarcastic; and he uses lots of guy lingo like "Bogus!" and "Where the rubber hits the road." But he's also got a storehouse of metaphors and concepts for child-rearing and for life that he dips into without hesitation or doubt. Steve explains to me later that he and Megan don't like the way many churches, including their own, shunt kids off to children's services where "they hear about Jonah and the whale for the umpteenth time." They think that children are capable of more or less following the main sermon by the age of 3; when they start their own church in Brunswick, Me., next summer (Steve is studying at a seminary now), there will be booster seats in the pews.

For now, though, he has taken to conducting his own Sunday school, with another couple and their children. Megan, in a smocked denim dress, a headband and no makeup, sits next to him. Though it's only 9 a.m., all the children look freshly scrubbed and shiny-haired, outfitted in their Sunday best. When little Baleigh cranes her neck to peer at us with a radiant, inquisitive smile, her mom gives her a whispered scolding, accompanied by the look a border collie might give a straying sheep. She turns around immediately.

At 10:30, Steve piles the kids into the van and drives to church, and Megan stays behind to talk to me. She'll miss church this morning, which she hardly ever does, but there's another service tonight, which the family always attends as well. In her high-ceilinged kitchen, where one wall is lined with homemade preserves, she tells me about their decision to teach their kids at home. "I worked in a day-care center for a while as a young Navy wife, and it really shocked me -- the lack of discipline, the hitting, biting, screeching. We always thought we would home-school, but somehow we lost the nerve for a while and with Katie we sent her to kindergarten at a private Christian school for a year. But what we noticed was that she got more interested in what her peers were doing than in what her family was doing! We felt like our family-centered little girl was being pulled away from us."

Family identity is extremely important to the Scheibners -- they have their own sayings, code words, even a family song. The turning outward that most parents expect of their children and accept, with varying degrees of wistfulness, was to them an intolerable betrayal. "We didn't want to lose our children to other people's ideas and ideologies," Megan will say, or, "We wanted our children's hearts, and we really feel we have them." Home-schooling afforded the prospect that the older kids would help with the younger ones and the younger ones would emulate the older ones instead of their peers.

While we talk, Megan is cooking gravy and pot roast and two kinds of pie, and when the rest of the family comes home it's time for Sunday lunch at the big butcher block table Steve made for them. Despite the presence of seven children, lunch is an orderly business. Interruptions are kept to a minimum -- talking out of turn elicits the border-collie look. Still, Peter, who has been studying pirates, chats charmingly about Bluebeard, and Katie reminds me that there were female pirates who "fought like demons." There is a lot of anticipatory discussion of the pies. But lunch, like most meals in the Scheibner household, is also an occasion for moral pedagogy.

The thing about living in a culture from which you feel estranged, and which you therefore do not trust to reinforce you own values, is that you must be vigilant; you can't lose an opportunity to remind your children that they are different, and why. The Scheibners surround themselves as much as possible with a culture of their own making and friends of their own choosing who share their religion, but it's not as though they actually live in a 19th-century village. Just the other week, Katie innocently typed in "girls.com" on the computer -- the Scheibner kids are allowed to do research on the Internet -- and got hit with a dozen porn sites.

Just before pie is served, Steve asks Katie, as he has many times before, to explain what courtship is. Shyly, she looks down at her plate. "I don't know," she says. To which her mother replies, "You can do better than that, young lady." And she can. She has known the word, at least, since she was 9 and her father took her out for ice cream and a portentous chat. The Scheibners believe that dating, because it usually involves breaking up, is, as Steve puts it, "practice for divorce."

It goes without saying that they do not approve of premarital sex, but what is a little more surprising is that they do not approve of premarital emotional intimacy either. If a couple are courting, they are supposed to be seriously considering each other as husband and wife, and they are supposed to do so with some overt participation by parents or other elders. Ideally, they should not be alone together, or if they are it ought to be in a public place -- a Friendly's, say -- where liquor is not served and where they are unlikely to give in to temptation. As Steve later explained to me: "If a girl dates 100 guys before she gets married, she's given her heart away 100 times but every time she gets it back, it's a little more scarred. So, when I took Katie out, I had bought this cheap little wedding ring in my size, and I gave it to her and I said: 'This is yours and what it represents is your heart. Go ahead and try it on.' Well, of course it was about as big as three of her fingers. So I said, 'See, it doesn't fit you, but it does fit Daddy, so if you don't mind, I want you to give Daddy your heart and let him hold on to it until the appropriate time when I will give it back to you and you in turn will give it to the man you marry.' "

Katie looks up -- she's a good girl who wants to please -- and murmurs: "It's better than dating. It's waiting for the right man." Now Peter raises his hand. For him, this is all a little more abstract and a little less embarrassing, and he knows he has the answer. "It's keeping your heart pure!"

"Right!" says his father approvingly.

After lunch, Katie goes upstairs without prompting to put young Baleigh and Stephen down for their three-hour afternoon naps -- nap time is inviolable at the Scheibner house -- and Peter and Emma cheerily start in on the dishes. To a girl and boy, the Scheibner kids are a pleasure to talk to; they're polite and brimming with book-gotten information. They're also a little otherworldly, a bit unnervingly preprogrammed.

When the family came to Washington, where I live, to attend a rally for home-schoolers on the Capitol steps, I went along. It was a hot day and I was nine months pregnant, so I sat down, and while the rest of the children stood patiently with Megan and Steve, Molly, the 7-year-old, wandered over to me. Molly is the dreamy one, the dress-up artist -- the one who likes to trail around the house in her mother's wedding gown and who says she wants to be a princess when she grows up. Her hair is honey-colored and waist length, and so, naturally, she maintains a lively interest in the general subject of hair. On the steps, she began doing what a lot of little girls with a lively interest in hair would do, which was to brush mine and, with my permission, to poke through my purse looking for hair ornaments. But though the motions seemed familiar, the dialogue was disconcertingly awry.

Is President Clinton a Christian?" Molly asked in her singsong voice.

"I think he would say so, yes."

"No. He's not. He lies. Do you have a barrette?"

The sun was beating down. A boy skateboarded by in a black T-shirt reading, "Jesus: The Force Without a Dark Side."

"I know who is always against us," Molly continued.

"Who?"

"Satan." Brush. Brush.

"Really? What does he do?"

"Makes us lie." Brush. Brush. "Makes us sin." Brush. Brush. "Makes us turn our back on God. What's Play-Doh?"

For more moderate Americans, the persistence of the evangelical strain in our culture is a mystery that both requires and defies explanation. After the embarrassment of the Scopes trial, conservative Christians of all stripes were supposed to have sunk into the past like woolly mammoths in a tar pit. The re-emergence of a Christian right in the mid-80's took no one by greater surprise than the liberal academics and journalists who were frequently called upon to account for it, and to whom the equation of secularity and modernity was itself sacrosanct. As a result, much of the commentary on conservative Christians has tended to portray them, the historian Alan Brinkley points out, "as a group somehow left behind by the modern world -- economically, culturally, psychologically." They were, in short, H. L. Mencken's "rustic gorillas" updated, but barely.

The trouble with this theory of "status discontent" -- of conservative Christians as downwardly mobile rubes -- was that most of them were neither. On "most measures of backwardness," as the sociologist Christian Smith puts it, evangelicals look no different -- and frequently look more advanced -- than their counterparts who identify themselves as mainline or liberal Protestants, as Catholics or as nonreligious. Of all these groups, evangelicals are the least likely to have had only a high school education or less. They are more likely than liberals or the nonreligious to belong to the $50,000-and-above income bracket. And they are no more likely to live in rural areas than anyone else; the new centers of conservative Christianity, it turns out, are the prosperous suburbs in Midwestern states like Kansas and Oklahoma.

Moreover, if you started with a theory of conservative Christians as orphans of history stranded in the modern world, you were more or less helpless to explain why the movement has been flourishing -- both in new converts and in retention of members -- since the 70's. Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has one convincing answer. He argues that American evangelicalism is flourishing "because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism." In other words, the fragmentation of American culture has encouraged the flowering of all kinds of minority groups, from gays to conservative Christians. More important, modern pluralism allows evangelicals to rub up against ideas and sensibilities that offend them, and this is itself a revitalizing force. "Contemporary pluralism," Smith has written, "creates a situation in which evangelicals can perpetually maintain but can never resolve their struggle with the nonevangelical world."

Over the past few years, engaging in this daily struggle to lead a "godly, righteous and sober life" has been made much easier by the exponential growth of Christian media. People like the Scheibners now have a storehouse of goods and services to which they can return, again and again, to refresh themselves and be entertained without guilt. The ability to encapsulate themselves in a culture of their own making removes some of the incentive to reform the culture at large, while at the same time offering a more fully realized reproof of it -- a parallel world, imagined to the last, vivid detail.

Christian books and TV are just the beginning. The contemporary Christian music scene, with its groovily-named bands like Leaderdogs for the Blind and the Insyderz, is a $1-billion-a-year business. You can now buy, over the Internet, everything from Christian computer games to poseable biblical action figures. In the video market, "VeggieTales," a popular kids' series featuring animated vegetables enacting biblical parables, is just one among hundreds of titles -- from the "Mother Goose Gospel" to "The Adventures of Prayer Bear."

Conservative Christianity has its own chaste heartthrobs, like Joshua Harris, the raffishly cute author of "I Kissed Dating Good-Bye," and the singer Rebecca St. James, the Alanis Morissette of the W.W.J.D. set. It even has its own indie film scene with movies like "End of the Harvest," in which "a college philosophy club meeting filled with atheists humiliates a new believer who tries to prove to them the existence of God." It has its own magazines for every demographic niche, including Hopscotch and Boys' Quest for kids 6 to 13, which promise "no teen themes, no boyfriends, girlfriends, makeup, fashion or violence and NO ADVERTISING!"

Combine all this with the fact that the number of home-schoolers has been increasing since 1985 at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year -- there are now about 1.2. million -- while enrollment at evangelical colleges grew 24 percent between 1990 and 1996 (compared with an enrollment increase of 5 percent at other private colleges), and it seems fair to say that conservative Christians can live as much as they choose within a culture of their own construction. And that a lot of them are choosing to do so much of the time.

For some people, this separatist impulse has been strengthened by a newfound disillusionment with politics. It's not that conservative Christians are fleeing civic duty altogether: evangelicals still vote, for example, at a higher rate than do members of almost any other major religious group. It's more a matter of emphasis -- of saying, maybe we were seduced by the promise of political power, and now we have to free ourselves from its thrall and concentrate anew on living faithfully and saving souls.

Steve Scheibner is certainly a patriotic guy: he has served in the Navy for 17 years, most recently flying drug-interdiction flights in the Caribbean. But whereas he once thought of running for political office, he now feels he "could have a greater and longer lasting impact on the lives of people as a pastor." He and Megan are Republicans, and they always vote, but they're not going to be active participants in Campaign 2000. Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and most other religious-right leaders don't impress Steve much -- they "are mostly political creatures," he says. The one candidate he admires is the firebrand Alan Keyes, who doesn't stand a chance of getting the Republican nomination. The political issue the Scheibners say they care most about is being left alone to home-school, and they see the discipling of others -- the training of hearts already opened up to Christ -- as their best hope for making a difference in the world.

One icy evening in January, nine young couples crowd into the Scheibners' living room for a class Megan and Steve teach on parenting the Christian way. Angie Dalrymple and her husband, Bruce, have come because they are both new Christians -- my husband got saved in March and I got saved in April" -- and she needs help picking her way through unfamiliar moral terrain. Just last week, the Dalrymples' 9-year-old son, Josh, who has also been born again, was facing all kinds of grief at his public school because he now insists on "dressing real nice." Given that he had already ostentatiously thrown his Pokemon cards away, explaining to his classmates that an obsession with the cards could lead to a lifetime fascination with the dark side, he was taking some risks as it was. But Josh is big, which helps, and Angie coaxed him to "get rid of the tie, but keep the button-down shirts." She's proud of him but sometime she feels he's getting ahead of her, spiritually speaking. When his 4-year-old brother, Cody, talked back to her the other day, Josh called his attention to the Ten Commandments on the wall. Now Josh is saying he wants to be home-schooled, and Angie admits to the group that her first thought was, "Whoa, there." She and her husband, a machinist, have already stopped drinking and cursing, cut up their credit cards and canceled their cable TV. How many more changes are there going to be? She's glad to have the group for support.

The agenda for the evening involves watching a video produced by the Christian child-rearing gurus Gary and Ann Marie Ezzo, whose advocacy of rigid schedules for feeding babies, among other things, has been widely criticized by mainstream pediatricians. Tonight's program, though, is a gentler offering, focused on the need to help your child grow morally by giving him "the moral reason why" when you reprimand him for, say, careering around the churchyard and knocking old ladies off-balance -- the example given in the video. The evening's discussion also gives the Scheibners a chance to touch on one of their favorite metaphors: the funnel.

The Scheibners think that most parents today err by trying to be "buddies to their babies and little kids." As Megan puts it, they start out with "a big fat funnel, and then, when the kids get to be 13 or 14 and become rebellious, they try to tighten it, and by then it's too late." The Scheibners' idea, they explain, is that you start off with a tight funnel, then gradually open it so that by the time your kids get to be teenagers, you can trust them. They reject what is, in essence, the modern idea of adolescence -- that a teenager's alienation from his parents is an inevitable, even necessary step on the way to individuation. For Megan and Steve, rebellion within the family is not an acceptable option; they need a united front at home to wage rebellion against the larger culture. And more important, they believe that obedience to parents trains a child for obedience to God. When the Lord calls him to do something, he has to be ready to say, "Yes, Lord, here I am." So kids need practice in the prompt and cheerful response to commands, learning to do as their parents ask in what the Scheibners refer to as the RAH spirit -- for "the Right way, All the way, the Happy way."

In other classes, Steve will talk about the need to stand firm when your children push, how you must be the wall that doesn't give way. He'll defend spanking, a practice that the Scheibners have thought through in detail. (Never do it in anger; never do it when you've lost control; use a flexible instrument so you don't break down muscle.)

The atmosphere tonight is a little like a consciousness-raising session -- there's an earnest aura of learning together and sustaining one another in a benighted world. During the short break, everybody stands around drinking Diet Cokes and eating the taco salad someone brought, but there's not a lot of small talk. Steve is indisputably the leader, but he's willing to make himself vulnerable with a well-placed confession or two. He mentions, for example, his own upbringing in a very 70's family that left him with nothing in what he likes to call his "moral warehouse." His parents divorced when he was 2; his dad was a pianist who played in clubs, drank a lot and dropped in and out; his two sisters were out of control. "We didn't eat meals together and we had free run. My mom would see me going out the door with a six-pack and say, 'Have fun.' "

Megan's not talking about it tonight, but her story is not all that different. She was the youngest and the only girl her family. In high school, she played tennis competitively and was a waitress after school to save money for a car and a trip to Europe as a pompom girl. Her parents doted on her and couldn't wait for her to start reeling in the boyfriends. "When I was 15, I started dating a college boy, and for my mom, that was just the apex," Megan told me. Tennis kept her straight for a while, but after she suffered a serious ankle injury in her senior year, her "safeguard" was gone and she started drinking as competitively as she had played tennis. She spent summers at Delaware beaches, where, as she says, "it's always happy hour somewhere," and it wasn't long before she had "quite a reputation as party girl." "Makes me sick now to think of it," she says. Billy Joel and Jackson Browne provided the soundtrack for her life. She says now: "I still wake up some mornings with the lyrics of their songs running through my head. Unbelievable! Anyone who thinks music doesn't affect teens is woefully unaware."

Both she and Steve found Christ when they hooked up with a teen ministry called Young Life. Steve was impressed by the "air of confidence" and "inner peace" he detected in a Young Life staff member named Scott, who was then 24 but willing to hang out with teenagers. "There was something about him that was different, and it kept bugging me and I kept asking him and he kept saying Jesus Christ." Steve didn't want to hear that at first, but after a while he and Scott started talking about the Bible, and something fell into place.

As for Megan, she says she got sick of the beach scene and the sense of purposelessness that washed over her every morning. She found she needed to stop worrying about "having the right boyfriend" to "try and be quiet and learn who it was Christ called me to be." She had started calling herself a Christian in high school, but she hadn't really admitted her sinfulness, let alone renounced it. As a sophomore at West Chester College in Pennsylvania, she finally did, and her "measuring stick" became the Word of God. "He wasn't interested in what I looked like on the outside, but who I was on the inside. Galatians 5:22 says, 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.' Suddenly instead of looking in the mirror to see how I was doing, I had to check my heart." She found it an enormous relief "to have the focus off me, me, me."

Megan and Steve initially shocked their families with their conversions. One of Steve's sisters, now a Christian herself, was then a graduate student in philosophy at Penn and told him he was "committing intellectual suicide." Megan's mother, "an intelligent woman who considered herself a feminist," as Megan recalls, thought her only daughter was ruining her life. Considering this was at the end of the Me Decade, Steve and Megan were choosing a radical path indeed.

In the Young Life chapter they joined at West Chester, Steve and Megan were the two resident sticklers. They were the ones who, if somebody in Bible study suggested going out for beers afterward, would catch each other's eyes and say naaah. They were friends first, but their sense of needing to start life anew -- their joint weariness with their past selves -- brought them closer, and they married just after Steve joined the Navy. He was 23 and she was a year younger. Now the two of them have created a life that sometimes, as Steve jokes with the class that night, "can look a little like a bad 'Ozzie and Harriet' rerun."

"Hey," interrupts a young mother in the class. "There are worse things!"

It could be a rallying cry for the group.

10:30 a.m., a school day at the Scheibners'. It's a scene remarkable, as usual, for its orderliness. Everybody has been up since at least 7:30 (all the kids go to bed by 8:30, so rising early is no problem); they've completed their morning clean-up chores, which Megan reminds them of by affixing a yellow Post-it with a specific assignment directly onto each child's body. They have sung hymns, read some Scripture and gone over their catechisms for the day; they have said the Pledge of Allegiance together. The house is warm and tidy and smells pleasantly of the chili Megan is cooking for lunch.

Downstairs, in the sunny family room, Baleigh is quietly playing a computer game, while Stephen, the baby, bounces up and down in his playpen. In the "library," a room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves made by Steve, Molly is practicing her handwriting, while Nate works on his reading and tries not to let his mind wander to the dinosaur picture he wants to draw when it's free time. Emma perches on a high stool at the kitchen counter, doing sums in her math book. Upstairs, at a pair of scuffed red old-fashioned school desks, Katie studies grammar while Peter reads about Jamestown in a textbook called "America's Providential History." ("Since God is the author of history and He is carrying out His plan on the earth through history, any view of the history of America, or any country, that ignores God is not true history.")

A week at the Scheibner household follows a neat and repetitive arc, constructed along what the Scheibners call the Loving Our Family Guidelines. Each day has a theme, and a biblical verse to go with it. Monday is Ministry Day ("For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints and do minister," Hebrews 6:10). On this day, the children might deliver meals to sick or housebound neighbors. Tuesday is Give Day ("For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life," John 3:16), and so in addition to their regular schoolwork, the kids are supposed to think of something to give one another. Wednesday is Serve Day ("By love serve one another," Galatians 5:13), and the Scheibners do so by performing each other's chores. The family spends every Wednesday evening at Awana Bible Club, a Bible memorization program with about 80 kids in its local chapter. Thursday is Edify Day ("Love edifies," I Corinthians 8:1), which means the kids are supposed to make an effort to compliment each other -- and not in a fakey way either. Friday is Prefer Day ("Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another," Romans 12:10), which means, for example, letting your sibling pick the hymn the family will sing in the morning. Friday evenings, Katie and Peter help set up the refreshments for the parenting class, then put the younger kids to bed. Saturday is mostly a preamble to Sunday, but sometimes Megan and the older kids will do some volunteer work at the local homeless shelter, and then follow it up with a special treat -- a trip to Friendly's, a rented Shirley Temple video, a game of red rover in the backyard.

One consequence of teaching your children at home -- and of carefully customizing their media intake -- is that you almost never have the experience of hearing them say something you are surprised and sorry that they know. Maybe your 3-year-old comes home one day with a rather specific question about pro wrestling. Or maybe he has somehow sucked out of the cultural ether the message that you "gotta catch 'em all." Maybe your kid is older and it's something worse. Home-schooling appeals to the parental fantasy of unchallenged dominion over -- or at the very least familiarity with -- all the detritus that crowds the shelves of your child's "moral warehouse."

I think all parents must be subject to this desire now and again, though comparatively few are willing to remake their lives in the service of it. If your kid were with you all the time, you figure, she would not ask questions that reminded you of your lapses in judgment or vigilance; she would not be in possession of information that you regarded with embarrassment or regret. On the other hand, neither would she be likely to come home with a delightful bit of knowledge that you had nothing to do with putting in her head -- a sweet and silly song, a smattering of Spanish, a moral lesson as imparted by someone else -- because you might not have known it, perhaps, or thought to plant it there.

Once I asked Steve and Megan if any of their kids ever did come out and say something that shocked them or made them wonder where he or she could possibly have heard it. "That doesn't happen often," Steve replied. "Every now and then we get one of those, but we spend so much time together that it just doesn't happen."

Megan and Steve tend not to let their own guard down much around their kids either. Lately, in fact, they have even stopped watching movies with more adult themes by themselves. "We never did used to rent R- rated movies," Steve says, "but we would get a movie that would use some curse words or maybe had some brief nudity." They'd watch it after the kids were asleep and "justify it by saying, 'Oh, but it's a great story.' Well, now we've changed our view on that. I can't ask them to do something I'm not willing to do," Steve continues. "I don't want to be a hypocrite. And you know my relationship with God is just the same as theirs. My soul and my spirit is just as precious to God as their little souls and their little spirits, so how can I justify watching something that is vulgar and obscene for them? Isn't it vulgar and obscene for me too?"

To many of us, the specter of so much control suggests the possibility, even the inevitability, of rebellion. The Scheibners' oldest children are 12 and 11. What happens when they hit their teen years? Won't their hermetically sealed world spring a leak? Generational self-definition is a dearly held precept in our culture, which is why it seems to make sense to us that both Megan and Steve come from religiously indifferent families in which they defiantly distinguished themselves by their theological conservatism.

When you ask the Scheibners to imagine the future for their own kids, though, they can't picture them going astray. Peter has wanted to be a missionary for the longest time now, and since he and his parents regard this as something he has been called to do, they entertain few doubts about his doing it. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine Peter as a renegade. He is the kind of kid who, when asked in all innocence whether he ever listens furtively to his beloved "Lord of the Rings" tape in bed, looks shocked and says, "Oh, no, when it's time to go to bed, it's time to go to bed." He loves being home-schooled, and not long ago took it upon himself to write a letter to Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. It read, in part, "I have the joy of knowing I am going to heaven because when I was 4, I asked Jesus to come into my heart and save me from sin."

After spending some time with the Scheibner family, I was not particularly surprised to learn that evangelical Christians have one of the highest intergenerational retention rates of any major religion -- meaning that, as Christian Smith puts it, "they have a great ability to raise children who do not become theologically liberal or nonreligious when they grow up." Certainly they work extremely hard to prevent what they see as the tragedy of apostasy. And the new availability of Christian media and of home-school curriculums helps enormously. A generation ago, evangelical families who wanted to shield their children from mainstream culture had little to replace it with, other than self-denial. Now they can offer goodies of their own. And new companies and institutions are springing up all the time to meet their needs. The Scheibners, for instance, are very excited about the founding of the first college primarily for Christian home-schoolers, Patrick Henry, in Purcelleville, Va., which will be accepting its inaugural class of students in the fall. Among other things, Patrick Henry will ask its students to sign a pledge in which they promise to court and not date.

And after college? Neither Megan nor Steve is outright opposed to their daughters' working, especially before they have children. Like many conservative Christians, they warm to the idea of a wife running her own little business from the home. "Proverbs 31 talks about the woman who made purple linens at home and sold them," Steve points out. But they warm even more to the idea of their daughters "having an eye to serve without compensation," as Megan says. They think too many working women have forgotten the virtues of volunteerism. And if one of their girls was to pursue a full-fledged career, Steve says, "we'd still love her and encourage her and, after all, at some point it's her life," but they would also find it hard to disguise their disappointment. "A career takes away from what I think their primary happiness will be, which is being a good mother," Steve says.

And then he gives a little speech that bears the distinctive hallmarks of the new Christian counterculture. "You know," he says, "you may have lots of pats on the back at work, you may have a successful career and a lot of money and great cars to drive, but in the end it always lets you down. Look at any number of gazillionaires out there -- men, women, it doesn't make any difference -- who have awful, tragic lives. Those things are not the things that satisfy. The things that satisfy are raising a good family, having love."

America has a long history of separatist movements, and within that history, there are, to put it bluntly, the bad separatists and the good ones. In the former category are the stockpilers of guns, the people who don't pay taxes or vaccinate their children -- people who lack any sense of their duty as citizens. And in the latter category are people like the Scheibners. Indeed you could argue that their sort of separatism is good for the culture at large -- or at least represents a reasonable compromise. If they are committed to teaching Creationism, for example, better that they teach it at home than insist that the public schools do. Besides, a culture that lacks a thriving and reproving counterculture is always in trouble. The very existence of alternative ways of life like the Scheibners' keeps alive a debate about the role of morality and religion in our culture and politics that probably ought never be declared over and done.

And yet you have to wonder about a way of life that requires such rigorous policing of its psychic boundaries. There is something poignant, for a parent like me anyway, about the idea of sons and daughters who love you as uncomplicatedly in their teenage years as they do when they were small -- who are, indeed, your best friends -- but there is something unreal about it too. There is something inspiring about the prospect of an American childhood in which advertising does not invade the imagination so relentlessly, but something claustrophobic about the notion that the only alternative is a sequestered family life. There is something fundamentally right and useful about the argument that American culture promotes independence at the expense, often, of the more nurturing virtues, but something sad and scared about the idea that the safest solution to this is early marriage. If the Scheibner philosophy allows girls to linger longer at the threshold of adolescence -- not having to worry about being thin or sexy -- it also pushes them much earlier into wifely domesticity.

By next summer, the Scheibners will be living in Maine, and they are looking forward to the move. Steve is eager to "plant" his new church. Megan thinks "the slower pace of life" there will make it that much easier to shelter the children from evil. The younger kids are excited about going crabbing and maybe seeing a moose or two on the rambling, wooded acreage where their new house will be. Katie, the oldest, is excited, too. She says she's hoping to find "a little place of my own, where I could read or think, and nobody would know about it."

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