It was nevertheless a special day for Cox and for the home-schooling organization, Walkersville Christian Family Schools, whose students he was preparing to address. His father, pastor Gary Cox, had founded the group more than three decades earlier to help conservative Christians provide their children with an alternative to the secular education offered in public schools.
Gary Cox stood at the microphone at a Baltimore County church, recalling how he had delivered a commencement speech when Dan, the oldest of his 10 children, completed the group’s home-schooling curriculum 23 years earlier. Now it was Dan’s turn to deliver the speech, and his son Josiah — Gary’s grandson — was among the graduates.
It was “a precious opportunity for one generation to the next,” Gary Cox said, ceding the lectern to his son.
Dan Cox, wearing a suit and tie, delivered a 33-minute exposition of biblical themes in which he repeatedly warned the class that the beliefs imparted by Walkersville Christian Family Schools were alien to much of the world. The 17 young men and women before him had been educated according to “the best interests of your parents,” he said, an experience that “sets you apart.”
“We live in a day and age when the Bible is scorned,” Cox said, according to a YouTube video of the ceremony. “ ‘Old-fashioned.’ ‘Nonsensical.’ ‘Nonapplicable.’ ‘No bearing to modern reality.’ But most of the people who say that have never read it.”
Seven years later, Cox, now 48, is speaking to a much larger audience. Instead of a single church, he has the ears of many GOP voters across Maryland, who chose him in last summer’s primary over the candidate favored by outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Polls show Cox, who did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this article, trailing far behind Democratic candidate Wes Moore. Yet whatever the outcome Nov. 8, his rise to the top of the Maryland GOP and his endorsement by Trump represent a landmark for an increasingly influential force in American politics and culture: the Christian right’s home-schooling movement.
Cox’s family has played an active role in that movement since its emergence in the 1980s, and its tenets have profoundly shaped Cox’s personal and political life.
As a child, Cox watched his father fight in Annapolis against state efforts to more strictly regulate home schooling. His wife, Valerie, was also home-schooled through Walkersville Christian, and the couple, who have 10 children, has used the group’s curriculum to educate their own kids. Cox worked at the organization for a decade before he obtained a law degree. (Originally based in Walkersville, Md., the group changed its name to Wellspring Christian Family Schools after moving to new locations in Frederick County.)
While Cox has not made religious home schooling a focus of his public statements or campaign materials, he has borrowed heavily from the movement’s rhetoric as he condemns teaching about gender and sexuality in public schools. And during his brief time in the legislature, he has repeatedly sought to pass “parental rights” bills that echo model legislation written by conservative Christian home-schooling activists.
The sudden prominence of a home-schooling graduate in a state struggling with questions about the quality, equity and funding of its public education system is all the more notable given the instruction offered by Wellspring Christian Family Schools.
Among other things, Wellspring’s curriculum and textbooks teach children that a married woman should “desire to be under submission” to her husband, that the United States’ civil government should “acknowledge the Lord of Scripture and be reconstructed according to His demands,” that the universe is 6,000 to 8,000 years old and that the theory of evolution is “the biggest assault of the devil against the knowledge of God.”
Those who study the Christian home-schooling movement say its leaders have been remarkably successful in exporting their language of “parental rights” to debates over library books, bathrooms and vaccines in public schools. And they say Cox’s gubernatorial nomination — at a moment when interest in home schooling has exploded after prolonged pandemic school closures — is an unmistakable measure of the movement’s progress.
“They’ve been very explicit that their point is to create people who can enter public life so they can take the country back for Christ,” said Samantha Field, government relations director at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an organization founded by home-school alumni to advocate for stricter regulation of home schooling. “Dan Cox was the entire reason this movement was started in the first place — to create him and people like him.”
‘He understands the battle’
Cox stood in a white dress shirt on the midway at the Great Frederick Fair, blinking into the September sunlight as he mingled with Maryland voters. His brown hair neatly parted, Cox made small talk with passersby, his demeanor invariably polite, his face fixed in the slightly distracted expression he has often worn during public appearances since his victory in the July primary.
“We’re making headway.”
“I feel like I’m in a marathon.”
“I’m a farmer.” (Cox is a lawyer but said he had lived and worked on farms earlier in his life.)
Cox has adopted many messages dear to the GOP base, decrying vaccine mandates, crime, and the rising cost of gas and groceries. He has repeated falsehoods about the theft of the 2020 presidential election and tweeted that Vice President Mike Pence was a “traitor” as rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — then deleted the tweet and called it a “poor choice of words” amid calls for his expulsion from the legislature.
Yet there is a central theme to which Cox reliably returns, and it was the same one that animated many of the supporters he spoke to at the fairgrounds: parents’ control over the upbringing and education of their children.
It was a point of connection with Brian Hetrick, an Eastern Shore farmer worried that radical ideas about gender were being taught in schools. “I don’t want them forcing it down our kids’ throats,” he said.
Likewise with Alexander Twine, 48, who lives in Frederick: “They need their ABCs and 123s, not how to take drugs and do bad things, and he’s a boy, he’s a girl, no he’s not.”
Chelsea Neal, a 37-year-old Frederick County mother who began her children during the pandemic, said she appreciated Cox’s background in and support for home instruction.
There were more than 42,000 children being home-schooled in Maryland during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the State Department of Education. That represents a 54 percent jump from the previous year.
Nationwide, the number of home-schooling households doubled during the first year of the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau, with just over 11 percent home-schooling children by the fall of 2020.
The motives of this much-expanded group have not been closely studied. The last thorough look at home-schooling families’ beliefs and demographics — a 2016 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics — found that just over half said a “desire to provide religious instruction” was an important factor in their decision.
In an October interview with Real America’s Voice, a right-wing media outlet, Cox vowed to appoint leaders to the state board of education who would “put parents back in charge of their children’s education.” But his devotion to the cause predates the eruption of America’s latest education culture wars.
He wasn’t yet 10 years old when his father, Gary, founded Walkersville Christian Family Schools in 1983. In a 2019 interview with the Frederick News-Post, Cox said his father studied to be a Catholic priest and “ended up nearly losing his faith” but was brought “back to God” through the evangelical movement and became a pastor.
Approached at his church, Gary Cox declined to comment for this story.
In the 1980s, Maryland state education officials sought to effectively outlaw home schooling, making it a legal option only for parents who had teaching certificates. Gary Cox was at the forefront of those who pushed back, said Manfred Smith, founder of the Maryland Home Education Association.
Smith — a German-born atheist inspired by the Objectivist philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand — formed an unlikely partnership with Gary Cox as the pair fought, and frequently won, policy battles in Annapolis. He said the pastor was cordial and strategically astute, sometimes moderating the more defiant impulses of other activists, including Smith, and urging them to be realistic about what they could achieve.
“You have polar opposites here, yet Gary and I are friends. We respect each other,” Smith said.
Smith said he did not remember ever meeting Dan Cox. But Glen Lindengren, a real estate developer and general contractor from Queen Anne’s County who educated all six of his children through Walkersville Christian Family Schools, said that even as a child Dan was “in the middle of it all” as his father fought against home-schooling restrictions.
“Dan was involved in that ever since he was a young kid,” Lindengren said. “He knows what he’s doing. He understands the battle we’re up against.”
In his 2019 News-Post interview, Cox said he first traveled to Annapolis at age 7, and at 12 received an “ovation” from state senators after he testified at a committee hearing. He said he couldn’t remember what he had spoken about.
Maryland education officials relented, allowing parents to home-school as long as they periodically submitted proof of children’s academic plans and work. No tests or other assessments were required, and families who wanted to avoid interaction with the government could submit to oversight by private “umbrella” groups, including church-run schools or education programs.
One of those groups was Walkersville Christian Family Schools.
‘An alternative universe’
After Dan Cox graduated from Walkersville Christian, he began attending Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg in 1992 but left after his junior year. In 2002, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in government and politics through University of Maryland University College, an adult education and distance-learning program. Four years later, he earned his law degree from Regent University, a private Christian school in Virginia Beach founded by the televangelist Pat Robertson.
From 1995 to 2005, according to a brief biography posted on the state legislature’s website, Cox was a high school teacher at Walkersville Christian. It is unclear what subjects he taught, but Brad Main, a former employee who said he worked alongside Cox and served with him on Walkersville Christian’s board, remembered him serving in an administrative role — helping families and students to follow the program’s curriculum and meet its standards — that he gave up when he attended law school.
Today the Cox family’s home-schooling organization offers a variety of programs to families, according to its website. They range from a review of students’ work and confirmation that parents are meeting state requirements to an “academy” in which children follow courses and lecture series while still learning day-to-day in their homes. Students who choose the latter option can also attend conferences and field trips, and eventually earn a high school diploma granted by Wellspring Christian Family Schools.
In addition to classes in writing, accounting and other subjects, Wellspring emphasizes a deeply conservative interpretation of what the Bible has to say about science, civics and gender roles.
The 2021 final exam in one course, “Dogmatic Creationism,” involves writing a letter to an atheist to explain statements such as “Creationism is a self-evident dogma whose evidence is universally visible in every created thing, such that it can’t be refuted.” The class textbooks are the Bible and “The Early Earth,” which suggests juvenile dinosaurs — small enough to fit among other animals — may have boarded Noah’s ark.
Another textbook, “God and Government,” argues that the United States is a Christian nation and that “civil government must be called upon to acknowledge the Lord of Scripture and be reconstructed according to His demands.”
In a videotaped lecture posted online for a course entitled “Biblical Foundations for Family Life,” Gary Cox tells students that “the protection of the wife from satanic destruction is by being tucked under the headship of her husband as God ordained it.” Referring to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he adds: “There’s a picture here of someone ruling and someone being ruled … a picture of voluntary submission. It’s important that the wife, again, desire to be under submission. It’s pretty much impossible to rule over somebody that doesn’t want to be ruled.”
In another course lecture, he highlights a passage from Psalm 127 that is famous among many Christian home-schoolers, who believe it directs women to bear as many children as possible: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.”
“The bottom line is this: Every gift that a woman has will find maximum expression as she serves God in the home, raising her children,” Gary Cox explains in the same lecture.
Dozens of Wellspring Christian Family Schools staff members and past or present families declined or did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post. School leaders did not respond to a note left with Wellspring employees by a reporter who visited the group’s office, a modular building next to a church amid rolling hills and corn fields in remote Sabillasville, Md.
Lindengren, who said he withdrew his children from public schools out of desire for an explicitly Christian alternative that included teaching about creationism, said he and his wife were deeply satisfied with their experience at Wellspring.
“They see the world from the biblical foundation,” Lindengren, 69, said of his children. “And that’s what we were looking for as parents.”
It is unclear whether Dan Cox — who has repeatedly advocated strengthening science and math instruction in public schools — personally taught or still believes the ideas promoted by his family’s organization. But Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor emeritus who advocates dramatically increasing regulation of home schooling, said they are common among ideologically committed Christian home-schoolers.
“Many of them are clearly committed to ideas about women that are very different from our anti-discrimination norm in our society,” Bartholet said. “Many of them are committed to ideas about science, reality, that are very different from what are taught in our schools.” Conservative Christian home-schooling activists, she said, “want to both enable parents and encourage parents to raise their children in an alternative universe.”
After Cox won election to the House of Delegates in 2018, those activists found a new friend in Maryland.
‘A child’s best interests’
Cox had been in office just over a year when he sat down before the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee to champion a bill guaranteeing that parents in Maryland have “the fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education, care, and welfare” of their children. It was March 5, 2020 — six days before the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cox fiddled with a computer for a moment before playing a video.
“There’s one thing we can all agree on: When it comes to raising children, family is better than the government,” the narrator’s voice intoned. The 85-second video went on to warn that “parents of all backgrounds are seeing their rights slowly slipping away.” It ended by urging viewers to “sign up” at the website parentalrights.org.
Cox’s bill was based on model legislation created by the Parental Rights Foundation, an offshoot of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which since the 1980s has been the leading national organization in the Christian home-schooling movement.
The legislation had its roots in the ideas of Michael Farris, one of the association’s founders, who is a lawyer and whose children were home-schooled. He has fought against home-schooling oversight and other perceived threats to parental control, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Farris has warned would curtail Americans’ ability to “administer reasonable spankings” to their kids.
Farris, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1993, has long argued for a constitutional amendment that would make parental rights “fundamental,” or subject to the same deference given to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Critics say that such an elevation of parental rights would come at the expense of vulnerable kids, making it harder for social workers, teachers, doctors and courts to intervene in cases of abuse or neglect. The same criticism was leveled at Cox’s bill by groups representing victims of sexual and domestic violence. The Women’s Law Center of Maryland worried it could “make a parent’s rights more important or superior to a child’s best interests.”
The bill died in committee, but Cox introduced a new version this year.
Will Estrada, president of the Parental Rights Foundation, said the past few years have shown that parental concerns about control over their children’s upbringing transcend political and religious divides.
“In one regard, it’s significant that someone like Dan is a major-party nominee, but on the other, it’s not really big news,” he said. “Parental rights are larger than home schooling. They’re larger than Christians. They’re larger than Republicans or Democrats.”
Cox’s connection to the world of religious home schooling remains as much personal as political. Among the private security guards — wearing bulletproof vests and holstered pistols — who turned journalists away from a recent rally at a farm in Carroll County was a graduate of Walkersville Christian Family Schools.
It was Josiah, the candidate’s son, who at his 2015 graduation ceremony had listened with his classmates as Dan Cox urged them to take seriously the words from Romans 14:8: “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Erin Cox and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.