April 1999 Church & State | Featured

Like many Religious Right figures, D. James Kennedy can't decide what to do about public education. On one hand, Kennedy has endorsed calls for fundamentalist Christians to remove their children from public schools. On the other, he and his followers seem to want to take over the system in the name of Jesus.

During Coral Ridge Ministries' Feb. 26-27 "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference, several speakers discussed strategies for injecting fundamentalism into the schools, and one outlined an ambitious agenda for using public school students to spark a revival in America.

During a conference breakout session, Benny Proffitt, founder and president of First Priority of America, urged churches to band together to coach junior high and high school students on how to form Christian clubs on campus and then use the clubs as instruments for aggressive proselytism.

Under Proffitt's plan, local churches join forces to train students and fund their activities. Students then rely on the Equal Access Act -- federal legislation that allows pupils in public secondary schools to form religious clubs under certain conditions -- to gain a foothold in the school. Students are instructed to spend time seeking converts and regularly report the number of conversions to First Priority, which has offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Alpharetta, Ga.

Proffitt, a former public school teacher who resigned in 1979 after he was told to stop preaching to students, scorned the Supreme Court rulings of 1962 and '63 that removed government-mandated prayer and religious worship from public schools.

"I saw first-hand God removed from the school system," said Proffitt. "I saw the destruction and devastation that had on a generation of young people."

He insisted that the 1962 ruling was especially offensive because the prayers challenged were Christian prayers, calling it "an attack on our Christian heritage." (In fact, the prayer at issue in the Engel v. Vitale case was not "Christian," but a "nondenominational" prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents, the state school board.) Proffitt added that a few years later the Supreme Court ordered "God removed from every public building in America." (In fact, there is no such high court ruling.)

Proffitt also blasted public schools for teaching evolution, asserting, "We wonder why they [students] carry guns and kill each other. Well, we've told them, 'You're nothing, you're a freak, you're an accident of nature. That's all.'"

According to Proffitt, America can be saved only if fundamentalism finds a way into the schools. "The only way we're going to change America is to raise an entire generation with the message of the Gospel," he said. He added that it's too late for "Generation X" to be saved but insisted that the next generation is ripe for the Gospel.

"If we miss this next generation, God will walk away from this nation completely....If we don't think He will, we have our heads in the sand," he said. "If we're going to reach a generation, we've got to take the message to that place where the generation is -- the schools."

Proffitt claims to have established First Priority clubs in 3,000 schools spread over 200 communities, but his scheme may have some legal pitfalls. The Equal Access Act, for example, states that "nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control or regularly attend activities of student groups."

Proffitt told the crowd not to worry when church-state objections are raised.

"There is no such thing as separation of church and state," he said. "It doesn't exist. There's only one document in history where that exists -- the Communist Manifesto. We can't separate them because we are the church and the state." (In fact, the Communist Manifesto makes no reference to church-state separation.)

Continued Proffitt, "If we don't reach our young people, somebody will -- the pornography world, the drug culture will. You ever heard of the Muslim Church [sic]? They've got a plan to reach America. Ever heard of Louis Farrakhan? He has raised $1 billion to build Muslim outreach centers on every college campus."

During the question-and-answer session, Proffitt was asked about problems that might arise from attempts to convert Jewish and other non-Christian students. While he urged Christian young people to be "gentle and not use a hard sell," he added, "If we're going to fulfill the Great Commission, we've got to go and tell everyone. I really don't see a way around the Gospel message. The message is for the world."

A "Messianic Jew" in the audience agreed with Proffitt and said she is grateful for such evangelism, since it led her to Jesus and made her "zealous for the Lord." Proffitt nodded approvingly, but lest anyone get the wrong idea, quickly added, "I have a lot of Jewish friends and Messianic Jewish friends. I tell them, 'He's your Messiah. You introduced him to me.'"

Despite Proffitt's enthusiasm for First Priority clubs, not everyone was persuaded that his scheme is the way to go. One man in the audience called public schools "the counsel of the ungodly." He said Christian children have no business being enrolled there because they are more likely to be "dragged down into the world" than to win souls. He also accused Proffitt of using children to do a job that belongs to adults.

Proffitt disagreed, pointing out that in Birmingham, Ala., where First Priority clubs are popular, 7,000 students "came to Christ. It was done by the students themselves, and it can happen in every community in this country." He later added, "Satan thinks he owns our schools. He's got a fence around them. Jesus said the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church. We can take them down."

A second speaker itching to get his religious perspective into public schools is Phillip Johnson, a University of California at Berkeley law professor who has written several books attacking evolution. Asserting that Darwinism is "based on awful science, just terrible," Johnson said the theory has "divided the people of God" and that means "the way is open for the agnostics to say, 'We need to put all of this aside.'"

Johnson calls his movement "The Wedge." The objective, he said, is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to "the truth" of the Bible and then "the question of sin" and finally "introduced to Jesus."

"You must unify your own side and divide the other side," Johnson said. He added that he wants to temporarily suspend the debate between young-Earth creationists, who insist that the planet is only 6,000 years old, and old-Earth creationists, who accept that the Earth is ancient. This debate, he said, can be resumed once Darwinism is overthrown. (Johnson, himself an old-Earth creationist, did not explain how the two camps would reconcile this tremendous gap.)

Johnson added that he is happy to be working with university professors, such as Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who are critical of aspects of Darwinism, even though they may not themselves be literal creationists. This strategy, he said, "enables us to get a foothold in the academic world and the academic journals. You have to prepare minds to hear the truth. You can't do it all at once."

(Johnson was not the only conference speaker to attack evolution. Geoff Stevens, a ministerial student and former physics major at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, told the crowd that evolution leads to abortion, homosexuality and pornography. He blasted colleges for teaching it and took a shot at the late scientist and author Carl Sagan, telling the audience to much laughter, "[Sagan] used to be an evolutionist. He died a couple of years ago. I think he's a creationist now.")

A third speaker, Dr. Buster Soaries, bragged about how he frequently flouts church-state rules in public schools. Soaries, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., was recently appointed New Jersey's secretary of state. He told the crowd he is often asked to speak in public schools.

"They always say to me, 'This is a public school. You can't talk about God,' as if there's some monitor around whose presence implies if you do, the ACLU will have you arrested," observed Soaries. "Every time, I say, 'I am going to speak in this school, and I am going to talk about God....' If I got God in my flag, God on my money, God in my Declaration [of Independence], I don't have to keep God out of the schools!" His declaration was greeted with wild applause and a standing ovation.

The rhetoric indicates that Kennedy, a long-time critic of religious neutrality in public schools, has not given up on efforts to "Christianize" them, despite his flirtation with "Exodus 2000," a fringe movement led by far-right activists that calls on evangelical Christians to withdraw their children from public schools by the year 2000.

Last September Kennedy interviewed E. Ray Moore Jr., executive director of Exodus 2000, on Coral Ridge Ministries' "Truths That Transform" radio show. Moore later issued a press statement asserting that Kennedy "is poised to become a leading voice among national Christian leaders on behalf of the separation/exodus theme."

But as the comments of many speakers during the "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference indicate, Kennedy and many of this followers still seek to take over the system for their own narrow brand of religion. Advocates of church-state separation would do well to keep a close eye on Kennedy's growing movement.