April 2012 Church & State | Featured

Journalist Katherine Stewart is author of an important new book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (Public Affairs Books). Stewart’s work is the first in-depth examination of Child Evangelism Fellowship’s “Good News Clubs” that seek to lure youngsters into fundamentalist Christianity by meeting in public schools directly after the school day.

Stewart’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, Rolling Stone and other publications. She recently talked about the book with Church & State.

Q. Why did you decide to write this book?

A. When I was living in Santa Barbara, Calif., a Good News Club showed up in my kindergartener’s public elementary school. At first I thought it was no big deal. But then I started hearing from parents around town whose children attended schools where Good News Clubs had recently been established. I heard stories about how children attending the clubs were targeting their non-Christian peers with what I can only describe as faith-based bullying.

I also heard from several parents who had signed their kids up to attend the clubs. They said their kids came home and told the parents they were going to hell because they didn’t go to the “right” kind of church. I soon realized that the Good News Club, which is in the fundamentalist strand of Christianity, seeks to convey the false but unavoidable impression in young children that its activities are endorsed by the school. The kids would say that they knew that the religion of the Good News Club must be true because they learned it in school.

Remember, we’re talking about little kids here – for them, no institution has as much authority as the public school. The Good News Club leaders know that, and that’s why they are so insistent on establishing clubs in public schools, starting just after the bell rings, to appear as a seamless part of the school day. This bumped up against everything I knew about the separation of church and state. So I decided to do some personal research. The more I looked into the matter, the more I came to understand that this small event in my life was part of a very big story about a very serious threat to public education in America. That’s why I decided to write this book.

Q. Why should parents be concerned about Child Evangelism Fellowship and the Good News Clubs? What is the goal of this organization?

A. They say their goal is “Bible study” from a “nondenominational standpoint.” In fact, their aim is to “knock down all the doors, all the barriers, to all 65,000 public schools in America and take the gospel to this open mission field now!” – to quote directly from one of their leaders. They believe that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” as defined by them, and it is their “right” to “take it back.” Keynote speakers at their national conventions rail against the so-called “homosexual agenda,” support creationism and think that public education is evil because “they removed Christ as the foundation.” Good News Clubs have as their ultimate aim the destruction of public education as we know it, and public school officials and administrators should be as concerned as parents, if not more so.

Q. The Supreme Court upheld the right of Good News Clubs to meet after the school day. In light of that, what do you advise parents who are concerned about these clubs?

A. Parents need to educate themselves and others about the extremism at the heart of the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), the organization that sponsors the Good News Clubs. Reading my book is a great way to start! Parents should also support organizations that strengthen the separation of church and state. Mainly, they need to be prepared to deal with the kind of bullying and division that often follows the introduction of the club and similar groups. They should seek to introduce into their schools anti-bullying or teaching tolerance programs that specifically include issues around faith-based bigotry.

I describe many of the initiatives as “stealthy” because, I regret to say, I discovered over and over again that they involve deceit and misdirection. They involve tricking parents into thinking that their religion is one thing when it’s another; tricking kids that their programs are part of the school; tricking the authorities that adult-run programs are run by kids; and more. The willingness to deceive tells me that these groups simply have little respect for the schools, the parents and the communities they enter.

Q. Why have so many fundamentalist groups never accepted that public schools, which serve children from all faiths and philosophies, are not the proper place for religious worship and proselytizing?

A. Many fundamentalists simply do not accept public schools as legitimate enterprises in the first place. They see public education as secular education and therefore intrinsically hostile to religion. At bottom, they do not accept that we live in a diverse society with a secular form of government. The leaders of the CEF, for example, say that public schools “de-educate” children by failing to educate them about Jesus, and they compare public schools to “acts of war” on the American population. One of them said he sees a “mushroom cloud” over the schools.

Q. Your book traces some of the battles over religion in public schools that have raged for years. Do you have any hope that as America becomes more diverse religiously, these “culture wars” will die down?

A. The percentage of people identifying as non-religious or unaffiliated has grown substantially over the past decades. So has the politicization of religion, on the other end of the spectrum. These two phenomena, I think, are connected. People move away from religion to the extent that they identify it with extreme and often distasteful politics; and, conversely, others embrace fundamentalist religion in response to what they see as a growing secularism or relativism in society. So, unfortunately, the conflict in the culture wars may actually intensify, even as the numbers seem to tell a different story. It’s also important to remember that throughout history, revolutions are rarely driven by majorities. They tend to be the work of hard-core minorities with irresolvable grievances and little faith in the existing order.

Ultimately, our best hope is that the culture wars will diminish as greater numbers of people understand that diversity is both our reality and our strength as a society.

Q. In your view what, ultimately, is the Religious Right’s plan for public schools?

A. In their efforts to inject their form of faith into public schools, leaders of the Religious Right suggest that their aim is just to see their views “included” in the schools and that they are fighting for “religious liberty.” But that is at best a half-truth. Many leaders of the far right have long advocated abolishing public education altogether. To be sure, plenty of religious conservatives are friendly to public schools and send their kids to them. But they aren’t the ones driving the bus.

The voucher idea I think is particularly dangerous because it marries the anti-public school agenda of some religious conservatives with the free-market rhetoric of economic conservatives. The idea is presented as a matter of creating “choice” and “competition” in education. But the effect – which is intended by the religious conservatives – is to take taxpayer money away from the public schools and hand it over to private, mostly religious, schools.

Q. More and more states are considering bills to “teach about” the Bible in public schools. Should we be concerned about this? How should the Bible be dealt with in public schools?

A. I support the idea of teaching about the Bible in public schools from a nonsectarian standpoint – as history, literature and anthropology. However, many of these so-called “Bible Study” programs, such as the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, are thinly disguised programs of sectarian indoctrination. If we’re going to teach the Bible – and we probably should – we should do it in a professional and scholarly way. And if we are going to outsource the project – which is probably inevitable – we need to make sure that the groups involved are not simply fronts for individual sects.

Q. New York City is currently embroiled in a dispute over churches that are demanding the right to use public schools for worship on weekends. Some people don’t see this as a problem since there are no students at the school on weekends. Others feel it’s inappropriate. You examine this controversy in this book. What is your view?

A. There is something very paradoxical about the current arrangement in New York City concerning the after-hours use of school facilities. If your group discriminates against gay people or promotes hate speech, it will not be allowed to meet in the schools. (The Boy Scouts, for example, have been excluded on account of their policies with respect to homosexuality). If your group is a partisan political one, it will also not be allowed in. But if your group happens to be a religious one that preaches that homosexuality is an abomination and advocates the take-over of the United States government by your fellow sectarians, and it wishes to promote these doctrines through services of worship, it will be guaranteed a space in the schools. The Board of Education has long had on the books a well-crafted policy designed to prevent this kind of thing from happening, but the courts, following the Supreme Court’s lead in the 2001 decision on the Good News Club, have made it impossible to enforce that policy.

The churches in question do not pay rent or utilities to the Department of Education – just minor use fees. Because the schools are generally available only on Sundays, the churches are almost all Christian. Most are evangelical, and many of these are part of national and international church-plant- ing movements that have appeared in New York only because the space is free. So the current arrangement very plainly amounts to the establishment of a state-funded religion, largely of one particular variety. How this can be construed as anything other than a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment baffles me.

Q. What is the “peer-to-peer loophole” and why do parents of public school students need to be aware of it?

A. Right now, enormous resources are being devoted to “peer evangelism” – that is, getting kids to target other kids for religious conversion. It’s a violation of the spirit of the law, if not the letter. For instance, the Life Book Movement, a project of The Gideons International, gets kids in church youth groups to distribute evangelical tracts to other kids. In just two and a half years since its inception, the Life Book Movement has distributed over two million evangelical tracts on school campuses. Peer evangelism is one of the Religious Right’s most forceful efforts. Look for an initiative called Every Student Every School, which is sponsored by Campus Alliance. It is debuting in 2013, and it is peer evangelism on steroids.

Q. You have been speaking to a lot of Americans United chapters. How has the reception been?

A. I am very grateful for the interest and enthusiasm with which my book has been received. As I travel the country speaking to chapters of Americans United and other groups, I am meeting with many people who have witnessed the phenomenon I am describing firsthand in their own communities. So I am learning a lot, and I hope my work in turn helps others put the national situation in perspective.