September 2004 Church & State | Featured

Evangelist Franklin Graham has a plan to convert Ameri­ca’s children to his brand of Christianity – and it all starts at your local public school.

“I want to see at least one child in every public school in America who is trained as a witness for Jesus Christ,” Graham, the fiery son of the famous preacher Billy Graham, told a national meeting of Southern Baptists recently. “Let’s don’t surrender public schools. Let’s take them back. And how are we going to take them back? Are we going to fight for it? No, we’re going to have witnesses – every class, a young kid who can stand up and share his faith in Jesus Christ.”

Speaking to thousands at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis June 21, Graham outlined a plan whereby children could study evangelism techniques over the Internet. Thus equipped, they would then march into their schools and begin seeking converts.

“When a child completes the program, we will send them a card with their name on it saying that they are a certified evangelist with the Billy Graham Association,” Graham told representatives of the nation’s largest Pro­testant denomination.

What if parents are raising their child in another faith or philosophy and don’t want him or her converted to fundamentalist Christianity? Graham has an answer for that: Too bad.

“There is no other way to God except through Jesus Christ,” Graham, a controversial figure known for his intemperate attacks on Islam, told attendees. “Oh, is that offensive? I’m so sorry, but it’s the truth…. Let’s be a true witness…. We don’t have a lot of time. I believe the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming soon…. Let’s be ready for it. Let’s start telling people about the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored religious indoctrination in public schools, evangelists of Graham’s stripe are still trying to circumvent that decision and find a way to bring fundamentalism into the schools.

Their latest approach – using children as missionaries – is only the newest wrinkle in a long-running effort by the Religious Right to “Christianize” America’s schools. Lately, the technique of “child-to-child evangelism” has been all the rage in evangelical Christian circles and has been highlighted in several publications and websites.

In July, Christianity Today reported on an April event featuring 94 child evangelism proponents from 54 organizations. According to the magazine, the two-day conference highlighted “ways to effectively reach children between the ages of 4 and 14.”

“Never before had there been a single-minded gathering like this for those passionate about children,” said John Crupper of Awana Clubs International, a group that describes itself as a “nondenominational ministry that assists churches in reaching children and teenagers with the gospel of Jesus Christ and training them to serve Him.”

Why the urgency now? It’s possible that Religious Right leaders may finally be coming to grips with the fact that a school prayer amendment to the Consti­tution may be difficult to pass any time soon, and until the makeup of the Supreme Court changes, the justices are unlikely to alter the ban on school-sponsored religious outreach. With those options foreclosed, they are looking for other channels to get into the schools.

Religious Right activists seem to have a love/hate relationship with Amer­ica’s public schools. On one hand, they blast the schools as godless, amoral and even dangerous; but at the same time, they can’t resist the temptation to try to force their way into the schools and take them over.

Part of this is due to simple demographics. Despite all of the talk about private education, home schooling, charters and “choice,” the fact remains that public schools serve 90 percent of American children, a figure that has remained steady over the years. This makes the schools irresistible targets. Simply put, no other institution in the country has the potential to provide Religious Right groups with a captive audience that large. Given that fact, it’s no surprise that public schools have often been the battlefield for so many “culture war” issues.

Well-entrenched religious trends have also convinced fundamentalist Christians that they must target children at a young age. Studies show that most people stay in the faith in which they are raised – but a large percentage of the American population, perhaps as much as 50 percent, is unaffiliated with any particular religious denomination.

Although most of these people are religious believers, they are officially considered “unchurched” by fundamentalist proselytizers. Parents may have many different reasons for not being affiliated with a house of worship, but that is irrelevant to fundamentalists. As far as they are concerned, the children of the unchurched are ripe for the picking.

Evangelical pollster George Barna, author of the recent book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, told Christi­anity Today that evangelism must focus on very young children because by the time they hit the teen years, most kids are not open to changing their minds about religion.

“What you believe at age 13 is pretty much what you’re going to die believing,” Barna remarked. He noted that children between the ages of 5 and 13 have a 32 percent probability of converting to fundamentalist Christianity. But that figure drops to 4 percent for young people aged 14-18 and only climbs to 6 percent for those over 18.

Figures like this have had a powerful impact on evangelistic groups around the nation, who increasingly are arguing that successful evangelism must be aimed at very young children. A spate of organizations has sprung up emphasizing the need for child-centered evangelism – much of it taking place in public schools.

“More churches are recognizing the importance of equipping their kids to be able to give a Christian response to their Muslim classmate or their Hindu neighbor,” Jill Harris, a child evangelism expert at a group called the Caleb Project, told Christianity Today.

The Caleb Project produces a variety of materials designed to spur child evangelism, including the “Great Commis­sion Toolbox CD,” which includes material aimed at pre-schoolers and children in grades 1 through 6. Another product is a colorful alphabetical poster listing “Bibleless people” around the world.

Such material, when used in Sunday school or a private venue, would present no problem. But many fundamentalist proselytizers are aware that within the confines of church walls, they are only preaching to the already converted. Seeking to go beyond those walls, they are looking at public schools as a new mission field.

The Christianity Today article, written by John W. Ken­nedy, news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel magazine, a publication of the militantly evangelistic Assemblies of God denomination, put it bluntly: “Many believe the key to reaching boys and girls is to go beyond the church walls. More than 40 million of America’s 280 million residents are between the ages of 4 and 14 years old.”

Fundamentalist proselytizers see the creation of Bible clubs that meet immediately after the school day as crucial. These clubs, most of them run by the group Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), now have a legal right to meet at public schools after hours – which often means just minutes after classes end – thanks to a 2001 ruling by the Supreme Court.

At CEF meetings, according to Kennedy, “unchurched kids sing choruses, memorize Scripture and visualize Bible stories.” CEF is so determined it even uses a “wordless book” to evangelize children who haven’t learned to read. (See “Evangelism, Public Schools And The Supreme Court,” January 2001 Church & State.)

Having won the right to meet in public schools, CEF is now demanding that education officials use school channels to advertise its meeting to students. In Montgomery County, Md., CEF sued after school officials refused to insert fliers into packets that go home with students on a regular basis.

CEF, represented by attorneys with the Christian Legal Society, argued that since secular groups were given access to the packets to promote sports clubs and for-profit after-school child-care centers, it could not be denied the same right. School officials countered that they should have the right to restrict religious material, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling 2-1 in June that the county’s policy is discriminatory.

The county school board has asked the entire 4th Circuit to reconsider the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland Inc. v. Montgomery County Public Schools ruling, but in the meantime has adopted a new policy that would limit fliers to school-sponsored activities and events only. The new policy would omit promotional literature from most private groups from the student packets, which are normally inserted into the children’s backpacks, limiting access to groups like the PTA, non-profit sports leagues and child-care centers that operate on-site at some schools.

Officials with the Montgomery County schools, a large suburban district north of Washington, D.C., that serves a religiously diverse student population, say they must be mindful of church-state separation.

“Essentially, the Good News Club seeks to have teachers and students act as their agents for their proselytizing efforts, and the school system believes that violates the separation of church and state doctrine,” Eric C. Brousaides, an attorney for the school system, told the Baltimore Sun last year.

Child Evangelism Fellowship, meanwhile, is on the march in other federal courts, trying to force its way into public schools in other parts of the country. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the group is suing the school system after officials told a teacher she could not take part in CEF activities. In Upland, Calif., CEF, backed by TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, is suing the public schools for charging $19 per meeting to use classrooms. And in Convoy, Ohio, CEF is supporting a local coalition of fundamentalist churches that wants to distribute fliers about church activities in the public schools.

Alongside this activity by outside religious groups, organizations like Americans United must continue to contend with more overt forms of evangelism in public schools – some of it spearheaded by teachers. In July, the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) lauded Andrea Darlington, a ninth-grade English teach­er in Memphis who was recently named “National Christian Educator of the Year.”

In an interview with AgapePress, Darlington bragged about how she incorporates religious precepts into her classroom.

“I teach subjects like The Tale of Two Cities [sic], where Charles Dickens tells his story of the resurrection, that it’s the cross that would cure the ills of France,” she said. “And I tell my students that. They memorize the Bible verse that’s in the book – ‘I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord’ – and they recite that in class.”

Continued Darlington, “I think you need to let [students] know you’re a Christian and let them know that you love [them] because it’s Christ in you that enables you to do these things.”

Attorneys with Americans United have been on the alert for this type of activity for years. They send letters to schools when flagrant violations of the law concerning religious activity are reported. But as aggressive groups like CEF continue to press forward in the courts, and even win some cases, legal experts say parents will have to be more diligent as well.

The situation is complicated because in some parts of the country, where there is little diversity and aggressive religious denominations predominate, school officials may push the envelope or permit dubious practices because of tradition.

In the Convoy, Ohio, case, local education officials were only too happy to allow the local religious group to distribute material in classrooms and stopped only when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of a local parent.

Until three years ago, weekly religious classes were taking place on-site in the Convoy schools during the instructional day – a practice the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1948. Brenda DeLong, a teacher with the Crestview American Heritage Board, the group that taught the classes on behalf of 19 local churches, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Our intent was to reach all the children so they knew about Jesus. We taught just basic truths from the Bible – not Methodist, not Lutheran. It was a non-denominational approach.”

To Religious Right proselytizers, it seems inconceivable that most parents may not want their children recruited by religious groups at public schools. They also don’t seem to understand that if fundamentalist Christian groups are given access to public school students, other religious groups will soon claim that same right. Public schools could become battlegrounds for competing groups seeking to win new converts.

AU’s Lynn said there is an easy solution to this problem: Let parents decide what religion, if any, they will expose their children to and keep public schools out of the deliberations.

“All parents should have the right to raise their children with the perspective about religion of their choosing,” said Lynn. “Public schools should never provide aid to aggressive, proselytism-minded groups bent on denying families this fundamental human right.”