Journalist Katherine Stewart, author of the recent book The Power Worshippers, has been reporting and writing on the Christian Right for over a dozen years. The whole journey began many years ago with her own experience, as a mother with children of her own attending a small public school in Santa Barbara, CA. Stewart describes what happened to her community when an evangelical child evangelism ministry, the “Good News Club” (GNC) decided to start an after-school Bible study program in her children’s local public school.
Aside from immediate issues that might arise due to its sectarian and fundamentalist Christian nature, another of the major problems with the GNC is this: there’s a very stealthy way they go about doing things. So when they come to town, and propose to open up one of their after-school “Bible study clubs” in a public school, their very presence becomes incredibly divisive in a community, as Stewart describes:
KS: “…So when I first heard of the club [GNC], frankly I didn’t think too much of it. You know, that first email, you know, the bit about targeting kids in their earliest years of learning — kindergarten, first grade — seemed a little weird, but I took for granted it wasn’t a regular part of the school curriculum and some parents might want this kind of thing. I was a bit naive, perhaps, but they described themselves as a ‘Bible study from a non-denominational standpoint.’
I actually thought ‘non-denominational’ meant ‘non-sectarian.’ I was so naive at the time. And look, I think you can teach about the Bible, even in public schools, from a non-sectarian standpoint, as history, or literature, or as sort of stories, and things like that. But it soon became clear that the GNC were much more than they appeared to be. I started to hear stories from other parents in town whose kids were attending schools where Clubs had been established. And I started hearing about the kids who were attending the Clubs, who were targeting their classmates for what I could only describe as ‘faith-based bullying and bigotry.’
They’d sort of find the only member of a religious or ethnic minority in their class, or a child who went to a liberal church, and they’d say, ‘You’re gonna go to Hell ’cause you don’t believe in Jesus.’ And they would say they knew they were right because, as one little girl put it, ‘They taught it to me in school, and they don’t teach things in school that aren’t true.’
Now, this really got to the heart of the problem with the GNC for me. I don’t have a problem with kids talking about their religion with their friends at school…but I do have a problem with kids being deceived into thinking that their school favors a particular religion, and then kids being encouraged to use that misleading information to try to convert or bully their peers.
So that perception on the part of these kids really isn’t an accident. GNC, by installing themselves in the public schools, they’re using the cloak of authority of the schools to convert kids as young as five to what is a radically conservative form of Christianity by giving them that false, but unavoidable impression, that the school endorses a particular form of the Christian faith.”
That initial incident many years ago — her involvement with the GNC in her children’s own school — was what led Stewart to begin investigating and then writing and reporting on not just the Club, but the activities of the Christian Right itself. This then led her into issues related to the separation of church and state, religion, and the evangelical involvement in both American and global politics.
KS: “I realized the more I researched this group and the movement behind it, I realized the GNCs were really just one small part of a larger attack on public education, and the attack on public ed was…simply one part of a broad attack on our democracy.”
And this is the real story of the Good News Clubs — the fact is, they are but a small part of a much larger onslaught by the Christian Right to attack public education generally; and to infiltrate public schools for proselytization, viewing them as “mission fields.”
Thus the twin theses of Stewart’s The Good News Club are as follows:
- When a GNC comes to town and sets up an after-school program in a local public school, the community can become incredibly divided: students against students; students against teachers; teachers against the school and the GNC; parents against the school and GNC; and the community against itself. Perhaps more nefarious — this is by design.
- The 2001 Supreme Court ruling, The Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, resulted in the GNC not only being allowed to use public schools (where they hadn’t previously), it also kicked the door wide open for a whole host of evangelical, fundamentalist and dominionist ministries to make use of public school facilities also. Oftentimes, these ministries are allowed to use the schools either for free or at a very small fee — and thus, the taxpayer is footing the bill for ministries to use public schools to target their children and their communities at extremely low rates.
KS: “I think it’s important to know what happens when one group, a sectarian group with a very particular agenda going after other people’s kids, enters the public school — sort of commandeering the common resource for their purpose of their sectarian agenda, and sort of exploiting a publicly-funded resource.”
But why does the GNC feel the need to operate in specifically public schools? In the case of Stewart’s own community a group of evangelical mothers offered the use of a church building situated literally next door to the public school in which the GNC had proposed to start up its after-school program. The GNC leadership refused:
KS: “But the GNC leaders were adamant…their refusal was adamant. They insisted on being in the school. They knew that kids would think their Club was endorsed by the school. And they also knew that by placing their Clubs in public schools, it would be easier for them to recruit other kids to their Club. So they referred to our public school as ‘their mission field,’ and our children as ‘the harvest.’ And this was just…this really sounded alarm bells for me.”
And this is precisely the issue that Stewart has so clearly identified: GNCs specifically want to use public school facilities, rather than local churches, because it creates the impression that their ministry is endorsed by the school. This is part of the overall “missional agenda” of the GNC’s parent organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). In addition, GNCs can make use of public schools for extremely low costs, which makes it more financially viable for local churches to maintain the ministry.
Thus, use of public school facilities makes it much easier to recruit students into the Club, because they think that the Club is part of the school’s own curriculum or programming for its own students. To a very young child aged 4–14 — the target age of the GNC — it seems like merely an extension of the normal schoolday’s activities. However, as mentioned, its very presence can create unbelievable amounts of tension and division in the community:
KS: “So I came to see that division that the Clubs provoke in public schools aren’t really, like, an unintended consequence of their activity: that division is precisely the point. And, it points to the fact too, that the GNC — and the organization behind it — are really contemptuous toward public education. It sort of reflects the Religious Right’s long-standing hostility to public ed. I believe it was Rev. Jerry Falwell…who made the agenda clear in 1979. He wrote: ‘I hope to see the day when there are no more public schools. Churches will have taken them over, and Christians will be running them.’
So the GNCs, and its parent organization, are part of a larger war on public education, and again, that war on public ed is part of a general assault on the foundations of modern liberal democracy.”
Therefore, the 2001 SCOTUS ruling in favor of the GNC was incredibly important. Not only did it open the door for the GNCs to use public schools, other Christian ministries are allowed to use them too. Thus, today we have an incredibly wide variety of “missional ministries” using public school facilities, such as:
- Evangelical and charismatic church plants (for example Acts 29, Every Nation, or the New Apostolic Reformation church plants).
- “Bible as literature” courses as part of the regular school curriculum (NCBCPS, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools)
- “Creation Science” courses (Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, etc.).
- Christian athletics programs (Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Power Team, etc.).
- “Peer-to-peer evangelism” (“See You at the Pole,” the Gideons and their Life Book, etc.).
- High school and college ministries (CRU, YWAM, etc.).
In addition to all of this missional activity, there has been for decades now a movement by the Christian Right a) to critique public schools, led by influential figures such as RJ Rushdoony as early as 1961 with his work Intellectual Schizophrenia, and b) to push to remove Christian children from public schools in favor of either homeschooling, or Christian schools.
This fight is absolutely still ongoing; for example, Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has long been an advocate of “school choice” and “school voucher” programs whereby funding can be withdrawn from a public school and “follow the student” to the school of his or her choice. Thus, for decades now, there has been an unceasing attack on public schools by Christians — from a wide variety of perspectives.
Therefore, one needs to be aware of what the agenda of the Good News Club, its parent organiztion the CEF, and a whole host of other missional and dominionist ministries that are now allowed to make use of public school facilities — all at the taxpayer’s expense. Moreover, by targeting specifically children for evangelism, this in turn undermines the authority of the parents, who may belong to another religion, be atheists, or simply go to a more liberal church. It’s a sort of “back-door” approach to evangelism by targeting vulnerable children under the auspices of their own school.
Another issue involves the legality of the whole thing. What happens, for example, if a public school tries to refuse the GNC, or another of the many evangelical ministries seeking to operate within its facilities? The major difference on the Christian Right side of things is that they have hugely powerful, and incredibly well-funded, legal defense arms that will immediately take up the case of that ministry — pro bono. If needed, they will take it all the way to the Supreme Court — which they have done, on numerous occasions. This Christian legal defense field includes, but is not limited to, organizations such as: the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ, associated with Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow), the Pacific Justice Institute, and the Liberty Counsel — just to name a few.
There are numerous others; but specifically in the connection with the GNC and the CEF, in particular Matt Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, has extremely close affiliations with that ministry. The Liberty Counsel has represented the CEF in numerous court cases nationwide — and has won a majority of them. Most cases involve the matter of whether or not a GNC can open up shop in a local public school. But based on numerous legal precedents and the 2001 ruling, that public school stands little to no chance of being able to refuse the GNC or any other ministry wanting to use its facilities.
If all of this sounds interesting — or potentially frightening — then check out the rest of the interview with Katherine Stewart on MindShift Podcast. The link for the episode is on iTunes; click the link below to listen to it in its entirety.
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