Since the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision banning prayer in the public school classrooms, conservative evangelical Christians have been at war with public education. Many conservatives point to that decision as the harbinger of America’s moral decline. For years, Christian Right organizations and their leaders have railed against teachers’ unions, opposed tax increases to improve public education, and have even gone so far as to encourage Christian parents to withdraw their children from the public schools. During this period, the Christian Right ran stealth school board candidates and took control of the decision-making process in numerous school districts.
Now, it appears the movement has found another way of imposing its religious views in the public schools; through thinly disguised afterschool Bible study programs.
An unexpected discovery
Most parents with elementary and junior high school-age children are busy focusing on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day life — getting their kids ready for school, preparing lunches and providing the requisite lunch money, emptying out and restocking backpacks and signing notes from teachers, making sure homework is done, providing rides to the school’s doorstep and picking up their kids after school - to get too deeply involved with everything going on behind schoolhouse doors.
In January 2009, Katherine Stewart, a novelist, journalist, and mother, learned that her children’s school in Santa Barbara, California, had added a Bible-study class to its list of afterschool programs. The afterschool group was called, innocuously enough, the “Good News Club.”
Curious as to what this “Good News Club” was about, Stewart discovered that it was part of a nationwide effort, sponsored by a conservative evangelical organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship (http://www.cefonline.com/), a group aiming to “take back” America’s public schools. Backing this effort, she found, are three long-term Christian Right founded and funded legal enterprises, the Alliance Defense Fund, the Liberty Counsel, and the American Center for Law and Justice,.
Stewart didn’t stop at merely being surprised by the agenda of the “Good News Club” (http://www.cefonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=ca tegory&id=13&Itemid=100049). She explains in the introduction to her new book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (Public Affairs, January 2012), that doing the research for the book took her to “dozens of cities and towns across the country … . [where she] found religion-driven programs and initiatives inserting themselves into public school systems with unprecedented force and unexpected consequences.”
The Good News Clubs is a nationally based effort “coordinated and given strategic direction by extremely well financed groups whose leaders write the scripts that are followed in classrooms, playgrounds, and courtrooms from New York to California,” Stewart writes.
Good News Club v. Milford Central School
Religious-based after school programs burgeoned after the Good News Club v. Milford Central School (a K-12 school in upstate New York) Supreme Court decision in 2001. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 6-3 majority, “laid out a philosophy that essentially destroyed the postwar consensus on the separation of church and school,” Stewart reports. Religion was now redefined “as nothing more than speech from a religious viewpoint.”
The Supreme Court’s decision essentially made it seem like the Good News Club’s sponsoring organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship, was not a fundamentalist Christian organization that actually claimed that salvation was only available to those that believed Jesus is their savior, but rather just another group offering a religious viewpoint. The decision essentially allowed religious organizations access to the same public school facilities as other non-sectarian groups.
"Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld the right of CEF to meet in public schools at the end of the school day," Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst with Americans United told me in an email. "In some parts of the country, the group is very active and creates the impression that it is a school-sanctioned extended day-care program."
Good News Clubs take hold
Stewart found “student athletic programs turned into vehicles for religious recruiting”; “services [taking place] at dozens of the hundreds of school facilities that double as taxpayer-financed houses of worship”; and “children … [that] have been subject to proselytizing in classrooms and school yards.” She met with “school board officials” that are “rewriting textbook standards to conform to their religious agendas,” talked with many of “the people promoting and attending `Bible Study’ courses that turned out to be programs of sectarian indoctrination,” and she “sat in on training sessions with instructors for the Good News Club, which now operates in nearly 3,500 public elementary schools around the country.”
One parent described to Stewart how members of a newly-formed Good News Club in an elementary school in Seattle, Washington, “came in like a bunch of gangbusters”: “They started putting a Statement of Faith in kids’ mailboxes. They distributed flyers. They were doing everything they could to have as big a presence on campus as possible.” The Club’s three-foot-high signage made sure to note that candy and cookies would be available.
Stewart cites numerous examples of Good News Clubs running amok in the public schools; inspiring culture clashes between children with different faiths and from different ethnic backgrounds. In many cases, young children who cannot yet read are fooled into thinking the Bible sessions are official school activities.
Good News Clubs were set up by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a worldwide organization founded seventy-five years ago in Warrenton, Missouri, by J.I. Overholtzer, a man who, according to the CEF website, “dreamed of an army of child evangelists encircling the globe.” years ago.
The website points out that Overholtzer’s dream “has largely become reality,” as the ministry is embedded in 175 nations and “reach[es] over 10 million children in face-to-face ministry annually.” In addition to the Good News Clubs, the ministry runs the “Truth Chasers Club,” “Camp Good News,” Military Children’s Ministries,” Ministry to Children of Prisoners,” and “Wonderzone.com,” a ten-year-old “site allows trained counselors to disciple children in a real-time, interactive environment.”
In pulling a latter-day Sara Diamond (the pioneering researcher and author of books on the Religious Right, who attended numerous movement meetings in the early 1980s) Stewart’s most eye-opening experience came while attending CEF’s May, 2010, triennial National Convention, held at the Shocco Springs Baptist Convention Center in Talladega, Alabama.
(Neither Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly nor Sacha Baron Cohen would be there to get her through those Talladega Nights.)
The vast majority of the 450 or so attendees were affiliated with CEF, including senior officials, staff, regional leaders, and heads of CEF’s youth, military and prison ministries. Stewart points out that, “We’re going to kick in the doors of every public school in the country!” is a phrase she keeps hearing.
"This is an old organization with ties to well known evangelical mission groups," Talk2Action’s Rachel Tabachnick told me in an email. "But CEF has mastered stealth evangelism of children, one of the goals for infiltrating society from the grass roots up, instead of top down."
Tabachnick added: “CEF is a good example of how stealth evangelism” operates successfully in hundreds of communities across the country.
As anyone who witnessed the recent Focus on the Family-sponsored television commercial during a Denver Broncos football game — which used young children to explain what the Bible verse John 3:16 (one of Bronco quarterback Tim Tebow’s favorite Biblical verses) is about — understands that children are frequently used by conservative evangelical leaders as tools to spread the “Good News.” So it should not be surprising that children from 4-14 are seen as fertile recruiting ground.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship “targets very young children,” Americans United’s Rob Boston pointed out. “The group has even produced a `wordless book’ for children who are too young to read,” he said.
"Religious nationalism has now become part of American political theater, and we take notice of it mostly during election campaigns," Stewart writes.
"When it shows up in our backyard, in our schools and local communities, we reach instinctively for our First Amendment, interpreting the whole matter in terms of whose rights are being respected and whose feelings are being hurt. The most important issue before us, however, is not just a question of the rights and feelings of individuals. The fact is that there is a movement in our midst that rejects the values of inclusivity and diversity, a movement that seeks to undermine the foundations of modern secular democracy. It has set its sights on destroying the system of public education - and it is succeeding. Unless we confront that fact directly, we may well keep our rights but lose the system of education that has long served as the silent pillar of our democracy."