by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The Jesuits used to have a saying, “Give us a child until he is seven, and we will have him for the rest of his life.” But these days, according to activist and author Katherine Stewart, it’s evangelical Protestant Christians who are putting that old saying into practice, throwing out a wide net so they can follow St. Peter’s admonition to be “fishers” not only of adults but children as well. Stewart originally ran into this effort three years ago in Santa Barbara, where she and her husband Matthew suddenly encountered an organization called “The Good News Club” that wanted to set up what a so-called “nondenominational Bible study” group at their seven-year-old daughter’s grade school.
Using her skills as an investigative reporter, Stewart checked out the “Good News Clubs” and found they were far from the “Bible study” groups they claimed to be. They are actually a program of an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), founded in 1937, whose declared mission, according to Stewart, “is to produce conversion experiences in very young children and thus equip them to ‘witness’ for other children.” The Good News Clubs started in the 1990’s and in 2001 won a case at the U.S. Supreme Court that, Stewart said, gives them almost unlimited power and legal authority to function in schools at any level they want, anywhere they want, and teach whatever they want regardless of the desires of the school board, administrators or parents.
Stewart found that the CEF, the parent organization of the Good News Clubs, “has a very specific and deeply Fundamentalist agenda,” she explained. At a CEF convention she attended, “the speakers railed against ‘the homosexual agenda’ and attacked women’s reproductive freedom.” In her book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, she described CEF as committed to “the conversion of schoolchildren … on an industrial scale,” and said that at their convention “I can’t help but feel that I’m at a conference for a multinational corporation determined to use every managerial tool available to expand its conversion operations and maximize efficiency.”
When she spoke in San Diego March 4, at an event sponsored by the newly reorganized local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Stewart explained, “I don’t have a problem with kids expressing faith in school. I do have a problem with [Good News Club members] thinking their religious beliefs are endorsed by the school. The Good News Club’s purpose is to give children the impression that their school endorses their particular faith. … They make an effort to present themselves as ‘broadly Christian,’ but the people behind CEF don’t consider that most people who call themselves ‘Christian’ truly are Christian.”
Stewart found that out the hard way when she went to the CEF convention and was asked what church she and her family attended. “Episcopalian,” she rather shame-facedly answered — and the person who had asked her the question then said, in a tone of voice Stewart described as “disparaging,” “Is that a Bible church?” Another person Stewart met at the convention confided in her, “My son is homosexual,” in a tone of voice that communicated her own shame, and when she added that her son was living with a male partner, she said, “It almost put me in the grave!”
The Good News Clubs are only part of a broad-based effort on the part of CEF and other organizations like it to win the next generation for their particular brand of Christianity, Stewart explained. “Another initiative is Campus Alliance, a coalition of 40 religious groups that relies on ‘peer evangelism’ to get kids to convert their peers,” she said. “Every Student, Every School, a project set to debut in 2013, seeks to establish full-fledged evangelical ministries in the public schools and target the kids. They are encouraged to ‘adopt a school’ [and get children to] hand out religious literature to their classmates. … The California School Project pairs high-school students with college-age adults.”
One of the quirkiest aspects of the constellation of radical-Right religious organizations Stewart described is that some of the groups in it are newly formed, while others are branches of organizations that have been operating for decades. “The Lifebook Movement,” she said, “is a project of the Gideons International” — founded in 1899 and best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms — “and they’ve tried to distribute Bibles on school campuses, with mixed success. They hit the jackpot with tracts that look like teen writing” — dumbed-down versions of the Bible with printed “handwriting” in the margins, ostensibly the handiwork of teenagers themselves — “that they get teens to distribute to other students. Since 2007 they have distributed two million tracts.”
According to Stewart, the Good News Clubs “have less to do with ‘Bible study’ than with religious indoctrination. The real purpose of the Clubs is not to teach the kids who enroll, but to use those kids to recruit their peers.” What the Clubs are for, Stewart said, is to set up a sort of daisy chain of conversion. Parents authorize their children to join the clubs, either because they’re believers themselves or they’re tricked into doing so by the club’s false claim to be “nondenominational.” The children in the clubs then talk up Jesus and the Fundamentalist brand of Christianity they learn there to other children in the school, often so stridently that Stewart calls it “faith-based bullying,” and those children in turn go home and badger their parents to attend a Fundamentalist church. Despite the radical Right’s rhetorical commitment to “family values,” Stewart said, the Good News Clubs “aim to convert many children away from their parents.”
Stewart’s book tells a story of how this works “on the ground.” At the Vieja Valley Elementary School in Hope Ranch, California, a six-year-old Good News Club child named Ashley approached her first-grade classmate Chloe, whose parents were Jews, and told her, “You can’t go to heaven.” When Chloe protested, Ashley said, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” Their teacher overheard the exchange and, when class resumed, used it for a so-called “teachable moment” on the need for children to accept each other’s (and their families’) differences in religious beliefs. A hurt Ashley replied, “You mean they lied to me in school?” Ashley said that she’d learned the lesson that only Christians can go to heaven right there in school, and “how can they teach me things that aren’t true?”
Demolishing the “Wall of Separation”
They can because, starting in the 1980’s, an increasingly Right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at the “wall of separation” between church and state famously called for by Thomas Jefferson until it threatens to collapse into rubble. They did this in a series of rulings in cases brought by Right-wing organizations like the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) — a deliberate attempt to create a Right alternative to the American Civil Liberties’ Union (ACLU) — the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), Christian Legal Society, Rutherford Institute and Pacific Justice Institute. Along with the political arms of the radical religious Right, Stewart said, these legal groups have pushed a version of the history of America’s public schools so effectively that even many progressives and other opponents of the radical Right have bought into it.
According to the radical Right’s version of history, America’s public schools were bastions of religious instruction and Bible belief until the early 1960’s, when a series of decisions by the most liberal U.S. Supreme Court in history banned mandatory prayer in public schools and therefore supposedly “took God out of the schools” and replaced Him with what radical-Right activists call “the ‘religion’ of secular humanism.” The truth, as Stewart explains in a chapter of her book called “A Wall of Separation,” is that starting in the early 19th century, as America shifted from a system in which most schools were church-run to one in which children were guaranteed a free education at public schools, bitter conflicts arose as to what, if any, religious beliefs would be taught — and by the end of the 19th century most everyone had agreed that the only way to stop these wars was to keep public education resolutely secular and let parents decide what, if any, religious instruction to give their children.
“By the time the Supreme Court took up its landmark cases on the subject,” Stewart wrote, “official, school-sponsored prayers at the start of the school day were really the last vestige of the once substantial presence of religion in the public schools. Many schools and indeed many states had in fact abandoned the practice on their own. Less than half the schools in the country had prayer, and prayer was in the vast majority of cases limited to five minutes at the beginning of the school day. Contrary to the Right-wing myth, the Supreme Court cases on school prayer in 1962 and 1963 were easily decided, receiving the support of eight of the nine justices, including three of the four conservatives.”
According to Stewart, the reasoning in the school-prayer cases revolved around three points. The first was what, in the words of then-Justice Hugo Black, was the clear meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another.” The second was the belief that school prayers were an especially insidious “establishment of religion” because they created social pressure on non-believing children to go along. “Nonconformity is not an outstanding characteristic of children,” then-Justice Felix Frankfurter noted in one of the school-prayer opinions.
The third was the idea that teaching any lesson from a particular religion in the public schools would effectively discredit children or families who believed differently. As Justice Frankfurter wrote, any activity that “sharpens the consciousness of religious differences” among schoolchildren “causes precisely the consequences against which the Constitution was directed when it prohibited the government common to all from becoming embroiled, however innocently, in the destructive religious conflicts of which the history of even this country records some dark pages.”
The wall of separation began to crumble, Stewart argued, in 1981, when eight of the nine Supreme Court justices ruled in a case called Widmar v. Vincent that it was unconstitutional for a school to ban meetings of a religious group on campus if it allowed secular groups to meet there. The reasoning behind this decision, Stewart said, was that religion was merely a form of “speech” and therefore could not be restricted under the First Amendment guarantee of “freedom of speech.” Stewart quoted the one dissent in the case, by Justice Byron White, which argued that under the majority’s ruling “the Religion Clauses would be emptied of any independent meaning in circumstances in which religious practice took the form of speech.” In other words, if religion is already protected under the free-speech clause, the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise” of religion is redundant — and the Establishment Clause is meaningless.
In the next 30 years, according to Stewart, three people would work to widen the crack in the wall opened by Widmar into a giant gateway for inserting religion into the public schools. One was Jay Sekulow, a Right-wing legal strategist and co-founder of the ACLJ. The other two were Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who joined the Supreme Court in 1986 and 1991, respectively, and gave Sekulow and his colleagues two virtually certain votes for any case expanding the reach of religion into the schools. In 1987, Sekulow won a Supreme Court ruling that the Jews for Jesus organization had a constitutional right to pass out tracts in airport terminals.
Stewart describes a succession of cases — Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia and the 2001 decision that specifically legitimized the Good News Clubs, Good News Club v. Milford Central School District — that expanded the idea that religion is just another form of speech and extended it to schools. In his majority opinion in Milford, Stewart wrote, Justice Clarence Thomas “essentially destroyed the postwar consensus on the separation of church and state.” A concurring opinion by Antonin Scalia took special aim on the idea that religious activity in the schools would put peer pressure on students with minority religious views to go along with their classmates in the majority; religious peer pressure, Scalia wrote, “when it arises from private activities … [is] one of the attendant consequences of freedom of association.”
According to Stewart, the stated intent of Thomas’s and Scalia’s opinions in Milford “was to place religious programs on a par with non-religious programs in the competition for after-school resources. In reality, and as a direct result of the illogical structure of their thinking, the effect of the decision has been to elevate religious groups to a supercategory that enjoys a substantially greater degree of access than any other kind of group.” The Good News Clubs and their sponsor, CEF, have essentially used Milford as a legal bludgeon against any school district that dares to offer resistance, Stewart said, and their success — according to a fact sheet from CEF’s Web site, in 2010 Good News Clubs met in over 3,000 public schools in the U.S. and reached over 133,000 children — has led to further efforts by the radical Right to foment peer-to-peer evangelism at America’s public schools.
“The idea that ‘it’s O.K. if kids do it’ is so accepted that religious leaders are publishing books with titles like Reclaim Your Schools,” Stewart said. “Many people think religion in schools is restricted to certain areas of the country, but religion pervades public schools in all areas of the country.” Stewart learned that when she and her family moved to New York City and enrolled their children in the local public school — which on Sundays actually became a church, under a program that made school facilities available to religious organizations for out-and-out worship services, and what’s more offered them virtually rent-free.
“I decided to attend the church at my school,” Stewart recalled, “and the pastor said, ‘Pray for the children that they come to know Jesus.’ I learned that the church was occupying our school four times a week and they were paying no rent [just the cost of janitors to clean up afterwards]. Ours was one of over 150 schools in New York City that also existed as houses of worship. In public-school classrooms I heard the pastor promote an anti-Gay ministry run by his church and a prayer that America’s government would be taken under God’s dominion and control.”
Destroying Public Education
Stewart sees the Good News Clubs and the other organizations in the radical Right’s dizzying array of groups pushing religious agendas in schools as merely the opening wedge in a campaign to destroy public education altogether. She noted that in many cases where a Good News Club has installed itself in a school, the result has been a divisive community conflict that pits parent against parent, family against family, and church against church — and, she argued, rather than trying to avoid these conflicts the organizers of the Good News Clubs seem to be pushing them deliberately and reveling in them when they occur. She also pointed to the irony that many of the religious-Right activists pushing a religious agenda on the public schools don’t send their own children there; instead, they send them to private schools or homeschool them.
A quote in Stewart’s book exposes the two-track assault of the religious Right against the public-school system and their fundamental disbelief in the whole idea of offering non-religious education to children. The writer is Reverend Andrew Sandlin, and the article Stewart quoted was published in 1994 in the newsletter of the Chalcedon Foundation — a group of so-called “Christian Reconstructionists” who, among other things, believe democracy is un-Christian and monarchy is the only Biblically sanctioned form of government.
“The attitude and approach of Christians should be that they never expose their children to public education, but that they should work increasingly to expose public education to the claims of Christ,” Rev. Sandlin wrote. “Certain specially selected Christians, in fact, should pray and work tirelessly to obtain teaching and school board and even administrative posts within public education. The penultimate goal of these Christians should be the privatization of these larcenous institutions, and the ultimate aim the bringing of them under the authority of Christ and His word.”