In 2009, Katherine Stewart learned that the Santa Barbara public elementary school her children attended had added a class called “The Good News Club" to its afterschool program. The Club, which is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, bills itself as an after-school program of “Bible study." But Stewart soon discovered that the Club's real mission is to convert children to a fundamentalist form of Christianity and encourage them to proselytize their “unchurched" peers, all the while promoting the false but unavoidable impression among the children that its activities are endorsed by the school.
Astonished to discover that there are 3500 Good News Clubs in public elementary schools around the country – and that the Supreme Court has deemed this and other religious programs in public schools constitutional – Stewart, who had previously written for Newsweek International and Rolling Stone, set out on an investigative journey across dozens of cities and towns to uncover their effects on our schools, children, and communities. In her new book, The Good News Club, which comes out today and is excerpted below, she explains how religiously driven initiatives are inserting themselves into public school systems with unprecedented force and unexpected consequences.
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The bumper stickers plastering the SUVs in the parking lot are defiant: “Evolution is a Big, Fat, Lie," “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart," “Obama is not Jesus: Jesus Could Build a Cabinet." I wonder if I stand much chance of blending in with this crowd. I spent some time the previous evening considering just what one should wear to a National Convention of the Child Evangelism Fellowship. I've chosen a knee-length skirt and pale pink sweater, and I have my hair pulled back in a prim braid.
It's late May in Alabama, and the air smells of white cedar trees and the spicy bloom of wild geraniums. Neat cinder-block buildings dot the hills of the 600-acre wooded campus. I find my way to the large, multi-use building that serves as one of the convention center's main gathering spots.
This year, the convention has attracted about 450 attendees. Everybody appears to be affiliated with the CEF in some official capacity. Most are higher-ups on the totem pole: senior staff of the Warrenton headquarters and regional leaders from all over the country. Other attendees head up the CEF's youth, military, and prison ministries, write CEF textbooks, act as area coordinators, and serve other important roles.
The first thing that strikes me about the crowd is the large number of men in attendance. Most conventions organized around education and children — gatherings of curriculum experts, school volunteers, even Sunday school teachers or other religious education employees — are heavily dominated by women. Here at the national convention of CEF, however, the men equal or outnumber the women.
“How's it going at that school you were telling me about? The one where the principal was — you know — uncooperative?" a gray-haired gentleman in a plaid button-down shirt asks a younger friend in a white vest. “We slaughtered 'em!" the younger man replies. They both nod, satisfied. Throughout the convention, a phrase that I keep hearing is “kicking in the doors" — as in “We're going to kick in the doors of every public school in the country!"
I notice with alarm that my efforts to blend in are an abysmal failure. My subdued pastel getup is no match for the boisterous prints and separates that dominate the group. Even more atypical, of course, are my Semitic features. Naturally, I would have answered a pointed question about my religion truthfully — I am Jewish — but I do not want to be asked; I do not want my interactions to devolve into a forum on my ethnicity, which would not be productive for my research. I am resolved to simply say as little as possible and allow people to make their own assumptions.
On my way in, a participant suspiciously asks me what church I belong to, and I answer that our family is affiliated with an Episcopalian church. (In fact, at the time our son was attending an Episcopalian preschool.) “Is that a Bible church?" she sniffs disparagingly.
Near the chapel entrance I bump into Joan, who flew into Birmingham on the same plane I did. Joan is based in Los Angeles. Pale blond hair falls in soft waves to her shoulders; she wears a black T-shirt with silver sequins around the collar and white clam-diggers. In her early sixties, she seems friendly and curious.
Joan wasn't saved until her forties. By then she was divorced, with two young boys. “My life was a mess," she says, offering few details. They don't matter anymore because faith has provided her with a brand-new direction, a clean and certain future. But it hasn't completely extinguished her suffering.
Joan believes firmly that we are living in the last days on earth before the Second Coming. “In these End Times, you never know what's going to happen," she says, commenting on a dramatic volcanic eruption in Iceland that has clouded parts of Europe. For Linda, signs of the End Times are everywhere: earthquakes in Chile and Indonesia, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a failed bombing attempt in Times Square.
Before joining CEF, she had never taught children before. Now she instructs a class of up to forty kids every week. She was nervous about teaching at first. But the behind-the-scenes support for her and others like her, courtesy of the CEF, is so substantial and so expertly coordinated and delivered that it gave her the confidence she needed. Indeed, it leaves almost no room for novice teachers such as Joan to fail.
Joan and I are joined by David, a bearded man who has been working for CEF for twenty-three years and currently runs CEF Military Ministries.
He and Joan trade stories about the CEF classes they teach. Joan acknowledges how all-consuming work with CEF can be. Teaching a Good News Club, she says, requires as much personal commitment as a full-time job. “I'm in awe of how much effort they put into it, and what they do to prepare us," she says, then offers enviously: “I know one lady who recruited a bunch of homeschooled kids to teach her clubs in the public schools. Now she barely teaches at all, just spends her time helping to train them!"
“It's important to get young people involved," David assures her, “[like] homeschooled kids who are willing to step up and volunteer." He tells us that there are up to 120 kids in some of his classes. “But some doors are harder to open than others," he says darkly, “so we partner with Cadence International [a large, evangelical Christian military ministry] and say, 'You pry open those doors and we will do the work in the harvest fields.'"
“That's great," says Joan. “This one superintendent in L.A., she was telling the teachers she was going to run us out of the school."
David responds with a relaxed laugh. He knows he is on the winning side of this war.
The CEF's fundamentalism follows the pattern established by other Christian Nationalist groups, such as Coral Ridge Ministries (now Truth in Action Ministries), Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America. A central feature of this fundamentalism, for the CEF just as for the others, is a narrative involving the loss of national and moral “purity" and an anxious drive to recover or reclaim that purity. For many groups, this purity was often historically imagined, either explicitly or implicitly, as a “white purity."
However, the leaders of the CEF and other Christian Nationalist groups are aware that the future is not as white as the past. About 10 percent of the attendees at the CEF convention are nonwhite — of these, perhaps two-thirds are African American or Latino, and a smaller number are Asian — but the CEF leadership has made an effort to feature members of ethnic minorities prominently. Dr. A. Charles Ware, president of Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis, Indiana, and an African American, is one of the keynote speakers. As I learn from Dr. Ware's presence at the convention, the new inclusiveness really just means a shift in the lines of demarcation between inside and outside, between “pure" and “impure" — lines that are patrolled with as much fury as ever.
“The homosexual agenda is extending its tentacles throughout the United States culture via media, entertainment, education, and the political system," Ware wrote in his book, Darwin's Plantation: Evolution's Racist Roots, which is selling briskly in the lobby of the cathedral-like main chapel. Ware blames “Darwinian thinking" for the rise in acceptance of same-sex relationships, comparing them to pedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality.
“Society can no longer stand idly by and watch a small segment of the population attempt to normalize homosexual behavior — behavior that is not only morally but also medically and fiscally detrimental to all of its members," he writes. “What a tragedy it would be if we allowed the same fallen spirit of Darwinian evolution and racism to steer us into hateful relationships with the homosexual community!"
Ware categorically rejects the fact that animal species evolved over time. The last page of the book is an advertisement for the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. “Prepare to believe," it says.
Ware, who is married to a white woman, is just as preoccupied with notions of “purity" as any white racist. But in his mind, the “purity" in question is defined by religion, not color. Ware seeks to redefine the term “interracial marriage," saying that it should pertain to unions between Christians and non-Christians. When “a Christian marries one who is an unconverted child of the first Adam (one who is dead in trespasses and sin — a non-Christian)," he writes, negative consequences are inevitable. Such “interracial" unions, he says, are to be categorically condemned.
From The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012