When a new after-school Bible study program called “The Good News Club” started up in the public elementary school where journalist Katherine Stewart sent her children, she discovered that the club was much more than the ordinary Bible study. Stewart began an in-depth, first hand investigation which she documents in her book, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.”
After attending a recent lecture about the book, I interviewed Katherine Stewart about her finding:
Q. Your book, “The Good News Club” exposes the fundamentalist Christian plot to infiltrate public schools. Many mainstream religious parents might not think this is a big deal. Why should they be just as concerned as atheists about some after school Bible Study?
“First, the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state is for everyone, not just atheists. Everyone benefits from maintaining religion and government separate.
A second reason that many parents may not appreciate is that the Good News Club does not represent mainstream Christianity. The Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is a deeply fundamentalist group, as are many of the other groups involved in these types of initiatives. In their world view, many if not most people who call themselves Christians really aren’t. So Catholics and Mainline Protestant parents may be interested to know that the club actively seeks to convert their kids away from their “false” understanding of Christianity.
Good News Clubs are also a gateway to other religious initiatives in the schools. The Supreme Court decision that has allowed thousands of Good News Clubs to proliferate in public schools has paved the way for church-planting initiatives, in which public schools have been turned into rent-free, tax-subsidized churches, to give but one example.
Finally, by turning our public schools into religious battlefields, these Clubs have been detrimental to public education as a whole.”
Q. Can you give us an example of some of the things these clubs tell children?
“An independent study of the CEF’s five-year curriculum, taught in every single Good News Club from coast to coast, reports that there are thousands of references to sin, punishment, and obedience, and numerous references to hell. By comparison, this study asserts, there are only two or three glancing references to the ‘Golden Rule’ or the ‘Royal Law’ – loving your neighbor as yourself.
So as you can see, the CEF has a very specific and deeply fundamentalist agenda. Children are told they must go to the ‘right’ kind of church – a ‘Bible-believing’ church. They are taught that if they fail to believe or obey the tenets of this particular form of the Christian religion, they will go to hell. And they are told to recruit other kids at school to the Club. At every Good News Club training I attended, children were offered points and prizes and sometimes even candy for recruiting their peers to the Club.”
Q. At what age do these clubs start targeting kids?
“The majority of Good News Clubs target children in elementary school. There is a strong focus on very young children. The centerpiece of the CEF’s program is called ‘the wordless book.’ It has no words, just shapes and colors, and is used to convert children who are too young to read.”
Q. Don’t these types of clubs only exist in deeply religious communities?
“No, the Clubs are also numerous in areas not known for religious conservatism. The first chapter of my book, “The Good News Club,” takes place in Seattle and documents the strife and conflict that ensues when the Club forces its way into a diverse school community.”
Q. What do you think is the long-term danger of these clubs?
“The long-term issue with the Clubs is that children perceive that the schools have effectively adopted a particular religion and believe that the religion the Clubs represents is sanctioned by the school and the state. This erodes the principle of church-state separation and undermines public education. Also, by forcing the schools to subsidize and promote their religion, the Clubs are violating the principles of the very first clause of our First Amendment.”
Q. Now that your book is out, has anyone from the Child Evangelism Fellowship responded to it?
“I received a response from CEF President Reese Kauffman to an article I wrote about the CEF lesson on Saul and the Amalekites, which teaches obedience through one of the challenging stories of the Old Testament.”
Q. How can secular-minded people fight back against these types of clubs?
“Parents need to educate themselves and others about the extremism at the heart of CEF, the organization that sponsors the Good News Clubs. Reading my book is a great way to start! Parents should also support organizations that strengthen the separation of church and state. Mainly, they need to be prepared to deal with the kind of bullying and division that often follows the introduction of the club and similar groups. They should seek to introduce into their schools anti-bullying or teaching tolerance programs that specifically include issues around faith-based bigotry.
And finally, I would like to see a legal strategy pursued from the moderate and progressive side that seeks to reestablish some basic constitutional principles, that reaffirms the distinction between speech and religious worship, and that that acknowledges the coercive effects of peer pressure and school authority over young children.”
“The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” is available on Amazon.com and anywhere else books are sold. Learn more about the book at TheGoodNewscClub.com and follow Katherine Stewart on Twitter @kathsstewart.