When he was 15, Jim ran drugs for a cult group. When I first heard his story, I was shocked – not just that the group was running drugs, but that they had directed one of their youngest recruits to do the dirty work for them. Then I learned why it made sense in a technical sort of way: the cult leaders reasoned that the older members, if caught, would face serious sentences and lifetime records, whereas the kids could get away with an unpleasant but not life-altering juvenile detention. It was a matter of using kids to do what the grown-ups didn't want to risk doing themselves.
In a tactical sense, religious fundamentalists in America appear to have taken a page from the same book. The constitution and the law prohibits adults from, say, establishing ministries within public schools aimed at proselytizing to the children during school hours. But a growing number of religious activists have come to realize that it's technically legal if they get the kids to do their work for them. OK, so religious proselytizing is not the same thing as running drugs – but manipulating kids to exploit legal loopholes isn't pretty wherever it happens.
This tactic has been tested and deployed in a great number of situations already in schools across the country. Right now, a large group of fundamentalist organizations and church denominations is making a big bet that they will be able to pull it off on a national scale, starting in 2013.
If you go to the Every Student Every School website, you'll see that their dozens of promotional videos are first-rate. The music is great, the cameras are professionally handled, the sound bites are short and snappy. Their message is very clear.
As ESES's name implies, their idea is to proselytize every student in every public school in America through an aggressive "Adopt-a-School" campaign. And the way to do it is to have the kids do what grownups are not allowed to do – establish full-fledged missionary operations inside the schools. A clever map allows viewers to click on their state and type in their area code, revealing every school in the district and determine whether it has been "adopted" by churches or other religious organizations. Kids from those entities are instructed to conduct daily prayer groups during the school day, distribute religious literature and are given numerous other ideas for practicing or promoting their religion at school.
"We must help our teenagers get serious about sharing their faith with those God has place in their lives," an article on the ESES website advises. According to ESES's Campus Prayer Guide, evangelical Christian students are in a "strategic position" to proselytize "unchurched" peers, and advises these students to "consider every school a PRAYER ZONE."
Who is behind ESES and its sponsoring group, Campus Alliance? It is backed by nearly 60 large-scale fundamentalist initiatives and church denominations, including the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, Young Life, Youth with a Mission, Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and the Life Book Movement, a project of the Gideons International.
ESES is the fulfillment of a strategy that has been unfolding for the past few decades. It started with student groups rightfully claiming certain free speech rights in public schools. After all, kids can and should be allowed to talk about their religion with their friends at school. It led to a legal distinction by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that seems more simple on the surface than it is in practice – the distinction between private speech by students and speech that is linked to school authorities or the authority of the school.