Evangelicals' Stealth Mission to Sneak Jesus into Our Public Schools
United Methodist minister David Jenkins was meeting with fellow clergy last year in the small Kansas community of Sharon Springs when one of the pastors made what sounded like a routine request.
The clergyman noted that the Todd Becker Foundation was coming to town, and the evangelical Christian organization, which purports to warn youngsters about the dangers of drunk driving, wanted to line up local religious leaders to help with its presentation.
What struck Jenkins as odd was the venue: It was to take place at Wallace County High School.
Furthermore, the Becker Foundation had a very specific set of duties in mind for the ministers. They would swing into action after students had been offered a chance to become “born again.”
“Our task was to go forward when students came down to make their decision, and we would give them a Bible and some Christian material and talk with them about Christ,” Jenkins said.
He noted that one of the attendees at the meeting was the town’s former school superintendent, a man who never had much use for the separation of church and state.
“His comment was that they’d have to fly under the radar so they were not barred from giving a gospel presentation in school,” Jenkins said. “It was clear to me they were using this drunk-driving lecture as a vehicle to give an evangelizing presentation.”
Jenkins wanted no part of the scheme. In fact, he vowed to put a stop to it since he believed the Becker Foundation’s activities were legally dubious. He alerted Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“For me, it’s not appropriate for several reasons,” Jenkins told Church & State. “This is a public school. There are students in that school who are Catholic, and that is not their form of evangelism.
“These kids are forced to attend this program because it is a school function,” continued Jenkins. “If they don’t attend, they could be disciplined. They have a forced audience of people who are under age, whose parents in many cases would not be very happy to see their kids being exposed to this type of event.”
Americans United’s Legal Department investigated and took action, sending a letter to school officials warning them that allowing Becker Foundation representatives to proselytize students would violate church-state separation.
But AU didn’t stop there. Later, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Staff Attorney Ian Smith drafted a letter to officials at the foundation itself, warning them that their activities were constitutionally problematic.
AU’s intervention in the issue is not new. In fact, AU attorneys have periodically done battle with groups just like the Becker Foundation – fundamentalist-oriented ministries that have proven adept at slipping into public schools under the cover of stealth, where they preach to students outright or pressure them to attend a revival later that evening.
It has been a long-running fight. More than 20 years ago, Americans United sounded the alarm about a group called Sports World Ministries, which sent former professional athletes into public schools to deliver speeches on “character” – lectures that often took on the air of revival meetings.
In one case, school officials in Williamsburg, Va., said they were “caught flat-footed” by the group, which offered an anti-drug assembly that ended with an appeal to accept Jesus.
The organization, currently headquartered in Indiana, now operates under the name “Sports World.” And these days it has plenty of company. Several similar fundamentalist proselytizers roam the country, seeking entree into public schools.
These groups share common tactics: They approach school officials with an offer of an engaging assembly on a topic that looks secular, such as suicide prevention, drug awareness or anti-bullying strategies.
Speakers may have scant credentials to address these topics. That’s not surprising, because they are really just fundamentalist evangelists looking for a way to preach to a captive public school audience.
The Becker Foundation is a good case in point. The group was founded by Keith Becker, whose younger brother was killed in a drunk-driving accident in 2005. Todd Becker, a high school senior at the time, was a passenger in car driven by another student, who was legally intoxicated when the wreck occurred.
Todd Becker’s fate is undeniably tragic, and Keith Becker, who converted to Christianity after his brother’s death, uses the tale for maximum emotional impact. But that’s not all the group does.
In a letter sent to Pastor Jenkins, the Becker Foundation was upfront about its desire to convert students to fundamentalism. The missive reads in part, “Following the actual assembly, students who are particularly impacted and in need of help or counsel are then, one-on-one shown the truth of scriptures and presented the truth of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ. We then provide the student with a Bible and other Christian reading materials.”
AU’s Legal Department promptly sent a letter to Wallace County school officials and followed up with a phone call to Superintendent Robert Young, who assured Americans United that he would tell the group not to preach to the students or attempt to lure them to an evangelistic service later in the day.
Young apparently followed through, but not all references to the evening revival were scrubbed. Jenkins noted that fliers promoting the religious service were posted all over the school.
AU attorneys considered the Wallace County matter closed – but they were aware that the flap in Sharon Springs was just a skirmish. Reports continued to filter in from the Midwest about Becker Foundation staff members preaching in public schools.
In its letter to the Becker Foundation, AU’s Khan and Smith warned Keith Becker that the organization must stop its improper evangelistic activities in public schools. Failure to do so, they cautioned, could result in legal action against the foundation as well as the schools.
The AU legal team cited a long line of court decisions that hold private entities liable when they knowingly join with government to bring about constitutional violations. Thus the Becker Foundation’s religious presentations in public schools violate church-state separation and could put the organization at legal risk.
“[We wish] to put you on notice,” said the AU letter, “that private, non-governmental entities such as the Todd Becker Foundation may be held legally liable for violating parents’ and students’ constitutional rights when acting jointly with a public school to present an assembly containing religious content.”
Attorneys for the Becker Foundation replied, insisting the group has done nothing wrong. Students do not have to attend its assemblies, attorney Jefferson Downing insisted, and the events that take place during the school day are free of religious content.
In response, AU noted that the Becker Foundation’s claim is belied by its own Web site. The site quotes the principal of a high school in Dawes County, Neb., who expressed discomfort over religious content in the presentation.
“The part that I thought was not in keeping with public education was the apparent religious ties,” wrote the principal. “I would have liked for that portion to be brought in at the evening meeting and not have it been at the complete student meeting during the school day. I felt uncomfortable with it and I know there were several other teachers who felt the same way.”
In addition, the Hitchcock County (Neb.) News ran a photo of a foundation staffer giving a presentation while standing in front of a video screen covered with Bible verses.
The Becker Foundation’s Web site also states that after its assemblies, students are offered an opportunity to meet with staff members and that these conversations often result in “sharing with the student the gospel of Jesus Christ and pointing them to a new life found in Christ.”
Americans United pointed out that the foundation’s Web site strongly suggests that these meetings are offered after presentations that take place during the school day.
AU’s dust-up with the Becker Foundation is not unique. Speakers from a range of organizations launch into evangelistic sermons in school. Others are more subtle, inviting students to what is described as a party that evening.
Young people may be lured with the promise of free food, games and even drawings for prizes. They may get those things – after they’ve sat through a fundamentalist sermon.
Sometimes dubbed “pizza evangelists” because of their predilection for offering free snacks to students, representatives from these ministries roam the nation, hitting public schools in one community and quickly moving on to the next.
Many of these organizations are adept at crafting messages that appeal to young people through the use of props, costumes and stunts.
One ministry, Commandos! USA based in Katy, Texas, purports to offer a program on the dangers of substance abuse led by performers dressed in quasi-military garb. But the emphasis is really on preaching. The group’s Web site brags that it seeks to “impart effectively the true meaning of God’s word” and quotes a passage from the Book of Psalms.
AU tangled with the Commandos! in February of 2008, advising a public school in Laredo to either cancel the presentation or make sure it remained free of religious content and pitches for after-school religious events. Officials chose to cancel the presentation.
Three other ministries – the Power Team, the Strength Team and Team Impact – use athletes who perform feats of strength such as ripping phone books in half and bending steel bars while lecturing on drug awareness and other topics.
The Power Team boasts that it practices “Family-Focused Evangelism” and says, “We bring the message of Christ in an energizing way to your community…. [W]e create a revival meeting atmosphere resulting in an awe-inspiring response. Hundreds, even thousands, give their lives to Christ during a typical crusade.”
Likewise, the Strength Team boasts that it offers “evangelism with a purpose” while Team Impact promises pastors, “With a Team Impact event, your church has the ability to impact your schools with this powerful message.”
Evangelist Rick Gage, based in Duluth, Ga., runs Go Tell Ministries, which purports to offer an anti-drug message in public schools. A former assistant football coach at Liberty University, Gage boasts on his Web site that he has spoken to more than two million public school students.
Gage is clear about his goals. His site reads, “He has led thousands of people – young and old, rich and poor of all ethnic backgrounds – to make personal decisions to live for Christ.”
There’s even a Minnesota-based ministry that uses hard rock music to reach teens. Called You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, the group frequently sends its band Junkyard Prophet into public schools.
One of its leaders recently said, “We are speaking to kids in our schools about the Constitution, suicide prevention and our own testimony of how Christ turned our lives around…so we can get the light into kids’ hands in public schools.”
You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, based in Annandale, Minn., has ties to the Republican Party in that state. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has twice helped the group raise money. In addition, ministry members attended the Minnesota GOP convention in April, and the Minnesota Independent reported that the band’s front man, Bradlee Dean, visited gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in his home.
Some moderates in the Minnesota GOP are alarmed. As the Independent reported, Dean holds extreme views. In May, he even seemed to praise hard-line Muslim nations for executing gays.
“Muslims are calling for the executions of homosexuals in America,” Dean said on a ministry radio show May 15. “This just shows you they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God, but they seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do, because these people are livid about enforcing their laws. They know homosexuality is an abomination.”
While most of the school evangelists aren’t this extreme, they don’t exactly try to hide what they’re up to. Their Web sites are rife with fundamentalist Christian testimony and appeals to sympathetic donors to help them proselytize. On a form filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the Dallas-based Power Team lists it purpose in just one word: evangelism.
The Becker Foundation’s Web site states it upfront: “Our desire is to impact students for eternity, not just for a few Friday nights,” it reads. “Thus, our sole purpose is to draw young people into a life changing relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Elsewhere on the site, Keith Becker writes, “As we travel around this state, our desire is that our efforts would result in this one thing: that young and old alike would turn their lives over, fully over, to Jesus Christ.”
The group also has some friends in high places. In February, it hosted a banquet in Kearney featuring Gigi Graham, daughter of famous evangelist Billy Graham, as its special guest speaker.
Despite this clear evangelistic intent, the foundation claims to have done presentations in nearly 150 Nebraska schools, all but a handful of them public schools. The group says its goal is to reach every school in the state.
Amazingly, some of these groups are able to persuade school officials to pay them. The Power Team, for example, instructs school officials to contact them “for pricing for your area.” A letter released by the Becker Foundation reads, “We do not charge the high school an actual fee; rather, they determine the expenses they are able to pay. We then raise the remaining expenses unpaid by the school. We rely on individuals and local churches to fund the message in their community.”
In Sharon Springs, a rural Kansas hamlet of about 800 near the Colorado border, the Becker Foundation’s foray has had lasting effects on Jenkins. The minister had been at odds with a faction of his congregation aligned with the Religious Right prior to the foundation’s appearance in town. His refusal to support the crusade pushed things to the breaking point, and they engineered his ouster.
Jenkins, 50, is currently living in Kansas City and plans to join the United Church of Christ. He hopes to find work serving as pastor of a UCC congregation. His run-in with the Todd Becker Foundation, Jenkins said, has been a learning experience for him – and he hopes it will be for the town as well.
“If that community had a Muslim group come in and wanted to do that type of presentation, they would have been up in arms,” observed Jenkins. “As long as it’s what some hold to strongly, they think it’s OK in the schools.
“If they’re really going to focus on evangelism, why not do it in a church?” he asks. “In a church there would be no problem. The fact that they do it in a school shows they are trying to reach a captive audience of kids who are compelled to attend.”
Despite the upheaval in his professional life, Jenkins has no regrets.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would,” Jenkins said. “I think this issue is important enough that it needs to be addressed.”
AU Legal Director Khan called on public school officials to exercise diligence when private organizations offer to put on assemblies. The Web sites of many of these groups, she said, make it clear that they are interested chiefly in evangelism. A little research, she said, can stave off possible legal action.
“When a group that openly proclaims to be a Christian ministry approaches a public school and offers to put on a program,” Khan said, “a little warning bell should go off in a principal’s head. It’s likely this group has ulterior motives.”