The Religious Right's Plot To Take Control Of Our Public Schools

The Good News Club: The Stealth Assault on America’s Children by Katherine Stewart uncovers a right-wing conspiracy to infiltrate and destroy the nation’s public school system, using recent Supreme Court decisions as a lever. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s seen public school kids, perhaps their own, targeted for proselytizing by peers, teachers and adult volunteers. And for those who haven’t, it’s a wake-up call.  

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once wrote, “Religion is certainly a source of positive values, and we need as many positive values in the school as we can get.” It sounds benign. But what if the particular brand of religion is coercive, and in conflict with the teachings and values of the family of the students being targeted? It doesn’t matter. Because under the law as it stands now, evangelical churches have the right to gather, teach and proselytize in your neighborhood school.

Spiritual Warfare in Your Neighborhood

How did it come to this? If you haven’t personally observed today’s aggressive “spiritual warfare,” it may be difficult to imagine that young children are being taught that their school is a battlefield and they are the warriors who must save their classmates from themselves. With a remarkable amount of grace and restraint, Stewart describes the havoc in communities around the nation as initiatives to evangelize public school students have increased. The effect is always the same: the polarization that results when the Good News Club shows up inevitably disrupts the ability of parents and teachers to work cooperatively as a school community. And the resulting dissension and loss of trust in the schools, says Stewart, is exactly the result the right wing has in mind.

The religious right's big break was a 2001 Supreme Court case, The Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which unleashed a new wave of school evangelization. This decision essentially told schools they could not say no to church groups that wanted to use their facilities for after-school gatherings. Stewart describes “the new legal juggernaut of the Christian Right” —an army of legal advocacy groups, including the Alliance Defense Fund, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), Liberty Counsel, and others — that raise hundred of millions of dollars each year for the common goal of injecting stealth evangelism into public schools. They’ve spent the last 10 years figuring out how to use this decision as a wedge to maximize church control over school curricula, personnel and even the physical campus.

The spear point of this effort is the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), which was founded in 1937. For decades, CEF has run Good News Clubs — after-school Bible classes taught by church-trained mothers and pastors’ wives in suburban homes around the country. But the Supreme Court decision made it legal to bring these classes right into the schools; and the volunteers who teach them typically also volunteer as classroom aides, which gives them a mantle of school authority. To a primary-aged child, it looks as though this indoctrination is simply a part of the school curriculum.

Stewart cites CEF figures that claim to have set up Good News Clubs “in 3,410 schools -- up 728 percent since the 2001 Supreme Court decision.” The clubs are sponsored by local churches, which are encouraged to “Adopt a Public School” by CEF and others. And they are aiming to take the program to every public elementary school in the country over the next decade or so.

The court case is still celebrated on the CEF Web site with the words, “God has opened the doors of public schools to the Gospel! CEF is ready and eager to help churches enter the schools, fully equipped to share the Gospel and teach the Bible to school children and extend the biblical influence to families.”

Stewart explains how CEF has used this access to teach children to conduct “student-initiated” ideological warfare in school. Public schools are forced to distribute the club’s media and announcements to all students, and to allow tables with media at all kinds of school events. These tables are typically laden with balloons and sweets in order to draw kids in. The coercion extends from the playground to the classroom, so there’s nowhere non-evangelical kids can go to avoid classmates who are insisting — with support from adult aides — that they’re doomed to hell unless they join the club. According to Stewart, it’s hard to overstate the sense of confusion experienced by young Catholic, Mormon, mainstream Protestant, Jewish, and non-theist children when adult authority figures in their school promote a particular sectarian belief, often while actively denigrating and contradicting the worldview they’re being taught at home.

The 4/14 Window

CEF is just one of an array of organizations targeting children in an international evangelizing effort called the “4/14 Window," aimed at children from four to 14 years old. Stewart’s book points out that this infiltration is a well-orchestrated effort conducted by a “small number of influential actors.” With a few exceptions, noted by the author, the organizations involved teach a literal interpretation of the Bible, and “see their efforts in the schools as a part of a plan to bring the nation’s children back to its founding religion and thereby lay the basis for a Christian control of all the important parts of government and society.”

The push to infiltrate social institutions is promoted by a theology called Dominionism, which originated in Christian Reconstructionism and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), but is now spreading rapidly across the right wing of the evangelical world. The NAR has simplified the theology into a campaign to gain Christian control over the "seven mountains" of American culture: family, business, media, education, religion, goverment, and the arts. The Good News Club is a leading initiative to achieve domination on the education front.

As a researcher and writer working to defend religious pluralism and secular democracy, I often stress the difference between those with conservative religious beliefs and those who are determined to force those beliefs on the state and everyone else. Stewart also makes the clear distinction between Christian conservatives, the Christian Right, and Christian Nationalists. “All conservatives who are also Christians are not members of the Christian Right,” she writes. “And many supporters of the Christian Right are not Christian Nationalist. However, to a degree that many social conservatives fail to appreciate, it is the Christian Nationalists who are driving the agenda in the public schools.” The people Stewart repeatedly encountered in her research often fell into the latter group, which is the most extreme and dangerous faction of the religious right.

“To take over the world, focus on the youth”

Stewart attended trainings and conferences to learn more about how these activities are being coordinated. She describes a CEF conference keynoted by attorney Matthew Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel and one of the leading forces defending church access to public schools and other publicly funded venues in the name of “religious freedom.” Staver makes it clear that he’s on a war footing. Stewart quotes his keynote address: “If you want to ultimately take over the world, how are you going to do it when you have limited time and limited resources?...The best way to do it, and anyone who studies warfare [knows] you focus on the most strategic part of the human chain link...You focus on youth.”

“Knock down all the doors, all of the barriers, to all of the 65,000-plus elementary schools in the country and take the gospel to this open mission field now! Not later, Now!”

The battle to evangelize other people’s children is justified by a dualist worldview that sees every aspect of life as part of a cosmic battle between the forces of Jesus and Satan. Staver describes young children as the “strategic link,” in winning the war. Throughout the book, Stewart highlights the single-minded focus of those leading these ministries to children, and their unwavering belief that what they are doing is holy — despite the deep and lasting damage it will do to the children, families, schools, and communities they target. If the upshot of this infiltration is that the community turns its back on the school, that’s considered a bonus.

After all, many CEF teachers and supporters don’t send their kids to public schools anyway. They prefer to send their own kids to Christian academies, or homeschool them — even while they’re devoting many hours each week to infiltrating and undermining their local public schools.

Targeting the Upper Grades

While much of the book is dedicated to Stewart’s extensive tracking of CEF’s work in elementary schools, she also describes other tactics being used to reach middle and high school students as well. These include efforts to alter curriculum in public schools to reflect a Christian Nationalist worldivew, as seen in the recent battles over social studies guidelines in Texas schools. Other avenues include abstinence-only, substance abuse and anti-drunk driving educational programs.

One of the movement's big cash cows is “character” or “moral” education programs, which can include church-written curriculum delivered by church-trained instructors, motivational assembly speakers with a Christianized message, or Christian rock bands -- which the schools pay a hefty sum for. These programs are a commonly used foothold into high schools, one that’s become so common it has been given a nickname: pizza evangelism.

When the School House Becomes a Church

And it’s not enough just to co-opt the social atmosphere and the curriculum. The new Supreme Court rulings have forced schools to hand over their buildings to churches as well. Thousands of churches across the country now take over public school facilities on weekends, usually without paying anything more than a custodial fee to the district for the use of their multi-million dollar campuses. This allows these churches to start new congregations in communities where they wouldn’t otherwise be viable or affordable. Liberal, urban schools are hardly exempt: Stewart describes school-based churches in Seattle and Santa Barbara, and estimates that one-fifth of all New York City schools now harbor churches as well — almost all of them conservative and evangelical.

This trend has some unanticipated consequences that might not occur to the casual observer. The “ex-gay” Exodus International Church set up shop in one of Manhattan’s “most liberal and gay-friendly neighborhoods.“ Another church plant installed a complete communications network — including a satellite dish on the roof — in open defiance of the principal, who had repeatedly denied them permission to do this. And there’s no legal way the principal can throw them out for this.

From Cult Leaders to Theocrats

The church planted across the street from Stewart’s house in Manhattan — the school her daughter attends — was a part of the Every Nation network, formerly called Morning Star. Every Nation is a New Apostolic network of ministries founded by former leaders of Maranatha Campus Ministries, an international ministry disbanded after years of bad press about its authoritarian and cult-like practices. Maranatha's founder, Bob Weiner, later became one of the elite “apostles” in C. Peter Wagner’s International Coalition of Apostles.

Wagner was a key player in well-orchestrated efforts to evangelize as much of the world as possible prior to the year 2000. Many current sophisticated initiatives and coordinated efforts to access specific populations around the world are a continuation of that global effort, part of which survived as a movement dubbed by Wagner as the “New Apostolic Reformation.” (Sarah Palin is perhaps the movement’s most famous protege.)

NAR’s mission is to break down denominational divides and unite all of the world’s evangelical churches under the dictatorial authority of their chosen “apostles” and “prophets.” The goal is to take full Christian “dominion” over society in order to bring about Jesus’ return. Although NAR is only a part of the American Christian Dominionist scene, it provides a large and important window into the dualistic and aggressive nature of today’s Christian Nationalism.

A glimpse of NAR’s approach to the indoctrination of children could be seen in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, nominated for an Academy Award. The movie was widely criticized by evangelical leaders for using scare tactics and focusing on a “fringe” children’s camp.  However, the featured leaders in the film, Becky Fischer and Lou Engle, are both part of the same apostolic network (Harvest International Ministries of Che Ahn), and Engle has since become one of the most powerful and politically well-connected leaders in today’s Religious Right. So it’s not an overstatement to say that the people who brought you Jesus Camp are now trying to take over your neighborhood school.

In regards to NAR, there is one minor correction to the book that should be noted. Every Nation is indeed a New Apostolic network, but another church mentioned later in the book as part of NAR is not. Life Challenge Church in Odessa is a United Pentecostal Church and belongs to a Pentecostal denomination. I point this out because Stewart mentions that the women of the church favored long skirts and had very long hair. Typically, NAR leaders do not dress in a particularly conservative manner, and in fact defy common stereotypes of the Religious Right. They usually preach in casual attire, including worn blue jeans, and youth leaders are often heavily tattooed and pierced.

But that quibble aside, Stewart has written a powerful and compelling book that should be read by anyone who doubts the current threat to separation of church and state. She leaves no doubt that the religious right is on a long-term crusade to undermine secular public education — and the cruel irony is that those ideologically opposed to public education are using the very openness and democratic nature of these public facilities to advance their own agendas.

Stewart writes: “Back home, I glance out the window at the bright red door across the street. Henceforth, I realize, I will have to accept that on Sundays my daughter’s public school, the furniture that the PTA contributions helped buy, and my daughter’s smiling photograph will be turned over to a group that is dedicated at its core to destroying public education in America. I remind myself that the school will be ours again on Monday. But the truth is, I don’t really believe in that door anymore.”  

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