The Christian Right Wants to 'Partner' with Public Schools - Here's Why That's Such a Problem
Late this past summer, I received a robocall from my child's public school. I listened, confused, as a school official invited families to a local Evangelical church for a carnival-type event. The official referred to the church as a “partner” with the school, which led me to wonder: what does a church / public school “partnership” actually mean? From my own experience having grown up in Evangelicalism, I knew that the priority of converting people to Christianity supersedes all other serving efforts and parameters around them. What I didn't know was how calculated the efforts of some Evangelical organizations are.
This particular church has been heavily involved in my child's school for years, providing tutoring and donations and volunteers for school events—support that's needed and appreciated in a cash-strapped district. But on their website, the church laid out their partnership with the school in a way that I found alarming, even offensive. There were prayer walk videos and other testimonial videos shot from inside of the school that used inflammatory and false statistics about the school and combined them with volunteer narratives in order to promote the program and encourage church members to join.
After a similar scenario happened at her child's school, Katherine Stewart quite literally wrote the book on the Christian Right's mobilization within public schools. “The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children” lays out just how calculated and funded these efforts are. I talked with Stewart via email about Christian privilege, nationalism, and how Betsy Devos might potentially impact these efforts.
Kathi Valeii: I grew up in Christian Fundamentalism, so nothing in your behind the scenes reporting was particularly surprising - the battle narratives, the hellfire urgency - even the "Be a missionary every day" song is still a ditty that gets stuck in my head some days. These were all things I grew up hearing. What did shock me, though, was the calculated funding of these attacks on public schools. It's an interesting juxtaposition - the Christian Right's persecution narrative laid against their very privileged and powerful agendas and legal teams to back them. How does Christian privilege play into what's happening, here, and why is it important to acknowledge that privilege in talking about Evangelicals' presence in public schools?
Katherine Stewart: One reason why it is important to acknowledge the privilege of evangelicals in their attacks on public schools is because they are, as a matter of fact, the only religious group that can get away with it on any type of scale. This has been tested on the ground. When Islamic groups attempt to distribute Korans in public schools on the same terms as Christian groups distributing Bibles, or when Humanists or Satanists attempt to run after-school clubs on the same terms as Good News Clubs, or members of the Kabbalah Center try to offer “character education” programs in public schools as conservative Christians do, they are invariably blocked.
There is a deeper insight at work, though. Persecution narratives and privilege go hand in hand throughout history. You’ll find few louder complaints of martyrdom at the hands of “fanatic liberals” than among the defenders of white supremacy. Promoters of slavery in the American South really thought they were the victims, even as they organized brutal systems of oppression.
The persecution narrative can be a very effective tool in silencing critics, and evangelical Christians have used it to their advantage in the courts and elsewhere. But it is more than that. I believe the sense of persecution is very often also a projection of one’s own anxieties before the unacknowledged consciousness of undeserved privilege.
The point you bring up about funding is, if anything, even more important. The evangelical world is a fountain of dollars for those who know how to work it. Just look at the wealth of Prosperity Gospel preachers like Joel Osteen, or the hefty budgets of policy and legal advocacy groups of the Religious Right. Many make big money by raking in small donations through various marketing efforts. Protecting this source of money, and growing it through calculated provocations, is of the essence of the game.
KV: When I read the account in your book about the people in Green shirts passing out popsicles, my eyebrows shot up. We have Red shirts in my community, who come in droves every summer to hand out popsicles and proselytize in our city's core neighborhoods. I've noticed that those efforts basically mimic missionary drop-in vacations, replete with exploiting (mostly Brown and Black) residents in order to affirm the white experience. In my child's school these same white savior syndrome tendencies are present in the way the "partner" church has promoted their program. Did you notice anything similar in your research?
KS: Some of the Good News Club leaders whose trainings I attended were focused on “saving” the “inner cities” and “urban schools.” I attended a seminar, titled “Understanding and Reaching Out to the Hispanic Child,” led by the director of the organization’s Spanish ministry. Good News Club teachers were offered tips on how to establish Clubs in Latino neighborhoods in order to wean the children from the supposedly heretical, “unfinished” Catholicism of their families. The director told us a story of how she was able to establish a Good News Club in a particularly resistant neighborhood; I gathered she was able to succeed because she engaged in a certain kind of subterfuge about the nature of her activities.
“Don’t tell them right away we’re not a Catholic club… If you say that, they’re not going to come!” she said. “We say in our class that we’re not a religion. Because we’re not! We’re just sharing the gospel. And the Holy Spirit will work on their hearts.”
During the seminar, this director repeated disparaging stereotypes about Latinos such as, “One thing in the Hispanic community is it is really hard for them to understand the concept of time.” She posited that Latino parents work multiple jobs “in order to keep up with all the materialistic things that they want. They really need to keep up with the new culture. They have to blend in!”
I also attended a Child Evangelism Fellowship training in which the teacher instructed us in the use of the Bible story of Naaman, an Israeli slave, to children attending in Good News Clubs.
“She had been captured and taken away from her family, but she wasn’t angry or bitter or rebellious,” the teacher said approvingly. “She loved her masters! She wanted to help them out!”
That said, it would be a mistake to overlook the CEF’s effort to become less white. They, like many Christian Nationalist groups, are featuring people of color prominently on the podiums of their conventions and forming partnerships with racially diverse churches — provided they conform to the “correct” theology.
This new inclusiveness just means that the lines of demarcation between inside and outside, between “pure” and “impure,” are defined by religion rather than skin color. Those lines are patrolled with as much fury as ever. One keynote speaker at the National Convention of the Child Evangelism Fellowship wrote a book in which he sought to redefine the term “interracial marriage,” and asserted that it should pertain to unions between Christians and members of other faith groups. Such “interracial unions,” he wrote, are to be condemned.
KV: In your book, you use the word "Christian Nationalist" to describe the people working to infiltrate the public school system with conversion-style programs. In the current political climate, this language feels particularly relevant. Why do you think this language choice is important?
KS: Christian nationalism has been around for a couple centuries. But starting in the 1970s it took on a new and much more virulent form. Many people saw it coming. I think of Michelle Goldberg’s 2006, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, a prescient look at the development of politicized evangelical religion. Other writers before her, such as Frederick Clarkson, who wrote Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, have been on the case even longer.
But many others have until recently downplayed the rise of Christian Nationalism as merely a “cultural” phenomenon, or a manifestation of certain social attitudes. I believe that this is in part because the discussion of religion and politics is, frankly, awkward. It would be a much nicer world if we could simply allow one another to carry on in our personal beliefs and approach policy questions without regard to that private world.
Today, however, a certain variety of politicized religion in America wants to rewrite our history, upend our constitutional principles, and take us “back” to a time that never actually existed. We can no longer afford to ignore it. With the rise of Trump, I think we can say definitively that Christian Nationalism is first and foremost a political ideology. It is deeply authoritarian, it is determined, and it has put the future of democracy in peril.
When Christian Nationalists say they wish to “take our country back,” they are not being hyperbolic; they are being honest. They have told us that they abhor our public schools, and that they pray for the day such schools cease to exist. Leaders of Christian Nationalists’ judicial strategy have told us that they want to eradicate the “so-called’ wall of separation between church and state, and that the time has come to return our schools to the Lord. They are telling us what they really think, and we should listen to them now, before it is too late.
KV: The last chapter of your book is titled, "If you can't own it break it." You explain the paradox of of the Christian Right's desires to be actively involved in the public schools and simultaneously dismantle them, which basically also sums up the position of Education Secretary Betsy Devos. How do you see her leadership role affecting the further erosion of the practical separation of church and state in our public schools?
KS: Betsy DeVos has historically funded two things with equal generosity: the religious right on the one hand, and the privatization efforts of public education on the other. The reason for that is straightforward: she, like many members of the extreme end of the conservative movement, believes in both economic libertarianism and religious fundamentalism, and she sees them as being grounded in each other and mutually reinforcing. The idea is that if you turn schools over to to the genuinely “free market,” they will inculcate the “correct” religious values in students. And there won’t be a need to worry about the separation of church and state, because they will be the same thing.
The astonishing thing about DeVos is just how much contempt she exudes for the public schools that she is charged with overseeing. When Trump insulted “our failing government schools,” you can be sure that the sentiment chimed with her own beliefs. She rarely loses an opportunity to say that the system isn’t working, that the schools are failing, that they are losing ground, and so on. She seems to make a point of minimizing contact with the people most closely connected with traditional public schools. On a recent visit to Florida, she was criticized for visiting a private school, a charter school, and a voucher school, but no traditional public schools. This attitude is a clear prelude to destructive policy moves.