The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, by Katherine Stewart (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2012, ISBN-13:978-58648-843-7) 291 pp., $25.99.
Without doubt, The Good News Club is one of the most important books to appear this year. In it, investigative reporter Katherine Stewart exposes the staggeringly serious under-the-radar tsunami of attacks on American children, public education, and church-state separation. But first, permit me to discuss the title that I have given my review of her book.
“Invasion of the Soul Snatchers” is the title of two articles I published nearly three decades ago in Voice of Reason, the journal of Americans for Religious Liberty, and The Humanist. In them, I showed that the Protestant hegemony in our public schools had been broken and that religious freedom and church-state had been advanced by the Supreme Court in the 1948 McCollum ruling, the 1962–63 school prayer decisions, the 1980 Ten Commandments display case, and the defeat of all attempts in Congress to reinstate school-sponsored prayer by amending the Constitution.
In the wake of these developments, evangelical religious Right activists struck back by infiltrating public schools through such outfits as Young Life, Youth for Christ’s Campus Life, Campus Crusade for Christ’s Student Venture, High School Huddle, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. By the early 1980s, about 4,500 adult missionaries from these groups were bootlegging fundamentalist religion into about 10 percent of our country’s high schools, according to a report in Education Week.
Writing in The Humanist in 1984, I warned that Congress’s then-pending “equal access” legislation, pushed by Jerry Falwell’s misnamed Moral Majority and similar forces on the religious Right, would pose new threats of unprecedented magnitude. Since the mid-1980s, the malignant invasion of the soul snatchers has metastasized. Stewart’s book lays it all out in fine documented detail. She traveled from coast to coast, interviewed “invader” activists, attended their conferences, and studied their operations.
The 1984 Equal Access Act unleashed the invaders. Good News Clubs (GNCs), sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF, which should not be confused with the other CEF, Citizens for Education Freedom, an older outfit dedicated to getting tax support for sectarian private schools and to undermining public education). Behind the GNC movement is the “4–14 window” theory, the idea of using after-school “equal access” clubs in public schools to indoctrinate children ages four to fourteen and then using them for “peer to peer evangelizing” of other children.
This is no peanut-sized operation. Stewart shows that the budget for the GNC’s legal advocacy groups dwarfs that of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Not only do the GNCs use the after-school clubs to indoctrinate kids, but cooperating evangelical congregations are encouraged to rent space—for peanuts—in public schools for Sunday services in lieu of acquiring separate facilities. Many kids then come to regard their public school as a sort of adjunct to a church.
And this is happening not just in the boonies in Alabama; it is happening in New York City, in Manhattan, only blocks from the New York Ethical Society and the headquarters of the ACLU. As this column is being written, the New York State legislature is considering bills to allow churches to hold services in public schools, in response to a June 2011 U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that was forcing the schools to close their doors to church use on April 12 of this year. If this is happening in the heart of the largest, most secular city in the United States, one can only imagine where else this invasion is taking place.
But Stewart’s investigation doesn’t end there. She also examines the powerful lawyers’ shops run by the religious Right to defend the soul-snatcher invasion; the religious Right organizations and individuals behind the invasion; the attempts to get “creationism” into public school science classes; the Texas textbook wars; the use of “biblical literacy” classes and sexuality/abstinence education to infiltrate public schools; and the relentless school voucher and homeschooling movements that are undermining and eroding support for democratic, religiously neutral public education.
So, what to do? First of all, read this book and share it with friends and neighbors. Second, do not expect the courts to miraculously come to the rescue; the Supreme Court pretty much dodged the issue in the 2001 ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, written by Clarence Thomas. Third, recognize that the invasion of the soul snatchers is almost entirely an effort by the evangelical religious Right that should offend the overwhelming majority of Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Unitarians, humanists, and others.
But the invasion is not unstoppable. Parents need to find out what organizations are allowed to use the schools their children attend and what the rules are governing such use. If there is religious Right activity of any sort going on, parents should explore and discuss the matter at a neighborhood or parent-teacher organization meeting, remembering that these invasions are offensive to most parents across the spectrum of religious persuasions. Then parents of varying persuasions, perhaps augmented by equally concerned ministers, priests, and rabbis, should meet quietly with school officials (principal, superintendent, school board) to discuss action. I have personally been involved in such actions, successfully.
We are talking about your children and grandchildren, the public schools your taxes are paying for, and the church-state separation principal that is supposed to guarantee everyone’s religious freedom.