Going door to door, risking that each knock will be met with rejection, right wing evangelical Christians have gotten frustrated with the slow pace of recruitment to their beliefs. They needed a new tactic to fill their pews and the easiest targets for indoctrination are young children who don’t yet have the capacity to question whether they are being manipulated. So, the best place to find impressionable minds is in schools. There are thousands of parochial schools across the country where parents send their children to have an education that blends religion with reading, writing, and arithmetic. But this wasn’t good enough for the Christian Right; they needed to cast a much wider net. This is how the “Good News Club” came into being.
Ostensibly, an after-school club, the organization, sponsored by the international ministry of Child Evangelism Fellowship, is actually a foothold into the public schools to begin a base of evangelizing Christian beliefs, particularly fundamentalist beliefs, to youth. What are the beliefs that the “Good News Clubs” want children to adopt? According the author of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children,” Katherine Stewart, they endorse the Bible as a literal and infallible word of God, teach that conversion to their own version of Christianity is the only path to salvation, while other types of Christians are not actually Christian, and they heavily emphasize the role of Satan in everyday life. One anecdote shared by Katherine Stewart in her book is instructive of how the “Good News Clubs,” treat children of other faiths. A Catholic boy had a brother die, and he told a leader at a club that his brother was an angel in heaven. This women stated, “I had to tell him that no, his brother was not an angel in heaven…I could see the look in this boy’s eyes. He was just devastated.” This was because he wasn’t “saved.”
Public schools are supposed to provide a secular environment where children are free from indoctrination into religious ministry. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that after-school activities must be open to religious groups alongside any other group, and by 2010, there were 3,439 “Good News Clubs” in public schools across the country. This seems reasonable enough for a group of Christian students to do Bible study or Muslim students to meet for discussions of Islam. They even have to have parent permission for children to participate. However, “Good News Clubs” have a coordinated national alliance of religious organizations behind them with more than just a self-contained student club on their agenda. They want their version of Christianity to be spread far and wide to susceptible children. They use all of the tactics one would expect to draw in vulnerable youth including offering candy and cookies. Mathew Staver, a leader of the club initiative and President of Liberty Counsel, has written: “Classrooms are full of unchurched children waiting to hear about a Savior who loves them and forgives sin.” Clearly, the group isn’t limiting its reach to current believers, but instead intends to evangelize to other children who are not believers in their faith. Indeed, the clubs teach the children who attend to go out and recruit other children to their meetings. According to Katherine Stewart, “Parents have reported many instances in which children tell playmates of other faiths that they will go to hell.”
But they don’t stop there. The clubs know the power of authority over children between the ages of four and fourteen, even calling this time period, “The 4/14 Window.” To blur the lines between academic educators and the religious educators in “Good News Clubs,” the proponents of these organizations have a scheme. They encourage the adult leaders of the clubs to volunteer during the day in classrooms so that they are ever-present in the lives of the children. Going a step further, they have encouraged public teachers to lead the “Good News Clubs,” a situation which resulted in a court case in South Dakota. At first, the courts realized that having a public school teacher endorse a particular set of beliefs in her own school would be problematic, so they ruled that she would have to lead a “Good News Club” at a school other than the one where she teaches. But another court overturned that initial ruling and went ahead and allowed this teacher to evangelize right in the same school where she teaches. These efforts are all part of the club’s founders’ strategy to give the group the legitimacy that being associated with school affords, since children don’t differentiate between when adults are teaching secular versus sectarian information.
The goal of making their brand of Christianity dominate the public sphere isn’t limited to public schools. The forces behind the “Good News Club” are Christian nationalist or dominionist in nature, believing that the United States should be a Christian nation, run by Christians, including the government. Some of the organizations behind the spread of “Good News Clubs” include the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the Liberty Counsel, the Council for National Policy, and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), among others. They have up to $100 million in their war chest to ensure that they can infiltrate public schools with impunity. These same organizations fund actions that work to insert Christianity into virtually every realm of public life. While working to penetrate school systems, these Christian nationalist groups are also working overtime to undermine public schools as a whole, readily admitting that their goal is to “sink the ship.” Claiming that public schools are an affront to Christianity, these groups encourage fundamentalist Christians to get elected to school boards where they can make decisions that actively harm public schools. Where the clubs have come into school districts, they have frequently been the source of major conflict among parents, taking a previously inclusive, harmonious environment to a hostile, divisive one.
Katherine Miller’s book on the “Good News Club” is an excellent source of research on this threat to public schools. It isn’t completely clear how concerned individuals can act given that the courts including the Supreme Court have repeatedly shown favor to these evangelizers. At this point, an important first step may be to simply make people aware of how this encroachment of right-wing, fundamentalist beliefs into our allegedly secular, neutral public schools is occurring.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.