The Good News Club

The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children


By Katherine Stewart

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In 2009, the Good News Club came to the public elementary school where journalist Katherine Stewart sent her children. The Club, which is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, bills itself as an after-school program of “Bible study.” But Stewart soon discovered that the Club’s real mission is to convert children to fundamentalist Christianity and encourage them to proselytize to their “unchurched” peers, all the while promoting the natural but false impression among the children that its activities are endorsed by the school.

Astonished to discover that the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed this — and other forms of religious activity in public schools — legal, Stewart set off on an investigative journey to dozens of cities and towns across the nation to document the impact. In this book she demonstrates that there is more religion in America’s public schools today than there has been for the past 100 years. The movement driving this agenda is stealthy. It is aggressive. It has our children in its sights. And its ultimate aim is to destroy the system of public education as we know it.


Praise for The Good News Club:
"Stewart treats all sides fairly because she cares about factual and contextual accuracy. There is no doubt, however, that she is dismayed at the spread of the Good News Club movement. Each reader will need to decide whether the dismay is warranted."—Seattle Times
"Even those well-versed in the religious right's attempt to Christianize American institutions will likely be shocked by The Good News Club. Katherine Stewart's book about the fundamentalist assault on public education is lucid, alarming, and very important."—Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
"A powerful exposé."—Shelf Awareness
"Good News Clubs aren't good news for everyone, as Katherine Stewart makes clear in an exposé of how some evangelical groups are using public schools to—as they might put it—reclaim America for Christ."—The American Jewish World
"Please read this book, talk about it, tweet about it, recommend it to friends, review it on Amazon, name and shame the culprits, do everything possible to bring Katherine Stewart's shocking message to the attention of everyone in America. Legions of zealous, born-again volunteers descend on innocent schoolchildren, take over their school buildings (officially after school hours), enlisting the children themselves to infect other children. Because of a legal technicality, they are allowed to use school premises after school to run their 'club.' But little children have no obvious way to distinguish the real teachers who properly belong to their school from the evangelists who swarm in, bearing tempting treats, the moment school officially finishes for the day. The loathsome tactic of setting child against child, corrupting young minds to go on and corrupt other young minds, indeed terrify them with threats of hell, is despicable. Not only do these 'Good News Clubs' set child against child, they poison the whole atmosphere of a school, dividing parent from parent and teacher from teacher, causing friction and distress where previously there had been educationally productive harmony."—Richard Dawkins
"Stewart's book . . . investigates a specific brand of after-school bible study programs (called 'Good News Clubs') that have proliferated across the country. . . . In addition to examining the ramifications for the separation of church and state, [Stewart] lays out in great detail how these clubs use deception to attract families, how they divide communities and generally run counter to everything a public school is supposed to stand for. And as Stewart recently told NEA Today, it's easy to draw a straight line between Good News Clubs and the political networks intent on dismantling public education."—National Education Association, NEA Today
"Without doubt this 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."—Ed Doerr, Free Inquiry Magazine
"Solid reporting. . . . Compelling investigative journalism about an under-covered phenomenon."—Kirkus Reviews
"Deep reporting and a keen sense of the larger picture."—Kathryn Joyce, author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption
"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."—AlterNet
"Katherine Stewart's riveting investigation takes us inside the world of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, a sprawling organization that aims not just to evangelize America's schoolchildren, but with the help of lawyers and policymakers, to dismantle the separation of church and state."—Sarah Posner, author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters
"Stewart is not an atheist. She doesn't go into this story telling the reader how awful religion is. She shows us how awful abuse of religious power is. . . . The book does not read like a report of a fact-finding mission, but more like the story your neighbor will tell you over a cup of tea. [It] does not give a solution to this frightening phenomenon of religious indoctrination coming to public schools, but forewarned is forearmed. The main weapon of the Good News Club is their innocent façade. The more people know the truth, the sooner this façade is broken and maybe, just maybe, they can be stopped. Read the book. And be prepared to lose some sleep."—The Friendly Atheist
"The reason the world perked up and paid attention to Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906 is the same reason that the world should now, 105 years later, snap to attention and read Katherine Stewart's latest nonfiction book, The Good News Club: it awakens us to something we may previously have known nothing about, but which is under our noses every day, is active in our communities nonstop, and is potentially damaging to us all, and well into the future, too, if gone unnoticed."—DBC Reads
"In this probing piece of investigative journalism, Katherine Stewart blows the lid off Child Evangelism Fellowship's stealth plan to lure America's youngest children into hardcore fundamentalist Christianity. . . . You may find this book disturbing—I did—but above all, it should spur you to stand up against those who ignore parents' rights and persist in viewing public schools as a 'mission field' for a narrow and often exclusionary version of faith."—The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State
"If you want to understand the impending culture war over faith and education, read this bracing little book. You may be shocked at what you find."—Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University
"[Katherine] Stewart first notices these odd little happy Christian clubs popping up in her child's schools, and then she digs deeper: she talks to their representatives. She attends their conventions. She takes their training courses. She sees precisely what they're doing, and gets the words straight from their mouths: they're out to convert every child in the world to their hateful, narrow, 'Bible-believing' dogma, even while in public they claim to be ecumenical and kind and loving."—PZ Myers, Pharyngula
"As [Stewart] has ably documented, the movement by militant fundamentalists to compromise the religious neutrality of our schools, and to disrespect and disparage other faiths, has gained steam and threatens the religious liberty of us all."—Al Menendez, Americans for Religious Liberty
"The most refreshing thing about this book is it doesn't end with the expected doomsday scenario describing what horrible things will happen if we don't all spring into action to stop this threat immediately. Instead, the author says she believes this movement will ultimately fail, as its true nature is revealed and it runs up against the more moderate majority of citizens. May this be God's will."—Twin Cities Jewfolk
"Stewart's book is impressive in scope and painstakingly researched. These clubs should be of concern to everyone—not just atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and liberal Christians, all of whom would be targeted by the CEF to be 'counseled for Salvation'—but to anyone who values the idea that government and religion should be kept separate."—Kansas City Star
"Ms. Stewart's investigative reporting and stylish writing makes for a gripping and frightening read."—Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell, executive director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
"[I]t seems to have happened so fast that I somehow missed all the church/state opinions that have permitted the evangelical right to claim legality as it invades the public school. Hence, my gratitude to Katherine Stewart even if I come late to the party. The Good News Club offers a wealth of information and insight, written clearly and responsibly. My confession of ignorance is further grounds for recommending it, since I suspect that I am not alone."—The Humanist
"[A] fascinating exposé. . . . The author is a great digger for facts and a respectful narrator as she . . . investigates crusading evangelical religious missions disguised as innocuous after-school programs, beginning with one at the public elementary school where her children were enrolled in Santa Barbara, California."—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"[A] fascinating exposé. . . . The author is a great digger for facts and a respectful narrator as she . . . investigates crusading evangelical religious missions disguised as innocuous after-school programs, beginning with one at the public elementary school where her children were enrolled in Santa Barbara, California."—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Stewart chronicles just how divisive the infusion of religion—in the form of proselytizing Good News Clubs, school building rentals to church groups, and axe-grinding school textbook committees—can be. And although many of these activities are represented as emerging from grass-roots community demand, Stewart exposes a much more coordinated effort."—The Boston Globe

For my family

THIS BOOK HAD its beginnings in one of those events that at first seems too small to matter, until suddenly it becomes too big to ignore. When a program called the "Good News Club" showed up on a roster of after-school activities at my daughter's public elementary school in Santa Barbara, California, I didn't give it much thought. The Club advertised itself as a nondenominational "Bible study" program for children of kindergarten age and older, and it required parental consent for children to participate. I soon found out, however, that the Good News Club is very different from what it appears to be. More importantly, I discovered that the Club is really just one small part of a much larger story that should be of concern to anyone who cares about the future of public education—or indeed the future of secular democracy—in the United States.
We have been told, mostly by religious conservatives, that US public schools are devoid of religion. Following the Supreme Court decisions concerning school prayer in the 1960s, the usual story goes, God was kicked out of the classroom. I believe that this story grossly misrepresents reality. In conducting research for this book, I traveled to dozens of cities and towns across the country. I visited regions famous for their piety, like west Texas and Alabama, and others known for the opposite, like Seattle and New York City. Everywhere I found religion-driven programs and initiatives inserting themselves into public school systems with unprecedented force and unexpected consequences. I saw student athletic programs turned into vehicles for religious recruiting. I attended services at a dozen of the hundreds of school facilities that double as taxpayer-financed houses of worship. I heard the stories of children who have been subject to proselytizing in classrooms and school yards, and I spoke with other children who have been instructed to proselytize their friends at school. I met with school board officials who are busy rewriting textbook standards to conform to their own religious agendas. I interviewed the people promoting and attending "Bible Study" courses that turned out to be programs of sectarian indoctrination. And I sat in on training sessions with instructors for the Good News Club, which now operates in nearly 3,500 public elementary schools around the country. Today, there is more religious activity in American public schools than there has been for the past 100 years.
Like the Good News Club that appeared one day in my California town, many of the religious initiatives in public schools present themselves as spontaneous expressions of faith by members of local communities. But they are not. The labor behind the initiatives may be local, but the ideas, the money, and the legal firepower that make them possible are national. The movement is coordinated and given strategic direction by extremely well financed groups whose leaders write the scripts that are followed in classrooms, playgrounds, and courtrooms from New York to California. Some of the most powerful forces in public education today are groups that you may never have heard of—the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), and other conservative legal groups—that, with combined budgets totaling over $100 million per year, have masterminded the religious assault on public education.
Many religions are represented to some degree in initiatives that have inserted themselves in public schools, but evangelical Christianity accounts for the overwhelming majority of the programs. Although the evangelical programs often present themselves as nondenominational, they tend to represent a very conservative, even fundamentalist form of religion. Most of the activists I met believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God; that conversion to their form of faith is the only path to salvation; and that they are engaged in a daily struggle with Satan. They also believe that most people who call themselves Christian are not. Many of them are confident that United Methodists, liberal Congregationalists, US Episcopalians, the "wrong kind" of Presbyterians,1 and Roman Catholics, for example, will not be among the saved.
The largest and most active programs at work in the public schools are associated with groups that should be called Christian Nationalists. These groups maintain that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that it is the right of Christians to take it back. They 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 Christian control of all the important parts of government and society. Many of the activists I met believe that the United States has a special role to play in preparing for the imminent end of the world. Of course, many social conservatives who are also Christians are not members of the Christian Right, and many supporters of the Christian Right are not Christian Nationalists; 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.
In my research, I was surprised to see, over and over again, that one of the distinguishing features of the public school initiatives involving religion—and one of the reasons they have failed to attract the attention they should—is that they rely on misdirection and deceit. Programs that advertise themselves as Bible "study" from a historical or nondenominational perspective, for example, routinely turn out to be thinly disguised sectarian training. Programs presented as initiatives arising from students are instead conceived, coordinated, and funded by adults who may live in a different state. Programs that were described to school administrators and legal staff as entirely independent of the schools in which they operate turn around and seek to convey exactly the opposite message to the children who participate in them. Programs that reassure parents that their aim is to reinforce the religion of their families make it part of their mission to convert children to beliefs that differ from those of their parents. Programs that ostensibly limit their attention to students whose parents have explicitly permitted their participation seek to use those students to reach the children of parents who have not given their consent.
Although the programs aim at all age groups, a surprising number are directed at the very young—children in the first years of school. Among many of the modern missionary groups, it is now accepted wisdom that the most fruitful targets of conversion efforts are children between the ages of four and fourteen—a cohort that they refer to as "the 4/14 Window." Schools are especially attractive because small children are easily swayed by representatives of authority, such as teachers and school officials, and typically can't distinguish between schoolteachers and the people who teach them in school classrooms after hours.
I was surprised to discover that the damage caused by these initiatives did not always take the form one might expect. In the usual narratives about religion in the schools, the unstated premise is that the religious activity in question represents the will of a majority, and minorities within the community are harmed. But in many instances, the programs enter the schools from outside the community altogether, and are at odds with it from the beginning. And, while minorities frequently bear a special burden, the greatest harm often falls on the school and its populace in general. The insertion of programs with blatantly sectarian agendas into public schools causes intense conflict among formerly harmonious groups of parents, students, and school staff. It imposes a substantial and inappropriate burden on school administrators and teachers. Communities that once rallied around the school begin to withdraw their support. And representatives of all religious groups—including those that sought to insert themselves in the schools in the first place—feel unfairly treated. In short, these initiatives produce precisely the kind of undesirable outcomes that always result when individual sects within pluralistic societies attempt to commandeer common resources for their own purposes.
It would be nice to believe that this cost to the community and to public education is an unintended by-product of efforts by religious groups to express their views. With respect to the Christian Nationalist groups most closely and intensively involved in school programs, however, such a comforting assumption would be inaccurate. Here was perhaps the greatest surprise for me in my research, and the most important reason for writing this book. The activists with whom I met, by and large, see the weakening of support for public education as a desirable side effect or even a goal of their work. Indeed, the national groups most active in supporting religious initiatives in public schools see our system of public education as a bad thing. These are the same groups that sponsor efforts to undermine, defund, and perhaps ultimately destroy the system altogether. If they can't "break down the doors" to the public schools, as some of them describe their efforts, they will be happy just to break the schools.
It is often difficult for people who are not close to this movement to accept that its aims with respect to public education are so destructive. And yet if one simply listens to what the leaders of the movement say and take them at their word, that is clearly the case. In 1979, Jerry Falwell made the agenda transparent: "I hope to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we don't have public schools," he said. "The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them."2 Robert Thoburn, a member of the Council for National Policy—a "little-known group of the most powerful conservatives in the country" according to the New Yorker—repeated the message a few years later: "I imagine every Christian would agree that we need to remove the humanism from the public schools. There is only one way to accomplish this: to abolish the public schools." He urged Christians to run for school boards wherever possible, explaining that "Your goal must be to sink the ship."3 The founder of the influential and deeply conservative megachurch, Coral Ridge Ministries (recently renamed Truth in Action Ministries), D. James Kennedy, continued the drumbeat of hostilities against public schools, asserting that "the modern, public education system was begun in an effort to deliver children from the Christian religion," and alleging that "our public education system has been engaged in a virtual act of war on America and has placed the very survival of this nation at risk."4
As my research progressed, I found myself asking how the present level of involvement of religion in public schools is possible in the United States, given our vaunted separation of church and state. There are many complicated answers that stretch back through history and across contemporary society, politics, and culture. And then there is one simple answer that covers much of the same ground: the Supreme Court. We have been told for a long time, mostly by conservatives, that activist judges are necessarily liberals, and that these activist liberal judges took God out of the schools. In fact, it was the collective wisdom of the American people, not the arbitrary mandates of judges, that secularized US schools, mainly because we discovered over long and bitter experience that introducing sectarian agendas into public schools is divisive and unsustainable. Conversely, it has been activist judges of a conservative stripe who are in large measure responsible for, in effect, legislating the mandatory inclusion of religious programming in the schools. The Good News Club was a comparatively small operation until 2001, when the Supreme Court all but made it law that every school should have one. There were few churches operating rent-free in New York City's public schools until the courts handed down a related set of decisions that all but required that every school building in the city should become a house of worship on Sunday.
Religious nationalism has now become part of American political theater, and we take notice of it mostly during election campaigns. When it shows up in our backyard, in our schools and local communities, we reach instinctively for our First Amendment, interpreting the whole matter in terms of whose rights are being respected and whose feelings are being hurt. The most important issue before us, however, is not just a question of the rights or feelings of individuals. The fact is that there is a movement in our midst that rejects the values of inclusivity and diversity, a movement that seeks to undermine the foundations of modern secular democracy. It has set its sights on destroying the system of public education—and it is succeeding. Unless we confront that fact directly, we may well keep our rights but lose the system of education that has long served as the silent pillar of our democracy.

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother.
MATTHEW 10:34–35
THE BALLARD NEIGHBORHOOD evolved as the center of Seattle's ethnically Scandinavian seafaring community, its inhabitants originally lured to the area by salmon-fishing opportunities. From the sky, it is a straightforward grid of tree-lined streets with neat rows of wood-and-brick homes. It is populated with lawyers and graphic designers, government workers and engineers, and, above all, the kind of families that value welcoming backyards and good schools.
It's hard not to notice the abundance of churches. Local lore has it that the Scandinavian immigrants built so many saloons that the town elders, in a bid to allow salvation to keep pace with sin, mandated the construction of a church for every new bar. If you query Google for its churches, the map of Ballard lights up with forty-one bright red dots. In the Loyal Heights neighborhood alone—the neighborhood where more than two hundred youngsters attend the Loyal Heights Elementary School—there are fifteen Christian houses of worship.
The arrival of the Good News Club in Loyal Heights is a tale of two of these churches. Both take a great interest in the religious instruction of the young people in their communities. One of them has followed the time-honored path of encouraging parents to bring their school-age children to a house of worship. The other, pushing through the door opened by the Supreme Court in its 2001 decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, decided to bring the church to the school.
RICH LANG, THE pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, is a solidly built man with wide-set hazel eyes and a full beard. He speaks in a reassuring baritone that still carries the flat vowels of his Midwestern origins. On this brisk fall day, he drapes his ecclesial white-and-purple robe over a fuzzy sweater and pleated khaki trousers before describing the circumstances that put him on his path to faith.
He was born in the deep end of life, with nothing to hold on to. His father was an alcoholic and his mother married five times. The divorces began when he was in kindergarten. He spent first grade in an orphanage. "My father couldn't handle kids," he explains, "and my mother's new husband didn't want us around." His high school years drifted by in a haze of mescaline, hash, Quaaludes—anything that took him out of his pain.
At nineteen, he underwent a drugs-to-Jesus conversion, and everything changed. "If you had a video camera that day, all you would have seen [was] a long-haired, skinny kid, weeping, and twenty minutes later he would get off his knees. There was a huge emotional purging, a tearful dump, all of it wrapped in prayer, asking Jesus to help me. At that moment I lost the will to get high. It was lifted from me. It was very powerful, and I knew I had to get to a church."
He started delving into his faith at the conservative Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, and very soon he became, in his own words, a "Christian fundamentalist." But his spiritual path took him to new and different places—to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and ultimately to a more moderate worldview, "theocentric and Christocentric, but not afraid of questions, not afraid of the world," he says. "It was a godsend. I never lost my faith, but it was there at Trinity that I gave up fundamentalism, that I realized it was a dead-end road." In 1983, he got married, and he is now the father of two sons.


On Sale
Jan 24, 2012
Page Count
304 pages

Katherine Stewart

About the Author

Katherine Stewart was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She started her career in journalism working for investigative reporter Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and contributed to Newsweek International, the New York Observer, and Rolling Stone, among others. She cowrote the book about the musical Rent and, after moving to Santa Barbara in 2005, published two novels about 21st-century parenting. She is the author of The Good News Club (PublicAffairs, 2012), an investigative book about public education and religious fundamentalism in America. Most recently she has written for the New York Times, the Nation, the Atlantic, and the Guardian.

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