The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. Katherine Stewart (New York: Public Affairs, 2012). 290 pages. Hardback.
The Good News Club is an examination by Katherine Stewart of how “parachurch” organizations over the last several decades have sought to use public school facilities as meeting places for Christian students to assemble in club-like fashion in the same manner other student clubs assemble and pursue a group interest.
As the sub-title of the book indicates, Stewart is not an impartial observer. She chronicles an account of how Supreme Court rulings have changed the country’s legal understanding of the First Amendment so as to allow sectarian religious groups access to non-sectarian institutions such as the public school system. Stewart asserts this change as a decidedly negative and dangerous movement.
She regards the post-World War II years as a time when the courts reached a consensus: for the First Amendment protections to remain intact, it was important for the public schools to remain secular in nature, to avoid any and all coercive activities aimed at students (particularly vulnerable to peer pressure), and to agree that religious activities happening in a school would inevitably be seen as being condoned and promoted by the school, and thus they must not be allowed to take place on school property (p. 76).
Beginning with the admission of more conservative judges to the court (to wit, Thomas, O’Connor, Scalia), the above-described “steady state” was lost. In Stewart’s telling, the change came about by a strategic move by conservative Christian groups to frame their First Amendment protections under the free speech clause, and in this way argue that a Christian organization could not be disallowed on public school property for pre- or post-school activities lest their guaranteed free-speech rights be infringed. The key ruling came in 1996 in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in which the court ordered that Christian groups were allowed to meet “off hours” on public school grounds.
The chief antagonist in Stewart’s account is the parachurch group Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) and its plan to introduce a Good News Club in every public school. Typically meeting immediately after the close of the school day, the Good News Club follows a broadly evangelical approach to Christianity with the purpose of having Christian children in the school invite more and more of their friends to the club and become Christians themselves. Stewart reports her observations of how such clubs have led to discord and dissension in communities over the question of whether the public school should be used in this fashion.
While certainly partisan in her opposition to the access Christian congregations and parachurch groups have been given to public school property, Stewart does not write in a mean-spirited way. Though she focuses her account on the Good News Club, she does not believe that there is one agency of Christianity that is responsible for this effort. She also sees that other non-Christian groups have taken advantage of this access to public school property (see ch. 9).
However, Stewart does think there is a national movement at work to fundamentally alter the character of public schools so that they will no longer be secular. She writes in her conclusion: “The goal of the national movement behind the assault on public education is to turn America into a ‘Christian Nation.’ I am not worried that they might succeed. I am worried about the damage that they will cause when they fail, as I suspect they will in a society as inherently open and pluralistic as ours. And I am alarmed that we have allowed them to get so far so fast” (p. 257). Explaining how this shift from secular to sectarian has come about, she notes:
… the leaders of the religious assault on public education have learned to cloak their agenda in the language of liberalism and relativism. We are all children of the civil rights era now. We all agree that discrimination is bad. We all want to respect one another’s worldviews, and we all cherish the right to freedom of speech…. The judicial strategists of the Christian Right claim that all they want is “equal access” and “toleration.” But that isn’t in fact all they want. They don’t want equality; they want control. They don’t want toleration; they want the opportunity to practice their intolerance. They don’t want their religion to be included in the schools; they want the schools to be absorbed within their religion (p. 258).
I sincerely doubt that Stewart would recognize the irony in the above words, namely, that the “Christian Right” would use precisely the same language against the secular public school establishment, viewing it as a national movement striving for control not liberty, demonstrating intolerance of any view but its own, etc.
So where do we go from here? Lutheranism’s two kingdom framework in connection with its understanding of the two kinds of righteousness, all seen within a healthy sense of Christian vocation expressed in multiple venues of life, would seem to be a way to engage the conversation in a manner that seeks to avoid an adversarial beginning and a “tolerant vs. intolerant” stalemate.
The undersigned would commend church leaders to read The Good News Club as a tale of caution with regard to using the public school system as a target-rich environment for evangelism. Certainly the Great Commission moves us to seek all, including children, but Stewart presents anecdotal evidence of how, when done clumsily and unevangelically in the public school sphere, more harm than good can be the outcome. Though no friend to Christian outreach, Stewart may do us a favor in reminding us that there is a distinction between, on the one hand, seeing a mission field in the students who attend public schools and, on the other hand, viewing that public school system as something to be conquered for the church. The school district next door may face a similar conquest from a decidedly non-Christian force. Lord, have mercy, and Lord, use your people in all their vocations of your left and right hand kingdoms.
Charles W. Blanco
Associate Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Nebraska