Katherine Stewart: The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children

November 11, 2013

Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, presents a special episode recorded before a live audience at the 2013 CFI Summit in Tacoma, Washington, with new co-host Lindsay Beyerstein.

The fundamentalist, Christian right’s influence and impact on our schools and the educating of our children is the subject of the new book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. Its author, Katherine Stewart, is our guest on this edition of Point of Inquiry, available in both video and audio.

What are these “Good News Clubs” and what is their influence on schools across the nation? Evolution and sex education are just two of the avenues these religious organizations are using to inject their brand of far-right Christianity (and Judaism and Scientology, surprisingly) into our public schools.

Stewart has published two novels about 21st century journalism, written freelance for such publications as Newsweek International, Rolling Stone, The New York Observer, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Bloomberg View and Religion Dispatches.

Next week we’ll bring you another episode of Point of Inquiry, as co-host Josh Zepps interviews Bill Nye the Science Guy!

This is point of inquiry for Monday, November 11th, 2013. 

Hello and welcome to this very special live issue of point of inquiry. I’m here with the distinguished journalist Catherine Stewart. 

And as Joe Nicole would say, she has a book and it is called The Good News Club The Christian Right Self Assault on America’s Children. And my first question for you is, so who are these people? Who is behind this? Who are the Christian right? 

Who are the Christian right? Well, the book is about good news clubs. And it’s a there are these clubs in public elementary schools that are sponsored by an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship. It’s an organization that represents fundamentalist form of evangelical Christianity. 

And I actually thought about for the top title instead of saying the Christian right, saying the fundamentalist assault on public education, I’m I’m sorry, the fundamentalist assault on America’s children. But I think there was the feeling at the publishing house that people wouldn’t understand what kind of fundamentalism we were talking about here. The term Christian right is is problematic, in my view. There are many people who were Christian in America and who also happened to fall on the right sort of, you know, consider themselves right wing politically who are not a part of this movement. 

The movement that I write about in my book is really about a group that is fundamentalist and they also represent a kind of Christian nationalism, a vision of America as a so-called Christian nation as defined by them. And so they are, to a large extent, are the sector that is behind a lot of the religious initiatives in public schools today. Now, there are some other religious villages that are represented among the groups that are trying to infiltrate public education in Chapter nine of my book. I believe it’s chapter yet. Chapter nine of my book, I wrote about a program that was sponsored by the Kabbalah Center religion, which was the place to sort of character education program. And one of the public elementary schools that my daughter attended. But to a very large extent, it is these very conservative evangelical groups that are sort of inserting their programs in the public schools. 

I think it’s very interesting. You write in the book that the religious right likes to claim, and many liberals also believe that they are reclaiming religiosity in the public school system, that according to their vision of the world, the American public school system was very religious until the early 60s when the Supreme Court wrenched all that away. 

What’s wrong with that picture? Well, there’s a lot that’s wrong with that picture. Certainly when public when schools began, you know, in the colonial days, each community, you know, was tended to be fairly religiously homogenous. As you all know, there were a lot of different Christian denominations love different Protestant denominations in America. But communities tended to be fairly uniform. So as long as those communities and their churches within them were running the schools, their form of the Christian religion could be taught without much controversy. But as soon as the there was a sort of common school movement, the what form of the Protestant religion became an area of much controversy in the early 19th century when the common school movement started gaining force. The Congregationalists in Massachusetts quickly seized control of the public schools, and the Unitarians and Baptists were upset about this. There were other Protestant denominations that had established communities in America to Catholics. There were Episcopalians, German, reformed, Lutheran. And so what form of religion was going to be tons? And the schools became a subject of much debate and much controversy. And Horace Mann, who founded the public schools. 

He actually made a decision that the schools should be what he called nonsectarian, which is to say that he thought they should teach in common Protestant values, which he is a Unitarian thought would not be divisive at all. So it was a kind of very nonsectarian within the. It was like pande sectarianism within the partizan faith rather than genuinely nonsectarian. 

And this proved workable for a number of decades until Catholics started to immigrate to America in large numbers. And at that point, there was just enormous conflict over religion and public schools. 

People fought and died in the streets over what for whether the Catholic version of the Bible could be read in Philadelphia. There was, though, a move to early school. 

Reformers anticipated that sectarian conflict could bring down the entire project. Public education. Exactly. 

You know, I grew up in Boston and in Boston. Catholic children were forbidden to read from their version of the Bible and in their churches, they were told, you must not read from the Protestant Bible. And it was a little boy named Thomas Wall who refused to read from the Protestant Bible, the King James version, when his teacher instructed him to. And he was beaten for 30 minutes, 30 minutes. 

And the next day, 400 boys at his school, Elliott School, walked out in protest. This is called the Elliott School Rebellion. 

And based on this incident, as one of the incidents that prompted the formation of the parochial school system, Catholic parochial school system at that time, it’s really important to note when Catholics started to immigrate to America, public school textbooks were filled with racist characterizations of Catholics and sort of vile descriptions of the pope and Catholicism. 

So it became very contentious. And I think what we can learn from our history is that when public schools in a diverse area promote one form of religion, the results are really detrimental not only to community cohesion, but to education itself. 

And you saw that in your own reporting in terms of the social fabric, when these evangelical programs have come in and you start seeing bullying and sectarian conflict in the present there. 

It’s interesting, not far from here as a community right outside of Seattle called Loyal Heights, as you know, religiously diverse community. And chapter one of my book. Describe what happened to this very harmonious community when a good news club came to the public elementary school there. And one of the dads said this very sad thing to me, said, you know, before we were all loyal Heitz parents together, you know, all coming together in support of our kids. And now you walk in the playground and you’re a Christian. You’re the wrong kind of Christian. You’re a Jew, you’re a Buddhist, you’re an atheist. The injection of a particular form of religion in the public schools divides people and makes people start to look at each other as other rather than as parents together in this common project of supporting our, you know, our children and their future. 

He spoke so well today about the good news clubs and that he’ll be able that will be available on YouTube. I want to focus on a different major theme from your book, and that’s abstinence only sex education. And you make a really interesting point about abstinence only sex education, that the Christian right went from trying to ban or suppress sex ed in schools to hijacking it as their own form of evangelism. You talk a bit about that. 

Well, it is since actually, you know, hundreds of millions, if not over a billion dollars, has gone to support these abstinence until marriage, sex education programs that deliver a religiously driven overlay of values and judgments. And so to advance this idea that there is only really one way to have an intimate life. 

And that they put off, you know, portrayed this idea that any kind of sex outside the marital bed is dangerous and harmful and shameful, particularly for women. But I understand you’ve had your own experience exploring some of these programs. I want to hear about that as well. 

Abstinence only education has kind of fallen out of the national media since Obama cut the funding to it. And I haven’t really given it much thought since the Bush administration where you get these headlines about, you know, 200 million dollars in 2006 going to. Going to support abstinence only education, and I hadn’t really thought about it very much, but then I was on assignment for two weeks in the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, about eight miles from the U.S. Mexico border. And I was working on a reproductive rights story that I can’t talk too much about right now. It’s in press. Are you still in the reporting stages? But I, I. It involved interviewing a lot of sex educators and a lot of teen parents. And there are a lot of teen parents in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Two out of every five Latina girls will become mothers or get pregnant before they’re 20 years old. And I started talking to some of these girls. We went out for pizza with a bunch of friends of mine, a journalism student, translator, fixer. And we’re just talking about, you know, their lives. One girls, 19 years old, and she had three kids and they were all graduates of either abstinence only or abstinence plus public education in the Texas school system. And it just shocked me. I was utterly shocked and I was shocked when I talked to second sex educators and Planned Parenthood and community activists who are saying, you know, we always bring parents to the puberty education classes. And one of the things we noticed was that we’re getting as much feedback from parents as from the kids saying, you know, nobody’s ever taught me accurate sex education before. 

And it just really opened my eyes. And so I want to ask you, can you expand on the difference from what we call a comprehensive sex ed or medically accurate sex ed and abstinence only? 

Well, this abstinence only sex ed posits the idea that the only way to have responsible sexual activity is if you’re in the context of a marriage and doesn’t teach really about birth control or the avoidance of Bestfoods, this sort of, you know, protected sex. Did you find that that was what was being taught in your program? 

And they were very much they were guy graduates mostly of. I think it’s called making the best choice or choose not for the better or something, something like that. And that’s a program that’s taught in a lot of schools in Texas and elsewhere. It’s a beneficiary of federal funding. And I noticed that it seemed to be perpetuating a lot of very sexy stereotypes. I mean, I didn’t see that the kids repeating those back to me particularly. But when I got curious about the programs are looking it up online, I noticed that it was recycling a lot of really retrograde ideas about gender. And when you hear what you found, oh, you looked at I was really shocked because they had these interviews with these wholesome looking teens. And the message about choosing for the best was from girl from boys was, well, there, the girls you date and the girls you married. And the reason that you should abstain from sex until marriage was that they sort of paid lip service to it. So you won’t get pregnant, so you won’t get sex diseases. That was a term that they used. But really, the reason that you were supposed to abstain from sex until marriage was because especially if you were a girl, it would make you a dirty, damaged, sick person that nobody would want to or nobody would love and nobody would respect that you would be. It was the sort of essentialist narrative in terms of in terms of the curriculum. And I was just really shocked that this was being taught in public schools. 

So there is this message of sexual disgust that’s conveyed in a lot of the a lot of the classroom activities. Can you tell everyone about the cheesy cup story? Oh, I find it. I actually wrote about a number of these students. I warn you guys, it’s just really gross. 

Oh, do I have to read it? Well, you read it. I’ll read it. 

They buy a page. I’ll read it. This is this is an exercise paid for by the U.S. taxpayer dollars. This is supposed to teach kids something important about love and life and relationships and purity. And it involves essentially back washing Cheez Doodles, washing shoes, doodles. 

Okay, I’m going to find it. This very Lynn actually in his book reported this particular exercise right here. 

Yeah. Boys and girls are invited to chew cheese flavored snacks and then sip some water, after which they’re you spit the resulting bodily fluids into a cup after a game in which the fluids are combined with those of other students. Ultimately, all the cups are poured into a pitcher labeled multiple partners sitting adjacent to a pitcher of water labeled pure fluids. Anybody getting Dr. Strangelove references here? In the final segment, each boy and girl is asked to fill a cup labeled either future husband or future wife with the contents from one or the other of the pitchers. 

It’s amazing cause these programs they actually do educate represent. Representative Henry Waxman did a study of abstinence only sex education programs and found that 80. Of the data that was reported, these programs, it was either flat out, flat out false or misleading. What are some of your favorite examples of factually misleading or pseudoscientific claims in these abstinence only curricula? Well, I did see some curricula that spread the myth that AIDS can be spread through saliva, things like that. But, you know, more important than any factual you know, some of them are more factually accurate than others. Some of them really just kind of deliver a judge mental overlay about the right way to have sex, which is always in the context of heterosexual marriage. But more than that, I think what they really are accurate at doing is giving kids the idea that there is a, quote, right group in society, one with all the answers and one that has this sort of endorsement of the public school and a wrong group, which is everyone else. 

I think my favorite example of pseudoscience in the abstinence only curriculum from your book was a program called Wonderful Days, which endorsed the rhythm method. You can’t make this stuff up. How can you give us a sense of the scale of abstinence only education? Or you said a billion dollars has been poured into it. How many kids are getting abstinence only messaging every day? 

Well, it’s declined significantly under. The Obama administration has cut off funding for it, although there was a 50 million dollar rider attached to the Affordable Health Care Act at one point. I’m not sure whether that’s still attached to it. But at one point, a rider, you know, setting aside 50 million dollars, was attached to that Affordable Care Act. 

This turned out to be a real cash cow for some pretty marginal groups. 

It’s interesting because once the money sort of abstinence until marriage programs does represent a significant percentage of the money that has flowed into sort of from secular organizations, into faith based organizations. And once the money comes in, it’s very difficult to track where it actually goes. 

I noticed that when I was doing reporting during the Bush administration, looking at the 1990s of some of these organizations, their tax forms that they have to file as nonprofits, you’d see one hundred thousand dollars go in and you just see, you know, a thousand dollar account of other spending. Where are you focusing exclusively on abstinence programs and where you focusing on other kinds of non-profits? Well, it was abstinence and then there was sort of a constellation because there were the maternity group homes that went along with that and various other kinds of Christian organizations that they weren’t very scrupulous about in delineating exactly which function was what and what was religious and what was secular. And they didn’t really have to. Which I find ironic because Planned Parenthood and other reproductive choice organizations that have anything to do with abortion have to be scrupulously careful that nothing in the family planning arm of their operations is organizationally attached in any way to any part of the abortion baam of Planned Parenthood’s activities. It’s a real double standard. 

It’s really interesting. Right. You know, in my book about, you know, a wide range of religious initiatives in public schools and I hear from people all across the country about new initiatives that I didn’t know about before. And I’ve heard a gentleman in Florida who ran a tutoring business whose sole purpose was really to tutor kids who need extra help. 

He told me that he was being priced out and, you know, underbid by these faith based groups that have gotten into the tutoring business. And the real reason, the real purpose is not to, you know, teach kids. It’s really to evangelize that that all takes place after school. But he says that he can’t compete because he has to pay his different tax requirements, different kinds of reporting requirements. And some of the faith based groups that are getting in are getting favorable treatment because they offer sort of getting tax dollars to create this curriculum. You know, just one story that I heard. So I’m not really I don’t want to certain anything about what what they’re getting. But it’s remarkable that the expansion of faith based initiatives is diverting a lot of money from kind of secular non-profits and organizations into faith based. And then it’s very hard, of course, to figure out where the money goes. 

I think that’s one of the great underreported investigative stories, is, you know, exactly where all this faith based money went because it seemed to sort of disappear into this morass. You couldn’t really tell what was going on, on the tax forms. 

You know, it’s interesting that abstinence only education isn’t the only kind of religious initiative in the school that comes in purporting to teach kids about these valuable topics like, you know, health and other other religious groups that, you know, come into the schools to teach about anti-bullying programs or drunk driving programs or, you know, don’t do drugs and health self-esteem and that kind of stuff. And the power team, the strength team, there are all these different groups with these sort of fabulous secular sounding names that come into the schools with these programs like musclemen shows and magic shows sometimes sometimes even rock bands. And the idea is to teach kids about, you know, how to live in a responsible, healthy way. But once they get into the schools, it becomes really clear that the real aim is not to teach the kids about drunk driving or, you know, anti-bullying. The real aim is to convert kids to their form of religion. And that can include things like Scientology as well as conventional religion. Indeed, I wrote about in my book one of the other religious organizations I write about is the Scientologists. They had a group called Narconon. They were coming into the public schools to teach about drug addiction. Actually, they were running, I believe, from drug treatment centers, in addition. And they kind of ran into some trouble in the L.A. area. They were shut down eventually. I think people were fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea that the Scientologists were coming into the schools and trying to teach their kids how to live responsible lives. 

But I find it’s really interesting. I don’t think Tom Cruise is a model when when it’s religious minority groups like the Scientologists or the Kabbalah Center or Wickens or, you know, these other groups that are trying to Wickens trying to get into the public school system. Well, I. A woman in West Virginia was Wiccan who saw religious distribution in her kids public school, so she said, OK, I’m going to distribute some Wiccan literature. And I face sort of said, no, you can’t do that. And I believe she went to Americans United and said, well, you’ve opened the forum. So you have to treat, you know, my religion on a par with the other religions. But when when groups generally try to do, you know, exert their rights, these, you know, minority religious groups try to assert their rights in the same way that the majority groups do, there tend to be shut down, if not by law, than by convention. I want to give you a couple of examples. There was a lot of Gideon’s Bible distribution in Miami, Oklahoma, and Muslim family said, OK, well, you know, kids came home with Bibles, so we’re going to distribute Korans in the school. Well, you can imagine how that went down. Another example, did they get so much hate? Now their server crashed with that. No, but they did get they did get, you know, hate mail. 

And it made them fear for their lives. Which group was it that got so much hate mail? Oh, they’re around alternative religious initiative that their servers crashed. 

There was a group trying to distribute a couple of Camp Quest folks who are trying to distribute information about Camp Quest because there was all this information going home, living as a government, as a humanist, can’t. Yes. And the vacation Bible camp fliers were going home and they said, okay, we’ll distribute Camp Quest fliers. And they were told no. And they said, well, actually, you have to let us do this because you opened the forum and they were able to do it, even though a lot of teachers sort of threw the fliers in the trash bin. And then the one with limited distribution, they were able to accomplish that. The school got so much hate mail, the server crashed. 

Wow. That’s really stark. Another thing I noticed in the book that was really interesting was essentially there’s a parasitic infection of the New York City school system every Sunday by evangelical churches. And I live across the street from my public school. I had no idea this was going on. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Well, it’s interesting. That issue is really a subject right now, too. It’s a subject of a lot of controversy. And the Caite case has been wending its way through the courts. You know, it’s still very much active in the courts. But I was surprised to learn when I moved, we moved from Santa Barbara to New York City and we lived literally across the street from our kids public school. And I was shocked once I to look out of my door and see that there was no church service taking place in our kids public school. So I actually decided to attend the church service and see what it was all about. And, you know, I was really astonished. I was in the auditorium, which was filled with kids names and pieces of pictures, and their kids had done their artwork and they could be targeted for evangelism. Well, no, but this is what we are. We are kids did as part of the school. They put up their artwork and they made poster of those of themselves and put their their images and names are filling the hallways. This is just part of their projects. But people at the church were actually instructed to take notice of those names and prey on those children. And I thought, this is astonishing. I am mandated by law. 

I send my kids to this public school where their images and names will get involved in the religious activities of a of a group that, you know, believes that that we are going to hell. And it just was kind of astonishing to me. Another time, my little boy, at that point, he was in kindergarten and they wanted to do a a musical performance. So we’re all in the auditorium. And we were all facing these kids and they were facing us. 

And the backdrop of this show behind us was the posters of the churches and their signage and the posters for their mission projects. And I thought, what great advertising for them. They store their posters and their signage in the auditorium where everybody can see it. Now, McDonald’s isn’t allowed to come into my kid’s public school and leave, you know, McDonald’s banners around. So why is this church somehow allowed to involve itself in the life of our kids public schools? I want to mention, by the way, these this church did not pay a penny of rent to the Department of Education. They just paid a small fee to the custodians union that partially covered the cost of servicing the rooms after they used them. Now, you know, they call that rent. That’s not rent. That’s like me squatting in an apartment building and hiring a housekeeper. But stiffing the landlord and saying, well, I’m paying rent. I paid the housekeeper. That’s not rent and. Church was using our kids public school up to four days a week, you know, after hours and other public churches that have been planted in New York City, public schools have done things like candy distribution. 

One was found distributing hot chocolate to the kids during school hours in the schoolyard and then inviting the children to come to the church at their school, distributing fliers and posters. So the New York City Department of Ed is actually very upset about this state of affairs, these churches that are using the public schools without paying a cent of rent, and that this this issue is still being fought out on the value of what they’re getting in New York City. 

Everything revolves around the state. And you describe in the book some of these churches that are using thousand seat auditoriums in public schools because they’re getting tons of churches in New York City. 

I mean, tons and tons of churches. 

I went to one public school, P.S. three, where there was an anti-gay ministry being run out of a church that was planted in that public school, by the way, public schools in the West Village. If you can imagine, that’s part of it is on Christopher Street. I don’t know if you know. So anyway, there was an issue with community sensibilities known nationally. So there is a church that’s planted at that pastry on Christopher Street. And one of the women said, oh, we used to rent space in a church. But, you know, this is just free. So, you know, this is just so much cheaper than even renting space in a church. I want to tell you something funny. I know we’re running over, so I’ll stop really soon. But I published an op ed in The New York Times about this issue. You know, I heard from I heard from church about this sort of paradoxical thing where you have these churches planted rent free in public schools. These church churches contacted me and real estate agents for churches contacted me and said, you know, we’ve got space. We’d like to rent out to these churches that are occupying the schools. How can you put us in touch with them? Now, it’s like they don’t want to be in your church. I’m sorry. They want to be in the public school because there is a it’s free and be much more than that. They want to be in the public schools because of the association naturale association with the school community and the proximity to kids. And I think what this gets to the overall reach, the overriding theme I discovered in my book and we can end with that, is that religious fundamentalists want to be in the public schools because they want to, quote, take back the public schools and repurpose them with a fundamentalist Christian agenda. 

Young children cannot distinguish between an activity that takes place in their public school and one that is endorsed by their public school. They think if something happens in the school, it must have the stamp of state authority must be what the school wants them to believe. It must be what they should believe. As parents, we tell our children how important it is to study hard and to do well in school and to respect their teachers and respect the institution of their school. And that’s why fundamentalists want to be in the schools. And that’s why these good news clubs, nearly 4000 of them nationwide, are so intent on getting their programs in the public schools. Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s such a pleasure. 


Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.