By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
Christian soldiers have been marching off to war and elementary school is the battleground. Writer Katherine Stewart’s book, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” provides the disturbing evidence.
The Good News Clubs are after-school programs, sponsored by evangelical Christians, in elementary schools across America. Stewart begins her narrative by describing how the 2001 arrival of a Good News Club in Seattle’s Loyal Height’s Elementary School splintered the community and created enduring angst.
Some parents reacted by removing their children from the school. Stewart quotes one dispirited parent as saying:
‘“Before, we were all Loyal Heights parents together,’ sighs Rockne. ‘Now we’re divided into groups and labels: you’re a Christian; you’re the wrong kind of Christian; you’re a Jew; you’re an atheist.’”
The wrong kind of Christians include all New Age churches, United Methodists, Congregationalists, Catholics, and Episcopalians. We Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims can just forget about it.
The episode in Seattle conjures images of the 19th-century religious riots in America.
Horace Mann, a Unitarian, became Massachusetts’s secretary of education in 1837. He resolved the conflicts around religious ideology being taught in school by restricting religious teachings to commonly shared Protestant values.
Stewart informs about the result:
“Representatives of a number of sects immediately and vigorously attacked him, but large majorities agreed with this policy, and it soon became the norm in the ‘common school,’ or public school, movement.”
“Common school textbooks at the time were filled with racist characterizations of the Irish, and the Pope and his clergy were described as ‘libertine, debauched, corrupt, wicked, immoral, profligate, indolent, slothful, bigoted, parasitical, greedy, illiterate, hypocritical, and pagan,’ according to … Professor of History, David Nasaw.”
Of course, the growing immigrant Catholic population did not like it.
- In 1844 religious riots broke out in Philadelphia.
- In 1859 Boston had its turn for rioting. A Catholic boy refused to recite the Protestant version of the 10 commandments and was beaten for thirty minutes.
- In 1869 a Bible War raged in Cincinnati when the school board tried to assuage sectarian conflict by banning reading the Protestant Bible in school.
Stewart apprises her readers of how seriously America’s leaders took these disputes:
“In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant declared that if a new civil war were to erupt, it would be fought not across the Mason-Dixon Line but at the door of the common schoolhouse.”
Stewart says concerns over religion in public schools continued growing and prompted another Grant speech in 1876:
‘“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions,’ he said. ‘Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.’”
Great landmark decisions on the relationship between religion and school were decided by the Supreme Court in the 1962 and 1963 with eight to one decisions banning formal prayer in school. Stewart observes that these decisions received three votes from the four conservative judges on the panel. She explains the reasoning:
“This approach drew principally upon the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which, according to Thomas Jefferson’s interpretation, erects ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”
Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia Tear Down that Wall
The evangelical Christian movement gained prominence beginning with Jerry Falwell’s moral majority in 1979 and the arrival of in 1977 of Pat Robertson’s 700-Club on ABC. These two movements developed large followings and generated huge sums of money. A significant portion of that money was spent on legal activism.
Stewart quotes Clarence Darrow who is famous for among other things representing John Scopes in Tennessee’s “monkey trial.” Darrow declared:
“I knew that education was in danger from the source that has always hampered it – religious fanaticism.”
In the same vein, when discussing the legal strategy of the Christian right, Stewart asserts:
“It is an attempt to use the principles of tolerance to secure a place for intolerance, discrimination and religious bigotry in the public schools and elsewhere.”
A significant figure in the tearing down of the separation of church and state is Jay Sekulow, who as general counsel for the “Jews for Jesus” began arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Sekulow was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn. He converted to evangelical Christianity while attending Atlanta Baptist College (now Mercer University).
In 1990, Pat Robertson brought Sekulow together with a few other lawyers to form the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Stewart conveys:
“The new outfit lined up alongside the Liberty Counsel, which was founded in 1989 by Mathew and Anita Staver and became affiliated with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in 2004. In 1994, the Alliance Defense Fund, or ADF, added its name to the growing roster of Christian legal defense organizations with the backing of a group that reads like a Who’s Who of the new Christian Right: Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ; D. James Kennedy, founder of Coral Ridge Ministries; Larry Burkett, founder of Christian Financial Concepts; James Dobson, founder of Focus on Family; Marlin Maddoux, President of International Christian Media; Donald Wildmon, founder of American Family Association; and more than two dozen other prominent Christian ministries and organizations.”
In 2001, this massive legal artillery succeeded in undermining the separation of church and state most significantly with its victory in Good News Club v. Milford Central School. The upstate New York K-12 school denied a Good News Club’s application to run an after-school club. The denial was based on school policy and concerns about violating the Establishment clause. Stewart laid out the history and arguments for this case and concluded:
“The explosion of school-based church-planting in New York and across the nation that began in 2002 did not reflect a spontaneous eruption of religious enthusiasm. It was simply the direct consequence of the Supreme Court’ decision in the case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School in 2001. An alien visitor to planet First Amendment could be forgiven for summarizing the entire story thus: Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, together with a few fellow travelers on the Supreme Court and their friends in the ADF and ACLJ, got together and ordered that the United States should establish a nationwide network of evangelical churches housed in taxpayer-financed school facilities.”
On Sunday Morning in San Diego, California if you are driving up Genesee Avenue toward the University Town Center mall you will pass the Grace City church. Most residents would think of it as University City High School, but starting in 2015 it became the domain of an evangelical Christian sect on Sundays.
Originally proposed in 1962, bonds to build University City High School were not passed until 1976. Legal roadblocks delayed the construction until 1980. The schools web site concludes its history of the school’s founding:
“In September 1981, the school opened. Twenty years of effort finally bore fruit. In every phase of the battle, the crucial factor to success was the willingness of the concerned, active and involved University City community who gave time, effort and money to carry the project through to its successful conclusion. A grassroots effort to build a community high school resulted in the beautiful, well-equipped complex.”
It is certain that many of the community residents who worked for and paid for University City High School would be shocked that the facility is now in regular use to advance a particular religious sect. Even more disturbing, that sect did not originate from within the community but was “planted” by non-resident proselytizing evangelicals.
Grace City’s founding family is Randall Tonini who served in the Compassion Christian Church of Savannah, Georgia and his wife Laura who met Randall at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee. Johnson University is a private Christian University. They left Savannah to come to San Diego on a religious mission.
The Grace City web presence states, “We are a part of a larger network of churches planted with the partnership of Stadia to bring the Gospel throughout San Diego County.”
Stadia’s “who we are” statement proclaims:
“Stadia began in the fall of 2003, when leaders of the Northern California Evangelistic Association (NCEA) met with leaders of the Church Development Fund (CDF) to create a nationwide church planting organization called Stadia. Since then, Stadia and our partners have planted almost 289+ U.S. churches and 189+ global churches and has mobilized sponsorship of over 25,000 children in impoverished communities.”
And about children they state:
“Children are close to the heart of God. So they are close to the heart of Stadia. “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.” 85% of those who make a decision to follow Jesus do so between the ages of 4 and 14.”
Luis Bush, a Christian big picture strategist, was the first to call it the “4/14 Window.” Stewart discusses this issue at length and adds profound context and insight. One of her many paragraphs on the subject reads:
“Bush’s ideas lit up the skies of the missionary community like a bright flare in the night, illuminating the path for evangelicals worldwide and missionaries in particular. ‘Political movements (like Nazism and Communism) trained legions of children with the goal of carrying their agenda beyond the lifetimes of their founders…. Even the Taliban places great emphasis on recruiting children,’ wrote Dr. Wes Stafford, president of Compassion International, one of the largest worldwide missionary groups, in an introduction to Bush’s 2009 book, The 4-14 Window: Raising Up a New Generation to Transform the World. ‘May God inspire you to join us in His battle for the little ones!’”
In discussing this ominous ideology towards other people’s children, Stewart’s thoughts resonate:
“It is easy enough to dismiss these new missionaries on account of their extremely narrow notion of what constitutes Christianity. It is easy to disdain them in the same way that they disdain United Methodists, Roman Catholics, and U.S. Episcopalians. It isn’t hard for most observers to detect the authoritarian impulses and undercurrents of hostility and aggression that drive them to seek ‘spiritual’ authority over others and embolden them to pit children against children, children against schools, children against their own parents.”
Fellowship of Christian Athletics
For the past few decades, I have been seeing more and more athletes at every level pointing skyward when they hit a home-run or score a touchdown. As a kid, I saw BYU players joining in public prayer after games, but now I see public high school kids doing that. From Stewart, I learned that this did not just happen. It is a result of a well-funded campaign led by a group called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
With funding from people like Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-Fil-A, and non-profits like the Bradley Foundation, FCA has infiltrated sports programs at all levels, marketing their version of “muscular Christianity” to impressionable young men and women. FCA leaders embed themselves in teams and form sports “huddles.” Thus a peer pressure forms that indicates not precipitating in the prayers and the overt religious gestures means not being a team player. Stewart shared:
“In San Diego, California, a long-serving vice principal who wishes to remain anonymous observes that thirty years ago, prayer played a peripheral role in high school sports. Now, he says, there are FCA huddles at nearly every high school in the region.”
Katherine Stewart’s book is written in an enjoyable and fascinating fashion and her personal research is extraordinary. The account of witnessing the infamous Texas school book wars of 2010 or her telling of attending evangelical missionary conferences or her description of the misinformation being disseminated to teenagers in the now federally financed “abstinence-only” sex education programs are illuminating.
All Americans concerned about freedom of religion; shielding children from unwanted religious indoctrination at school, and protecting public education should read this book. Reading this book has been an eye-opening experience.
U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is a devout member of the evangelical church, Mars Hill Bible Church. It is a widely held view within the evangelical movement that public education is a godless secular movement that provides an opening for Satan. That explains why so many evangelicals homeschool their children. It seems likely that our education secretary has an evangelically based anti-public education agenda. Arguing the relative merits of school policies misses the point.
It is more likely that religious ideology is the point.