Katherine Stewart came to Kansas City last year to sound the alarm.
By SARAH SMITH NESSEL
Special to The Star
I was among those who crowded into a room at the Plaza library branch to hear the story of how a flier that came home in her young daughter’s backpack in 2009 changed the next three years of Stewart’s life.
The flier promoted an innocuous-sounding Bible study group at her daughter’s school in Santa Barbara, Calif. Stewart is an investigative journalist, so she did what investigative journalists do. Idle curiosity turned to alarm as she learned more about the group behind the flier: the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization seeking to convert children worldwide to evangelical Christianity — and using after-school “Good News Clubs” in public schools to do so.
Stewart’s three years of investigation led to the publication of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.” The book has made Stewart something of a celebrity in the secularism movement, and she now speaks before crowds of hundreds. It’s a must-read for anyone concerned about the incursion of religion into public schools. And if you’re not concerned, you should be.
It’s hard to imagine a more ironic name for these “good news” clubs. Stewart’s book describes a movement that has ripped communities apart, led to contentious lawsuits and terrorized children with the notion that those who are “unsaved” — including their own deceased siblings and grandparents — are doomed to eternal torture. That’s not hyperbole — the CEF really believes this, and it wants your child to believe it, too. That’s why it fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to evangelize children in public school settings. And won.
That cleared the way for the CEF to partner with churches to “adopt” public schools for the purpose of establishing Good News Clubs. Parental permission is required for children to attend them, but the clubs’ influence extends beyond the individual participants, given that children are strongly urged to evangelize to their classmates and friends. Operating under the belief that permanent religious conversion is most likely to occur between the ages of 4 and 14, the CEF focuses heavily on elementary schools. (Google “4/14 window” for a look at how seriously this concept is taken by the evangelical Christian movement.)
The CEF’s Supreme Court victory (Good News Club v. Milford Central School District, 2001) isn’t so surprising when you consider the enormous amounts of money behind this movement’s legal battles. The CEF has the support of Christian legal defense groups such as the Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund). Those names should be familiar to anyone following the school voucher movement, whose tentacles reach deep into Kansas politics.
As I read her book and later chatted with Stewart, I comforted myself with the thought that this Good News Club nonsense couldn’t happen in Johnson County. We’re not exactly the United Nations, but we’re diverse enough that an organized movement to convert our kids to one particular flavor of one specific religion would get snuffed out immediately. I did some online searches last fall to see if the CEF and its Good News Clubs were gaining a foothold in the Kansas City area. I didn’t find anything.
Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. Maybe I really didn’t want to know. But when I searched again last week, there it was: The Child Evangelism Fellowship of the Greater Kansas City Area, which covers Jackson, Cass, Clay and Platte counties in Missouri and Johnson, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.
The CEF doesn’t make it easy to find out which schools have Good News Clubs. I contacted the local organizer, who didn’t respond to my query about how many or which schools in this area have them. But in response to my concerns about the clubs in general, she did refer me to a portion of the CEF’s website devoted to — well, people like me. The attacks on Good News Clubs, the site said, are mostly from people who “are atheists and do not believe in God. They reject the Bible and everything in it.”
That may be true, though it’s hard to see how it’s relevant. The legitimacy of any criticism lies in the strength of the argument, not the beliefs of the arguer. And the argument that religious proselytizing does not belong in a public school is a strong one, shared by people of many faiths as well as those with none.
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.
Stewart’s book is impressive in scope and painstakingly researched, whereas the CEF’s official response to it is ... not. You shouldn’t just take my word for it, though. Read “The Good News Club,” then read the CEF’s response, which you can find by going to www.cefonline.com and typing “The other side of the story” into the internal search engine.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Freelancer Sarah Smith Nessel writes The Bubble each week.