An Interview with Katherine Stewart, Author of The Good News Club

Today marks the release of Katherine Stewart‘s new book The Good News Club. You can read Tessa de Leeuw‘s review here.

Katherine Stewart

Katherine was gracious enough to answer questions about her book and our exchange is below:

Hemant: The book’s subtitle is “The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.” Can you explain the “stealth” part of that? What exactly is the Christian Right doing that’s somewhat secretive or sneaky?

Katherine: Many of the initiatives I looked at rely to a surprising degree on misdirection and deceit of one group or another. The Good News Club itself, for example presents itself to parent and administrators as an outside group. But it creates the false but unavoidable (and, as far as I can tell, intentional) impression in young school children that its form of religion is officially endorsed by the school. It describes itself with nonthreatening labels such as “nondenominational” and “interdenominational,” which makes people think it’s broadly Christian, when in fact it’s highly sectarian. And it pretends to offer “Bible study,” when really it’s about indoctrinating kids in a fundamentalist form of religion. Anyone who doubts that should read the Statement of Faith on their workers’ applications.

Other religious initiatives are equally sneaky. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools curriculum courses, for instance, present themselves as nonsectarian study of the Bible as a work of literature and history. But that’s just a thin cover for sectarian proselytizing. The “pizza evangelists,” who come into the schools under the pretense of offering instruction on bullying, anti-drug awareness, or character education turn around and use the platform to create opportunities for proselytizing. I should add that many of the activists I spoke to, and whom I describe in my book, take a delight in the sneakiness of their approach.

Hemant: If parents need to give permission for their children to attend meetings of the Good News Clubs, why does the fact that these groups meet in a school setting matter? Wouldn’t these parents just teach their children the same things in their own house or at a church if the school wasn’t an option?

Katherine: With older kids, that approach makes some sense. But remember, Good News Clubs focus on very young kids, in their first years of public schooling; a centerpiece of their program is the “wordless book,” which can be used to convert children as young as four and five years old. Kids at that age simply aren’t able to distinguish what takes place in a school and what is endorsed by the school.

Remember: we’re talking about little kids here. In their minds, no institution has as much authority as the public school. For them, if it is taught in school, it must be true.

I have seen several instances, including at my own elementary school, when the Good News Clubs were offered cheaper and better space at a church immediately next door to the school, and they declined. They want to be in the school because they know that kids will think their Club is endorsed by the school. Another important factor is that by placing the Clubs in the school, it becomes easier for Good News Club instructors to persuade the children enrolled in their groups to work to recruit other children in the school.

Hemant: What was the significance of the 2001 Supreme Court decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School? How does it come into play today?

Katherine: The Milford decision removed any serious Establishment Clause concerns in connection with Good News-style activities, and at the same time it said that to exclude such activities represented an unconstitutional violation of speech rights. The net effect has been to propose that whenever a school creates what is technically known as a “limited public forum,” which is to say, as soon as it opens its doors to outside groups of pretty much any kind, it must allow religious groups such as the Good News Club. This decision opened the way for church planting in public schools and a host of other religious initiatives in schools.

In effect it gives a trump card to religious groups, because it is only in the case of religious groups that to exclude them amounts to a violation of their speech rights. So now schools can exclude a soccer club, or martial arts, or political groups, or a theater group if they wish, but the one category they may not exclude is religious groups.

The Good News Clubs made quick use of this trump card. Their numbers in public schools went up 728 per cent in the ten years since the Milford decision. And church-planting in New York City’s public schools went from 0 to 160 over the same period.

This decision is problematic, in my view. Schools routinely exclude partisan political groups from meeting in the school building, for instance, and nobody imagines that we are discriminating against anybody’s viewpoint. But now, when religious groups are excluded, they complain that they are being discriminated against. The Milford decision also undermined the idea that peer pressure or coercion are important factors in school-related cases.

Hemant: Do all these Christian groups need to pay the schools rent for use of the space? Do they pay what other similar groups pay? And can they get away with not paying if it’s a school-sanctioned club like many other after-school groups?

Katherine: Generally they pay what other outside groups pay, which is not very much. But in many instances, you can’t call it “rent” — it is generally a use fee or a custodian’s fee. In the instance of churches planted in public schools in New York City, it amounts to a state subsidy. Instead of paying for their own buildings, buying their own furniture, paying for heat, electricity, air conditioning, renovations, and upkeep of the facility, the churches in question simply paid a custodians’ fee. That’s not “rent” by any stretch of the imagination.

Hemant: I only know of a handful of high school atheist groups and possibly only one middle school atheist group. Do any other religious groups (or atheist groups) try to form in elementary schools or is that strictly a Christian phenomenon? Either way, would that be a good idea for those of us who are not Christian?

Katherine: I don’t know of any atheist groups in elementary schools, but I think it would be a bad idea for the same reason that I think it’s a bad idea for the Christian groups to do it. However, it would be interesting to know what would happen if people were to try to set up an atheist group in a public elementary school that went after “churched” kids, the way Good News Clubs go after “unchurched” kids. If such a club were disallowed, that would highlight problems with the current policy and might potentially be used to challenge it.

Hemant: Would you rather see schools allow *all* religious groups to meet in the building (outside of class time) or should they close the doors to religious groups altogether? Are both legal options?

Katherine: Again, if we are talking about elementary schools, I would exclude religion as a category, just as we exclude politics as a category. It used to be legal to exclude religion as a category, and it is legal in a limited way in certain contexts. However, in most of the country, as a result of the Milford decision, it is no longer legal to exclude religious groups.

At the high school level, I think after-school groups in general should have maximum leeway. But bear in mind that a number of the religious groups make an effort to insert themselves in school-related activities, such as athletics. If Christian athletes want to get together after the game and after school to talk about their religion or engage in acts of worship, that seems perfectly fine. But many groups now attempt to make their religion part of the game, inevitably forcing everyone on the team to take a public stand.

We should not get overly legalistic here. Some things are legally or constitutionally permissible, but that does not mean that they are the right thing to do. If a school in a diverse community is to function well, its members need to show a certain amount of civility and respect toward one another. We are all free to practice our faith, if any, in our homes, houses of worship, and any number of other places. Do we really need to turn our public schools into religious battlefields?

Hemant: At one point in the book, Pastor Rich Lang compares the methods of the Child Evangelism Fellowship (which runs the Good News Clubs) to the Hitler Youth because of the way they target children. Is that a fair comparison?

Katherine: Some of the evangelical missionaries that I have read explicitly cite the Nazis, the Taliban, and the Bolsheviks as models of other groups that focus on children. Not every effort to preach to the young is a form of fascism, but fascism characteristically involves indoctrination of the young.

Hemant: Other than getting educated on the issues, what would you like readers to do in response to reading your book?

Katherine: They should support groups working for the separation of church and state. They should support politicians and political movements that work to bring better people to the judiciary. They should strengthen programs and policies that promote tolerance and civility in our public schools. They should inform themselves about what is taking place in their local schools, and they should educate others about this movement in our midst.

The Good News Club is available today in the four bookstores left in the country and everywhere online.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    That shows the desperation of these people. Their own mythology says that their religion came along as the authoritative replacement for all previous religions, a kind of Abrahamic Theism 2.0 to replace the 1.0 version which persists as Judaism. The Muslims’ 3.0 version has competed successfully with the 2.0 version in some markets, which must contribute to their anxiety. Yet they really fear that the Humanism platform will make their platform obsolete altogether. In other words, they fear that they live on the threshold of their own late BC-like era. 

    In the real world, plenty of people alive in the here and now haven’t received christian indoctrination, don’t think like christians and seem to live just fine as if the gospel never existed. What does that say about christianity’s alleged necessity? 

    • Nordog

      “What does that say about christianity’s [sic] alleged necessity?”

      Nothing.

      • Anonymous

        It says that we don’t really have “holes in our hearts” shaped like the christian deity.

  • Anonymous

    It’s nice that more people outside of the atheist fold are starting to recognize the problems with the Christian Right. It’s one thing to recognize the difference between their worldview and yours- it’s another to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts they are making to affect your way of life.

    • Nordog

      For the record, I’m a member of the “Christian Right” and I generally disapprove of just about everything Evangelicals do.

      From what little I’ve read of this, the Good News Club falls into the category of stuff Evangelicals do of which I disapprove.

      Being politically and theologically conservative does not make one an Evangelical or a supporter of such programs.

      • Anonymous

        You put the phrase “Christian Right” in quotes, so I’m guessing that’s not a title you’d voluntarily own up to. When I use that phrase, I am not describing every Christian who is also a conservative, but a particular group of American evangelicals who believe that their far-right views are God-ordained, and that Christians who don’t agree with them aren’t real Christians. Sometimes their views make it into the mainstream of Christian thought, but that doesn’t make every Christian who agrees with them on, say, abortion, a member of the Christian Right. 

        You apparently don’t like the way such people act, and are curious enough about the views of others to read an atheist blog: so no, you’re part of the group I’m talking about. I don’t assume every registered Republican who is also a regular churchgoer is dangerous.

      • Anonymous

        But if your kid came home with a permission slip for this, you might not recognize that it is the kind of thing you don’t approve of without looking into it further and let your kid go.  If you’re a Christian, what’s the harm of a study group?  That is how a child of a reasonable Christian becomes drawn into fundamentalism right under your nose.

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        Doesn’t the phrase “Christian Right” usually mean evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants? I don’t think of Catholics, even conservative ones, because I’ve never heard of them supporting aggressive evangelism in any form, let alone in public schools.

  • AtheistMom

    Here’s a snippet taken from the CEF Statement of Faith.
    http://www.cefonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=30&Itemid=100188 (reading the entire thing will make any rational person gag)

    “We Believe…

    …14. That the souls of the lost remain after death in misery until the
    final judgment of the great white throne, when soul and body reunited at
    the resurrection shall be cast “Into the lake of fire” which is “the
    second death,” to be “punished with everlasting destruction from the
    presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians
    1:8, 9). Luke 16:22-23, 27-28; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:5, 11-15; 2
    Thessalonians 1:7-9.”

    This is bullshit thinking and shouldn’t be anywhere near our public
    schools. To have this kind of proclamation trickled down to such young
    impressionable children should be a crime.

    • Marco Conti

      I can’t imagine any kid reading that steaming pile of crapola and be excited about joining in. 
      Of course, I realize that’s more for certain parents than it is for the kids, but there has to be something else available for kids or we are going to lose this war. 
      The religious know they are currently on the losing side. More and more young adults are leaving the flock, so they are taking a a page out of the old catholic playbook and try to get them while they are young. 

      We need to do the same thing and we need to do it by presenting the kids with “the magic of reality”, to paraphrase Dawkings. 
      In fact, he has already written the text book, it’s up to us to build a movement around it. 
      If this page is the best they can do, it shouldn’t be that hard.

  • Gus Snarp

    That court decision just sound awful, especially given the nearly opposite interpretation in other cases that elementary school children are different from high school children and should be protected from anything that could conflate the school with a religion in their minds, such as Bible handouts. I wonder how these groups are publicized. Do the students get a flier to take home? Are they told about the group in any way by school officials? I have never heard of such a group at my school, but if one formed, and they were trying to get my five year old involved, my approach to discussing religion with him would change. I generally don’t talk about it much, I don’t want to indoctrinate him and so I just answer questions honestly when they come up, and ask him what he thinks. It’s all about getting him thinking for himself. But if I have to defend him from this, and there’s no legal recourse, I think I would have to start indoctrinating him more to my way of thinking, telling him things that will surely piss off his friends’ parents if they hear about it, first and foremost: religion is a lie. Religious leaders are liars.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    What scares me is the idea that my young kid is going to come home with a permission slip for something like this, and beg and plead that all his best friends are going and how much fun they say it is.

    • Gus Snarp

      Me too.

    • Smedley310

       If you don’t
      believe in Christ and don’t want your son or daughter to attend these teachings
      you need to teach them your values.  That
      means be a responsible parent and don’t let people or government run you’re
      household. Furthermore step up to the plate and say no to your kids. Furthermore
      when it comes to religion of any kind of any denominations kids are the last to
      be eager to attend. You need to run your own family and be a man and stop
      listening to other people’s views and practice the ones you believe in.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        You need to run your own family and be a man

        Did you pull that from Mark Driscoll?  ‘Cause I was thinking more along the lines of making sure my son has a strong foundation in critical thinking, and make sure to engage him in a discussion about any teachings he does come across.  You know, since I can’t really follow him around 24×7 and cover his ears whenever someone mentions “Jesus”.

  • Nicolinesmits

    My parents made me join an after-school bible study class in the mid-1970s. We had to memorize a bible verse every week to earn stickers which would earn other prizes and I used to let a couple of kids recite that week’s verse ahead of me, just enough that I could repeat it verbatim when I was called upon to recite. They never caught on to this trick, though there are one or two verses I can still recite verbatim in my sleep, so it does stick to some degree  :-) I guess at about 9 or 10 I was already past the easy indoctrination stage.
    The issue of joining an after-school bible study club never came up when my kids were in elementary school, but they used to catch a lot of flak from classmates who were going through religious indoctrination classes at their churches  in preparation for first communion or confirmation or what have you. Their friends would tell them that they’d go to hell and stuff and we’d talk about such religious B.S. at the dinner table. Of course we didn’t say it was B.S. but I think they got the message. I don’t think the threat of hell fire ever  made either of them want to attend any of these classes, but you can see that peer pressure could be an issue. My kids badgered  me for years to let them join the boy scouts because many of their friends were in it, but I refused because of their homophobia.
    Could parents ask to sit in on these so-called “good news” classes? If the organizers refuse to permit that, that would be a humongous red flag, wouldn’t it?

    • Nicolinesmits

      To my horror, I just found that there are no fewer of six CEF chapters in Maryland alone! And that’s just one small state, folks! Check it out: http://chapters.cefonline.com/

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Yes, Boyscouts is another.  They meet at a local park and do cool stuff like build and shoot high pressure water rockets.  I’m just hoping the local troop is liberal and/or I can be closely enough involved.  The former is unlikely considering I live in Conservative California, where the Pro Prop 8 signs outnumbered the NoH8 signs about 10:1.   Also planning to provide as many alternatives as possible.  The local Tae Kwon Do school looks promising.

      Unless it’s really egregious, I’ll let him make the choice, but I’ll be involved.

    • Anthony

      Hi, as a Overseer / Teacher of a “Good News” club
      I encourage our parents to come and sit-in during classes, “why?” you
      may ask? because Biblically it is the responsibility of the “PARENT”
      to spiritually raise their children, not mine – My preferred function is to
      assist the parent raise their children; morally & spiritually, having them
      being good citizens in our communities, good students in the schools, obedient
      children at home, respectful not only to others but to themselves, with
      integrity, caring for their reputation of self, hard workers, good listeners,
      living a good life that’s honoring not only to them and their families but to
      God.

  • Andytk

    Wasn’t there a recent (last couple of months) Supreme Court decision that over turned a lower court’s ruling that forced New York City public schools to rent space to religious group?  Does this decision in any way allow these groups to be challenged?

  • Anonymous

    This is frightening to me!  I feel like my kids’ school (an elementary school) does a pretty good job of encouraging free inquiry and respect for all (it’s an IB school) and would probably turn away a group like this, but with that Supreme Court decision they wouldn’t be able to because they do have a couple other (non-religious) outside groups that come in after school.  Even the Boy Scouts don’t meet there.  They recruit there, but don’t use the school as a meeting place.  The Girl Scouts, however, do.  It’s my understanding there used to be a Weekly Religious Education club, but they got rid of it a few years ago in an effort to be more inclusive of all beliefs.  Now they can’t keep neutral on religion by just keeping it out?  I don’t understand the court’s decision.  I don’t understand why they didn’t make an exception for elementary schools as they have in the past because of the indoctrination factor.  I’m just ashamed of our country for letting fundamentalism take over. 

  • rose

    The Good News Club hold their Thursday after school session at my 7 year  old’s elementary school. I received a flyer last year which had the disclaimer stating the school or the school district are not affiliated with the program. After doing a little research I discovered they have the legal right to be there but only AFTER school not during school hours. The problem I have is that they were in the school setting up  at least 15 minutes prior to the dismissal bell!  I spoke to the principal and even called the ACLU but received no answer as to the legality of the Good News Club setting up in a room where children who have not been given permission  to attend are waiting for the school bus.

     I would love to set up an Atheist Group but not sure how to proceed and I’m sure I wont have any support .

  • Lysistrata

    I think there should be delinearation between church groups that run clubs and church groups that rent space from the school are Sunday. I have no proplem with the latter. My UU church has been meeting in a school for the past 15 years because we can’t afford to purchase land but we do pay rent to the school in the form of a rental fee which is several hundred dollars a week and we never interact with the students. This is much different than the Good News Club which is seeking to present a very specific point of view

    • Andytk

      The problem with the NYC case, and your UU church, is that the fees are far lower than the true cost.  Typically such groups are charged a janitorial fee, basically enough to cover the extra costs of allowing the group to use the space, not a percentage of the total costs relative the amount of time/space used relative to the other uses time/space.  Only paying for the janitorial costs vs. the true cost represents a government subsidy of the group, be it the UU Church or the Girl Scouts.  The UU Church has the problem of separation of Church and State while the Girl Scouts do not.  I’d say that the UU Church needs to sink or swim on its own, which could mean renting from another Church or group (Masons, etc.) or even private space.
      I will say that I like the UU use better than the Good News Club, but better in this case isn’t good enough.

  • Marco Conti

    Setting up an Atheist Club in my opinion would be an error and would be doomed to failure. It would be mired in controversy and it would spend more time in court than doing any good in schools. I think the goal here is to counterpoint religious proselytism   

    A much better idea would be to set up a science based group instead. Let’s call it “The better news club”  and use the same tactics the Good News uses with the difference that the Better news would push a scientific agenda untainted by any religious or anti-religious connotation. I think if we let the facts speak for themselves we would accomplish the same goal while raising less objections.

    What we need to do is study the tactics of  the Good news clubs and applying them to our own science based secular club to fight the religious on their turf. 

    If I know kids, they’ll be much more likely to want to see dinosaurs and galaxies than some tired old bronze age shepard with a superiority complex.
    Such a “club” would probably be more likely to attract grant money and could actually help guide kids toward more exciting academic and professional lives.

    As atheists I think it is more important for us to actually try to do right by the kids rather than compete for their souls/minds. I have no doubt that if we can introduce kids to skeptical inquiry and reason, they will make the right choice when the time comes. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/mujica.alex Alejandro Mujica

    I just spoke with a woman who joined a Good News Club in Jamaica when she was younger. From what she told me, there is little church-and-state separation and GN clubs are less forceful, perhaps taking on the actual roles they pretend to in the States. 

    If this really is the case, that US GN clubs are not as “laid back” as those in Jamaica, then perhaps it’s because there’s no apparent “necessity” in Jamaica. 
    I’m not sure about this, but it’s something to think about.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X