Portland, part II: Saving kids from ‘fundamentalist sect’

My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. picked the better article. As much fault as he found with a story in the Portland Oregonian about Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Associated Press version of the flap is even worse.

CEF does a lot of summer Bible programs, rather like those conducted by the nation’s thousands of churches. The difference is that the Fellowship does it outside church walls. That’s what got a group in Portland upset — and apparently the AP, as well.

As the AP sees it, CEF wants to “convert children as young as 5″ in places like “apartment pools and public parks other gathering spots this summer.” That’s “got some residents upset,” the story says:

They’ve banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group’s tactics.

“They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they’re a very old school fundamentalist sect,” said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group’s message and the way it’s delivering it.

Let’s pause for a little dissection. Besides asking how many is “some” residents — A hundred? Twenty? Five? — why use a military term like “tactics,” when something less pejorative like “methods” would suffice?

Then there’s the loaded phrase “very old school fundamentalist sect,” meant to make us readers go “DUN-dun-DUNNN!” Yes, it was a direct quote. But an alert reporter — not a mere recorder — would have asked for clarification: ” ‘Scuse, but what is a fundamentalist sect? And how does Child Evangelism Fellowship fit that category?”

And how does CEF pretend? It’s not like the group hides its motives. As its website says, CEF has been around since 1937 and says it reached more than 15.6 million children in 188 countries just last year. Doesn’t sound like some sneaky whatever.

On the other hand, AP is also lax in citing the other side …

CEF says Protect Portland Children is a shadow group run by atheists who seek to dismantle Christian outreach. The group said its methods are above reproach.

… as if the opposition is part of some atheist Illuminati circle. Note that AP doesn’t even quote someone directly there, let alone ask details.

Time and again, this article leaves loose ends, like:

The organization was also the subject of a critical book that asserts the group advances a fundamentalist agenda and uses public spaces like schools to make children believe such views are endorsed by authority figures.

What book, and by whom? AP doesn’t say, although it’s probably The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, by Katherine Stewart. I’m guessing this, because the book is pushed by Edd Doerr, a church-state separationist, in the reader comments.

How does CEF answer those charges? We’re not told, although AP previously quotes CEF’s vice president Moises Esteves saying, “We don’t use any of the schemes and high-pressure tactics that we’re accused of. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

But AP isn’t finished: It sets a scene at a public park where children and parents attend a CEF meeting. What do they hear? “Bible verses and songs that praised a Christian god.” As a former GR writer fumes in an e-mail: “What in the world is ‘a Christian god’? Were there multiple [gods] I didn’t know about?’ ”

AP laudably seeks a parent’s reaction; but amazingly, it’s not one of the parents in the park. It’s a mother in the suburb of Vancouver, Wash., nine miles north. She says she’s a believer in Jesus but doesn’t like CEF’s approach:

Within a few hours, however, she didn’t like what the group was telling her 8-year-old son and his friends: They were headed to hell, needed to convert their friends and were duty-bound to raise money for the organization.

“I raised a free thinker,” she said. “He didn’t buy in. All of a sudden, he’s having arguments with his friends over salvation.”

Leaving aside the question of how CEF would reply to this — because the story ends there — AP should have asked Mom about the contradiction. First she says her son didn’t buy into the teachings. Then she says he was arguing with his friends about salvation. Which is it?

The CEF story is enmeshed in several constitutional issues: free speech, equal access, freedom of association. This article deals with none of them. Granted, indepth writing is not a strength of AP. But the story does include three paragraphs of Gallup and Pew research on the nonreligious nature of Portland, and of people who have been born since the early 1980s.

Closest to constitutional issues is when the story says CEF “won a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case that decided they could hold chapter meetings on school grounds.” But it doesn’t say why the group won, which would have been easy to get from CEF’s website itself (and the linked original document.)

Public schools were the main focus in the decision, but the Supreme Court added a couple of useful statements for this context. As summarized on the CEF website, the court said that “restrictions must not discriminate against speech based on viewpoint.” It also included an equal-access concept: Bible clubs must be given the same access to school facilities as any other outside group.

One might well say the same of the public spots that have the Portland parents so worked up. Could have been enlightening background for this story, had AP mentioned it.

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