The Critical Mistakes and Cosmic Irony of “God’s Club.”

The Critical Mistakes and Cosmic Irony of “God’s Club.” September 13, 2016

We’ve been talking off and on about a Christian movie called God’s Club, which is about a Christian widower who starts up a religious club at his public high school for the express intention of proselytizing teenagers without their parents’ consent. This is definitely the time of year to think about this kind of overreach, what with school starting up in so many places.

Christians are fighting tooth and nail to get their indoctrination into schools whether it’s legal to do it or not, but there’s a truly cosmic-level irony at work here that they’re just not seeing. We’ve also been discussing the Christian bubble, and this situation definitely falls under the category of bubble-thinking!

(Martin Thomas, CC.)
(Martin Thomas, CC.)

One Nation, Under God: Or Not.

An ad put out by the Good News Club, which is the club that the movie's "Bible Club" is modeled after.
An ad put out by the Good News Club, which is the club that the movie’s “Bible Club” is modeled after.

As you can see from this list of legal actions on the Americans United website, fundagelicals have been busy lately targeting schoolchildren in public schools across the country.

From the Arizona charter school forcing kids to memorize fundagelical Reconstructionist blather to the Ohio schools that were teaching Creationism to public science-class students (until they were forcibly stopped!) to Texas’ ongoing attempts to insert fundagelical ideas into the textbooks adopted by public schools, watchdog groups have their work cut out for them.

Fundagelicals fight as doggedly as one might expect to see with people involved in a movement that is teetering on the ragged edge of disaster. They’re starting one brush fire after another in an attempt to snatch back their onetime dominance. They view this fight as one of the very most important battles they could possibly wage. As you can see from the above advertisement put out by the Good News Clubs, the Christians involved in this  crusade know that if they can’t get to schoolkids very young, before they figure out that Christianity’s claims are nonsense and its threats are completely empty, then they are vanishingly unlikely to ever convert them. As Answers in Genesis puts it,

The future of America depends on the training of today’s young people.

When you understand that the writer of that statement means “indoctrination” rather than actually “training” and “American fundagelicals” rather than “America,” then things might start swimming into focus. You’ll see that kind of prevarication a lot out of fundagelicals who are overstepping their bounds; on that same link, you’ll also hear hardcore proselytizing referred to as the far milder-sounding “shar[ing] their Christian faith,” and this “sharing” is declared to be an actual right.

This text was apparently borrowed from some Christian legal society–so you’d think that its author might know that sharing one’s Christian faith is not actually a right. Believing whatever nonsense you want is a right. Associating together or dissociating from fellowship is a right. Speaking one’s mind on one’s own time and one’s own dime is a right. But imposing on others with one’s beliefs is not, and never will be, a right–no matter how many times fundagelicals say that it’s so. Trying to sneak indoctrination into public, taxpayer-funded schools is definitely not ever going to be a right either.

Fundagelicals’ rights end where other people’s rights begin, and at no point do they have a right to intrude on others or to imposition them without permission. But they consider consent to be the very worst sort of foul sorcery. Given how poorly right-wing Christians understand rights in the first place, it’s little wonder that they view what they’re doing with public schools as not only a right but a holy crusade.

The ACLU Could Have Saved These Moviemakers A Lot of Time.

The biggest problem with how God’s Club presents its horrific vision of Christian persecution is that in order to get that vision rolling, its creators had to dream up a scenario that absolutely, positively could not happen in real life without a lot of rule-breaking on the part of a lot of people.

Christian movies do that a lot. The entire premise of both God’s Not Dead and its sequel depends entirely upon a horrific dystopian vision of state-sponsored persecution of religion–a vision of events that, as Neil’s so astutely put it, wouldn’t ever happen in the real world. People don’t act like real people in these movies, laws change on the fly, the entire court system doesn’t behave the way it does in reality, and of course Christian mythology turns out to be true in these fantasies, whereas reality is painfully at odds with that mythology. But Christians who are caught up in persecution-fantasizing have to create these scenarios–since the real world doesn’t offer them the same validation.

Here is the relevant passage from the ACLU’s website outlining what Christine and Squinty, the married schoolteacher couple at the heart of the “Bible Club” in the movie, should already know about having a religious club on a public school campus:

13. Student religious clubs in secondary schools must be permitted to meet and to have equal access to campus media to announce their meetings, if a school receives federal funds and permits any student non-curricular club to meet during non-instructional time. This is the command of the Equal Access Act. A non-curricular club is any club not related directly to a subject taught or soon-to-be taught in the school. Although schools have the right to ban all non-curriculum clubs, they may not dodge the law’s requirement by the expedient of declaring all clubs curriculum-related. On the other hand, teachers may not actively participate in club activities and “non-school persons” may not control or regularly attend club meeting.

As concerned as the school’s board is to follow the law with regard to the religious club in the movie, they miss the boat in two critical ways.

First, as a non-curricular club in a school that apparently has dozens of other such clubs, the school board would know that the atheist parents’ objections are irrelevant. Students indeed have the right to ask for the club. However, the real problem here is that there’s no student demand for the club. The movie makes that point abundantly clear. Literally the only student even vaguely interested in having it is Squinty’s own daughter, and I’m not sure exactly how the law would treat this situation but it seems like a blazing potential for conflict of interest. The atheists’ objections are shown purely to provide fodder for Christians’ martyrbation, but right out of the gate, there is no reason to allow Christine to have her club. It has no place in the school not because it’s Christian but rather because no students want it there.

Second, as a teacher at the school, Squinty (and Christine, though neither of them care) has a very special responsibility to avoid showing favoritism toward Christianity in front of students or to give the appearance of proselytization. Fundagelical teachers and resource providers spend a lot of time figuring out how to skirt those laws in the skeeviest ways you can possibly imagine because it really is that important to them to prey upon children to recruit them. However, even Christian organizations like this one know that clubs like the one Squinty wants to set up are totally off-limits; they carefully advise their site visitors that religious clubs on public school campuses must be both student-initiated and student-led. Teachers can’t proselytize under any circumstances while on school grounds and most especially should not create any kind of environment that is coercive or that makes children feel pressured to join in any religious activities.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the site linked there also specifically states that one teacher violated the law but it’s okay you guys, totally, it was like completely fine!–because “none of the club’s students complained about the experience to school officials.” That page advises teachers that if a teacher “has never been told by the administration to avoid discussing religion in the classroom,” then it’s totally okay to do so (in brief, “age-appropriate,” and non-proselytizing ways, and I’m oh so very totally absolutely sure that fundagelical teachers will oh so very totally absolutely follow that guideline to the letter).

Really, it’s just unbelievable how dishonest these supposedly-moral people are, and how boldly they grab for other parents’ children under any pretext whatsoever.

It’s really the hypocrisy that gets to me. Fundagelicals think that an eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god dwells inside of them. They think that this god is the complete embodiment of justice. They think that because they have this god dwelling inside them that they have a better handle on morality and know better than non-believers do what is right and wrong. Most of them have a political outlook that could only be described as wildly nationalistic, even jingoistic, with many downright fetishizing our country’s founding documents and earliest leaders.

It gets even worse. Almost all of the Christians so eager to sneak indoctrination into schools consider parents to be the utter authorities over their own children, with the power–literally–of life and death over those vulnerable little lives in their care. With that misperception held firmly in their minds, they wage constant war with the government over their supposed right to withhold medical care, adequate education, and even basic amenities of life from their kids, and even more grotesquely for their imagined right to beat the holy living shit out of those kids whenever they like.

Yet they’ve constructed an entire system around how to sneak indoctrination into public schools against American law and in direct opposition to other parents’ authority.

It comes to this: Squinty wants to indoctrinate schoolchildren, and he knows that there are a whole lot of them wandering the halls of his school like ripe plums jiggling on a branch. The fact that what he wants to do is blatantly illegal and unwanted doesn’t matter to him. Only what he wants matters. Only the agenda matters.

Sounds very loving, doesn’t it?

Suddenly it makes a lot of sense that we’re really clamping down on Christian proselytization efforts in public schools. The real pity is that we didn’t get started on it a lot earlier, given that Squinty himself seems to subscribe completely to the fundagelical model of asking forgiveness rather than permission–and of ignoring both the rules of law and common decency when either interferes with his agenda. He is in many ways the Everyman of his tribe, so you can bet they think the same way he does.

It’s hard to imagine why this religion’s having so much trouble lately.

Yes, that was totally sarcasm.

The Real Scope of the Problem.

The further right we wade into the Christian pool, the fewer people we encounter who comprehend cause and effect. At the furthest extreme of that pool, Toxic Christians pursue agendas without the slightest bit of worry about whether or not those agendas actually succeed. If the plan seems sufficiently Jesus-y and it fits in with their political aspirations, then it becomes their course and they pursue it with every single bit of force and subterfuge that they can muster. Some years ago someone convinced fundagelicals that public schools are in desperate need of their proselytization, and they haven’t been able to shake that idea ever since. That’s why these proselytization-focused Christian clubs constantly seek to infiltrate schools.

But this selfsame proselytizing is doing more to alienate young people from Christianity than all the critical blogs and watchdog groups ever could–and to significantly anger their parents, who don’t remember being asked for their consent before fundagelicals began trying to indoctrinate their kids. Fundagelicals often mistake grudging compliance for consent, and in the charged atmosphere of a fundagelical-dominated public school, kids who are forced to play along with their leaders’ and peers’ delusions show their true hearts by bolting from the religion the second they are able to do so safely.

One Christian school puts the problem plainly:

The exact percentages are up for debate, but we know that a significant number of kids walk out the church doors after high school graduation and never return.

Churn Rate: When They Are Grown, Apparently They DO Depart From It.
Churn Rate: When They Are Grown, Apparently They DO Depart From It.

It’s an accurate assessment, one that coincides with everything I’ve seen. Of course, because it’s coming from a Christian school the author only has one tool in their toolbox: to do more of what they were already doing, except more of it and harder. Faced with a catastrophic hemorrhage of young people from the religion, the author sets up a ten-point (re)action plan that wags a finger at adults who don’t indoctrinate those kids well enough or deeply enough and sets out to fix that problem.

Astute readers will notice that nothing on that school administrator’s list looks like any of the reasons why actual young people disengage* or deconvert from Christianity. It is drawn from some youth pastor’s own self-reported interviews with disengaged college kids. At no point do we learn what this youth pastor asked, nor specifically what the answers to those questions were, or who specifically he asked, or anything else that would help us assess whether or not his action plan would effectively help stem the tide. In this respect he is very much like Thom Rainer, who committed much the same errors on a supposed survey of his own. Reading it’s like taking a grand tour in what Lambchop was talking about last time about anti-process.

The fact that his plan looks exactly like the plan his tribe’s been trying to put into action since I was a Christian myself–and that in general it looks exactly like what the Southern Baptist Convention has been saying for years–speaks volumes about just how effective it’s going to be. He’s not ready yet to engage with the idea that the message itself is defective. His plan still hinges on the idea of the message being perfect–and so it is going to fail.

And the Cosmic Irony.

Here’s the really ironic and in its way majestically awesome part of Christians’ problem: these fundagelicals we’ve just examined were talking about kids who were already indoctrinated but then left later in life. Presumably all those Good News Clubs and teacher overreaches already occurred for them, drew them in, and got to them. And despite all the ten-point plans in the world, despite churches that are absolutely panicking about how to retain young people, despite an entire branch of Christianity mobilizing to keep kids’ butts in pews past that magic 18-22 year mark, they’re still leaving.

We’re not even talking about how well they’re converting kids who aren’t actually indoctrinated yet–the ones that weren’t successfully proselytized by all those lawbreaking teachers. We’re just talking about how they’re retaining the ones they actually do manage to convert.

Catholics aren’t faring any better, nor are mainstream Protestants. Surveys consistently paint a picture of an America that is tilting liberal, inclusive, and non-religious–and skewing further in that direction every year. Once young people leave their churches they rarely return–and the already-low number of returnees is getting lower every year. (When one Catholic priest invited 500 young people to a special “listening session” to talk about why they no longer attended his church, only 40 people came to the meeting–and most of them weren’t actually disengaged. Almost no disengaged people bothered.)

So fundagelicals are fighting to indoctrinate schoolchildren when they can’t even retain the children they already have–and their illegal antics in schools are very likely not remembered fondly by the kids who played along unwillingly. Of the children who are successfully indoctrinated, most of them end up leaving the religion entirely–either through disengagement or outright deconversion–by the time they’re done with college. The percentage of kids who churn out of the religion apparently increases as parents’ fervor decreases, so as disengaged parents raise kids without religion, those kids are even less likely to “find religion” and stay with it later in life.

And all right-wing leaders can do about this situation is drill down harder on the tactics that are already dramatically failing them.

That is damned fine news if any there was. It might take time and we certainly can’t allow ourselves to get complacent, but the writing’s on the wall.

We’ll be returning to the Christian bubble later on this week, and I wanted to show you something beautiful I saw while on my trip last weekend–so it’ll be a busy week! See you next time!


* Disengagement is a term used by religious researchers. It describes a Christian who might still consider him- or herself Christian but no longer does any of that religious stuff like attending church services, praying, or reading the Bible. Disengagement often leads to deconversion but not always, and some ex-Christians deconvert instantly, without a period of disengagement at all.

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