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February 16, 2012

After-School Gospel

I have a severe allergy to evangelism. Shiver-me-creepies, the very word sends me into spasms of fretful swatting punctuated by explosive shrieks of "Get 'em off me! Get 'em off!" I dislike religions that dole out piety points for saving souls, or make it their mission to convince me that I'll wind up Satan's scullery maid without their handy pamphlets.

Imagine my anxiety when I learned that a Christian evangelism group was recruiting young souls in our public schools. Thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, the Good News Club is allowed to operate after-school Bible study classes on tax-supported campuses in order to carry out its self-stated mission of reaching "unchurched kids" and "establishing them in Bible-believing churches." The club operates at more than 3,500 public schools across America, including 10 in Santa Barbara.

I first learned of them in 2009 when my journalist friend Katherine Stewart noticed the club at her child's school and wrote a cover story for The Santa Barbara Independent about the infighting its presence caused among students, parents, and school administrators. "I started getting email from parents across the country saying, 'This came to our community, and it blew us apart,'" she told me.

Inspired to dig deeper, Stewart sat in on the club's instructor training, interviewed kids who've been encouraged to proselytize to their friends at school, and attended a conference where members of the Good News Club and its governing organization, the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), vowed to "reclaim" public schools for Christ.

"This is pretty extreme stuff," says Stewart, who'll read from her new book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children, Saturday, March 10, from 5-7 p.m. at Tecolote Book Shop (1470 E. Valley Rd.; [805] 969-4977)

The Web site for the local CEF boasts "27 Professions of Faith in Jesus" this year from the 151 kids in its Santa Barbara clubs — including two 4-year-olds who asked "God to forgive them of their sins." The CEF publishes lesson books about "the four Hebrews in the fiery furnace" and "the true story of how [missionary] Mary Slessor bravely went alone to the mysterious land of Nigeria to help the people turn from witchcraft to Christ."

My favorite product in the CEF Web store is a tool called the Gospel Flipper-Flapper: "Keep one in your pocket or purse to share the Gospel at a moment's notice!" (I swear to God I did not add that exclamation point.) Stewart questions the group's recruitment tactics; it woos students with candy and cookies and positions itself in classrooms, where children have already learned to trust what their teachers tell them.

The nice thing about being doomed to hell is I already enjoy playing devil's advocate. I remind Stewart that courting children with sugar isn't evil; it's just sound marketing. And if kids have trouble distinguishing preaching from teaching, isn't it their parents' job to help them develop skepticism and recognize when they're being wangled?

It's not about that, she says, and the tone of her voice actually chills me. "It's about the harm to America as a modern, secular democracy. When one form of faith uses the public schools to promote their particular agenda, other people withdraw," she says. She saw it happen in Santa Barbara, Seattle, South Carolina, and beyond. "They start to give up on public education, and they stop supporting the institution.

"And I think this is one of the explicit ends of these groups." Sound farfetched? The boogety-boogety gospel of a paranoid prophet? Then take Mathew Staver's word for it. The founder of CEF's legal team, the Liberty Counsel, told CEF convention-goers this in 2010: "Knock down all of the doors, all of the barriers, to all of the 65,000-plus elementary schools in the country. The battlefield is right in front of us. It is those children aged 5 through 12."



I'm BOILING with anger. This is serious stuff. Thank you for bringing it to light.
Claire Turner

Mon, Feb 20, 2012

Please Unsubscribe me from the list. Often times your funny and although we all know not a Christian as you often mention, this just went too far. In an age where drugs, sexuality, and bullying are taking over the schools I would be grateful for a club that offered a zone free from what I see as adult pressures. There are so many places and people that are asking for my attention...and I do NOT only subscribe to blogs or articles that speak to my own political or moral persuasions. I like to have my thinking challenged. But I have to say your columns are more on the whinny complaining side rather that offering insightful thought. So in my effort to reduce life clutter I choose not to continue receiving your column. I did look on your website though as to were to unsubscribe and did not see where. - Marisa
Ed. Note: We have removed Marisa from the mailing list. Simply reply to the newsletter with "remove" if you wish the same.


Tue, Feb 21, 2012

There are clubs in schools in support of nearly every belief structure available. There have always been. And each feels a responsibility to "carry its message" to our young people.

Liberals fear Young Republicans poisoning our children's minds. Conservatives are sure Liberals will create Communist sympathizers out of our impressionable youth. Born again Christians fear the evil secular influence and Atheists are terrified of Evangelism.

You're right, it is the parents job to develop skepticism... as well as an open mind to weigh the advantages and liabilities of every new idea they are exposed to.

Idiotic ideas don't create idiots. Closed minded, dangerous bigots are created from a failure to be exposed to the greatest variety of ideas and concepts.


Tue, Feb 21, 2012

Thank you for bringing to the attention of all those who read your columns. I agree with the previous comment that exposing children (and all) to "the greatest variety of ideas and concepts" is ideal, and should form educated, intelligent citizens. However, I doubt very much that if, as a Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist or atheist, I asked the public schools to give me time and space to educate their students, they would open their doors...So much for variety!

Tue, Feb 21, 2012

The early Catholic church believed and acted on the principle that if it could "take" a child before 6 to teach the beliefs of the church, that child would belong to the church, because they understood, of course, that the young brain (and heart) is very susceptible to being irretrievably influenced. In the same way, it is unfair and wrong to direct advertising to children; “Some European countries don’t allow sponsorship of children’s programs, no advertisement can be aimed at children under the age of twelve, and there can be no advertisements five minutes before or after a children’s program is aired." (Wikipedia, “Advertising regulation”)
I think the reason that introducing evangelistic teachings to children in our public schools is not right, is that a person’s religion in this country is his or her personal choice and young children are not in a position to make that choice. Comparative religion classes, taken as a student gets older and more discerning, are very interesting and valuable and can help a person make individual intelligent choices for him- or herself .

Seyburn Zorthian

Tue, Feb 21, 2012

This one of your best columns ever. Thanks for bringing this to light. You continue to be the best.
Andy Gault

Andy Gault

Wed, Feb 22, 2012

What is especially troubling to me about this information, other than the obvious fact that public schools are open to all children of various religious beliefs (or none), and should be religion-free (mind you, if a child wants to pray privately in a public school, no one is going to stop him or her) is that there are so many people today who are convinced that THEIR beliefs are the ONLY true beliefs, and the rest of us had darned well agree and change our ways. I don't understand why these people can't live a good life, lead by example, and let others believe and live the way THEY choose. Fundamentalism, in any form, is a dangerous thing when it declares everyone who doesn't fall in line the enemy. This applies to all countries and affects politics, women's rights, sexuality, and education. What a shame that we must always be vigilant about this type of evangelism.

Wed, Feb 22, 2012

We at the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara are contemplating asking the School Board to rent rooms to us immediately after school to teach Atheism, Agnosticism, and Secular Humanism. I would think that if Christians can do their thing we should be able to do ours. What sha think?

Dick Cousineau

Wed, Feb 22, 2012

As a veteran educator for the past 25 yrs., may I remind people (and by people I mean Marisa!), that school is for learning academics and home is for, well, let's just keep it simple here - parenting! This being said, the 'parenting' phenomenon, last I heard, includes teaching such ideals for children as moral values, religion, spiritual advancement (or not) and personal growth. And as such, the 'Good News' here (pun intended) is that parents get to teach their children whatever values they would like to - at home! That way, school institutions can stick to what they are intended to do each day - teach academics and general values to all children regardless of their religious, spiritual and cultural ideals.
So, possibly, the club can have a more inclusive, nondenominational slant and perhaps be called, the 'Friendship' club where basic human values pertaining to friends, communication, kindness and volunteerism can be taught and learned. Because the last time I looked, the bible doesn't speak to today's day and age of bullying and how to handle that in an academic environment. And maybe, just maybe, instead of focusing on wrangling 'unchurched kids' - schools can simply be allowed to maintain the scholastic teachings of the 3 R's, as well as, basic human values and cross-cultural acceptance through such programs and organizations as Utterly Global or the Kind Campaign.
I'm sure God would approve of this.

Dee Anne

Thu, Feb 23, 2012

Nice to see you're so open-minded.

Have you actually attended the club, or talked to any of the folks involved?

Didn't think so.

Thank you for having the courage to expose your bigotry.


Fri, Feb 24, 2012

Your hate-filled venomous article against evangelical Christians is incredibly revealing. You yourself are exhibiting such contempt, prejudice and bigotry against this one faith. I wonder if you'd substituted one of the groups such as Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics or Humanists,in place of "evangelical Christians" if the newspaper would print this article? Of course not; only Christians can be vilified with impunity. Other groups are "off limits."

Fri, Feb 24, 2012

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