Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children

Katherine Stewart. The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children New York: Public Affairs; 2012. 290 pp. Subject index.

Katherine Stewart claims that Christian Nationalist groups have used misguided court decisions which transformed religious practice into protected speech, culminating in the 2001 Good News Club v. Milford Central, to use public schools for evangelism.

Christian Nationalists and others perpetuate the fiction that God "has been kicked out of the schools," and they attribute every social ill to this removal. They see their efforts in public school as a last-ditch attempt to redeem public education, and, if that fails, then to destroy the public's desire to maintain the public school system.

Ms. Stewart discusses in depth after school clubs, use of public schools on Sundays as churches, promotion of Christian Nationalism in school standards and textbooks, hiding Christian evangelism in sex, substance abuse and moral education and encouragement of pupils to "evangelize" other students. She also reports on national organizations which supports local activists in their efforts, revealing the high degree of centralization, planning and coordination which is behind "local" expressions of "speech from a religious viewpoint."

I heard about this book through my participation in the Augusta, Georgia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

I've asked Muslim family friends who have children in the local school system, and the parents did not report that their children suffered any proselytizing. They reported that a church was using the elementary school on Sundays, but they did not have a problem with that. Indeed, my father told me that Muslims in Chicago suburbs in the 1970s used public schools for weekend education and prayer services.

Many times, as I read the book, I found myself wondering if Ms. Stewart was exaggerating the threat and/or damage these groups were doing. After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that my personal tolerance level for contact with Christian evangelicals is much higher than the white liberal audience whom this book addresses. Apparently, many other Muslims think that way as well, since they enroll relatively frequently at Catholic colleges and university.

As a member of a racial and religious minority, I very early on learned that public school was not a warm, fuzzy, supportive place. Nor was college. Nor were my white-collar work environments. And most of these tense encounters were not with Christian evangelicals. Isn't it more important for white liberals to teach their kids how to react to people who present ideas to them? When Ms. Stewart says that kids assume that the public school is the locus of truth and legitimate authority and hence the mixture of religious activities and speech with schools is government promotion of religion, is not the problem that kids are not taught to assert their own identity? Not being a child development expert, I don't know how to teach skepticism to toddlers. But tolerance and anti-bullying education can't simply be suppression of alternate viewpoints and lifestyles. There has to be some component of assertion of one's identity in the presence of peer pressure to suppress it.

Moreover, as Ms. Stewart points out, if there is to be regulation of religious speech and practice, it will certainly be implemented more strictly for adherents of minority religions.

Ms. Stewart does not ever racialize her discussions. At least in Augusta, GA, majority black political and public institutions tend to inject religion, particularly Christianity, more than I'd like. Yet I doubt that her book would appeal to parents of children in majority-black public schools in Augusta, GA. Of course, black people in the United States are the most inured to the legitimizing authority of the public school since they have been victims of government-supported white supremacy for centuries.

Public education has always been supporting a dominant culture of White Supremacy. Whether it's called Christmas or Winter holiday, it's happening in late December, not whenever Eid is happening. When I learned about Georgia history in 1980 public schools, we did not focus on Native Americans or enslaved Africans.

In my opinion, Ms. Stewart's book would have an impact beyond white liberals if it viewed Christian Nationalism as simply substantially a reassertion of white supremacy. The American Public Media documentary The Great Textbook War reports how Alice Moore became upset about school textbooks in 1974 West Virginia:
The quote that Alice's husband pointed out was from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "All praise is due to Allah that I moved to Boston when I did. If I hadn't, I'd probably still be a brainwashed black Christian."
Moore: I was so offended by that, that remark in a student's textbook, so I told the superintendent, "I want every book delivered to my house, I want to see every book. I'm going to, you know, I'm going to start reading these books ..."
Despite my criticisms, I strongly recommend this book for the following reasons. One, many parents don't understand that public schools vary in quality and that their children may not have a good experience and receive a good education. If this book just gets parents to actually talk to their children, their teachers and participate in their Parent Teacher Associations, it will have done a great service. Two, it will likewise prompt parents to pay attention to local elections, especially school boards, and state government elections.

As far as public policy, I was disturbed by the misuse of public facilities. Their use should be priced so that the public is not subsidizing non-profit groups. I was also disturbed by stories of school athletic teams ostracizing members who did not subscribe to evangelical beliefs. I hate not offering science-based sex and substance-abuse education. I hate ideologues ignoring experts in textbook standard writing.

Another tactic Ms. Stewart identifies is the offering of courses such as Bible as Literature in public schools. While this is a topic that could be legitimate, it often is executed in a sectarian, non-scientific manner. I knew a Muslim student who took a course like this in high school. I asked her about it, and she felt it was a good course and she did not report that the teacher taught it improperly.

But I instinctively agree with the Supreme Court's (yes, Alito and Thomas) judgements (not their reasoning). I would hope that dialog would persuade Christian evangelicals that children can't be the locus of evangelism since, at least according to Muslim doctrine, there is no responsibility (takliif) before the age of majority, generally considered puberty. It's difficult for me to understand why a Christian would get excited about a 10-year old repeating doctrines about salvation when, with much less effort, I could get him to repeat doctrines from Harry Potter movies.

Is one student telling another student, "I believe you are going to hell" bullying? If it is, are we going to expel students for this? I don't know the legal doctrine behind this. I don't think employers want their employees saying that to each other, but I don't know if workplace regulation of speech is constitutional. I don't know. I think the only solution is for parents to teach their kids to resist on their own. But this is complicated.

The other critical factor is for people who don't like these trends to organize. I don't think it's valid to criticize the Christian Nationalists while remaining on the couch listening to Bill Maher.

Ms. Stewart concludes with a passage that sums up many of the contradictions of our public education project in the age of multiculturalism:
Sometimes our legitimate concerns with individual rights so dominate our thinking that we deceive ourselves about the nature of the problems we face. We have become very adept at measuring harm to communities. We imagine that our legal rights and our ballot boxes are all we need for our democracy, and therefore we fail to appreciate the vital contributions made by other institutions. We suppose for legal purposes that a school is just a building, when it is not. We suppose that education is just another transaction, when it is much more than that. We have grown so used to the idea that collective action is never more than an infringement on individual rights -- that government is always the problem -- that we easily overlook one of the largest and most successful collective efforts in our history: the public school system. And we may well find, in a future world -- where the rich have their own system of education, the religious have theirs, the poor don't get educated at all, and everyone is schooled in contempt for those who are different -- that we have kept all of our rights, yet lost everything but the pretense of democracy.
 The author maintains a blog about this topic

Check out my posts on education.

P.S. Correspondence from a Muslim high school athlete, now graduated:
A lot of times before a soccer game, my team wants to say the Lord's Prayer. And it doesn't ultimately offend me because it is nondenominational and they know I am Muslim so they aren't doing it to offend me. I know it is out of reach but it would be nice if athletic teams change their schedule around Ramadan so athletes wouldn't have to fast during a game. But for the most part I have not felt oppressed in regards to [high school sports].