Welcome to the first monthly installment of the Skepchick Book Club. This week we’re discussing The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children by Katherine Stewart. This is one of the scariest nonfiction books I’ve read, especially the section on where the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is targeting Boston, where I live.
Below the cut is my book-themed dessert recipe (you have to try it), and my Q&A with Katherine Stewart. She will be reading this thread too, so if any of you have any questions for her please post them. At the bottom of this post are the details for the next book we’re reading and the date. Also, in case it needs to be said, Spoiler Alert!
This week’s book-themed recipe is an Apple Pie with a secret ingredient: Cheddar cheese baked into the streusel topping. I use a bit of deceit when serving this pie because there are a surprising number of people who don’t know that cheddar cheese enhances the apple and brown sugar flavors in the pie. I used the this recipe, although I cut it in half because I only had an 8″ pie crust.
The gist of the book is that in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled (Good News Club v. Milford Central School) that government may not discriminate against speech from a certain viewpoint (in this case, religious). From the verdict:
Restrictions on speech that takes place in a limited public forum must not discriminate on the basis of the speaker’s viewpoint and be reasonable in light of the forum’s purpose. Because the school’s exclusion of the Good News Club violated this principle, the school violated the Club’s free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the school’s claim that allowing the club to meet on its property would violate the Establishment Clause lacked merit and thus was no defense to the club’s First Amendment claim.
So now, Evangelical Christians who attend euphemistically “Bible-believing” churches are invading schools across America in the hopes of converting the unchurched and “wrong sort” of Christians. They want to take over public schools, even though their own children are homeschooled. They are mostly targeting children from ages 4-14 and enticing them with candy. They rely on deceit and misinformation to get past parents to inform children that they’re going to Hell.
Now for the Q&A with Katherine Stewart:
MB: In the book you frequently use the term “judicial activism.” This term is used on both the left and right, so it seems like it means something closer to a decision one disagrees with more than anything else. How did you intend to define the term in a useful fashion in this context?*
KS: Judicial activism refers to something more than just court decisions that one happens not to like. Judicial activism involves court decisions that impose public policy outcomes that really ought to be decided by the legislative and executive branches of government. Activism is sometimes hard to define or identify because it can happen in an indirect way. For example, the Good News Club decision, along with related decisions by the Supreme Court, appear on the surface to be merely rulings on the constitutionality of certain kinds of speech activities. But in practice, on the ground, they are the same thing as a law requiring public school systems to establish state-funded or subsidized evangelical churches, or a law to require after-school instruction by the Good News Club.
Your question prompted me to briefly review my book. While I could find only one use of the actual term “judicial activism,” on page 69, I do, as you have pointed out, refer frequently, and in a broad way, to the legal and judicial strategy of the religious right, and that is extremely important. Judicial strategy is what happens when advocacy groups, such as the Alliance Defense Fund, Liberty Counsel, and other right-wing Christian legal groups, decide to pursue policy objectives through the courts that ordinarily would go before the elected branches of government.
To the extent that a savvy judicial strategy involves manipulating the courts, it becomes a kind of virtual activism. Frequently those engaging in judicial strategy are not judges, but lawyers. Even if the justices aren’t activist to the extent that they are manipulated by a comprehensive judicial strategy, then the court system is being used by one group or another as a policy tool.
Christian Nationalists are currently pursuing a judicial strategy by using legal advocacy groups to play a forceful role in breaking down the wall of separation between church and state in public schools. Because of their actions, the court has gutted the long history of jurisprudence associated with the religion clauses of the First Amendment in school-related cases.
What do you recommend we do that could help deal with the problems described in the book? Do you have any solutions that are both Constitutional and wouldn’t cause more damage to the school system than the original problem?*
First: We can’t begin to think about solutions to our challenges until people know about those challenges. So I think it is important to educate ourselves about what is happening in our public schools, and to educate others about this movement in our midst.
Second: We need to pursue a judicial strategy from a progressive position aimed at reestablishing some of the basic principles of Constitutional law. Courts should be required to make a better distinction between speech and religious worship. We all know that religion is not just speech. Our Founding Fathers knew that too, which is why they inserted two separate clauses in the First Amendment — the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause — that treat religion as something other than just speech. Thanks to the Free Exercise Clause, religious groups are allowed to hire and fire people and select their members without regard to laws that constrain other employers and groups. They receive significant tax benefits. More to the point, religious groups are permitted to preach the kinds of doctrines — that homosexuality is an abomination, for instance – for which nonreligious groups would be excluded from schools and other government institutions. The cumulative effect of court decisions based on the new legal theory that religion is just speech from a certain point of view is to force schools and other institutions to provide state-subsidized platforms for the dissemination of religious beliefs.
I would also like to see the courts recognize the coercive aspects of religious activities in the schools.
Third: School boards and school districts can take proactive steps to establish policies and guidelines that ensure fair access to school resources without compromising the obligation of public schools to respect the religious diversity of our society and the secular nature of our government institutions.
What has been the overall response since you’ve written the book?
I am very grateful for the interest and enthusiasm with which my book has been received. There is some polarization, but the division is not as simple as one might imagine. Some “conservatives” loudly denounce the separation of church and state as a plot by liberal elites. In the response to my book, I have been gratified to be reminded that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe, on the contrary, that the separation of church and state is one of America’s greatest achievements.
I know you’re on a book tour right now and that you’ve recently visited my hometown in upstate South Carolina. Have you noticed a difference in the reception you’ve received in conservative versus liberal states?
As I travel the country, I am meeting with many people who have first-hand experience with the phenomenon I am describing. A Kansas mother told me that kids put religious literature on her son’s desk every single day – faith-based bullying masquerading as “religious sharing.” A couple in South Carolina homeschool their kids because they say there is so much religion in their public school. A Pennsylvania dad reported that his son’s “character education” instructor opined that married women shouldn’t use birth control without their husbands’ permission.
Obviously, stories such as these are more common in areas known for their religious conservatism. But as my book details, we are also seeing religious initiatives in “progressive” or diverse areas such as Seattle, Boston, and New York City.
What has been your biggest surprise in your research?
I was shocked to discover the degree of organization behind groups such as The Good News Club, or Every Student Every School – an initiative that is debuting in 2013. When such initiatives show up in public schools, they are perceived as home-grown, driven by local personalities. In fact, it’s all scripted and strategized in incredible detail at a national level. Their marketing plans could put many multinational corporations to shame.
Another big surprise is the extent to which the groups that seek to “invade” the public schools, in the words of one activist, also seek to destroy them. Many fundamentalists simply do not accept public schools as legitimate enterprises in the first place. They see public education as “secular” education, and therefore intrinsically hostile to their religion. At their core, they do not accept that we live in a diverse society with a secular form of government. If they can’t “break down the doors” to the public schools, in the words of a movement leader, they would be happy just to break the schools. This should be of concern to anyone who cares about children, education, and indeed the future of our country as a modern secular democracy.
*Thanks to Josh Z. for these questions
So everyone: What did you think of this book? There is a lot to discuss here, so have at it! And post any more questions you have for the author.
Next month’s Book Club: In honor of Alan Turing’s birth month (June), we are reading The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt. (Thanks to Courtney at Queereka for the suggestion!) I’ll be posting the thread on June 17th at 11 am EST.