Katherine Stewart's new book "The Good News Club" documents the Christian right's program for spreading Christian beliefs to schoolchildren at legally sanctioned meetings in public schools, including Loyal Heights Elementary in Seattle. Stewart discusses her book Sunday at Town Hall Seattle.
"The Good News Club" is a controversial book, and it opens in Seattle — in the Ballard neighborhood, inside Loyal Heights Elementary School.
Before playing out the Seattle scenario, some background. Katherine Stewart is a freelance writer and a devoted mother who thought she kept up well with societal controversies. So a few years ago while residing in Santa Barbara, Calif., imagine Stewart's surprise when she noticed a "Good News Club" on the roster of activities at her daughter's elementary school. The club advertised itself as a nondenominational Bible study program for children who wanted to stay after the final bell dismissing classes. Stewart learned the depiction did not reveal the whole truth. As she began investigating beyond her daughter's school, Stewart realized that the separation of church and state — more specifically evangelical religions and public schools — is a myth across the United States of America.
"Everywhere I found religion-driven programs and initiatives inserting themselves into public school systems with unprecedented force and unexpected consequences," Stewart writes in "The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children" (PublicAffairs, 290 pp., $25.99). "I saw student athletic programs turned into vehicles for religious recruiting. I attended services at a dozen of the hundreds of school facilities that double as taxpayer-financed houses of worship. I heard the stories of children who have been subject to proselytizing in classrooms and school yards, and I spoke with other children who have been instructed to proselytize their friends at school. I met with school board officials who are busy rewriting textbook standards to conform to their own religious agendas."
Eventually, Stewart attended training sessions for Good News Club instructors. By Stewart's estimate, the club has established a presence in at least 3,500 public schools.
Stewart's research took her to Seattle, and what she found at Loyal Heights Elementary School seemed so surprising that she chose it as the opening chapter, a crucial decision for any author who cares about narrative flow.
In the area where Loyal Heights school is sited, Stewart identified 15 Christian churches. In her opening chapter narrative, she contrasts two of those churches. At the United Evangelical Free Church, Stewart found avid support for the Good News Club within a public school building. At Trinity United Methodist Church, Stewart found hesitation about the mixture of private religion and public education.
The controversy pitted parents of schoolchildren, school administrators, local ministers and sometimes the students themselves against one another, tearing the fabric of a neighborhood. At the end of Stewart's masterfully told 27-page chapter, there is no resolution satisfying everybody.
From her reporting in Seattle, Stewart travels to other locales with Good News Clubs and related evangelical efforts aimed at children inside and outside school buildings. To her amazement, she learns that a 2001 ruling by a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, agonizingly split as usual along philosophical divides, permits the melding of church and state. (The ruling is titled Good News Club v. Milford Central School, with justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas pushing to alter what seemed like settled law — the separation of church and state — to many citizens.)
Stewart treats all sides fairly because she cares about factual and contextual accuracy. There is no doubt, however, that she is dismayed at the spread of the Good News Club movement. Each reader will need to decide whether the dismay is warranted.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.