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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.”

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