Have you heard the Good News? If you live in Portland, Oregon, your children might hear It in their public schools. Or they might not.
Activists in Portland have protested against the school-based evangelical outreach of the Child Evangelism Fellowship. According to protesters, the CEF is inflicting damaging psychological messages on unwary children through its aggressive Good News Clubs. For their part, the evangelists claim to be the victim of anti-religious discrimination. Do parents have the right to kick out Christians? Do evangelists have the right to preach to children?
These are big and potentially scary questions. Each side in this case is warning that the other side is using sneaky tactics to target children. But that kind of rhetoric belies the fairly restricted nature of this protest. In this case, at least, the activists on each side are actually limiting themselves to fairly modest goals.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship has been active for a long time. This summer, it planned to expand its Good News Clubs into more schools nationwide. These clubs invite children to come to meetings at which they learn prayers and conservative Protestant doctrine. In a 2001 decision from a town in my backyard, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Good News Clubs must be allowed to use public-school facilities after school hours if other groups are allowed to do so. A few clarifications: the Good News Clubs are not active as part of the school day; public schools are free to ban ALL after-school activities if they choose; and Good News Clubs are not mandatory for children. Still, for the CEF, the Supreme Court’s decision came as a welcome shot in the arm.
Portland protesters were not impressed. This summer, the Protect Portland Children group mobilized to warn Portland parents away from Good News Clubs. Due to the SCOTUS decision, the PPC is not trying to ban the clubs, but only to encourage parents to keep their kids away. Why? According to Katherine Stewart, a parent and author of an anti-CEF book, kids exposed to the Good News Clubs come away with a terrible message. As Stewart told The Oregonian recently,
I started to hear about how kids attending the clubs were targeting their peers for what I can only describe as faith-based bullying and bigotry. The kids attending the clubs would say they knew the religion of the Good News Club “must be true” because they learned it in school. As one little six-year-old girl said to her classmate, “They don’t teach things in school that aren’t true.”
One Seattle activist agreed. She insisted she was not anti-religion, but rather only opposed to the sneaky way the CEF attracted kids to their clubs, and to the terrifying message spread by those clubs. As she put it, “Good News Clubs teach dark, divisive and potentially traumatic doctrines that are unique to fundamentalist forms of Christianity.”
Not surprisingly, conservative evangelical Protestants are defending the Good News Clubs. Creationist leader Ken Ham argued that this anti-gospel activism represented just another tactic in the continuing culture wars. “Many secularists,” Ham warned,
are deliberately and aggressively targeting our children and Christian ministries that teach the truth of God’s Word to children—and for a reason! They are going after the hearts and minds of this and coming generations, and if they continue to do so successfully, they’ll win the culture.
Ham’s interest makes sense. After all, as he points out, anti-creationism activists have insisted that teaching creationism amounts to “child abuse.” This Portland parent protest makes similar claims. The protesters warn that this sort of religious message can be “psychologically harmful to children.”
According to protesters, both the tactics of the Good News Club and its message are dangerous to young people. Learning that one is sinful and destined to eternal damnation, some parents feel, is not the proper religious message for children. And luring those children to after-school activities with promises of treats and prizes seems immoral.
For their part, CEF activists claim that their clubs teach only the central doctrines of Christianity. Whatever protesters may assert, according to the CEF, the Good News really is good news. Schools with active Good News Clubs report improved student behavior and school environment. Students act more kindly toward one another. Students act more politely and thoughtfully about their behavior. Who would have a problem with that?
But let’s clarify the issue: Portland protesters are NOT trying to block Good News Clubs from Portland schools. And Good News Clubs are not part of the public-school day. In spite of heated rhetoric, this case will not decide whether or not conservative Christian doctrines are dangerous for children. This case will not decide whether or not evangelists can preach in public schools.
Nevertheless, activists on both sides are bringing out the big guns: Both sides warn that the other side is targeting their children. That is a scary thing. But neither side in this case really hopes to stop the other side from doing so. Rather, each side seems to be limiting itself to more immediate goals. Protesters are encouraging Portland parents simply to keep their kids home. And evangelists are simply running an afterschool club and hoping to encourage kids to attend.
In my opinion, this is exactly where these discussions belong. Evangelists should be free to spread whatever non-violent messages they choose. And parents should be free to encourage others to keep their kids away. If parents think Christianity is psychologically damaging, they should certainly tell their friends and neighbors about their concerns. And if conservative evangelicals think that their message is the only way to avoid eternal damnation, they should certainly be free to tell anyone they like about it.