The Evangelical Spectrum

November 05, 2012  |  permalink

Within evangelical Christianity, as within any faith group, there is a range of approaches to scientific thought and climate issues, and there is activism on both ends of the spectrum. My November 4 piece for the Guardian, titled America’s Theologians of Climate Science Denial, focused on the role of the Cornwall Alliance, which is on the one end of that spectrum and encourages a contempt for climate science.  I feel it is necessary to draw attention to the position that the Cornwall Alliance represents because their supporters appear to be the ones setting the agenda within the Republican Party. They drive politics and policy, and are behind efforts to degrade science education in public schools.

Evangelicals who subscribe to different ways of thinking on the environment, such as the Creation Care movement or that of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, may feel overlooked or slighted when initiatives such as the Cornwall Alliance are broadly described as “evangelical.”  If our main concern is to represent the contemporary evangelical movement in all its diversity, then they might have a point. But our real concern now has to be with the way in which the evangelical religion is used in contemporary politics and policy. As far as the politics of religion in America go, it is the Cornwall Alliance folks who are “winning” the message game. And they, at least, are adamant that their politics follows directly from their religion.

When politicians and religious leaders conflate their religion with a particular policy position, they do harm to their own religion – the subject of my October 24 Guardian piece, titled How Christian Fundamentalism Feeds the Toxic Partisanship of U.S. Politics.

When religion is reduced to a small handful of wedge issues, when Americans urged to vote their “Biblical values” are told that that means voting along party lines, or are told that the environmental movement is “un-Biblical,” it becomes shrill and reduced. This abuse of religion has been tremendously damaging for American politics. But it bears repeating here that it has also been tremendously destructive of American religion.

Cheerleaders or Cheer Bullies?

October 05, 2012  |  permalink

When public school cheerleaders put Bible verses on the “spirit signs” in Kountze, Texas, it made for great news. The school district banned the signs last month; the cheerleaders sued; a judge reinstated the signs; and the matter returned to court. Opposed by the FFRF and defended by the Texas AG and assorted radical religious advocacy groups, the cheerleaders tearfully defended their actions in front of the TV cameras. In an area known for its religious piety, the students opposing religious signs at school football games are understandably less eager to publicly proclaim their position.

The cheerleaders did not disguise their missionary zeal. As one 16-year-old member of the squad said, “I feel like it’s getting God’s word out to those who need it.” As the FFRF points out, the real purpose of their efforts is not to express their faith but to conflate the authority of the school with their particular interpretation of the Christian religion. It is also part of a nationwide effort intended to exert peer pressure on nonbelievers and members of religious minorities in public schools, and to erode the principle of church-state separation.

I write about this wide-ranging initiative in my latest piece for the Guardian.

Will Schools Fall for Alliance Defending Faith-Based Bullying?

August 30, 2012  |  permalink

Who could be for bullying? Who would oppose efforts to deal with this unfortunate, sometimes tragic aspect of life in today’s schools? As it happens, a number of groups that claim to represent the “Christian viewpoint” have become vigorous opponents of many anti-bullying initiatives, claiming that such initiatives “discriminate” against their religious viewpoint.

On August 28, Focus on the Family and the ADF (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, recently rebranded as the Alliance Defending Freedom) released what they call an Anti-Bullying Policy Yardstick, intended to “allow public schools and the general public” to “evaluate several legal aspects of a school’s proposed or existing policies.” While claiming that such guidelines help parents “protect their children” they are in fact an elaborate scheme to clear the way for faith-based exemptions for those who wish to target their fellow students for bigotry and bullying.

A list of policy ideals details the notion that bullying policies should not apply to “religious, political, philosophical, or other protected student speech.” Politicians in several states have tried to pass similar laws, which amount to a “license to bully.” These and other points in the model policy intentionally protect bullies while making students who are members of religious minorities, LGBT, or other frequently targeted groups more vulnerable to harassment.

Who are the folks supporting this initiative, and what are their core concerns? Alan Sears, the president, CEO, and general counsel of the ADF since its founding in 1993, co-wrote a book in 2003 titled “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today (Broadman & Holman),” alleging that the “radical homosexual activist community has adopted many of the techniques used in Nazi Germany” and that public schools are rife with “homosexual indoctrination.” At the heart of initiatives like the Anti-Bullying Policy Yardstick is a deeply hostile stance toward the institution of public education. The Yardstick’s promoters don’t seem concerned that their guidelines may end up ensnarling school administrators and districts in costly litigation. Perhaps, for them, that’s the whole point.

Female Trouble

August 25, 2012  |  permalink

For some, it took Todd Akin’s “forcible rape” comment to revive the issue this election season. Akin’s loony-tunes declaration that women don’t get pregnant via rape was broadly acknowledged to be so off the mark – the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reports that five per cent of rape victims of reproductive age become pregnant – that even many Republicans called for him to drop out of the race for Missouri senate. But while we can agree that such whoppers are, at the very least, politically inexpedient for a political candidate, they have made it into the health curricula of some public schools. Read more in my piece for the Guardian.

My Response to CEF President Reese Kauffman

June 12, 2012  |  permalink

In response to the piece I published in the Guardian on the CEF’s lesson on the Amalekites, Reese Kauffman, President of the CEF, wrote a letter to the Guardian in which he denies that the CEF teaches genocide. Here’s my response, which has been appended to the original piece:

Though I welcome Mr. Kauffman’s comments, I regret to note that he seems to be unfamiliar with his group’s teaching materials. Nowhere in the lesson plan on the Amalekites does the CEF mention the “New Covenant” and its prohibition on genocide. Mr. Kauffman claims the CEF “would never teach children that God would instruct them, or anyone today, to commit genocide.” And yet the CEF’s lesson plan on the Amalekites tells children that God wanted Saul “to go and completely destroy the Amalekites – people, animals, every living thing.” It also repeatedly tells children that the Amalekites deserved punishment for their “sinful unbelief.”

To be precise, the thrust of the CEF’s lesson is to teach obedience – that if God tells you to kill unbelievers, or do anything else for that matter, you must do exactly as he says. “King Saul should have been willing to seek God for strength to obey completely,” the lesson plan on the Amalekites reads, and in three separate places it instructs teachers, “Have children shout ‘God will help you obey!’”

There are many ways to teach the Christian faith to young children, many of which do not involve teaching obedience through the tale of the genocide of the Amalekites. Readers of the Guardian and parents of American school children are entitled to know which variety of the Christian religion the CEF is promoting in its public school clubs. 

The Far Right’s War on History

May 19, 2012  |  permalink

If you want to see a scary movie, consider taking in “Revisionaries,” currently making the festival circuit, which records the antics of the hard right majority on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) as they revise the textbook standards that will be used in Texas (and many other states). The first part of this documentary deals with the familiar “science wars”, in which one side seeks to educate children in the sciences, and the other side proposes to “teach the controversy” in order to undermine those aspects of science that conflict with its religious convictions. But it’s the second part of the movie where the horror really kicks in. As I explain in more detail in my book, the history debate makes the science debate look genteel. Here’s my take in the Guardian

Just Say Yes to Stereotyping

May 12, 2012  |  permalink

In spite of doubts about the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education,  U.S. tax dollars are still funding it. Conservatives earmarked $250 million for such programs under the Affordable Care Act. And just last month, the Obama administration green-lit the Heritage Keepers abstinence-only curriculum to receive funds reserved for evidence-based sex education. Read more in this month’s Ms

Australia’s Blurred Line of Separation

May 01, 2012  |  permalink

Ron Williams knew something was amiss when his six-year-old son came home from his public school in Queensland singing gospel ditties. A jazz singer, composer and father of six, Williams discovered that his son was taking his cues from the school chaplain – one of thousands installed in Australia’s public schools at public expense. Williams and his wife Andrea, who was inculcated in fundamentalist faith at school, asked the school to keep their son out of the chaplain’s classes. When the other kids found out, they began to taunt him, telling him he would go to hell.

One of the Williams’s older children later came home with a “Biblezine”, which the school chaplain had handed out to all 1,500 students at the school. The magazine promoted a distinctly fundamentalist religious take on sexuality and relationships. “Condoms … promote promiscuity,” one article stated. “God doesn’t call it alternative lifestyle,” another article said of same-sex relationships. “He calls it a sin.”

Constitutions matter; courts sometimes matter more. Australia’s constitution has been said to lack clarity on the separation of church and state, and its high court has made a murky situation muddy over the past decades, with rulings that have undermined the secular character of the Commonwealth.

Read the full article in the Guardian here.

School Vouchers and the Subversion of Church-State Separation

April 25, 2012  |  permalink

“Choice” is such a nice word that everybody wants to have it on their side.

“Choice” is also a fuzzy word, which may be why Mitt Romney is willing to call himself a supporter of “school choice”. In the strange language of education politics, “choice” sometimes means advocating the partial privatization of school systems through charter schools – which Romney supports. It can also indicate support for voucher programs, which is another thing altogether – and which Romney is said also to support.

Read the rest of my piece in the Guardian.

Tennesee Skewers Evolution in the Classroom

April 17, 2012  |  permalink

Four score and seven years ago, a Tennessee high school biology teacher named John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution. At the time, Tennessee had a law called the Butler Act, in honor of John W. Butler, the leader of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, that turned Scopes’s efforts to educate his students into a criminal offense. The enemies of Darwin won in court but suffered a nearly catastrophic loss in the public sphere. The press portrayed them as anti-intellectual and un-American in their opposition to science and progress. They were the “sharpshooters of bigotry,” according to Scopes’ celebrated attorney, Clarence Darrow. “I knew that education was in danger from the source that has always hampered it — religious fanaticism,” he said. The fallout was so toxic that Christian fundamentalism retreated as a political force for decades.

Read the rest at Alternet.

Monkey Bill Passes, Setting Stage for Fresh Lawsuits

April 13, 2012  |  permalink

We now have compelling evidence that evolution doesn’t happen—at least, not in Tennessee. As of April 10, 2012, Tennessee has on its books a new law intended to undermine the teaching of evolution and promote discussion of creationism in public schools. The legislation was opposed by pretty much every credible organization involved in the teaching of biology: the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences. But the legislators of Tennessee thought they knew better, and Governor Bill Halsam, demonstrating neither courage nor conviction, allowed the bill to pass into law without his signature.

As Rob Boston notes in Talk2Action, the bill is likely to result in a wave of lawsuits against already cash-strapped school districts. Such lawsuits will serve to further weaken public education.

The same groups that have masterminded the success of this bill and other initiatives to introduce religion into the public schools are also leading the charge to deprive the public education system of funding through voucher systems. Embroiling the public schools in needless lawsuits over the teaching of creationism, which is clearly unconstitutional, seems a particularly brutal way of siphoning money from public schools. However, it is the predictable consequence of such reckless actions.

Breaking the “Moment of Silence”

March 24, 2012  |  permalink

In the 1948 landmark Supreme Court decision Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education of School District,. Justice Frankfurter observed that any activity that “sharpens the consciousness of religious differences” among schoolchildren “causes precisely the consequences against which the Constitution was directed when it prohibited the government common to all from becoming embroiled, however innocently, in the destructive religious conflicts of which the history of even this country records some dark pages.”

If religious radicals have their way, Frankfurter’s wise observation is to be discounted. Those radicals seek to sharpen that consciousness of religious differences among public school children wherever possible. Their aim is to undermine what is perhaps the greatest lesson the public schools have to teach: how to get along with others.

Gateways to Better Education is a Christian nationalist group that seeks to promote their religious perspective in the public schools; their legal defense comes courtesy of the Alliance Defense Fund. In its latest mailings, it points out that although the courts have disallowed school-sponsored prayer, 35 states allow for a “moment of silence” in public schools. Not content to let students pray on their own, Gateways has decided to create a “School Prayer Card” to use during that moment of silence. The plan is to have kids—or at least the right kind of kids—bring the card to school and whip it out together at the right moment.

“Imagine millions of students silently reading the prayer on our School Prayer Card this Friday morning in class (and every morning for the rest of the school year)!” they write. “The court in Rhode Island may have removed a dusty old banner that no one read, but the result will be that every morning millions of students in thirty-five states will pray the prayer that was on that banner.”

Now, it’s well-established that children are allowed to pray in school. As long as it does not disrupt the school day—and as long as the prayer comes from the students, not the school—it’s perfectly legal and acceptable. And no one will or should stop kids from bringing in their Prayer Cards, if they think that’s what they need to get through the moment of silence. But what is strictly speaking legal isn’t always what is wise. It isn’t hard to see that the intention behind the Gateways project is to get kids to do what adults have been prohibited from doing, namely, to convey the impression to public school children that there is an official or preferred religion and a correct prayer in the school. And it also isn’t hard to see that the effect, which can hardly be unintended, is to sharpen the consciousness of religious differences among school children.

The point of the card, after all, is to break the moment of silence, and to turn that minute that children might have had to reflect on matters of their own conscience into yet another opportunity to show that some are card-carrying members of one group, and others are not.

Richard Dawkins endorses “The Good News Club”

March 19, 2012  |  permalink

Praise for The Good News Club from Richard Dawkins, advocate of reason and author of The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.  “Please read this book,” he writes, “talk about it, tweet about it, recommend it to friends, review it on Amazon, name and shame the culprits, do everything possible to bring Katherine Stewart’s shocking message to the attention of everyone in America.”

For his full comments, please see

Reading, Writing, and Religious Propaganda?

March 07, 2012  |  permalink

Reading, writing, and religious propaganda? Sure is starting to look that way on public school campuses, thanks to The Life Book Movement, a project of the Gideons International. The Life Book Movement distributes evangelical tracts written with teens in mind to kids at school. They just hit the two million mark, and plan to distribute another 600,000 thousand evangelical tracts onto public school campuses this spring by drafting kids from evangelical church groups as “student missionaries.”

Since 2009, the movement has encouraged the distribution of “Life Books,” a summarized version of the Bible illustrated with annotations in “teenage” slang. When public school students hand out Life Books to their peers in order to convert them to evangelical Christianity, the Movement calls this a “successful saturation.”

It is yet another way that adults seek to use young people to do the work that they themselves cannot do—a “peer-to-peer evangelism loophole,” in the words of one life book movement leader.  LifeBook President and CEO Carl Blunt explains: “As I’m standing here today, my heart pounds for teenagers…And you know it’s illegal for you and I as adults to walk into a public high school and hand out God’s Word. Absolutely illegal. In mission speech we might call that a closed country. And for years we’ve whined and we’ve complained. We’ve filed lawsuits and all these sorts of things and yet it still remains a closed country. And walking those halls are an unreached people group.”

Life Book founders seem to delight in violating the spirit of the law, if not the letter: “IS IT LEGAL? No—not for adults. But it is completely legal for students! It is a God-given loophole!”

In fact, this peer-to-peer model relies on the funding, organization, and persuasion of adults. The website for Life Book asks adults to allow their houses of worship to function as “anchor churches,” and encourages them promote the movement to their youth pastors and congregants.

Creationism for Credit

March 06, 2012  |  permalink

Alabama Republican Blaine Galliher introduced House Bill 133, which would, if enacted, “authorize local boards of education to include released time religious instruction as an elective course for high school students.” The point of the bill, he said, was to “balance” the presentation of evolution in public schools. Leading authorities on religious liberty are not impressed. Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, pointed out that “The only state credit for religion courses should be objective study of what each of the great religions does or teaches….There’d be an entanglement problem with the school trying to regulate these courses, trying to tell the churches what kind of religion they can offer.”

Of course, many students are receiving school credit for junk science—on the public dime. Religious schools across the country receive public funds through voucher and corporate tax credit programs, and many hundreds of those use fundamentalist textbooks that teach creationism. A. Beka, Bob Jones University Publishing, and Accelerated Christian Education are three of the most popular, and all three teach biblical Creationism in their science curriculum.

Private religious schools and home-schoolers are entitled to teach whatever kind of “science” they like. But should we, the taxpayer, have to pay for it? 

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The Book
The Good News Club, by Katherine Stewart

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

About the Author
author Katherine Stewart Katherine Stewart has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. Contact her. More →


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