How the Christian Right Organizes

Are Fundamentalists Taking Over Your School?

By Debi Duke

From Maine to Oregon, South Carolina to North Dakota, education activists report the presence and influence of the so-called Christian Right. Sometimes these forces identify themselves clearly, sometimes they don’t, but they seem to share the same issues, arguments, and strategies.

To better understand how the Christian Right operates and why they’re often successful, Rethinking Schools ordered a Public School Awareness (PSA) Kit from Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE). One of the more active new right education groups, CEE claims 1,200 chapters and PSA Committees and says it has elected 3,500 school board members around the country. CEE is based in Costa Mesa, Calif., and is headed by Dr. Robert Simonds, a minister and former high school teacher and principal who also founded the National Association of Christian Educators.

Though the kit wouldn’t win any prizes for excellence in design or writing, it’s substantial, professional-looking and fashioned to give users confidence that they can fight the “powerful public schools.” The kit includes:

  • The Public School Awareness (PSA) Committee Workbook (45 pp plus several appendices and “special reports” designed for reprinting), a loose-leaf binder including basic organizing principles, such as how to handle media interviews, plus ideological and political materials, including short position statements on 12 key issues.
  • Six audio cassette tapes that parallel the workbook’s contents. Each side of the cassettes can stand alone and their 10-15 minute length makes them easy to absorb on the run. The talk-show format adds a friendly, can-do (though somewhat corny) dimension.
  • 10 copies of Parents’ Action Guide: How You Can Be Effective, 15 pages of organizing tips from the workbook.
  • How to Elect Christians to Public Office (60 pp) by Robert Simonds.
  • A Guide to Public Schools (111 pp) by Robert Simonds with Kathi Hudson.
  • A Critique of America 2000 (53 pp) by Kathi Simonds.
  • What Are They Teaching Our Children? (192 pp) by Mel and Norma Gabler with James Hefley. The Gablers founded and run Educational Research Analysts and have received widespread media attention for their efforts to influence the textbook selection process.

Red Flags

Like all good politicians, CEE plays to its audience, offering the spin they think will be most effective. In How to Elect Christians to Public Office, Simonds advises, “Don’t try to totally ‘educate’ people.

Persuasion comes now — education after the election.” The same advice seems to apply to issue campaigns. A sudden brouhaha around any of the following concerns may signal the arrival of the Right in your area.

Choice and vouchers. The Christian Right goes farther than many proponents of these programs. CEE, for instance, argues that Christian schools should be included but should not be subject to state and federal regulations beyond certain minimal health and safety standards.

Critical thinking, problem-solving, and character development. CEE maintains that techniques and programs of this sort are only suitable when good and bad, right and wrong, are clearly defined. There must be a “correct” answer and there should be no gray areas. They also use this standard when judging books. For instance, Richard Wright’s Native Son recently turned up on a list of books conservatives in Columbus, Ohio wanted banned from libraries. It wasn’t unequivocal enough about good and bad.

Patriotism. CEE is unabashedly dedicated to nationalism and “our capitalistic system that fuels a free society.” Their idea of how to teach citizenship and democracy is to accentuate the positive. The Gablers find, for instance, that “poverty, protests, and crime are covered far out of proportion to the positive happenings and advances in America. Problems are stressed while solutions…are largely censored. Society and capitalism are blamed for practically everything….”

Religion in the schools. CEE ignores the growth of what it calls “minority religions,” such as Islam, arguing that the “coverage any religion receives should be roughly based upon its significance to our American heritage culture, as well as cross-cultural understanding.” CEE also favors efforts to reinstate prayer in schools.

Selection of textbooks and other materials. CEE argues that all materials should support the status quo. “The educational process should not be used to…reshape our children’s attitudes and beliefs. This is especially important with such subjects as America’s religious heritage, gender roles in society, social policy, political viewpoints, or racial interactions.”

Sex education, AIDS prevention, and school-based clinics. CEE charges that these programs encourage or even recruit students into promiscuity and homosexuality but provides no evidence this is so. In some places, including Maine, they have objected to the use of peer counselors, claiming parents are being displaced.

Other issues often chosen by the Right include creation v. evolution, phonics v. whole language, journal writing, new age teaching, global education, the occult, and the way in which holidays, including Halloween, are observed.

Preying on Fears

Wrapped in the rhetoric of parents’ rights, these issues often make attractive packages. Recognizing that many parents are patronized, insulted, or ignored by teachers, administrators, and even elected school officials, CEE and other groups describe their agenda — regardless of the specific issue — as one that will give parents “dynamic involvement and final responsibility in deciding all aspects of the educational program in their local public schools.” They also reaffirm parents’ responsibility for children, going so far as to say that children “belong” to their parents.

For parents who don’t really know what’s going on at school and haven’t been encouraged to find out, this is an appealing argument. In addition, the Right exploits concerns that most parents have for their children. No matter what a parent’s worry may be — AIDS, test scores, drugs, or some other problem — the Right claims to know who’s at fault.

CEE’s materials blame the public schools for everything from sassy children to increased violence, the decline in Sunday School attendance to rising divorce rates.

The “powerful public schools” they describe are caricatures of the schools most of us are familiar with. The Right describes places where time and resources are so plentiful that teachers’ expend substantial energy trying to “unfreeze home-taught values and standards.”

Instead of classrooms in which teachers are always racing against the clock, where keeping order and completing paperwork sometimes seem to take precedence over instruction, CEE describes classes that “introduce children to subtle forms of meditation, visualization, and other meta-physical practices….”

Despite such charges, there is virtually nothing in CEE’s materials to help parents, teachers, or others evaluate the effectiveness of materials, teachers, or schools, and little emphasis is placed on spending time at school. Most accusations are based on seemingly isolated and undocumented incidents and passages taken out of context from textbooks and other materials that are frequently out of date. For instance, to illustrate their belief that “America is no longer beautiful in our textbooks,” the Gablers choose a quote from a 1973 social studies text. The speaker is not identified and several words are omitted so the country being described cannot be identified. It is unclear from the Gabler’s text whether the country was also left out of the student’s book.

In addition, the Gablers don’t explain how this quote is being used or the context in which it appears. Were students supposed to use the quote as a writing prompt? Were they to identify the speaker? the country? the period? Were they to refute the statement? Upon turning to the chapter notes you learn that the quote is from Frederick Douglass and was given to students in the present tense, but you still don’t learn why. This kind of sloppiness permeates CEE’s materials and the Gablers’ examples.

What’s Left Out?

Whether using the “stealth” campaign tactics that have been so effective in southern California or the more high-profile united front approach employed in New York City, the new Right rarely tells the whole truth or reveals its total agenda.

If progressive teachers and parents are to have any hope of defeating the Right, we must hammer away at the other side of the story.

What’s their record in other cities? Have they improved the schools? Have they expanded opportunities for parent involvement? Have they attacked progressive forces in the unions? How do they treat those who disagree with them on issues and priorities?

The experience of parents in Vista, Calif., is instructive. Many feel their board of education, now dominated by CEE-backed candidates, has focused on creationism and other religious questions to the exclusion of more basic issues. Their frustration is exemplified by a New York Times report that quoted one parent, Eric Golden, pleading at a winter board meeting, “…before you is the possible bankruptcy of the Vista Unified School District. Let’s get on with taking care of the real issues.” The debate on creationism continued.

Richard Perez of the Campaign for Multicultural Education told New York’s Village Voice that he believes many Latino Catholics who have joined the fight against the “Rainbow Curriculum” and were expected to vote for Christian Coalition candidates in the May 4th school board elections will quickly become disillusioned with their new allies when they discover that the evangelicals who make up the religious right are usually anti-Catholic and opposed to bilingual education.

(The groups listed at the end of this article can help activists document these kinds of hidden biases, as well as the damage the Right has done in communities around the country.) CEE implies that inequality and racism are over-emphasized in the curriculum and that discussion of these issues encourages negative attitudes. It would be foreign to the Right’s world view to suggest that poverty or discrimination might cause any of the problems CEE finds so troubling or function as barriers to excellence in education. While CEE occasionally mentions the need for “cross-cultural understanding,” it’s usually in the context of helping to illustrate the superiority of “our system.”

This lack of interest in structural problems carries over to the “critical” issues CEE proposes organizing around. Decent facilities, school budgets, tracking, the needs of “special” students, and other concerns that many parents confront daily are missing from CEE’s agenda and those of other Right groups.

Lilly Lopez, a board member in New York’s Community District #15, who faced Christian Coalition candidates in May’s election says, “ It really bothers me that one issue [the Rainbow curriculum] is being used against me. Being on a school board is not a one-issue operation. We’ve been fighting an ongoing equity battle. We’ve worked hard so schools that need the most resources get them.”

Fighting Back

No one has a single answer to successfully fending off the right, but one thing is sure: parents, unions, teachers, and other school people must join forces and reach out to the mainstream churches and other community supporters of public education. This is not a battle that can be won alone. Here are a few additional principles:

  • Make sure parents and community people are visibly and meaningfully involved in schools. Help parents and teachers constructively evaluate materials, teaching methods, and the schools generally. This helps eliminate the “parents’ rights” packaging that’s been so successful for the right.
  • Use a variety of avenues to inform the community about what’s happening in classrooms. As CEE might say, “knowledge breeds power.” People who know what goes on in schools and why it’s different than when they were students are less likely to be affected by the Christian Right.
  • Press for details on the Right’s examples. For example: How widespread are the practices and teaching techniques they cite? When and where did the incidents occur? What is the purpose and context of readings? How old are the textbooks or materials?
  • Don’t discard your agenda in order to defend against the Right’s priorities. Force them to respond to your concerns just as they’ve forced you to respond to theirs.
  • Review basic organizing principles and use them just as the Right does.

Debi Duke coordinates the activities of the National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA). She has worked as a labor and community organizer for almost 20 years.