May 12, 2009

At What Point Does It Become Child Abuse?

Originally, I read this article looking for a church-state separation angle, and the fact that it happened in my collegiate stomping grounds, Santa Barbara, was another interesting side to it. After all, how do you convince a kid who already lives in paradise that there's something better waiting for him when he dies? So I figured the story would be "Religious group uses public school facilities for Bible study." What I read disturbed me a little bit more deeply. It fit in with a story I'd heard concerning what happens when religious instruction gets laid on the very young from another source too.

Well, the church-state angle is certainly interesting -- no one can seem to identify the teacher, student, or parent who invited this evangelist group to the campus of this small public school. But it does seem that they are targeting kindergartners and first graders with their ministry. And that's what got me on a more ethical level than the Constitutional side of the matter.

Reading in the first several paragraphs below the lede of the story from the Santa Barbara Independent, the bias of the reporter against the evangelists couldn't be more obvious. Presumably, the reporter's contempt for the Christians ministering to the children at Cold Springs School was so powerful she could not conceal it. So I thought to go to the sponsoring group's website and see what they have to say for themselves directly, so as to view the subject matter with a different lens.

At the website of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, the first thing I noticed was that the site loads up with an auto-play video that has some very slick graphics that appear to have been done by the same people who put together bumpers for cable news shows. Watching the video, it's very clear that these folks are convinced that they are doing good work, that it is inherently morally good to spread Jesus' message and gain converts to (their style of) Christianity. Well, that's their right, but from my point of view that Christianity has no particular claim either for or against its moral worth -- which is to say I consider religion to be a matter of moral neutrality -- the other dimension of the evangelism is unsettling, at the least.

This is because the group does specifically target young children, just like the critical reporter said. The group's founder (who has long since died) is quoted on the front page as saying, "I was told that a child at five, if properly instructed, can as truly believe as anyone." How does this work in practice? Bribery and peer pressure:
In one school, cheerful flyers announcing Good News Club-sponsored “parties” were posted three feet from the floor, at children’s eye-level. “There was a tremendous feeling of peer pressure to attend … and parents get that,” said a Wisconsin father. At Santa Barbara’s Foothill Elementary School, an administrator said, the Good News instructor was found approaching students and distributing leaflets just outside school grounds.

Often, instructors arrive on campus before the bell rings. When young children exit their regular classrooms, they find the instructor outside the door bearing treats and trailing balloons. In Valencia, California, a parent of a kindergartener reported that the Good News Club actually started 15 minutes prior to the end of her child’s school day. The instructor, she said, would enter the classroom as kindergarten was winding down and perform a roll call — effectively segregating the children by religious affiliation.
If any other adult who was not a parent of a child at school and not a teacher or other school staffer were hanging around outside a school with candy and balloons waiting for the end-of-the-day bell to ring, they'd be arrested -- and with good reason. But if they're there to evangelize, the school, timorously afraid of a lawsuit, allows them to evangelize to kids who lack the skills necessary to tie their own shoelaces.

On the CEF video, the spokesman says, "One thing we know for sure is that children are receptive to God's message." Of course they are. A five-year-old has not yet developed any semblance of critical thinking skills. Five-year-olds accept and believe whatever adults tell them to, simply because it's an adult doing it. At minimum, what CEF is trying to do is to pre-condition these kids to believe that Christianity is somehow special or good. I tell you that it is not; I'm not saying it's bad by any means, but it's a religion like any other -- being Christian doesn't make you morally good and not being Christian doesn't make you morally bad.

And that is where things become pernicious, particularly when childen are involved. In addition to lacking critical thinking skills, children also lack the social graces that come with tolerance and self-confidence. Kids use peer pressure to make one another conform -- they do it in ways adults would never tolerate with one another.

Which brings me back to the very local story I heard. My interlocutor told the story of a six-year-old girl. She's bright and her parents want her to get a good education (what parent doesn't feel that way) and they can afford to send her to a private school. Although the parents are themselves not particularly religious, they believe that the best school in the region is the local Protestant private school. And their little girl comes home from school saying things like "Mommy, do you believe in God? That's good, because if you don't, you're going to hell. If you don't believe in God, you're a bad person who should go to hell." The parents are understandably taken aback to hear their six-year-old spout off with stuff like this.

However, it is to be expected. All religions, and indeed, all denominations within all religions, carry within their doctrines a sense of specialness. "This is the one true faith," most religions proclaim, "You must have it in order to be saved." All evangelical denominations carry some degree of a monopoly on the Truth, too: "Accept the Word of God and be saved; those who do not will be condemned." This is a message that some adults have a hard time thinking critically about; it is, after all, essentially the same message a Mafioso delivers to the victim of a protection racket. To a child, it is a compelling bargain indeed.

What's more, children are hungry for ways in which to distinguish themselves as special and therefore worthy of the attention and approval of adults. And when they're told that they are special becasue Jesus loves them and they're going to heaven when other kids are not, well, that's actually sort of a complex concept that a small child is not ready to hear or understand fully on all but the most simplistic of levels -- "I'm good because I'm a Christian. Little Johnny here isn't a Christian, so he must be bad. He's going to hell!" And thus the teasing and the bullying begins.

And the CEF minister isn't there to stop it -- if she even can or, I must darkly intone, if she even wants to since this peer pressure is exactly the sort of dynamic that CEF admits that it wants to create. A secular teacher or a parent is the one who has to step in. And as we've seen, the school is deathly afraid of lawsuits because the line of separation of church and state is unclear, so the adminsitrators of the school don't know what to do other than keep a hands-off attitude towards anything that is religious at all. And the parents -- well, plenty of them may not see the less pleasant side of their children getting religion and they, too, may beleive that the religious instruction is inherently good and can only help make their children grow up to be moral and ethical.

Now, maybe it can do exactly that. But if so, it's going to be a process, not a sudden transformation. Any Christian with an ounce of honesty will tell you that they have had moral stumbles along their journey through life and that they, too, have had to learn hard ethical lessons the hard way despite the assistance of the Bible and their faith and the intervention of God and a community of well-meaning, moral people to support them. That's because learning about ethics from a book and in a classroom is, at best, incomplete instruction. We don't know until we've been put in a difficult situation personally, and had the experience of having had to make a moral choice, what it is to actually be morally good. And if there's one thing I know for sure about little kids, it's that they lack years of life experience -- the exact sort of thing that makes ethics real and important.

Trying to be as charitable as possible to the CEF, I nevertheless find the idea of evangelizing to five-year-olds to be disturbing. These folks may honestly believe they are doing good work, saving souls, making kids morally good. But that's not what should be expected to happen. Nor is it meaningful evangelism. These kids will believe what they're told to believe for no reason other than it's an adult telling them to do it. And they aren't even close to developing the kinds of intellectual skills to make their so-called "acceptance" of this religion meaningful.

If you have difficulty accepting this, it's probably because you can't get around your own thought that the Gospel is good and therefore spreading it is good. There's no reason, you might think, that age-appropriate religious education has to be considered a bad thing. If this is your protest, take a look at this video:
If your child's friend was doing this, you'd be a little bit creeped out, wouldn't you? The girl obviously has no idea what she's saying; she has simply memorized a list of responses to questions which please her father because, like all small children, what she really wants is to please her father. Imagine, then, how it looks for a young child to be doing the Christian equivalent of exactly this. Indeed, the only thing CEF could object to about the video above is that the father has chosen the incorrect "One True Faith." But given, at minimum, that we live in a pluralistic society where people of different faiths are supposed to tolerate one another, evangelizing to very young children will create the opposite effect of what is desired -- a shallow, incomplete, and chauvanistic adherence to a poorly-understood religion that will be used to tease and exclude other kids. That is why this CEF stuff is creepy and why I have to raise my voice in objection to it.

1 comment:

DaveBuck said...

At a recent picnic some parents told me how much their kid hates saying the pledge because he thinks its a prayer and is for people who believe in god.

I never had this problem because my son happened to bring up this issue with me early. I explained what a pledge is (it's an oath or something you promise). He's really big on being truthful and didn't want to pledge a belief in a god that he doesn't think exists. I explained that I get around it by leaving out "under God" like the original version. He chose to do that ever since.

I realize this is a bit off topic but it gets at the subtleties of religious beliefs in schools.