Cults: When churches go very, very wrong.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 June
CULT kəlt noun. A religion centered on one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controling, abusive, devilish, or just plain strange.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.
[Cultic 'kəl.tɪk adjective, cultish 'kəl.tɪʃ adjective, cultism 'kəl.tiz.əm noun.]

I throw this word “cult” around a lot, so I’d better define it. First, what other folks mean by “cult,” all of which are included in the above definition:

  • Sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists whose job descriptions end in -ist, tend to use definition #1: A cult is any religion with a guru in charge. Not necessarily controling, abusive, or devilish; just a group which follows a person. Technically Christianity falls under this definition: We follow Jesus, right?
  • Popular culture leans towards definition #2: A cult is any creepy religion. If it weirds people out in any way, they just call it a cult. Even if it’s Christianity. If we trust Jesus a little too much for their comfort, they call us cultish.
  • And popular Christian culture leans towards definition #4: A cult is any heretic church.

The popular Christian definition originated when Charles S. Braden used it, in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. It’s a book I oughta plug, since it’s mighty useful: It explains how certain churches deviate from orthodox Christianity.

But thanks to these guys, when an Evangelical Christian says “cult,” they typically mean “heretic.”

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don’t believe God’s a trinity. So they’d be cults.
  • Latter-Day Saints say Jesus (and for that matter the Father) is a created being. So, cult.
  • Christian Scientists claim death is an illusion, and therefore Jesus didn’t literally die: Cult.
  • Muslims and Buddhists don’t even believe Jesus is God: Cults.

Yep, doesn’t even matter if these groups don’t consider themselves Christian. Evangelicals will freely slap that label “cult” on any religion they consider heretic. Depending on how Fundamentalist they get—by which I mean how narrowly they define orthodoxy—everything can be a cult but their group. I grew up in such churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church lets ’em, they’ll call you a cult. Because their religion is so strict, makeup is orthodoxy, and you aren’t orthodox. Today it’s foundation, eyeshadow, blush, and lipstick; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course if your church is that strict and controling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (If you don’t mind me mixing a few metaphors there.)

Those who no longer think prayer works.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 June

There’s a blog I follow. A few years ago, its author wrote a post about how he no longer believes prayer works—at least not the way we imagine it does.

He no longer believes prayer involves asking God for stuff. Nor asking questions of him, and getting answers. Nor calling on him for help. Forget about God meeting our needs and granting our wishes. Forget about asking this mountain to move over there, and it will.

Prayer, he states, is only about empathy. We pray for others because we love and care about them. It brings us closer to them. It expresses our love for them. It expresses our love for God too. It’s kind.

But otherwise prayer doesn’t do jack. And y’know, he says he’s okay with that.

I’ll take his word for it that he’s okay with that. But man alive, I sure wouldn’t be.

Back in my early twenties, I told God he needed to either do something, or I was gonna quit being Christian. Because I was tired of following a God who, according to my bible, does stuff… yet going to a church where, according to them, he doesn’t do stuff. They were cessationist, and believed God no longer answers prayer. Not for miracles, anyway.

Now, fortunate coincidences: He’d do those, from time to time. If a friend of yours had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy and you prayed real hard and the tumor shrank, they felt it was wholly legitimate to give God the credit… for permitting the chemo to work, I suppose. Or say a different friend got into a road accident, and a dozen friends coincidentally happened to be on the scene, and helped rescue her, call an ambulance, call the auto insurance company, call a tow truck—why, such coincidences have to be a “God-incidence,” as Christians I know tend to call it. Such things don’t just happen.

But that’s as far as they’d permit God to act. Anything more than that—like actually getting cured of cancer only minutes before the chemotherapy—and they’d doubt the person even had cancer to begin with. Any incident where God told a person in advance, “Hey, be at this intersection; I need to you help somebody; you’ll see it when you get there,” and they’d claim, “Well that can’t be God, ’cause he doesn’t do such things. But Satan does.” According to their worldview, God’s powerless—and Satan’s not. Seriously.

I’m not claiming this blogger is this kind of cessationist. I’m pretty sure he’s not; I suspect if you asked him about Satan, he’d say the devil’s more of a malevolent human attitude than a literal being. But he has determined God doesn’t answer prayer, doesn’t cure the sick, doesn’t act. So, same as the cessationists I grew up with, he thinks prayer’s only about training us to pursue God’s will. Not teaching us to depend on him. We can’t. He’s sitting things out. He’s abandoned us to our fates. Bye kids; see you in heaven!

You can probably tell I disagree with him. A lot.

And no, not because I’d like to imagine God as caring and interactive. It’s because he answered my twentysomething prayer: He did something. Still does. He answers my prayers. Therefore I see no reason he can’t answer yours.

Deconstruction, and the Christians who do it.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 June
DECONSTRUCT 'di.kən'strəkt verb [with object]. Take apart; unbuild.
2. Analyze a concept, belief system, or text, by taking it apart—usually to expose its hidden workings and assumptions, often to undermine its apparent soundness, significance, truth, or unity.
3. Reduce to its constituent parts, in order to reinterpret it.
[Deconstruction 'di.kən'strək.ʃən noun, deconstructionism 'di.kən'strək.ʃən.ɪz.əm noun, deconstructionist 'di.k(ə)n'strək.ʃ(ə)n.əst noun.]

The term “deconstruction” came from 20th century philosopher Jacques Derrida—who usually gets credit for the whole idea. But the idea doesn’t come from Derrida; just the word. The idea goes all the way back—to the beginning of western philosophy. All the way back to Socrates of Athens. Yep, the founder of western philosophy himself.

When Derrida first wrote of deconstruction—in his 1967 book De la Grammatologie (English, On Grammatology)—he was writing about words and their meaning. How they only have meaning in context: Whenever we use a word, it might have a dozen definitions in the dictionary, but it only means the one thing the speaker or author intends it to mean, and we figure out that meaning through where and how it was said or written. Further, the word’s meaning is only significant because it’s the opposite of something else: We say “up” because we don’t mean “some direction other than up”; we say “yes” because we certainly don’t mean “no.” Deconstruction analyzes all these things about language, and helps us better understand what it really means.

Same as postmodernism, a term which was originally just about art, people jumped all over deconstructionism, and decided to apply it to everything. Everything. You can deconstruct a piece of literature… but you can also deconstruct the law, and try to understand why laws are really made. Or history, and try to understand why we really tell the stories we do, with the spins we put on ’em. Or politics, and what politicians and their sponsors are really after. Or belief systems, ethical systems, philosophies, worldviews, and religions.

Or Christianity. Which is why I bring up the subject on TXAB; I’m not just jabbering about it ’cause I think it’s a neat idea. There are people who grew up Christian, who realized at some point, “Do I actually believe this stuff?” and are deconstructing it. No, not tearing it down, like deconstruction’s critics often complain: Taking it apart to understand it better. I did that, back in my twenties. I still do it from time to time. I find it profoundly helpful.

But yeah, often people are trying to tear it down. Taking it apart so they can nitpick it to death. Much like you take apart a bomb so it won’t go off, these people either don’t like Christians or Christianity, or think Christianity is something harmful or dangerous. They’re hoping if they do a little deconstruction on it, they’ll prove it false, and it’ll stop working. Or collapse like a house of cards.

There are a lot of Christians who object to deconstruction—same as they object to postmodernism, same as they object to any idea they don’t wholly understand. (Critical race theory, for example.) In my experience, they object because they don’t really have faith in the institutions getting analyzed. They fear, deep down, these things won’t withstand scrutiny. Deconstructionists might actually find something that makes ’em fall apart—so they’re nervous. Even terrified.

Sometimes for good reason! Some of those things don’t hold up to scrutiny. Like racism, sexism, nationalism, militarism, partisanship, violence, fear-based reactionism, or any of the other Christianist practices and idols which people have swapped out for the living God and true religion. Deep down they know their “faith” is in fact hypocrisy, and deconstruction threatens to shed light upon the deep darkness in which they dwell, Jn 3.20 and call ’em out.

To my mind, Christianity at its very core is Christ Jesus, his teachings, and the gospel. All the other stuff we’ve piled on top of that? Meh; my faith’s in Jesus, not them. I trust him, not that. So feel free to take ’em apart. Jesus can always hold up to scrutiny.

The Pharisee and Taxman Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 June

Luke 18.9-14.

Immediately after the Persistent Widow Story, Jesus tells this one. It likewise touches upon prayer… but it’s more about people who consider themselves devout, yet are jerks.

Luke 18.9-14 KWL
9 Jesus also says to certain hearers
who trust in themselves that they’re righteous
—and despise everyone else—this parable:
10 “Two people go up to temple to pray.
One’s a Pharisee, and the other a taxman.
11 The Pharisee, standing off by himself, is praying this:
‘God, thank you that I’m not like every other person!
those greedy, unjust fornicators!
Or even like this taxman!
12 I fast twice a week.
I tithe whatever I get.’
13 The taxman, who’d been standing way back,
didn’t even want to raise his eyes to heaven,
but beat his chest, saying,
‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 I tell you this taxman comes down from temple,
made righteous in his house, along with the other man.
For everyone who raises themselves will be lowered.
And those who lower themselves will be raised.”

Sometimes this is called the Pharisee and Publican story, ’cause “publican” is how the KJV translates τελώνης/telónis, “collector of tolls, customs, or taxes.” But “publican” is an anachronism at this point in history. Yep, it’s history lesson time, kids. Gather round and I’ll tell a story.

Before the Caesars took over, Rome was a republic. Not a democracy; it had democratic parts to it, but it was mostly an oligarchy run by patricians, the Roman nobility. At some uncertain point in their past, the patricians overthrew their king and ran Rome collectively. Every year, patricians elected two consuls to run things; the consuls picked senators, and these senators ruled for life. But senators weren’t permitted to collect taxes, so they hired lower-rank patricians to do it for ’em. These tax-gatherers were from the publicani rank, and over time, publicani became synonymous with taxmen.

The publicans practiced tax farming: Different companies applied for the job of collecting taxes in a certain town or county, by offering the government an advance—say, 𐆖10,000. (The 𐆖 stands for denarii; it’s like our dollar sign.) If they outbid everyone they got the contract—and had to pay the government the 𐆖10,000 advance. Now they had to make it back: Collect rent, charge tolls, demand a percentage of merchants’ profits. They shook everybody down to make back that 𐆖10,000.

And everything they made beyond that 𐆖10,000, they got to keep. So the more unscrupulous the publican, the higher taxes would be, and the richer they got.

Richer, and corrupt. They’d bribe government officials to get their contracts, bribe their way out of trouble if they were charged with over-taxing, and bribe their way out of trouble for any other crimes. When Augustus Caesar took over the senate in 30BC, he tried to eliminate tax farming, figuring it’d lower taxes and reduce bribery. He took it away from the publicans, who switched careers and got into banking and money-lending. He put government officials in charge… but lazy officials who didn’t want this job, simply hired other tax farmers to collect for them.

Since you no longer had to be of publicani rank to be a taxman, any wealthy person could bid for the job, and get it. And that’s what happened in first-century Israel: Rich Jews became tax farmers, and did the Romans’ dirty work for them. Their fellow Jews saw them as traitors—as greedy, exploitative sellouts. Which, to be fair, they totally were.

Bad religion.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 June

As I’ve said before, a lot of Evangelicals have it in their heads “religion” is a bad thing. They scoff, “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship.” But in my experience, if they aren’t religiously working on that relationship (and I do mean that in the sense of “consistent and conscientious regularity,” which is exactly what religion is about) it’s gonna be a really sucky relationship.

Y’see, to their minds “religion” means an absence of that relationship. It means they’re performing all the rituals and acts of devotion: They’re going to church, reading bible, saying rote prayers, doing sacraments, going on pilgrimages, hanging crosses on the wall, putting Jesus fish on their cars, and all their Spotify playlists are non-stop Christian music. But they don’t know Jesus. They never honestly talk with Jesus. They don’t read the Sermon on the Mount and follow it. As soon as they set foot outside the church building, they go back to being the same pagans as everyone else.

Properly, that’s called dead religion. Yes it’s a religion. But a proper religion has a living relationship at the center of it—and the living relationship is the whole point of our religious activities. We’re not just doing this stuff to fit in, or look good, or feel righteous, or win votes for Congress: We’re doing it to get better at following Jesus! And just as faith without works is dead faith, works without faith are dead works. Dead religion.

Dead religion is a common form of bad religion, but it’s not the most common form. That’d be irreligion, in which there’s no religion: No good works. No self-discipline, no habits nor practices, no priorities, no self-sacrifice, no fruit of the Spirit. Yet illogically, despite this utter lack of effort on our part, irreligious Christians still expect to spontaneously grow as Christians. Oh, we’ll grow all right—grow wrong. Grow less Christian.

Prayer books: Prayers for every occasion.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 June

If you’ve ever been to a church wedding (’cause pagans will do their weddings any which way), y’might’ve noticed whenever an actual member of the clergy officiating the ceremony, she or he held a little black book. Usually. Some clergy members have this stuff memorized; they’ve done so many. Others… well, they’re all over the place, same as pagans.

Most people assume this book is a bible. When I was a kid it’s what I assumed too. So I went poking around my bible for the wedding ceremony… and discovered it’s not in there. ’Cause there are no wedding ceremonies in the bible. Wedding parties, sure. But back in bible times, you hashed out the marriage and dowry details between the families, and that done, the bridegroom went and got the bride, took her home, and they were considered married. No ceremony. Didn’t need one.

I know; some of you are gonna say, “But there was a Jewish wedding ceremony; I saw a video.” Yes you did, and yes that’s a Jewish wedding ceremony. It dates from medeival times, not bible times. It’s got some customs which are uniquely Jewish, but medieval Jews simply copied the Christian wedding ceremony and Judaized it—just like when Christians swipe Jewish rituals and Christianize them. If you notice any parallels between the medieval Jewish ceremony and the second coming, it’s because we Christians put them there in our medieval ceremonies… and took ’em out in our modern ones.

But I digress. The western marriage ceremony ultimately originates with western pagans, not Jews. We Christianized it a bunch. So of course it’s not in the bible. So where do clergy members get the order and words of the wedding ceremony?—what’s this little black book then? Usually a prayer book.

Different denominations have official prayer books. Some don’t; mine doesn’t. So when it comes to baby dedications, baptisms, wedding ceremonies, funerals, and other rituals a pastor’s gonna be less familiar with, they get ahold of Minister’s Manuals, which tell ministers what to do and say and pray. Some are published by one’s denomination; the rest are nondenominational things which a denomination might officially recommend, but any Christian can buy and use ’em. You can find a copy on Amazon.

Back in college I picked up a Book of Common Prayer at a bookstore; that’d be the Episcopal Church’s prayer book, which is an American version of the Church of England’s prayer book. Most of the rote prayers I’d heard all my life are in there. A few weren’t; I’ve since found them in other prayer books. Some worship songs I knew, which had old-timey lyrics, or verses of the psalms which didn’t quite line up with the King James Version: Apparently they were extracted from the BCP’s prayers. Hey, if your music needs lyrics, why not?

The less formal a church, the less likely they’re gonna tap the prayer books. I grew up in churches where we didn’t even read the call-and-response prayers in our hymnals. So I’ve met many a Christian who’s totally unfamiliar with these books, and eye them with a little bit of suspicion: “What’re you trying to slip past me?” I wish they’d likewise apply some of that suspicion to the stuff their churches show ’em on the PowerPoint slides, but that’s another discussion.

For those of you who are familiar with them, or who wanna take a look at them, I’m gonna hook you up with a few. You don’t have to be clergy to read them. They’ll provide you some useful ideas which you can add to your prayer life.

“The least of these my brethren”—as we define brethren.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 June

Matthew 25.40.

There’s some debate as to where out-of-context interpretations of the bible come from. Goes from the extremes of “Every single last one of them comes from the devil,” to “They’re honest mistakes—perpetuated by laziness, ’cause people should bother to double-check the context, and don’t.”

I would say the reality, most of the time, is somewhere in between the two. I seldom think these mistaken interpretations are honest mistakes. Though certainly honest mistakes can happen: You’ll get someone who’s trying to talk about an old biblical concept in a new and different way—which is fine, if you really are teaching the old concept, and not trying to claim the scriptures are saying something which no other Christian has ever noticed. But sometimes a listener will misunderstand you, repeat it to others but get it wrong, and wind up spreading a new, wrong concept. That’s an honest mistake. I’ve done that. (Sorry.)

Thing is, there are people who want the scriptures to say something entirely new. Something which might make their teaching ministry stand out—“Hey, come and listen to this guy who teaches stuff you’ve never heard before!” Something which gets ’em a little notoriety. It’s not about spreading God’s kingdom, but spreading their brand.

And a lot of these new ideas are designed to appeal to people. Specifically, to our flesh. It’s an interpretation which supports their own ideas and prejudices about power, sexual activity, propriety, money, greed, envy, anger, partisanship, separatism, addiction, personal preferences, and self-justification. ’Cause more often not, they were looking for a proof text to help ’em rationalize any of these bad fruits, and this one oughta do the trick.

“Okay,” you might say, “but doesn’t that fleshliness kinda come from the devil?” Perhaps. I tend to say if you’ve flipped the meaning of a verse a full 180 degrees from what the Holy Spirit intends it to mean, that’s a pretty good sign Satan’s mixed up in it. But some of us are plenty evil ourselves. We can go 180 degrees in the wrong direction without any help or temptation from the devil at all. We’re just that depraved.

Today’s article about context gives an example of that kind of depravity. It takes the point of Jesus’s Lambs and Kids Story, and flips it so we don’t have to do for “the least of these.” Well, certainly a lot fewer of them.

To recap: The Son of Man sends his holy angels to sort out humanity like a shepherd sorts lambs from kids (hence the story’s title) and addresses his lambs, “Enter the kingdom, because you did all this compassionate stuff to me.” They respond (because for some reason they’ve never heard this story before), “Wait, what? When’d we ever do for you?” Jesus continues—

Matthew 25.40 KJV
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Let’s pause the story, ’cause you might already know the rest; and if not, go ahead and read it. The point certain Christians wanna make is found in the three words τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου/ton adelfón mu, which the King James Version turns into two words, “my brethren.” We Christians talk about doing compassionate charity work for “the least of these,” but these other Christians point out, “It’s not just ‘the least of these,’ but ‘the least of these my brethren.’ Jesus is talking about charity for his brethren. Not just anyone.”

This is an attitude you’ll find in an awful lot of churches. Not just Jehovah’s Witnesses either; I’ve seen it in way too many Baptist churches, particularly the independent, culty kind. I’ve heard people preach this on the radio, on both Christian stations during preacher shows, and on conservative talk stations. It’s pretty much wherever people wanna justify non-compassionate conservatism. Maybe slip a little Objectivism into the mix. “Don’t give to them: They’re not worthy.”

The Persistent Widow Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 June

Luke 18.1-8.

Last time I wrote about parables, I brought up the Midnight Friend Story. Well… same gospel, same idea, but whole different story. Comes in chapter 18 instead of 11. It’s also called the Unjust Judge, the Importunate Widow, the Persistent Woman, and the Unjust Judge and the Widow. All depends on which of them you wanna emphasize, but since the widow is meant to be our role model, I think the story oughta be named for her.

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus is speaking parabolically to his students
on the necessity of them always praying
and not becoming discouraged,
2 saying, “There’s some judge in some city
with no respect for God, no regard for people.
3 There’s a widow in that city;
she’s coming to him, saying,
‘Prosecute my opponent for me!’
4 For a time, he doesn’t want to.
Afterward, he said to himself,
‘Though I don’t respect God, nor have regard for the people,
5 because this widow keeps bugging me,
I’ll prosecute her opponent for her.
In the end, she may come give me a black eye!’ ”
6 The Master says, “Listen to what this unjust judge says.
7 Might God not prosecute on behalf of his elect,
who cry out to him day and night,
and have patience with them?
8 I tell you he will prosecute for them, quickly.
But at the Son of Man’s coming,
will he then find any faith on the earth?”

Some notes about my translation. The term the widow is using is ἐκδίκησόν με/ekdíkisón me, which the KJV translates “Avenge me.” That’s perhaps too literal of a translation. Ekdikéo means to carry out a punishment, and the word isn’t particular about whether it’s a judge sentencing a criminal, a vigilante murdering a criminal, or someone with a grudge taking out petty revenge upon a neighbor. Since Jesus is talking about a judge, he is talking about some level of due process.

Problem is, Jesus isn’t talking about a righteous judge. In his culture there were two kinds of judges:

  • Jewish judges followed and interpreted the Law, the commands the LORD handed down in the 15th century BC.
  • Roman judges followed and interpreted the laws decreed by the senate and people of Rome.

So when Jesus describes this judge as caring neither about God nor people, he describes a person who ignores the standards for both Jewish and Roman judges. He doesn’t base his rulings on law and legal precedent; he follows his conscience. He’s what we’d call an “activist judge”—the kind of judge people love when he shares their politics, ’cause he’ll rule their way, no matter what the law says! But they soon discover a lawless judge creates a lot of instability in society, no matter how moral these judges might imagine they are.

Activating prophecy.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 June

Every Christian has the Holy Spirit within us, and we gotta learn to listen to him when we pray. And when he has something to tell not just us, but other people—whether other Christians or not—that’s prophecy. That’s all prophecy is. It’s not complicated.

But not every Christian has the patience to wait for God to tell us something. We want a message now. Right now. ’Cause we wanna share God with someone, and it’d really blow their minds if God himself told ’em something. Or we want to know something about the future, or need some encouragement, or need a reminder God’s here… or, let’s be honest, we wanna show off how we really do hear God.

That’s why various Christians will claim we can activate prophecy. That it’s not just the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gift, but a power we can switch on, once we learn to “move in the prophetic,” by which they mean we learn to tap that power, much like connecting your phone to the wifi at the coffeehouse.

So these folks teach us certain techniques we can use to help get us into the appropriate mindset for prophecy. The prophetic realm is all around us! All we gotta do is become aware of it, listen to what the Spirit’s trying to tell us—’cause we’re usually too dense to notice—and we’ll gain the ability to speak a word of prophecy wherever and whenever the need arises.

These techniques include paying attention to your surroundings. Or looking for clues in the person you’re trying to prophesy to: What they’re wearing, what they’re saying, what they react to when you talk to them. Or looking for clues in yourself: The very first word that comes to your mind, or the very first mental image you have, or the very first bible verse which pops into your head. Colors or fragrances might stand out, and evoke a memory or thought from you. Whatever cues might jump out at you and trigger a prophecy. Look for them!

Your job is to take these cues and extrapolate a positive message from them. Those who teach activation, make it very clear all prophecy must encourage and uplift. You know, like Paul said. 1Co 14.4 So if you come up with something negative, you’re doing it wrong; don’t do that; we’re trying to encourage not discourage. Keep it motivational and supportive. And where appropriate, quote bible.

I’ve been to a few of these activation classes and seminars. I agree—these techniques can produce really interesting, encouraging results.

But none of it is actual prophecy. It’s mentalism.

Prayer in the public schools.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 June

The United States has a separation of church and state.

Yeah, there are plenty of Christian nationalists who insist we don’t. Or they claim the idea isn’t constitutional, because the specific words “separation of church and state” aren’t found in our Constitution. (Ugh, literalists.) But just as the word trinity isn’t in the bible, yet it’s an entirely orthodox idea, separation of church and state is totally in our Constitution. In two places.

First, Article 6 bans religious qualifications for office. You don’t have to be Christian; you don’t have to not be atheist. Whatever your religion (or non-religion), hopefully you’re no hypocrite, but it’s explicitly not a prerequisite.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. Article 6, ¶3.

Other countries (i.e. the United Kingdom, from which the United States separated) do require a religious test for certain office. For obvious reasons: The UK’s parliament funds the Church of England, and appoints its bishops. So if Brits didn’t know the religious sentiments of their elected ministers, the worry is they might internally corrupt the Church of England. It’s not a worry now; the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, is nominally Roman Catholic. But back during the English Reformation, when church loyalty might get you killed, this was a big, big deal.

Whereas the United States’ founders wanted a government where no religious faction was banned; Catholics could run for office, same as Anglicans, because we wanted it clear England’s old religious wars were not happening here. So the Constitution bans religious tests. We’re not gonna ban Catholics—even though there were a lot of years where anti-Catholics fought tooth and nail to make sure we never elected any. And today, even though there are anti-Muslims and anti-atheists in the electorate, Muslims and atheists too can hold office.

Next, obviously, is our First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Amendment 1

That first clause—“respecting an establishment of religion”—bans Congress from creating an official, or established, religion of the United States. Many American colonists came here to specifically get away from state religions (though, in the case of Massachusetts and many other colonies, it was so they could set up their own state religions). Religious differences were a regular point of friction whenever the colonies tried to unite. Or go to war; our pacifist Quakers refued to even countenance the idea, and it took a lot of maneuvering to get ’em to at least not vote against our Revolution. So the goal was to keep the national government altogether out of it.

The Constitution makes the United States officially non-sectarian. Arguably it’s even secular… although that’s hard to argue when our national motto is “In God We Trust.”

So should a non-sectarian government, mandate prayer? Absolutely not. But that’s what school prayer is.