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.

School prayer in the past.

I taught at a Christian school for a few years. We had school prayer, ’cause of course Christian schools do. Some schools have the entire school listen to a prayer over the loudspeakers; some have ’em recite along to a standard rote prayer. In my school we started each morning with the pledge of allegiance, a pledge to the Christian flag (which some conservative Evangelical made up; it’s an inferior copy of the pledge of allegiance), and a pledge to the bible. Then the teacher prayed; then class began.

I did it a little different. I ditched the two silly Christian pledges and replaced ’em with the Apostles Creed, which we said before the pledge of allegiance, ’cause priorities. (Hey, what heretic is gonna tell me the Christian flag pledge is a superior alternative to the Apostles Creed?) Then prayer.

When I taught fourth grade, I had a different kid pray every day. When I taught eighth grade, the kids grew less responsible (teenagers, am I right?), so I couldn’t trust ’em to responsibly do this; the prayers fell to me. I kept ’em simple, and mainly prayed for the kids’ success in the school day.

In the United States, since the beginning, local public schools regularly began the school day with prayer. Which stands to reason: Most Americans consider ourselves Christian, whether we are or not. Many of us wanna at least present the outward appearance of Christianity—even though we might be big ol’ hypocrites. So Americans had no problem with schoolteachers leading the class in daily prayers: Nice, non-sectarian prayers which invoked God, asked him for blessings, and didn’t challenge anyone’s beliefs too hard. Although certain devout teachers might challenge the kids a little—and depending on the community, they might get away with it.

In the 1960s, nontheists began to push back. They didn’t wanna pray before class started. Their nontheist parents didn’t want ’em praying either. Nor did they want the teachers pressuring their kids to pray; nor did they want peer pressure messing with their kids. (And if you know kids, you know some of ’em can be real jerks about such things. Some adults too.) They sued, it went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court ruled in Engel v. Vitale the atheists absolutely don’t have to pray. Nobody has to pray. Government schools have no business leading religious practices.

My conservative friends like to lament all of America’s woes began with banning school prayer. (As an historian, I know our nation’s problems began way before that.) They wanna “put prayer back in the schools”—as if students and teachers aren’t still privately, individually praying. Or publicly praying at voluntary “See You at the Pole” prayer events.

But I don’t at all support the idea of mandated prayer in public schools. For a whole bunch of reasons.

School prayer doesn’t do what you think it does.

School prayer doesn’t get the kids to be any more Christian. I know from experience.

I initially tried to get the eighth graders to pray. They sucked at it. No, not because they were nervous and didn’t know what to pray; that’s normal and I can work with that. It’s because they weren’t devout. Prayer was a big joke to them.

Yep, weren’t devout. Parents stick their kids into Christian schools for all sorts of reasons, but most of the time it’s political: They presume public schools are liberal and Christian schools are conservative, and they want their kids in a conservative school. (Where I was actually no help to them. Jesus is a religious conservative, not a political one, and there is lots to rebuke about conservative politics.)

The rest of the time it’s because the kids had a crappy religious upbringing. The public schools had grown tired of disciplining their kids, and they believed we’d be stricter because we’re religious. Or the parents weren’t devout, and a Christian school might knock some Christ into their little heathens. Hence we had a lot of little heathens. Same as public schools.

If you think Christian school is gonna make your kids Christian, or prayer in public schools is gonna make American kids more devout, you’re grievously misinformed. School does not fix children—much as both parents and educators would like it to. If a kid’s got problems, school doesn’t solve these problems. Counselors do… but school boards would often rather spend money on cops than counselors. Or on football.

If you’re not being raised Christian at home, school’s not gonna fix you. Hence most of my kids were pagan. They’re adult now; I keep up with many of ’em, and they’re still pagan. Even a number of the devout Christian kids went pagan too. They weren’t adequately raised Christian at home, so they didn’t stay Christian after they left home.

If school prayer doesn’t make the kids more Christian in a Christian school, it definitely ain’t gonna fix kids in a public school. Especially with the nonsectarian, supernaturally-neutered prayers they get in public schools, written to do the very bare minimum of prayer.

School prayers are pathetic prayers.

Secondly: In public schools, who’s gonna lead the prayer?

When you think school prayer, you’re probably thinking about Bible Belt Christians who grew up Christian and conservative, and are probably still both. Me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. A number of my teachers were decidedly “spiritual but not religious”—meaning they had all sorts of hinky beliefs about God. Who knows what they’d have us pray… or who they’d have us pray to.

I’ve had atheist teachers too. Not all atheists are jerks when it comes to religion, but most of ’em are, and I guarantee you my teachers would only use the opportunity to mock religion and prayer.

Certainly the Christianist teachers (whose Christianity reflects the popular culture instead of Christ himself) might give us appropriate-sounding prayers. But they’re just as likely to insert politics, angry denunciations, or unbiblical feel-good beliefs into their prayers as well.

Not that the kids will be paying attention. Congress, and many state legislatures and city councils, start with a prayer… and people routinely ignore it. Religious people might pay attention—and might be outraged whenever a non-Christian offers the prayer, as regularly happens in Congress. But why should they expect only Christians to lead these prayers?—unless, y’know, Christian nationalism.

If you think the solution is for the teacher to not lead prayer, and for teachers to select students at random to have them lead prayer, you wind up with the very same problem I did with the kids in the Christian school. There will be some Christian kids who take their duty seriously… but a whole lot of pagan kids, or kids of various religions, and of course antichrists. Their prayers might bug Christians a little. Or a lot.

And if you think the solution is a nonsectarian rote prayer, it’s not that either. In the Engel case, that’s exactly the prayer they were fighting:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country. Engel v. Vitale

Sounds harmless, right? Yet the plaintiffs sure didn’t think so. Even the religious folks among the plaintiffs—the Unitarians and Jews who didn’t want their kids praying that—recognized it wasn’t helping them raise their kids any more Unitarian or Jewish. It’s dead religion, not living religion.

Because does anyone who recites this prayer, actually mean it? Believe it? Think of it as a valid request of the Almighty? Does it reflect their current relationship with him?—do they recognize their dependence on him, and want him to bless their parents, teachers, and country? And what sort of blessings do they want?—spiritual ones, or are they entirely thinking of material wealth and political power? Or only thinking of defeating the opposing team?

Let’s be extremely optimistic and say two-thirds of the kids are actually devout, and really believe this prayer when they recite it. Still means the remaining third is obliged to participate in something they don’t believe, don’t respect, and are gonna respect even less thanks to their own hypocrisy. Worse, they’re gonna assume their classmates (who aren’t always the best examples of Christianity) think the same way they do, and are big hypocrites too. Not the best petri dish for growing faith in.

So… yeah. Much as conservatives love the idea of inflicting dead religion upon pagan kids in the hope it’ll make ’em less pagan, and make America more Christian, it’s not a wish grounded in reality or practicality. It’s an outward exercise with no internal change. It’s more hypocrisy. We got plenty enough of that in America as it is.