The Prayer Panacea

Greg Brooks May/June 1997

Resolutions calling for prayer to be reinstated in public schools have been approved in more than half the counties and at least 50 cities in Texas. At least 10 states have passed or are considering passing measures to allow "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing, student-initiated" prayer at public schools. And various bills supporting some type of prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution are still being discussed on Capitol Hill, the most recent being Congressman Ishtook's "Religious Freedom Amendment."

This flurry of activity suggests politicians are getting the message: many Americans see school prayer as a panacea for the problems plaguing our society. Advocates of school prayer maintain the United States has been in a continual moral decline since 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that government-sponsored, prescribed prayer had no place in public schools. Those advocating a return to school prayer argue that reinstating prayer will reverse this trend and help fix what's wrong with American society.

However nice it might sound, that argument is exceedingly flawed for numerous reasons.

First, the claim that society's problems have continually increased since "prayer was banned from schools" is based on the false assumption that if two events occur in sequence, the first must have caused the second. No valid empirical data supports this claim.

Second, blaming moral decline on a lack of prayer in public schools is both simplistic and illogical. The problems of contemporary society are the result of many complicated social, cultural, and economic factors. Suggesting a return to prescribed prayer as a required solution is an oversimplification.

Also, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, voluntary prayer never has been outlawed. The Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Access Act of 1984, guarantee students the right to pray at school. What advocates really want is to pray publicly over a school's public address system, or have a student or teacher stand before a classroom of students and offer prayer - and they want the implicit sanction of government upon that prayer as well. Scott Armey, heavily involved in the Texas campaign to adopt school prayer resolutions, has clearly stated his intentions.

"What I want," he said, "is the freedom for parents and teachers and administrators to decide, number one, if they want to have prayer in their school, and, number two, what format prayer will benefit that community."

He noted that prayers voiced over a microphone would be acceptable as long as a majority in both school and community agrees. And though Armey claimed he wants that freedom, what about the religious freedom of those students - forced by law to be in the classroom - who don't want to be involved?

Religion also suffers by any attempt to prop itself up through governmental sanction, the idea being that religious faith and practices are legitimized when officially recognized. What really happens, however, is that instead of being legitimized, the religious practices are trivialized - and nothing proves this better than the rote prayers that open the U.S. Senate. Baptist TV commentator Bill Moyers once noted in his nightly commentary on CBS that only four of the 100 senators typically are present for the daily prayer at the Senate.

"Apparently what's thought necessary for children," he said, "is merely optional for grown-ups in public life. Otherwise, the chaplains of the House and Senate would not routinely have to intone to chambers almost empty of the champions of public prayer. Surely so poor an attendance record, which we've monitored now for days, speaks to the emptiness of ceremony when it becomes custom instead of conviction."

Indeed, prayers designed to be "nonoffensive" and "nonsectarian" end up being generic, bland, meaningless incantations "to whom it may concern" - hardly the stuff that could have the kind of impact on lives that would reverse America's moral decline.

Finally, calls for reinstating prayer in the public schools are an indictment of the church. Turning to government for assistance in propagating the faith is an unconscious admission that the church has failed. Because we have not been agents of social change, we want government (in the form of public schools) to do our job for us, even though it's not the government's job to convert people to Christ, nor is it the school's job to promote religion. "Subjecting" children to prayer in public schools is not the answer. The answer should be sought in the church and family - the most appropriate avenues for the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ - and not from the government. We must repent of our inclination to shift the responsibility for religious instruction to public schools; we must recapture our sense of mission in passing spiritual values to the next generation.

A fundamental but often overlooked question that influences one's position in this debate is: How should Christians seek to bring about social change? Advocates of school prayer answer this question by turning to government. This is the approach of "theocrats" and religious reconstructionists: pass a school prayer amendment to effect America's return to its "Christian" foundations.

Free and faithful believers, however, constantly have rejected that approach. Based upon deep and enduring commitments to freedom, choice, and voluntarism, we recognize that religious tyranny and coercion do not effect a genuine and lasting change in society. We therefore seek change from the "bottom up," individual by individual. In this regard, Cal Thomas, the former vice president of Moral Majority, is right. He now repudiates what he calls "trickle-down morality."

"It is the layperson, properly taught," he now says, "who has the real power to bring real change."

Indeed, the laity - and clergy - of our churches must be "properly taught" if there is to be a genuine and lasting change in our society. If we are to be both good stewards of our religious beliefs and good citizens of the United States, we must learn there are constitutionally permissible and proper ways of relating religious values and public education. Schools can, and should, teach about religion and, under certain circumstances they can, and should, recognize religious holidays. Schools may participate in "released-time" programs that allow students to attend classes in religious instruction in an off-campus church, synagogue, or other site. Last, schools must allow Bible clubs or other religious groups to have the same access to meet on campus before or after school as other noncurriculum groups.

The separation of church and state does not mean that religious faith should not affect American social life. There is, in the words of James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, an "inevitable mixing" of religion and politics. People of faith cannot - and ought not - check their deeply held religious convictions at the door as they enter the public square. In part, this is what Jesus meant when He called His followers to be "salt," "light," and "leaven," pointing to the moral influence that should be operative in transforming society.

Is a return to prayer in the public schools the answer for transforming America? Absolutely not. Such an effort will not - cannot - work, because it is based on simplistic and erroneous assumptions. It approaches the problem from the wrong direction. Prayer finds its home in the personal relationship we have established with God, not in some formal, rote invocation required by law. Christ Himself bids that we come before the Father out of a desire to communicate directly and voluntarily: "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (Matthew 6:6, NIV).* Government-sponsored prayer is not the answer. Rather, we must submit to the command to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16, RSV).

Greg Brooks was pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, when he wrote this article for Liberty.

*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.

Article Author: Greg Brooks