Which Judeo-Christian Tradition?

Mark A. Kellner November/December 1999 Many of those who believe the government should take on the task of promoting Christian morality are focusing their attention on the public schools. And why not, one might ask, since schools are plagued by crime and drugs. Seemingly only an atheistic killjoy could take pleasure in squelching an innocent public prayer in school. The few church-state separation purists who support the prayer ban are being overwhelmed by the majority sentiment that public prayer would reverse the moral drift of the country. To most people, abstract constitutional arguments for prohibiting public school prayer seem an inadequate response to the terror of Night Trap videos and school shootings. When so much is allowed, the argument runs, why should public school prayer be disallowed?

In fact, opposing public prayer seems almost equated by some as opposing the "Judeo-Christian tradition." And that makes as much political sense as speaking out against mom's apple pie. Dan Quayle might have been ridiculed for his Murphy Brown speech way back in 1992, but his defense of the Judeo Christian tradition in the speech has been adopted by Republicans and Democrats alike. Quayle, calling for more public expressions of religious faith, said, "The time has come to renew our public commitment to our Judeo-Christian values--in our churches and synagogues, our civic organizations and our schools. We are, as our children recite each morning, `one nation under God.' That's a useful framework for acknowledging a duty and an authority higher than our own pleasures and personal ambitions."[1]

Until quite recently the Democratic Party was not particularly responsive to Quayle's argument. In 1984 the platform of Democrat Walter Mondale contained a strong endorsement of the Supreme Court decisions that upheld the "principles of religious liberty, religious tolerance and church/state separation" and pledged to "resist all efforts to weaken those decisions."[2] Mondale, in opposing government-sponsored silent prayer in public schools, explained, "As a preacher's kid, I was taught that religion is a personal and family matter in which the state has no place. I do not oppose prayer by children anywhere....I simply do not want the state to determine if, when, and how we should pray, and what we should say--if anything."[3]

How the political climate has changed since 1984! Crime is now an urgent priority with the public, and there is a growing consensus that a larger public role for religion is part of the solution. Reversing the ban on public school prayer would certainly send a clear signal that religion should be part of public life. It is a signal that many, in both parties, now seem determined to send.

Bill Clinton has made a point of responding to these calls for change. In a rare public commentary on the school prayer issue at an electronic town hall in Charlotte, Clinton clarified his position: "I agree with the original Supreme Court decision [Engel v. Vitale which banned public school-sponsored prayer]....Now, it's been carried to such an extent now where they say, some people have said you can't have a prayer at a graduation exercise. I personally didn't agree with that. Why? Because if you're praying at a graduation exercise or a sporting event, it's a big open-air thing, and no one's being coerced. I'm just telling you what my personal opinion is. I can't rewrite the Supreme Court decisions."[4]

Then, at a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, when he was asked about calls by Republicans for a constitutional amendment restoring prayer in public schools, Clinton replied: "I personally did not believe that it was coercive to have a prayer at an outdoor sporting event or at a graduation event because I don't believe that is coercive to people who don't participate in it. So I think there is room for that." He then tried to muffle the bombshell he had dropped: "Obviously, I want to reserve judgment. I want to see the specifics...I want to see what the details are. I certainly wouldn't rule it out. It depends on what it says."

The front-page headline of the next day's Washington Post bore the unlikely news: "Clinton: 'There is room' to pray in public school." The headline prompted damage control by White House aides. They said that Clinton was not supporting the amendment approach but rather some other way to allow for public prayer in tax-supported schools. A moment of silent prayer was being considered by the White House Counsel's office as a stratagem that might be accepted by the Supreme Court and conservatives alike.[5] Clinton was again looking for the elusive middle ground.

Clinton's change in emphasis underscores that the Republicans have identified a core issue. With bipartisan acceptance of Quayle's reasoning, the decisions by the Supreme Court in the 1960s regarding school prayer are being seriously questioned. The prayer ban nevertheless remains in effect, until and unless the law is changed.

Change might not be an improvement. A close look at the Engel v. Vitale decision reveals a subtle and sympathetic understanding of constitutional and Judeo-Christian thought on the proper relationship between the church and the state.

The 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision was written by Justice Hugo Black. His central theme was that an honest reading of the American Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as American legal precedent, demands separation of the church and the state and prohibits public school prayer led by taxpayer supported teachers or officials. (Private voluntary prayer by students or staff has always been, and is now, protected by the Constitution's protection of freedom of religion.) Black maintained that this separation would be to the benefit of both the state and the church: "Its [the establishment clause's] first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect, and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs. That same history showed that many people had lost their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith."[6]

In his decision Black was aligning himself with a Judeo-Christian tradition that goes all the way back to Colonial times. Black wrote of Roger Williams, Colonial governor of Rhode Island and a Christian advocate of church-state separation, "To Williams, it was no part of the business or competence of a civil magistrate to interfere in religious matters."[7] Responding to the Puritan advocates of government-sponsored religion, Williams argued that the church would prosper if it looked to God alone for its strength, and not to the government. The government, Williams said, had been entrusted with power by the people for two simple purposes: to protect their persons; and to protect their goods. Since the people had not entrusted government with the responsibility to protect their souls, it was no part of the state to be in any way involved with religion.[8]

In that same decision, Black refers also to Jefferson and Madison, the two Founders who led out in the advocacy of church-state separation. Both of them accepted the basic premise of Williams' argument: that government has no role in the promotion of religion.

Madison, who studied theology at Princeton University and retained a belief in God throughout his life, believed that the Christian religion does not need the support of the state: "It is known that this religion [Christianity] both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them; and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence, and the ordinary care of Providence...a religion not invented by human policy must have pre-existed and been supported before it was established by human policy."[9]

Like Madison, Jefferson believed the best way to support Christianity was to keep the government separate from it. Jefferson opposed the establishment of a professorship of divinity at the University of Virginia. He argued against taxpayer-supported religion before the Virginia legislature, noting "the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction."[10] Jefferson's extension of the establishment clause to public education lays a firm precedent for Black's 1962 prohibition of public school prayer.

It is a gross oversimplification then to blame the school prayer ban on "secular humanism" or "godless atheism." Rather than being another manifestation of the bizarre amorality of the sixties, Black's 1962 decision drew on a line of American thought that runs steadily from the early seventeenth century, through the period of the Founders and into the present day by numerous rulings of the Supreme Court.

What then is the Judeo-Christian tradition that Dan Quayle so famously referred to in his Murphy Brown speech--the tradition that supposedly allows government to play a large role in religion? Dissenting from the Lee v. Weisman decision, the 1992 ruling that affirmed the unconstitutionality of prayer at graduation ceremonies, Justice Antonin Scalia referred to this tradition: "In holding that the establishment clause prohibits invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies, the Court--with nary a mention that it is doing so--lays waste a tradition that is as old as public school graduation ceremonies themselves, and that is a component of an even more longstanding American tradition of nonsectarian prayer to God at public celebrations generally."[11] Scalia then gives examples of public supplications to the Divine Being by Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and, in modern times, George Bush.

The tradition that Scalia refers to is real. It is part of what has been called America's "civil religion," reflected for example in the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance and in the phrase "In God We Trust" on American currency. Bill Clinton, for example, was certainly tapping into this tradition when he proclaimed Thursday, May 5, 1994, a National Day of Prayer.

How can this civil religion be reconciled with church-state separation? Perhaps the question is clarified by making a distinction between America's head and its heart. From the point of view of logic and law, the tradition of church-state separation has volumes of constitutional and legal precedent, much of it written by Christians. Yet even the most ardent defenders of church-state separation can't resist mentioning the Divine Being when they become president. Madison, in spite of his reference to the "Almighty Being" in a public speech, was a staunch defender of church-state separation. So much so that he objected to chaplains in the United States Senate. Jefferson, who in Scalia's citation refers to that "Being in whose hands we are," would surely be surprised to find himself now quoted as an advocate of taxpayer-supported religion in public schools. American presidents may feel compelled to call for divinity's aid in the carrying out of their responsibilities, but that does not negate the substantial tradition of church-state separation cited by Justice Black in the school prayer ban.

Madison is just one among many prominent American Christians who have legislated and worked to maintain the separation of church and state. It is therefore ironic that today the strongest impetus for the school prayer movement is coming from Christians themselves. Even in 1962, when Engel v. Vitale was decided, many Christians believed with Roger Williams that separation of church and state would be the best way to promote Christianity. Now this view is anathema to a large block of Christians. Few Christians today seem aware of the long tradition of church-state separation that Justice Black referred to in Engel v. Vitale.

Yet the reality is that not all followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition support public school prayer. Many Seventh-day Adventists, for example, who have historically supported church-state separation, would oppose a reversal by the Court. In addition, Jews who are aware of the dangers of a "Christian nation" are troubled by any connection between government and Christianity. Significantly, Pat Robertson, a prominent Christian leader in the movement for church-state union, has tried to appeal to some of these believers with little to gain from a strengthening of America's civil religion: "Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and Orthodox Jews, for example, may disagree on some important theological issues. Yet on certain important political issues they see eye-to-eye; therefore, where they agree they must unite so that together they can achieve their mutual goals with greater unanimity, force, and effectiveness."[12]

Robertson and other advocates of a close relationship between church and state are not likely to achieve unanimity on the school prayer question, even within the Judeo-Christian community. Too many Christians and Jews are aware of the long Judeo-Christian tradition of church-state separation in America. When these believers hear calls for a return to the Judeo-Christian tradition, they reflect for a moment and wonder, Which one?

Mark Meyer is a freelance writer living in Martinsburg, West Virginia.


[1]1 Dan Quayle, in a speech delivered at the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California, May 19, 1992
[2]2 1984 Democratic Platform, quoted in Christianity Today, Oct. 19, 1984, p. 34.
[3]3 Ibid., p. 34.
[4]4 Remarks by President Clinton in "Evening With the President," Apr. 5, 1994.
[5]5 Washington Post, Nov. 16 and 17, 1994.
[6]6 Engel v. Vitale, 82 S. Ct. 1267 (1962).
[7]7 Ibid., p. 1269.
[8]8 Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (Harcourt, Brace and World, New York: 1967), p. 119.
[9]9 James Madison, In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, ed. Norman Cousins (New York: Harper and Bros.,
1958), p. 311.
[10]10 Thomas Jefferson, In God We Trust, p. 164.
[11]11 Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2679 (1992).
[12]12 Pat Robertson, The Turning Tide: The Fall of Liberalism and the Rise of Common Sense (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), p. 283.

Article Author: Mark A. Kellner