Commentary

Whose Prayer?

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It is pure irony that the President of our nation, who has pledged so earnestly to "get government off the backs of the American people," has seen fit to promote a new role for government in one of the most sacred of private activities--prayer. On May 17, 1982, President Reagan sent to the U.S. Congress a proposed amendment to the Constitution that not only would allow government-run schools officially to set aside time for prayer during the school day, but also would allow school officials to direct this activity and even to determine the appropriate content of the prayer to be uttered.

This represents bold and unacceptable interference by the state in religious devotion. This proposed amendment should be defeated, and the efforts of the last two decades to undercut the Supreme Court's rulings on the matter of prayer in the public schools finally should be put behind us.

I am sympathetic to some of the sentiments that lead a large percentage of those polled to say that they support "voluntary" public-school prayer. I share the concern of many about the moral fabric of our society, about crime, about rising teen-age pregnancy, and about unabated drug use among young and old. I am deeply troubled about the sometimes disastrous pressures that are mounting against the family, the increasing divorce rate, and the problem of teen-age runaways. I share the overall feeling that things are changing around us so rapidly that we have less and less control over the destiny of our lives, and that our quest for stability and meaning is being frustrated by external forces. It is also true for me, a deeply religious person and a Christian minister, that efforts I may undertake to help solve these problems will be informed by my faith in God.

I believe in prayer, and I know the power of prayer from personal experience. Family prayer is at the center of my family tradition, and we pray together often in our home. We also worship together as frequently as possible, and there are times, frankly, because the meaning derived from these experiences is so rich, that I wish all humankind could share in them with me. So I know firsthand the confidence that is reflected in the affirmation, "God answers prayer." And when the troubles of life seem to overwhelm me, it is very much a part of my religious commitment to "take it to the Lord in prayer."

This is the view, no doubt, of persons who would have schoolchildren pray together as they begin their school day. They believe that if children are taught to pray at an early age, this will automatically have some lasting impact on their conduct and on their sense of good citizenship and good neighborliness later in life.

Whatever our personal views and reliance on prayer may be, however, we do have an important duty as citizens of the United States to study quite carefully the implications of our government's self-designated role in our religious affairs.

It is urgent to keep in mind that the freedom we have to believe as we do is secured in large measure by the respect we have for others' rights to believe and to teach their children as they choose.

The authors of the Bill of Rights knew all too well that democratic governments can be subject to the political will of the majority. This is why they sought to guarantee certain rights to the individual that the majority could not take away. Religious devotion is one of these rights. The First Amendment simply specifies that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That the proposed amendment would violate this principle can be best illustrated by a quote from a paper being circulated by the White House explaining how, in the Administration's view, the new amendment would work:

"Since the voluntary school-prayer amendment will eliminate any federal constitutional obstacle to voluntary school prayer, states and communities would be free to select prayers of their own choosing. They could choose prayers that have already been written, or they could compose their own prayers. If groups of people are to be permitted to pray, someone must have the power to determine the content of such prayer."

I say, exactly! Someone must have the power to determine the content of such prayers, but who? Who will decide is precisely the issue.

There is much talk about the lack of religious freedom in socialist countries, and proponents of the school-prayer amendment say they are eager for "our" children to have the chance not to grow up to be atheists. Religious intolerance, bigotry, and restriction is not, however, the exclusive purview of atheists and communists. In fact, history shows that deeply religious people are often the most guilty of intolerance, not just toward nonbelievers, but toward people who believe very deeply in something different.

Our society sometimes takes pride in the variety of great traditions that our system of government allows to exist together in a climate of relative civility. It is one of the laudable assets of our heritage. This variety is not declining, but increasing. Not only are people of different races, languages, and cultures coming to live among us, but persons of religious traditions quite unfamiliar to many Americans are also coming to make this nation their home. The migration of peoples to these shores is at the core of the nation's identity.

These new Americans will pay taxes, their children will enroll in the public schools, and they are likely to be minorities in the communities where they live. What will be their recourse during the time set aside for prayer if the new amendment is adopted? Does majority rule apply when the rights of religious minorities are concerned? Whose rights will be observed when today's religious minority is tomorrow's religious majority? Will today's prayer advocates then change their tune? Could it be that those who support school-sponsored prayer take this position because they assume that "their" prayer will be the chosen prayer?

The discussions about state-sponsored prayer remind me of the opportunity I had to visit Iran to minister to the Americans held hostage there in 1979. In Iran, religious fundamentalism is the basis of severe persecution by the government of those holding different religious beliefs. Although Iran is admittedly a vastly different culture than our own, I believe we can learn a good deal about what happens when a particular religious view becomes synonymous with governmental authority by looking at the Iranian example. One person's religious conviction becomes another's tyranny.

The version of the amendment that the White House has submitted to Congress attempts to answer the problems of religious minorities, and of peoples with no religion, by adding a sentence that states: "No person shall be required by the United States or any state to participate in prayer." However, instead of solving the problem, this sentence sets the stage for more confusion.

Consider for the moment that a third-grade child from a Hindu family attends a school that is largely Protestant Christian. For the sake of discussion, let's say that the Protestant parents could agree on an appropriate prayer for their children. Then imagine, in a practical situation, what it would take for the Hindu child not to be drawn into the approved Protestant prayer under the threat of being "set apart" by his peers. And what of the Hindu teacher who may be expected to lead their prayer? Will that teacher's job be threatened for refusing? And if the teacher consents to lead the prayer, will it be convincing or effective if the teacher really doesn't have the "feel" for that kind of prayer?

Advocates of public-school prayer have presented this matter as a contest between believers and atheists, but I predict that any such conflict will not be nearly as disruptive as the conflict that will surface between believers and other believers.

We all agree that freedom from religious persecution was one of the nation's founding principles, yet the history of this nation is cluttered with examples of how we have lost sight of that principle and have fallen victim to the emotional impulse of the moment. In times such as these, the stated credo of the Republic and the interpretations of its highest Court have saved the day. The genius of these safeguards was not born of someone's imagination, but of bitter experience in precolonial Europe.

Inevitably, the beliefs of religious adherents include an extra-rational dimension and a sense of righteousness that do not always foster equal respect for the beliefs of others. For this reason, the practice of religious devotion necessarily must be beyond the reach of political manipulation. The government's best law about it (that there shall be no law) has already been passed. The Supreme Court, because it is relatively free from contemporary whims and pressures, must be the highest temporal judge.

But let us be straightforward and honest with one another; some Americans have never accepted the fact that this nation provides basic federal guarantees. Some among us have historically argued for the rights of individual states to determine standards of behavior that have been clearly guaranteed by the federal Constitution. This line of thinking has fed years of criticism of the Supreme Court, which is charged with interpreting the Constitution for everyone in the United States. And it has motivated repeated efforts, by acts of Congress, to take away the Court's jurisdiction over certain civil-rights issues.

During the struggle for racial justice in the civil-rights movement of the 1960's, many of the same advocates of "states rights" openly criticized the Supreme Court. Their way of understanding government is now reflected in the President's school-prayer proposal. In order to be a nation and not just a collection of separate states, though, we must stand for certain universally applied laws and standards of civil authority. Without these, we are even more subject to polarization and disintegration. Without these, we are more open to counter-productive civil strife.

The surest way for us to guarantee our precious freedom of religion is to keep the government out of the business of religious devotion. There are already many positive options open to us to keep alive our valued religious customs without getting the government or government-run institutions involved.

The first thing we need to do as parents is to take more responsibility for the religious training of our children. The very best places for religious guidance are the home and the house of worship. There is so much we don't do to take advantage of these two places for religious nurture.

Parallel to that is our responsibility not to overestimate what prayer in schools can do to help our children compared with what we can do ourselves. We simply must not be duped by the brand of religious demagoguery that asks us to believe that all of society's ills are due to the absence of school-supervised prayer. One man, in testifying before a Congressional committee in 1980, linked the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to the 1963 Supreme Court decision on prayer. Ordinarily, one could dismiss this kind of bizarre claim with the ridicule it deserves, but I am troubled that so many sincere people seem to accept these assertions without much critical thinking.

Moreover, we should be more informed about the rights we already enjoy as the law now stands. Children can voluntarily pray in schools. That's a fact. They may pray privately at their convenience or they may assemble, at their own choosing, in groups during free time to pray. They are, however, not to pray during the official school day and they are not to be led in prayer by school personnel. We also have the opportunity, which we have largely neglected, to introduce courses on different world religions into our school curricula that would enhance our children's appreciation of the religious quests of the world's peoples. This could also be a way of acquainting students with religions as integral parts of cultural heritages.

What I think we don't want is government-supported evangelism or proselytizing. This would only be asking for problems that our already-troubled public schools don't need. Instead, America's public schools need our help to be restored as free spaces for learning by all children, without intimidation. An important ingredient in this environment is their discovery of what they share--not the belaboring of what makes them distinct and separate. Knowing more fully what we, this rainbow of humanity, share together as Americans, not only is the greatest hope for the future of our society, but could help us begin to maximize our opportunity to demonstrate that peoples, heretofore traveling radically different roads, can meet at the same junction.

One way of missing this opportunity, I believe, is to turn our public schools into battlegrounds for a holy war.

Vol. 01, Issue 42, Page 24

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