Let Us Pray – But Where and When

May 7, 1995


“Let Us Pray” — But Where and When?

I have a letter addressed to Sen. Nancy Kassebaum by some 25 religious leaders in Kansas — a letter which opposes any form of mandated prayer in public schools. Among those who signed are Jewish rabbis and ministers of Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mennonite, Unitarian, Lutheran and Congregational churches — about half of them from Wichita. One Unitarian minister has spoken from this pulpit. A Christian Church minister, Bill Reece, has visited here and performed three weddings. Two local Congregational ministers signed: Mike Poague of Fairmount and one Robert Meyers of University Congregational Church. I spoke for myself and not for this church, so if your conviction is different from mine I would urge you to write Sen. Kassebaum as this group has done. In the interest of stimulating your thoughts about a contro-versial subject I have decided to share my own feelings.
I have two reasons for feeling that mandated school prayer is not a good idea. The first is legal. In a religioiusly diverse nation, such prayer blurs the distinction between church and state. It is true that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, but the “wall of separation” metaphor which appears in the writings of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson has a strong footing in the first amendment. In addition to a great many non-believers in America, there are at least l200 different religious groups , many of them outside the Judeo-Christian tradition which is reflected in our own sacred writings. To keep from sanctioning one favored religion, Buddhist and Islamic prayers would have to be offered in the name of Buddha or Allah, and you can bet your life that Scientologists, Rastafarians, devil-worshippers, and a host of others would insist on equal time. To give you an idea of how awkward it can be to address the deity in a diverse culture, here is a copy of the Journal of the Kansas Senate for February l0th of this year. A Congregational minister from Topeka tries hard to be politically and religiously correct, including in his invocation the names of Yahweh, Allah, Lord, Savior, Father, Sophia, Creator, Christ and “many, many more.” I’m sure he was jumped by somebody as soon as he said “Amen” because he formally opened his prayer by saying, “Heavenly Father” instead of “Mother God” or at least “Mother-Father God.” Struggling to include any atheists that might be present, he includes in his prayer those who “do not even claim your existence.”
That invocation, I can assure you, will not please those Christian who want the public school day to begin with a required prayer led by administrator, teacher, or student. They want a prayer addressed to the Judeo-Christian God, phrased in language they are familiar with in church, and finishing with a reference to Christ as Lord. In modern America it isn’t going to work, and even among conservative Christians there are those who know that. One cultural historian who is himself an evangelical cautions his church friends that getting official prayers made mandatory in public schools is not likely to make them happy. “The same parents who press for prayer in the South,” he says, “will be outraged by Buddhist meditation in the state of Hawaii or readings from the Book of Mormon in the state of Utah.” This comment leads me into my second reason for opposing mandated prayer in public schools: that such a decision, given our awareness of growing cultural diversity, would result in gray, soulless generic prayers unlikely to please anybody. As a conservative profes-sor at Wheaton College admits, “If you get something that would not offend, then it has be offensive.” [Mark Noll]
Martin Marty pointed out last month in the Christian Century [4/19] the latest twist from those in favor of mandated prayer: a “let’s-take-turns-praying” compromise. In a Southern Baptist publication, Richard Land says let the Buddhist, Islamic and other prayers be heard. The Christian students, he is sure, will come out ahead. After all, he says, “Do we not believe that a student’s prayer offered up to the one true God has infinitely more power than prayers offered in the name of Allah or Buddha?” Confident of the superiority of his own religion, he wants the government to protect student-initiated, student-sponsored, student-led prayers in a forum from which no student’s convictions are excluded. Theologian Marty’s comment on that is perfect. “I want to be there,” he says, “when the ‘my-God-is-oner-and-truer-than-your-God’ contests begin. Not only God but the little kids will listen to the prayers. What will children think if the Buddhist and Islamic prayers against earthquakes in California seem effective and, the day after a Christian prays against earthquakes, there is an earthquake? What will that do to the judges, referees and little Christian players of the game?”
I call another witness. If I were to list the three best preachers I have ever heard, one would be the retired minister of New York’s famous Riverside Church, Ernest Campbell. I subscribe to Ernie’s occasional newsletter, and in the last one he had some pungent paragraphs about obligatory piety. “It is not because I do not believe in prayer that I am wary of prayers in public places,” he writes, “but because I do believe in prayer. I want to protect the integrity of our intercourse with God. Like most of my readers I have been called on often to pray at public events. But never have I been as free in my conversations with God on those occasions as I have been when praying in private or within my own religious community. The need to find the lowest common denominator and stick with it inhibits freedom and produces strain..
“But there’s more,” he says. “When worship is compelled the disinterested and the unbelieving, not to mention the resentful, help to create an atmosphere that can stifle the movement of the Spirit. I have spoken at compulsory chapel services on college campuses and know whereof I speak. I have watched attendance monitors take note of vacant seats. I have felt the resistance of the unwilling. Years ago when Sunday worship was required of underclassmen at Princeton University it is reported that defiant students would unfurl the Sunday New York Times and commence to read from its broadly outstretched pages. Who could preach effectively against that! Or pray with conviction in the midst of that!”
Mr. Campbell makes reference to the platitudinous rhetoric that passes for prayer at the opening of each day’s business in the Congress of the United States, a pattern repeated in State Houses up and down the country. “Few in either house,” he says, “take this moment of devotion seriously. Many stir about with eyes open and heads unbowed. Seldom is anything of the prophetic included in the petitions. The chaplain, for all of his sincerity, has the look of a hired hand. And all of this does more to denigrate the cause of religion in the nation than to forward it.” He then gives an example of what can happen when prayer is linked with special interests, quoting the invocation given by Chaplain Richard Halverson at a session of the U. S. Senate during an election season. Listen carefully: “Sovereign Lord of history and the nation, we pray for senators running for re-election…Give wisdom to those who direct their campaigns. Give the senators special persuasion in speech…and provide, wherever needed, adequate campaign funds. We pray in His name through whom Thou dost promise to supply all our needs according to your riches in glory. Amen.”
As a minister with more than passing interest in the matter, I have felt God was made us of, exploited, for one purpose or another in far too many official public prayers, or trivialized by those who feel it obligatory to lead a prayer at a ball game or a banquet, but who do it so mechanically and with so little thought or feeling that you almost expect them to say, “OK, that’s out of the way, let’s get to the really important stuff.” Even at church board meetings the feeling that a formal, spoken prayer is a requirement can lead to some that are so perfunctory they come close to being a mockery. I loved the good man who did it, but I had a hard time not smiling when he opened a church meeting exactly like this: “Father…” — [that was his first mistake, and I felt a fretful stir from the feminist board member sitting next to me] — “Father, bless this Board and its work for this church, Amen” Has everybody read the minutes from our last meeting?” Please don’t misunderstand: I like having church board meeteings opened with a brief prayer, no matter how plain and simple, that does not sound grudging or mechanical — and after which, for just a couple of seconds, there is a pause before we turn from talking to God to talking about the pigeons roosting in the steeple. For example: “We love this church, so be with us, God, as we go about its business tonight. Amen.” [Pause] “Has everyone had a chance to read the minutes of our last meeting?” It isn’t necessary to be a clergyperson to speak a simple, moving prayer — and I’m sure I have probably annoyed some of you at times by my fervent pleas to call on others to say a prayer and not delegate that particular expression of faith to a professional speaker of prayers. This is totally inconsistent with Congrega-tionalism, which stresses the priesthood of every believer.
As for mandatory school prayer, I grew up with that and I do not remember that as a formative influence in my life. My parents and my church were extremely powerful influences, but the school prayers were exercises in empty rhetoric — rushed through by teachers who didn’t want to do them, but had to get them out of the way before the math lesson could start….about as meaningful, one columnist wrote, as painting school buses yellow instead of orange. That may sound harsh, so I must tell you something quickly: I am in favor of prayer, and I am in favor of more of it rather than less, but prayer that is sincere, unforced, and from the heart — prayer, by the way, which need not be spoken aloud. But if it is to be spoken aloud somewhere on public school grounds, and if you want a truly meaningful prayer, look for the ones spoken by students who gather around the flagpole or down by the volleyball court, and pray because they really want to pray. In fact, the minute you make prayer a privilege rather than a requirement, a rather daring and different thing instead of an official ceremony, the kids it is likely to help will rush to try it. Make it a requirement, like gym, and many of the best kids in school will cross their eyes and giggle and shoot paperwads.
Many good people believe that our problems with drugs, violence, gangs, and teenage pregnancies began some thirty years ago when mandated prayer in the public schools was ruled unconstitutional. I think there are many social causes, the very least of which is the lack of a necessarily vague and fuzzy government-mandated daily prayer in the public schools. Far more important is the breakdown in home life, the constant diet of violence and contempt for authority in television and movies, and the widening gulf between those who have far more than they can spend and those who live in desperation below the poverty line. Since it’s terribly difficult to do anything about those causes, we look for something easy: make the kids pray again, and life will be the way it was in the 40’s and 50’s. I wish it were true, but I do not believe it for a single moment. What I do believe is that parents who teach their children to pray, by precept and by their own example, may confer on them a great blessing, but it is undemocratic and risky to have the state involved with religion.
Remember these things: Voluntary prayer is neither banned nor discouraged in public schools, and millions of children of different faiths undoubtedly pray in the public schools every day: at the start of school, over lunch, before tests, and when they wish to seek guidance or express thanks. Let’s be honest about it: many who push hardest for required prayer want their form of prayer sanctioned by the school. You can be sure that the moment it is, conflicts and law suits will erupt all over the country.
On vexing and divisive problem, perhaps we should follow the advice of the founder of the Christian religion, who saw people praying in public places and reacted by saying, “When you pray, go into your own room, shut your door, and pray to your Father privately….” In that kind of prayer, as Jesus knew very well, there is little temptation to pretend or try to impress others, and no temptation at all to impose your way of expressing religious faith on those to whom it may be offensive. I did not suffer in those required school prayers in Oklahoma because they were Protestant and conservative, and I was Protestant and conservative. I never considered how the Catholic and Jewish kids in school felt, and if there were Muslim or a Hindu students they obviously felt it was wiser to suffer in silence. The last thing I ever want to see is a theocracy instead of a democracy….and for that reason, I signed my name to the letter I mentioned when we started.

Grant us wisdom and honesty, gracious God, as we try to
balance our deeply held convictions against those of others,
and preserve us from strife and division, we ask in the
name of Christ our Lord. Amen.