My mother sent me an email petetion that she had recieved from a friend that asked each recipient to add their name and forward to their friends. The goal of the petetion was to urge President Bush to try to get prayer reinstated in the public schools across America. Rather than respond to the email, I started thinking. That’s always a bad sign.
So I asked myself, “How could something as innocuous as reinstating prayer in public school possibly be a bad thing?”
Here were my thoughts:
First – exactly whose prayers are we going to reinstate? Here in Alabama, they’d likely want some unholy Southern Baptist abomination. In New York or Mass, you might get something quite different. Overall, I doubt that we’re smart enough to be able to bring prayer back into public schools without also denigrating the religious sensibilities of someone – such as the 20% of Catholics in the South. Since the public schools are for everyone, we have an obligation to provide an environment that supports all children – not just those of the majority. So, if you can’t include everyone, then school prayer should remain private.
Second – the mission of the public schools is to provide education. It’s the mission of one’s family to provide moral and religious guidance. I learned mathematics and history at school. I learned how to be a decent person at home. I suspect this is largely true for most moral public school graduates (ok – maybe not the part about math and history).
Third – the problems with our public schools go way beyond anything that a reinstatement of prayer would fix. For example, here in Alabama, children must bring their own pens, pencils, soap, and toilet paper to school because the school budget cannot meet the such demands. Ok, let’s have all the kids say a couple Hail Mary’s at the beginning of each day. Guess what – the kids would still need pens and paper, and the classes would still be overcrowded. Ultimately, what is the tangible effect of prayer in public school? I would guess that it would make some kids feel better, some would feel worse, and some would’t care one way or the other. In total, it would be much like the effect of the Pledge of Allegience – kids would muddle through it each day, parroting the words, while never getting the point of what all the fuss was about.
Fourth – if prayer in public schools is the solution, what are the problems we’re really trying to resolve by bringing it back? Is it that our kids are not Christian enough? That there’s some sort of social breakdown? That our “culture” has gone godless? I very strongly suspect that there are no significant social ills that were created by removing prayer from public schools. In addition, I suspect there are no social ills that would be resolved by bringing prayer back into the schools.
My greatest suspicion is that the call for prayer to be brought back into schools is more about perception than it is about actually doing something about social ills. “If we only brought prayer back into the schools”, the claim goes, “then we would collectively be a more ‘Holy’ Nation”. The fallacy, of course, is that the US – for all its popular culture and closet secularism, is very much a Christian-dominated country. Most Americans are very devout – they pray at every opportunity, invoking the blessings of their deities at sporting events and other gatherings, and they are more willing than persons from most other developed countries acknowledge their gods in public forums. Most of this is genuine religious fervor, so I’m betting that having public school kids pray at the beginning of their school day won’t add much to the overall mix. Maybe the point is that if we appear more holy, then the gods won’t notice our other failings. Maybe praying for change really is better than changing things for the better ourselves.
In any case, I believe the only place for state-sanctioned prayer is in history texts and horror novels.