Last night I laid out my view that Christ never encouraged public prayer among nonbelievers. I have also explained that U.S. Christians have been doing so ever since the Puritans anchored here. In a previous post I explained that there are usually consequences for “forcing it.”
The Union Free School District No. 9 of New Hyde Park, New York was and is a public school similar to others across the nation. Kids came and went, bullied and were bullied, won and lost in athletics, and made test scores both good and bad. I’m confident there were kids with parents who didn’t pay much attention to what was going on at school and there were parents who hardly gave their children any space.
I suppose it was in the earliest of the 1960’s, when Elvis Presley was all over the pop charts, the first men made it into space, and John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President, that this little known school board in New York directed the principal to have the students recite a prayer at the beginning of each day:
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”
Seems simple enough, right? One might wonder what harm it could do? Another might wonder what good it could do. The governing body over the schools of New York drafted the prayer and doubtlessly intended it to be religiously bland enough to not be abrasive. (split infinitive, and I don’t even care!)
And that sheds light on two problems. First, we have the problem of a government body drafting any particular prayer to any particular god. Second, we are faced with the problem of a prayer being so flavorless it hardly is worth speaking. What god is it addressing? Allah, Jehovah, Hallie Selassie, Krishna, Buddha, Zeus? People believe in them all, and some believe in none. So let’s take them in order.
A government body drafting a prayer. If I’m a Christian, and it’s a Christian prayer, I should be happy, no? Not in my humble opinion. If a government body can draft and push a certain prayer, that government can determine what prayer the people will pray. This is the same scenario as presented in the story of Daniel (Daniel 10) except that, for the moment, the mono-theists are the majority. What if the majority became Hindu, or Pagan, or something else with which you don’t agree? What if you’re the Hindu, or Pagan, and a U.S. citizen? Then would your freedom of religion be challenged by be made to pray to the “Almighty God?” Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the Almighty was a god that didn’t get involved in the affairs of men, that started the world like a clock and then sat back and let it run, hands off. He wouldn’t have prayed for God’s blessings – at least not sincerely – because he believed “nature’s god” didn’t work that way. James Madison wrote:
“Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.” Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, II Writings of Madison 190.
What did the primary drafter of the Bill of Rights say above? He was explaining that an “establishment of religion” such as adopted in several of the colonies already, should be avoided to protect the purity of the religion. He was explaining that historically, when civil government pairs with religion, religion loses its efficacy. I think Christ knew this as well, and that is one of the reasons He did not establish a government in Israel to overthrow the Roman occupation and take back Jerusalem. Christ and Madison understood the idea that forced religion is false, weak religion.
The second problem presented in the New York school and even more commonly today is a prayer being so flavorless it hardly is worth speaking. Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk in the 1960’s. Though he traveled among monasteries worldwide, practicing, studying, and speaking on meditation and prayer, his home was the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His thoughts on the subject of prayer jive with Christ’s habits (Matt.14:23, Mark 6:46, Luke 6:12, Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, Luke 9:18 etc): it is not something we do as a public spectacle with those who disagree, it is just the opposite.
“Prayer aspires to an immediate relationship with God, a face to face unmediated vision of God” – Merton, On Christian Contemplation
I submit that the prayer proposed by the New York school district does not fit this description. That prayer aspired to sacrificing a little time out of the students’ days to honor God, whether in sincerity or not.
“You cannot pray with your mind. You pray with your heart or with the depths of your being.” – On Christian Contemplation. Thomas Merton
I further submit that the watered down, impersonal prayers to no specific god which pass constitutional muster under the Establishment Clause are not pleasing to the real God. Consider His words in the Book of Amos, Chapter 5:
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 “Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
23 “Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
24 “But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
He wants our voluntary, sincere love and mercy for others, not our scripted, forced prayers!
The case about the school district in New York was step one of the “removal of prayer from public schools,” that so many of my fellow Christians complain about so often. Engel v. Vitale is the beginning of a long line of U.S. Supreme Court cases that deal with this issue. The thing is, no decision of the Supreme Court can remove God from the schools. But Christians even suggesting that is possible is disrespectful of His omnipotent nature. No ruling of the High Court can stop students from seeking “a face to face unmediated vision of God,” as Merton so eloquently put it, but Christians acting like the government is restricting our prayer is giving our children the opposite message.
Perhaps if we Christians made our private, sincere prayers more of a priority than our public, showy, prayers . . . Christ told a story:
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18
I want to be less like the Pharisee, and more pleasing to God, regardless of what rights the Constitution gives or withholds. And I think if Christians had been offering humble, private prayers instead of forcing the public prayer issue all this time, we might have less restrictions today.