The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray....."  Matthew 6: 3-6

Commentary of the Day - June 23, 2001:  Teach Me To Pray.  Guest commentary by Tom Cordle.

My Christian faith is tried to its limits more often by other Christians than by non-believers.  That may be because I expect better of my Christian brothers.  I guess it angers me that we often fight over such small things, like dogs with an old bone.  Generosity of spirit–and everything else–is supposed to be the hallmark of the faith we all so freely profess.  But far too often, Christians do not demonstrate a generosity of spirit; they demonstrate a desire to control the world and force it to believe as they do–or at least as they claim to.

Recently I was deeply troubled to sit in church and listen to another sermon demanding prayer in schools.  The sermon mentioned the tragedy at Columbine High School, intimating that had there been prayer in schools this would never have happened.  Or that the posting of the much violated Ten Commandments somehow would have caused the two psychotic young men at Columbine to lay down their arms.

Now the issue of prayer in schools is not a small thing; it is certainly important enough to spark constitutional debate as well as congregational enmity.  But there doesn't seem to be much generosity of spirit in this debate.  It seems that to be against prayer in schools is to be against God.  So let me be clear here: I love God; I just don't think He needs my protection or the protection of law.

I freely admit my viewpoint on the matter of prayer in schools is in the Christian minority, and it is likely a minority view in America.  But legality and morality ought never be questions of simple plurality.  Jesus' teachings were certainly a minority viewpoint, and I try to rest secure in His long shadow.  He reminded us the right road is hard and narrow and seldom crowded. Still, I sometimes question whether I really belong in a church where my views are not welcome.  But I remain.  Why?  To ask the hard questions.  It was in the nature of my Teacher to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

So: If the question of prayer in schools is a question of legality and morality, what can we say with reasonable certainty about either?

Obviously, the legal precedent is in The First Amendment to The Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Powerful words, but what do they mean?   Well, under our legal system of precedents, the law means what the court, and in particular The Supreme Court, says it means.  For some time now, courts have taken the view that public schools and churches should not commingle their functions.  Conservative Christians–and many moderates, too–decry this as a violation of their First Amendment rights.  Clearly, the actions of the courts do limit the practice of religion, particularly when that practice enters the public arena.

But just as clearly, the court has substantial legal precedent for doing so.  The countering argument is that these precedents are based on a misreading of the intent of the framers of The Constitution.  But what was the intent of the founding fathers?

To answer that question, it is necessary to examine the writings and the actions of those who created this document.  The Federalist Papers, by my reading, do not support the notion of prayer in schools; but then Hamilton was certainly no believer in the virtue of the common man.  That was left to Jefferson.  And while Jefferson may be called a Deist,  there is even in him a fear of the melding of church and state.  Jefferson, like most of the founding fathers, was an astute observer of an England in which church and state existed for all practical purposes as a single entity.  He was acutely aware of all that had gone wrong in England since Henry VIII threw out Catholicism and established himself as the head of church and state.  In fact, at the time of America's founding the practice of Catholicism was still a hanging offense in England and would be until 1832.  Simply being Catholic–or Protestant–can still get you killed in northern Ireland!

If 1832 seems like ancient history, let me remind you what happened in my church and in countless other Protestant churches across America on the Sunday before the  Kennedy-Nixon election.  We were warned from the pulpit that electing a Catholic to the presidency would be the end for Protestant America.  If Kennedy was elected, the Pope would be running America.  The congregation was told in no uncertain terms that their duty to God and country was to vote against Kennedy.  Better a megalomaniac who professed a faith he didn't live than a practicing Catholic, I guess.

 We all have been told how the Founding Fathers feared a King, but we have seldom been told how they feared the Church as well.  The Founding Fathers knew the union of the two always resulted in an unholy alliance.  Most were students of history and were familiar with the excesses of the Crusades,  the horrors of the Inquisition, and the madness of witch hunts in Wurzburg, Germany and Salem, Massachusetts.  That is why they insisted that Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion.  Indeed, America was founded, and its constitution written, as a reaction to state mandated and dictated religion.

But in America the debate has really never been about the establishment of religion.  Hardly anyone argues that the courts abridge our right to exercise our faith in private or in public places of worship.  And no edicts require us to pay lip service to a duly chosen deity, although any one running for elective office these days has little chance of winning an election if they are unwilling to do so.  The real debate centers on the second part of the religion clause, the free exercise of religion.

This issue is cloudier, but much less so if we examine how such issues were dealt with by the framers of the Constitution.  One great fear of the Founding Fathers, particularly those from the southern states, was "the tyranny of the majority".  Much of the debate and much of the compromise, including that on the issue of slavery, was decided in favor of "minority rights" rather than simple "democratic majority". The establishment of the Electoral College was a clear example of this protection of "minority rights" over "majority rule".  Even the United States Senate is a compromise reached to protect the rights of small states at the expense of the larger states.  Clearly, the Founding Fathers intended that minority rights take precedence over the will of majority.

 Obviously, "minority rights" meant something quite different in those days.  But the principle was clearly established by the words and actions of the founding fathers, and it remains a cornerstone of our legal system.  Therefore, it can only be concluded that when such issues arise, the framers of the Constitution intended them to be resolved in favor of "minority rights".  And as long as Christianity remains the majority religion in America, it must accept that its right to constitutional protection must, as a matter of intent and precedent, be subject to the rights of minority religions.  In truth, this is fair and just; the great and the many seldom have much to fear from the lowly and the few.

So it would seem the often unappreciated work of the court is on a solid legal foundation.  But what of morality?  Can Christians be faulted for their anger at the courts for pursuing a legal, but immoral path–at least as many Christians perceive it?

Perhaps Christians should first remember they are Christians and examine what Christ had to say on this subject.  "My kingdom is not of this earth."  "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."  He warned people of faith to stay away from politics.  I know of no instance when Jesus criticized the Romans.  Instead, He criticized the people of his faith for not practicing what they preached!  Jesus said to those of his faith "You have more laws already than you can keep.  You do not need more laws; you need to change your hearts."  There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that supports the imposition of majority religious practice on the body politic or the affairs of government.  On the contrary, His teaching was for the most part in opposition to prevailing religious beliefs, or at the very least in opposition to prevailing practice.  He decried the religious leaders of his faith who made deals with the Roman government even if the purpose of the deal was ostensibly to sustain the Jewish faith.

Of course, the argument may be made that the American debate is different because ours is an internal argument, whereas the Romans were an external government imposing their will by force on the Jews.  But anyone who listens to the usual conservative Christian railing against "the government in Washington" understands it is little more loved than "the emperor in Rome".  Rather than viewing the government as an extension of 'us', it is far too often thought of as a foreign 'them'.  But there is no escaping the fact that both 'us' and 'them' have agreed to be governed by the same Constitution–and even by the courts that interpret it.  And the Court, the Constitution and Christ all clearly warn of the dangers of mixing church and state.

But there remains a larger issue for America's Christians.  The cold, hard truth?  Christian America insists on laws to protect a faith they do not practice themselves.  How many Christians who insist on prayer in schools offer a prayer of thanks when they are out with an important business client for a two-martini lunch?  How many Christians who insist on prayer in schools offer up a prayer of sorrow when they blow away a black bear in the Tennessee mountains?  How many Christians who insist on prayer in schools beg God's forgiveness as they throw trash from their vehicles onto the beautiful good earth He has given them?  How many Christians who insist on prayer in schools would deny others the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply because of their color or their faith?  How many Christians who insist on prayer in schools helped defeat one of their own and traded an honest-to-God decent Baptist Sunday school teacher named Jimmy Carter for a mediocre actor who spouted family values while heading one of the more dysfunctional families the presidency has ever seen?

When will Christian America accept the truth that the courts are correct in their interpretation of the Constitution and that prayer in our schools is clearly illegal?  When will Christian America understand that practicing their faith will do more to restore it than legalizing school prayer ever will do?  When will Christian America understand with Jesus that the battle for the hearts of men can never be won with the sword or the law?  I am tempted to say the answer is 'never' since Christian America seems bent on establishing a Christian Kingdom on earth in spite of the fact that Christ told them quite plainly it would never exist.  God help us all if they ever succeed.  As I've said before, if you liked the Ayatollah's Iran, you'll love Jerry Falwell's Amerika.

But if that day ever comes, Christian America may understand why the Court and the Constitution and Christ all agree on this matter.  If the day ever comes when this does become a Christian nation in fact and the Lords of the Church begin to exercise government power over what is proper religious exercise and what is not, those who wish to worship in any way not prescribed by religious law will found out why it is crucial to have a legal system that protects minority rights at the expense of majority rule.  Then they will understand why Jesus lost his life in defense of that principle; that He died on the cross because he dared to say the leaders of his faith had no right to come between a man and his God.  Then they will understand that true Christianity--as opposed to the Church--will always remain a minority faith precisely because so many are so incapable of practicing it.  Then they will wish for a court to protect their minority rights.

But for now Christian America will go on insisting on imposing by law a morality they do not practice.  They will go on unable to recognize their own hypocrisy.  They will fail to understand that their hypocrisy may be as responsible as anything else for tragedies like Columbine.  They will insist on their right to “spread The Word”.  But by now, everyone in America has heard The Word.   America is not looking for words; it is looking for deeds; it is looking for examples; it is looking for role models; it is looking for real Christians.  It is looking for Christians who understand their strength is in the Lord and not in Washington; who understand their strength is in Christ, not in the Courts.  America is looking for Christians who pray with their children; it is looking for Christians who teach their children to pray as Jesus prescribed in Matthew, not in the public square or in the public school, but in their room behind closed doors.  America is looking for Christians who understand that in the end, the rightful place for prayer is between a man and his God.

So pray, Christian, but be careful of your prayers.  Do not pray for prayer in schools, but for prayer in homes.  Do not pray for the power to insist that others pray.  Do not pray to put such power in the hands of your government.  For the hands that hold such power may one day be around your neck, insisting on a prayer you do not wish to pray.  Amen

©2001 Tom Cordle.
Tom Cordle lives in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. He has a BA in political science which left him totally unprepared to make a living. This led to jobs in music, sales, and construction which left him knowing very little about everything.  Obviously, this was a perfect background for a writer.

The Irascible Professor agrees with Tom on this issue.  There is entirely too much prayer in the public schools, particularly in algebra classes!

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.