With God on Our Side insinuates that conservative Christians began to affiliate with the Republican Party after the Supreme Court determined that institutionalized prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional. This was apparently a galvanizing event. Frankly, I’ve never understood the “school prayer” issue. Those who are most active on the issue seem to phrase it as a question of permitting children to pray in school. However, this is of course quite misleading.
Prayer is typically a personal and quiet discipline. It can take place any time and any where without others even being aware. Such prayer is certainly not forbidden in public schools or anywhere else in our country. I’m very confident that such prayer take places constantly in most if not all public schools. Indeed, when I was a kid, I myself participated in such prayers all the time. Instead, the hot-button legal and political issue technically involves whether there will be institutionalized group prayer during the school day. I’m not sure why anyone would advocate that kind of prayer in a public school. Who would lead such prayer? If you have people of different faiths in the classroom, then one of two things will happen. Either the prayer will be watered down and made vague to avoid contradiction of the theological beliefs of some in the class, or the prayer will be more specific and will offend some teachers, students and/or parents. Neither option seems desirable to me.
Further, my thinking on the whole school prayer issue was crystallized when I was a grade school teacher (prior to attending law school) and realized the main focus of teaching is classroom management (i.e., maintaining order so kids don’t get out of line such that chaos prevents learning). I’ve seen first hand that classroom management and institutionalized worship are not happy bedfellows. My first year as a teacher I taught sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a Catholic school where we had institutionalized prayers several times each day and we attended mass as a group at least once a month. Initially, I was very excited about these group worship opportunities, but I soon came to dread them. Kids will be kids, and in my experience as a teacher even “good kids” are not inclined to be spiritually devout when their peers are around. It used to offend me deeply when my middle school students were playing during prayers or mass. Instead of showing respect to God, many would use the distraction and the gap in discipline to pass notes or communicate to one another in other covert ways. It was disillusioning to me that instead of being a leader or role model of faith to these young students, I was reduced to having to hand out demerits for infractions during prayer times or mass. Pragmatically, it was also very concerning to me that such a system likely turned many kids away from God at a critical, difficult time in their lives. Because of these experiences, I vowed that if I were ever a parent, I would never send my kids to a religiously affiliated school where God was mandated. Trying to force religion unfortunately has the opposite effect of what is intended. I would not recommend it to anyone.
As a teacher in a religious school, not only did I see that forcing kids to worship in a group setting was unsuccessful, I also used to be very concerned about the kids in the school who did have a budding faith in God. I worried about the impact on them when they saw their classmates being so disrespectful. Maybe some of them began to see faith in God as un-cool or silly as a result. Peer influences mean so much to young people. I would have much rather taken the kids with a budding faith in God to a church service of mature, respectful Christ followers. That would have provided better, more supportive role models. However, that was not an option.
With regard to the legal and political “school prayer” issue, I’m further perplexed because those who seem to be most adamant about the need for institutionalized group prayer in school tend to be from faith traditions where a personal, intimate relationship with God is emphasized. Such a relationship is primarily developed by an individual’s one-on-on time with God. Realistically, it does not seem that such a personal relationship is fostered by forced, impersonal group prayer in a secular setting. Instead, people are supposed to come to their own personal decision to accept Christ into their heart or to reject him.
Moreover, in such faith traditions, spontaneous prayer is typically emphasized over rote formulaic prayer. Pragmatically, it seems to me that such formulaic prayer lends itself best to a pluralistic, secular group setting where different faith traditions are represented. Only if one writes down and tweaks the wording of a given prayer ahead of time can one be sure to avoid references or phraseology that will offend some of the people being led in prayer. In my own opinion, that type of rehearsed precision tends to defeat the purpose of prayer. I am just not sure what proponents of institutionalized group prayer in public schools would hope to achieve.
Matthew 6:5-8 (Contemporary English Version)
When you pray, don't be like those show-offs who love to stand up and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. I can assure you that they already have their reward. When you pray, go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to your Father in private. He knows what is done in private, and he will reward you. When you pray, don't talk on and on as people do who don't know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. Don't be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask.