Return to teacher-led prayers isn’t the solution

Sunday, August 3, 1997

The familiar argument goes like this: When we took prayer
and Bible reading out of schools, “crime, drugs, and other
problems followed.”

I'm sure that lots of Americans agree
with the reader who wrote to tell me that many of society's problems
can be traced back to the 1960s Supreme Court decisions striking
down state-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in the
public schools.

Actually, history suggests otherwise. Many schools — including those I attended in the late 1950s — had long abandoned those
devotional practices by the early 1960s. Beginning in the early
part of this century, the Protestant tone of public schools faded
away as America became more religiously diverse and society at
large more secular.

But even if all school children before 1962 had been
led in prayer by their teachers each morning, could we really
link that practice to a more moral and just society? Probably
not. No more than we could blame school-sponsored prayer for racism
or other social problems of the 1940s and 1950s. Such explanations
falsely over-simplify our nation's complex social history.

My reader, however, may be making a larger point. Since
the days of John Winthrop and the Puritans, many settlers on these
shores have believed that the government must acknowledge God
as the source of our blessings and liberties if our society is
to flourish and prosper. As during the Civil War and other major
crises in our history, many Americans see a moral crisis in the
nation that can only be addressed by a return to God and the Bible.
Only then, it is argued, can the United States be that “city
upon the hill” envisioned by Winthrop so long ago. Other
voices, beginning with that early Puritan dissenter Roger Williams,
have argued that acknowledging God is a matter for individual
conscience; invoking government on the side of religion leads
only to division and bloodshed.

The prayer decisions of the 1960s took the Roger Williams'
view of religious liberty. The court was not, as some have charged,
“throwing God out of the schools;” it was making sure
that the government would not impose religion on impressionable
school children.

Unfortunately, those court decisions were widely misunderstood
to mean that students can't pray and teachers can't mention religion.
This confusion, not the absence of a 60-second teacher-led prayer
in the morning, may be the real root of the anger felt by many
religious parents. Religion and religious conviction have been
treated unfairly in many public schools. When that happens, it
is both unjust and unconstitutional.

The solution, however, isn't to get the government back
in the religion business. As regular readers of this column know,
there is a better way: protect the religious liberty rights of
all students and take religion seriously in the curriculum. As
President Clinton said in a speech two years ago, public schools
should not be “religion-free zones.” Under the First
Amendment, there are many ways to make sure that students are
protected as they say grace, gather before school to pray around
the flagpole, form a religious club, or share their faith with
a classmate.

To impose religion using the engine of government inevitably
corrupts both. As Roger Williams argued more than 350 years ago,
only persuasion, not coercion, can lead to genuine faith.