Prayer in school

Sam Smith, 1982 – The past few weeks have given evidence to support Benjamin Whichcote’s aphorism that “among politicians the esteem of religion is profitable; the principles of it are troublesome.” Seldom has the Lord’s name been taken in vain with such consistency, length, sanctimony, hypocrisy and self-service as during the debate on the school prayer amendments. Obscured in this certainly ridiculous and possibly blasphemous performance was that leaders of the United Methodist church, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran churches, the Baptist Church, a number of Jewish groups and the Presbyterian Church USA indicated that they really didn’t need these amendments to carry out God’s work and, in some cases, argued that it would hurt more than help.

But the members of the Election Year Synod of the United Church of Capitol Hill knew better. If this were mere political posturing it would be only an aggravation. But this has been no abstract constitutional or theological debate. When you come right down to it, what at least some of these folks were up to was trying to establish an official religion for the United States. Led by, Ronald Reagan, that great theologian and very occasional parishioner in the White House, what a disturbing number of advocates really want is to spread their own pop theology across the land, to make God as simple and ubiquitous as pledging allegiance to the flag. This is why they don’t give a hoot about what the older sects think.

Their god is the god of the television evangelist, the god of the Redskins (some of whom lamentably lent their support to the project), the god of corporate Christianity as practiced at Kiwanis breakfasts, the god of the Reader’s Digest.

Give them a prayer amendment and the next thing you know you’ll have to sing “Jesus Loves Me” before you get to see the NFL in Christian combat. They’re not doing this for religious liberty; it’s plain old-fashioned evangelical proselytizing. Thus they prove the very danger that opponents have suggested. Even before they get their amendment, they know how and to whom we should pray. James Cardinal Gibbons, in ‘The Faith of Our Fathers,1 noted that “a civil ruler dabbling in religion is as reprehensible as a clergyman dabbling in politics. Both render themselves odious as well as ridiculous.”

Mr. J. Christ, in his manner, had a milder suggestion: “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

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