I was driving to Indianapolis to see my son Joe and his wife when I was struck by a rural Indiana church marquee that I sped past: “Pray is a 4-letter word that’s acceptable everywhere except in school.”
My two daughters, Colleen and Leslie, have taken me to task for using, “I mean, c’mon” as a logical argument, but once again I feel those three (? four) words coming to mind apropos of such facile “bumper sticker” church marquees. We have all been entertained by such witty marquees; however, the “Christian as beleaguered minority” in the heartland just won’t cut it with this Jewish boy, or as we East Tennessee natives are wont to say, “That dog won’t hunt.”
People can pray, whatever that means to them, anywhere and any time in this country. Period. No one’s stopping you. Not the government, not the principal. The old canard that removing prayer from schools is part of what caused the beginning of the decline of American civilization as we knew and loved it is a facile and tired argument. Struggle as I might with issues of faith, I murmur a blessing, aloud or silent, before many seemingly mundane acts; it’s what we Jews do, attempting to elevate the daily to the sacred. Christians, Muslims, and others can do so as well should they choose. Any where. Any time.
The marquee noted above is demagoguery. Nothing more, nothing less. To instill fear and resentment, consciously or unconsciously, amongst one’s congregants is to engage in low behavior and is not in keeping with the better aspects of our nature. Mixing schools and religion, unless said school is a parochial one, is fraught with difficulty and problems. It doesn’t seem that long ago that, when in public school sixth grade, a substitute teacher came to my class in Knoxville one day and made the two non-Christians in the class, myself and one self-proclaimed atheist, stand in front of the other students in order to be… mocked. Yes, a teacher, nominally a Christian, a member of the majority in that place and time, entrusted with young charges, invited their impressionable peers to make sport of two classmates who represented “the other” to her. We were not Christian; ergo, we were fair game.
We have progressed some since that day, yet we have a long way to go. Demogoguery and faux populism permeate our public discourse to this day. May those who are nostalgic for the “good old days” of [their version of] prayer in schools engage in the thought experiment of thinking about what they might feel were a view of the world they did not share imposed upon them in the public sphere. Indeed, the Hebrew verb “l’hitpalel,” “to pray,” literally means “to examine one’s self.” May those who wish to return to a halcyon past that never actually existed examine themselves for their true motivation, perhaps a nostalgia for lost youth, perhaps something else, and realize that prayer is available to all at any time of their choosing, and that imposing that view of prayer transmutes a potential realization and elevation of the soul into something else entirely: a cudgel. Congregational life should be about community, a voluntary and not imposed bringing together of individuals into a whole greater than the sum of parts. Only then can a true community and self-examination from which to arise a better person occur.