In the Army, I got religion. Since the weekly barracks inspection coincided nicely with religious services, I found myself drawn to the chapel where, among other things, I did not have to stand at attention while an officer looked through my locker to see if I had the prescribed sets of underwear. This worked for some time until a sergeant said that, even if I had to burn incense and bang a gong, I was going to stand inspection that day. I went to chapel.
Looking back at that incident I give that sergeant more credit for understanding the varieties of American religions than I do Ronald Reagan. As far as that sergeant was concerned, I was an exotic. He was not sure what I did and how I did it (A gong? An animal sacrifice?) but he was aware that we are not all the same and we have different ways of practicing our religion. And he realized that when there is no inspection to face, some of us practice no religion at all.
Ronald Reagan, though, has a view of America in which we are all more or less the same. We all believe in God (or should) and the God we believe in is, if we think about it, white, male, and speaks English -- without an accent. This God is American, in fact a bit of a chauvinist since He favors us, and although He goes to many churches, they are all variations of the same Judeo-Christian theme.
This is the God seen by Reagan and by those who support his proposed constitutional amendment to permit voluntary prayer in the public schools. The amendment reflects a view of America straight out of an Andy Hardy film and a mentality best illustrated by Bertrand Russell's jailor, who, having been told that Russell was an agnostic, said it didn't matter what he called himself -- as long as he believed in God. Reagan came pretty close to that himself when he said the amendment would "strengthen our faith in a creator . . . ."
The trouble with this view of America is that it makes no room for those whose religions do not provide for schoolhouse prayer or who have no religion at all. It sees America in fictional terms, the way, for instance, some people now do when they look back at the 1950s and say what a wonderful time it was -- big cars, cheap gas and all of that. You do not hear the same yearnings from blacks or women or homosexuals or any other group that only recently has begun to claim its rights.
The same is true with school prayer. It never was a good idea. It was built on the false proposition that we were all the same -- or should be. It was a practice that made no allowances for minority beliefs, for how uncomfortable minority children were made to feel when the entire class and the teacher recited a prayer. You cannot sanitize a prayer enough so that it can be everyone's prayer. Just the fact that it is said in a school makes it the state's prayer and thus the state's religion.
But the state should have no religion. The schools in Washington have Christians and Jews, of course, but they also have Moslems and Hindus and religions that I never heard of. All over the city, buildings bear plaques saying that they are the temple of this and the temple of that and about the only thing they seem to have in common is that their sidewalks are invariably well-swept.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority and a major supporter of the amendment, cannot be serious when he says the Supreme Court has banished "Almighty God from the public schools of the United States." This, after all, is the same Supreme Court that has been unable to mandate an end to public school segregation for almost 30 years. It cannot be that racism is more potent than "Almighty God."
In fact, all the Supreme Court did was prohibit official, authorized prayer from the public schools. It did not say -- indeed, it could not say -- that a child could not pray, could not think what he or she wants. It merely said that the state has no business saying what the prayer should be and it recognized that, especially when it comes to children, there is no such thing as voluntary prayer. Kids often feel compelled to do what the other kids do, and what they think the teacher expects them to do. This is not religious freedom, but religious intimidation.
Let us bang a gong that it does not come to pass.