Sometimes nothing so clarifies a debate as the muddled thinking of Ronald Reagan. This has happened in economics where suddenly no one is confused anymore about the efficacy of supply-side theory and this has happened, too, in foreign policy. A few words from the president and nothing looks as good as a nuclear weapons freeze. Now the president has given us his thoughts on school prayer. Let us pray he does not get his way.
In one of his Saturday radio addresses, the president came out for school prayer as a distinctly American tradition. He did not say if he was for the court-stripping bill of Sen. Jesse Helms, which would tell the court in no uncertain terms that only some parts of the Constitution are its responsibility -- and prayer is not one. Instead, the president spoke in general terms about why school prayer would be a wonderful thing.
As he has before, he conscripted God in the service of patriotism. He said that George Washington prayed at Valley Forge but he did not say that the British commander probably did the same thing. He said that Abraham Lincoln cited prayer in his Gettysburg Address, but he did not point out that the men on the other side -- notably Lee -- prayed also, but given their strategic situation it was not enough.
But of course the president did not say that these were non sequiturs. What individuals do, even presidents, is their own business -- in fact, their constitutionally protected prerogative. What school systems tell children to do is quite another matter. And it was here that the president, as he has done so many times before, put his finger on the nub of the problem. He did it by saying that the school prayer he advocates would be voluntary: "So everyone's rights--believers and nonbelievers alike--are protected by our voluntary prayer measure."
There you have it. The inevitable result of such a measure is to label people, in this case children, by their willingness to pray publicly. The president spoke of believers and nonbelievers, but these are not the terms children employ when taunting each other on the playground. The fact is, of course, that the children who do not choose to pray may not be nonbelievers at all, but believers in their constitutional right not to pray or believers in another prayer.
At any rate, they will be singled out, made to assert their nonconformity at an age -- say, 8 or 9 -- when nonconformity is painful, maybe doubly so because it is not their convictions at all they are asserting, but those of their parents. And their parents might have any number of reasons for insisting that their children abstain from a prayer ordained by the school board and led by a teacher who, incidentally, may not have any wish to serve as class pastor.
This is why school prayer has opposition. There is simply nothing voluntary about it. For a minority -- precisely the group the Constitution is designed to protect -- voluntary school prayer means that they have to assert their religious beliefs -- or their lack of them. They have to declare, either by leaving the room or keeping their mouths shut, a religious or constitutional position. They have to line up one side or the other of the line the president has drawn in the ground -- believer or nonbeliever.
The president used some hackneyed language in his speech. He asserted, as proponents of school prayer always do, that "God has been banished from the classroom." Surely, no school board can do that and no teacher can expunge God from a child's mind. And the president tried to link school prayer with the nation's religious traditions, but no one -- not the most liberal member of the school board -- is telling anyone what they can or cannot do on their own time in their own home.
Children can pray before school and after school and even, if they want, at recess. They simply should not be told by the school when to pray and in what manner, and they should not be compelled by the government to declare, before their teachers and their classmates, whether they or their parents are, as the president said, "believers or nonbelievers." That is none of the government's business and if it becomes its business, then it is not God who will be banished from the classroom, but something else -- respect for the rights of minorities.