"Kids say the darndest things," Art Linkletter used to say on his old television show. And indeed they did. Not only were his interviews with children a popular part of his program, but Linkletter turned what the kids said into a book and, after a while, into a small industry. Now I have heard from the kids on the issue of school prayer. They do say the darndest things.
The "they" happens to be 122 eighth graders from the Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke. They were asked by their teacher, Ruth C. Gander, to respond to a column I wrote opposing voluntary school prayer. The responses came in a thick packet and I opened it holding my breath. I have to tell you that I had no idea what kids thought on the subject, but I expected that the students, like most adults, would favor school prayer. I was wrong.
Specifically, the students were against voluntary school prayer by a figure of 96 to 26. In many of the essays, the kids stated their religion. They were Methodists and Catholics and Jews and Southern Baptists and even one Moslem who felt obliged to point out that he prays "in a totally different way."
One student was opposed to school prayer because "the teacher might pray in Catholic" and another, solicitous of his classmates, wrote that "some students are Jewish and they don't believe in God." Several of the students wrote they were very religious, but felt no need to pray in school and some declared themselves to be either atheists or agnostics and vowed, as one put it, that he would not pray "even if beaten with a stick."
The kids who were in favor of school prayer also stated their case forcefully. Most of them just felt that prayer was not much of a burden for anyone (even an atheist agreed with that), but one wrote that it simply meant an awful lot to her personally. "It helps me get through the day," she said.
Certain themes emerged from the responses. The first was that 20 years after the controversial Supreme Court decision, most of the kids simply saw no need for school prayer of any kind. They seem startled that anyone was suggesting it since school, they felt, was for learning, church for organized prayer.
Some of them said they prayed silently at times during the day, sometimes before tests: "Dear Lord, please help me pass this test or my father will kill me." They saw prayer as an intensely personal endeavor, and they could not understand how the lack of an organized prayer time meant, as some prayer proponents say, that "God had been banished from the schools." One wrote, "God can hear you anywhere, anytime." And another said, "I have said a prayer nearly every day. Many of my friends have done the same . . . . We don't need a teacher to tell us how to pray or lead us in prayer."
The students' greatest concern, though, was the same as that of the adults who favor prayer in the school: the best interests of the children. Most of the kids who opposed school prayer were sensitive to -- and protective of -- nonconformity. They said that kids who chose not to pray would be made to feel different and in the end coerced into joining in prayer. "Being 'accepted' or 'part of the in crowd' is probably more important . . . than prayer because religious beliefs aren't stable enough yet," one student wrote.
Some kids went further than this. They said they themselves had uncertain religious beliefs. They wanted time to work them out, and they resented the idea that the school expected them to believe in something and moreover expected them to pray. "I would not want to pray for something I am not sure I believe in yet," was the way one kid put it.
Parents have the right to be their children's religious tutors. The kids have no quarrel with this. But the government in the guise of the school is a different matter and there is no question -- at least to these kids -- that just by instituting prayer, the government is establishing a religion of sorts: separating believer from nonbeliever, the certain from the confused, and one religion from another. They say this is no role for either the schools or religion.
Kids say the darndest things.