That famous remark that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it has curious relevance in the running debate about prayer in schools. Working out of the best religious motives, many Americans look not to repeat the history they have forgotten, but to reverse it. Their motives are good but their history has been scrambled.
From the earliest days of this republic, believing men and women cared deeply about what Archbishop John Carroll called "the virtuous instruction of youth." Founding Georgetown was part of his dream not only to make a learned clergy for the American Catholic Church, but to train students who would go home to teach.
In those days, all instruction was private, and it remained so until the beginning of the 19th century. The idea of tax-supported public schools first took hold under the leadership of the "Public School Society" in New York. This body of citizens fought strenuously for the public transportation of all the nation's youth and supported a bewildering variety of schools, even Roman Catholic ones, in the state and city of New York. The public schools they ran, however, took it coolly for granted that the instruction of youth should be Christian, and felt no qualm in equating "Christian" with "Protestant." The scriptures read, the prayers said, the rituals shared were all of Protestant cast and nature, and, to the fury of the immigrant parents, teachers felt little scruple about attacking the errors and evils of Romanism.
When Horace Mann became secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1830, he brought to his post his own understanding of religious tolerance, which stopped well short of what he called "that Vice Regent of Hell the Pope of Rome." Bishop John Hughes of New York struggled manfully, even to the extent of sponsoring several political candidacies, to get prayers and Bible reading out of the public schools in the city and state of New York. He wanted fully secular public schools, and only when he failed to get them did his attention and energy focus on the developing parochial school system. It is no little irony that so many who now share his faith agitate so strongly for the return of the prayers and the impossible choices they would impose.
Their motivation is of course clear and direct. So much can be said about the consciousness-raising of the heart and mind to God which we call prayer. To any believer, prayer is, as George Herbert says, "God's breath in man returning to His birth," and the now more than ever necessary "plummet sounding heav'n and earth." Indeed, for many of us, it is hard to see how one can labor at all for the "virtuous formation of youth," without allowing youth to experience "the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage" which is the act of prayer.
In the complex reality of a democracy, however, motive isn't always enough. We Americans glory in our diversity, our jumble of races and peoples, of languages and faiths, and find our respect for difference one of the master accomplishments of America. No such accomplishment comes without cost, and for all our yearning for it, prayer in the public schools may be just such a cost. The question is, "Whose prayer?" How do we find a formula acceptable to all, offensive to none, and not so general that it would merely echo the less inspired bits of Fourth of July oratory? Even George Herbert would have had trouble with that, and ultimately would have thrown up his hands in gentle sorrow and granted its impossibility.
America's enormous diversity, the multiplicity of faiths that cluster around the three classic ones in this nation, even our own adversarial approach to all schooling--all make sure that in this year of grace, 1982, the nine choirs of angels could not design a prayer that would be acceptable to all our fellow citizens.
The sad imperative of our republic is that we must make our prayer private, or forfeit our civic peace; that we must hold "the Churches banquet" only in church and find the prayer Herbert calls "Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse" tied to the home and kept out of school. For all who understand prayer as "Churchbels beyond the starres heard . . . something understood," this is a needed but a sad conclusion.