The recent maneuvering to restore prayer to the nation's classrooms through a circumvention of the Constitution is a wrong-headed movement that, if it succeeds, will restore not prayer but a civil ritual that has come to pass for prayer.
Ever since the Supreme Court "took prayer out of the schools," as the expression has it, there have been frenetic attempts on the part of righteous legislators and fundamentalist preachers to restore it to "its rightful place" in the "American way of life" so that our children will be given those "fundamental religious values" that are part of "our American heritage." These legislators and preachers feel taht if prayer is restored to the classroom, somehow suddenly all crime, vandalism, disrespect for teachers and apathy will disappear. Not only that. Magically, kids will begin to study again, dope will be disavowed, the whole academic scene will change and our public schools will once again be restored to their former place of grandeur.
Even if this constitutional ploy restores prayer to our schools, which I sincerely hope it does not, it will be a meaningless exercise because such prayer will have nothing to do with religion. This is because we have created in America a religious dichotomy. There is a non-denominational religion, highly personalized, that gives genuine spirital sustenance; there is also a civil religion that is high on symbolic meaning, but that has little to do with true religion. This latter religion has its roots deep in America and has become highly stylized in recent years. This attempt to keep a civil deity close to our national life transcends religious persuasions. No matter what his faith, the persuasions. No matter what his faith, the president always invokes the blessing of god to help him run the country. This God is an eclectic one, a God of law and order, somewhat deist in caste, whose special care and concern is America.
What needs to be observed is that this civil religion has been finely honed in our day and has infiltrated deeply into our natinal life. Professional sports has raised the pre-game prayer service to a high art; TV variety and talk show hosts use a non-theological God to say good night, and the White House has raised the prayer breakfast to a pseudo-religious rite. It is for this reason that when Rev. Billy Graham said his "prayer" before the Republican convention, most Americans thought he was praying. He was not. Although he used ath the theological terms, what he performed was a civil ritual like all the other rituals at the convention. When the members of the convention applauded him, they subconsciously recognized his performance as part of the elaborate entertainment, no different from the part played by Donnie and Marie and Wayne Newton. One simply does not applaud valid prayer because only God can judge its efficacy.
Should Prayer ever find its way into our schools again, what would be restored is this non-religious ritual. the school debate has become so emotional that somewhere we have lost sight of what prayer is the lifting of mind and heart to God. The operative word here is "mind", for valid prayer must have an intellectual dimension. It is not merely an emotional gushing forth, removed from a body of doctrine or dogma. By its very nature, prayer must recognize the theologicl differences of the major denominations. It must respect the Jewish reverence for God the Father, it must recognize the Christian belief in the Trinity and it must see the need for Christian Catholics to include with the Trinity Mary and the saints.
One reason that most of the pressure to restore prayer to the classrooms is coming from fundamentalists, particularly the TV evangelists, is this lack of theological orientation. Their dogma is summed up will by one of their most ardent spokesmen, Jerry Falwell. "Real Christians," he says, "are good citizens." This dogmatic simplicity is echoed by Don White, one of the Alaska delegated to the Republican convention, who says, "The fundamental crusade does not represent any represent any religion." There is no intellectual, theological context to this kind of religion. Essentially, its purpose is to make people feel good about themselves and about their country. Most of the evangelical appeals are low-keyed and designed, like politicians' rhetoric, to be inoffensive to the largest number of people. Any prayer in our schools that offends no one will be no prayer at all.
In order for prayer to be efficacious, most theologians agree that it must be attentive, reverent and humble. Only the most naive romantic could imagine that such qualities could characterize prayer in today's public schools. Without these qualities, and a body of dogma on which to rest, any classroom prayer will be a hollow exercise, a mockery of this ancient communication with God. Restoring prayer to the classroom prayer will be more improve the moral climate of the public schools than the pious mouthings of congressmen and presidents have changed the moral climate of the country.