I've read and re-read President Reagan's recent remarks in support of a constitutional amendment to permit voluntary prayer in public schools, and I still can't figure out what he's talking about.
The bulk of his remarks is in support of prayer, period. He invokes Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lincoln acknowledging the Almighty, Washington on his knees in the snow at Valley Forge. "Today, prayer is still a powerful force in America, and our faith in God is a mighty source of strength," our president said. And I say: Who's arguing? Is there someone who thinks that Washington and Lincoln were wrong to pray? Is there someone who would challenge your right to believe in the efficacy of faith in God? These things aren't the issue. The issue is whether the government has any business mucking around in religion, and whether it can do so without favoring some religious form over another, without offending those who believe differently or who are nonbelievers.
Reagan's only concession to this issue was a single sentence: "No one must ever be forced or coerced or pressured to take part in any religious exercise." He was quickly back to the non-issue: "But neither should the government forbid religious practice."
Well, I'm not so sure about that. If your religious practice is to engage in shouted prayers and chants, I would want the government to forbid it, say, in the reading room of the public library. I would not want your children flagellating themselves, or beating prayer drums, or rending their garments in my child's public school algebra class.
And I can understand if you don't want my child chanting plainsong or venerating saints or adoring the Maharaj Ji in your child's public school class if your beliefs dictate a different form of worship.
But, you say, the proposed constitutional amendment contemplates only orthodox prayers, not the far-out stuff. And I say that is just the point: government definition and support of religious orthodoxy is precisely what the framers of the First Amendment meant to forbid.
There is another part of the proposal that escapes me. Just what is it backers of the proposed amendment hope to accomplish? Morality and decent behavior? If that's what they want taught in the public schools, they'll get no argument from me. But it does occur to me that these things are better taught directly: by precept and example, rather than by prayer.
Any prayer sufficiently vague not to offend anybody is sufficiently vague not to please anybody. It would be the devotional counterpart to "one nation, under God" in the pledge of allegiance or "In God We Trust" on our currency, which Reagan also commended in his remarks. Perhaps he imagines that your child will read the inscription on his lunch money and turn to Jesus.
My opinion is that he imagines no such thing. What is far more likely is that he sees support of school prayer as a cost-free way of garnering political support among the true believers who really haven't thought the thing through, who see the restoration of prayer in the schools as the establishment of their sort of prayer in the schools. And if your child's beliefs are different from theirs, then maybe school prayer will lead to his conversion.
That is not what the president says, of course. He sees the Supreme Court's ruling against public school prayer as a threat to our "freedom through the generations." I see it as judicial acknowledgment that the government ought not mix into religion.
"One of my favorite passages in the Bible," Reagan said, "is the promise God gives us in Second Chronicles: 'If my people which are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.'"
I would suggest that he also have a look at the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
"When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are . . . but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret."