Post-Truth U.S. Doesn’t Have a Prayer

Before I could examine a renewed interest in public school prayer prompted by a court ruling in South Carolina, school prayer was once again grossly misrepresented in the wake of two mass shootings, the cancer on the U.S. that political leaders refuse to diagnose or treat properly.

man praying
Jack Sharp

I taught and coached in a public high school in SC for 18 years, the same high school I had attended in my home town. As a coach, I lived a very direct example of how most people completely misunderstand both the laws and practices connected with prayer in public schools.

Sports, like graduation (the source of the recent SC court ruling), have strong and problematic connections with organized religion, especially in the South. Coaches tend to call players to prayer quite often, notably right before a contest.

Since I recognized that coaching and teaching are both positions representing the state, I refused to coerced my players into prayer. Pre-game prayer was optional and organized by players, to be performed before we gathered as a team to start a contest.

This is a key element in how people misunderstand the laws concerning prayer in public schools. Athletes join sports teams for the sports, not for religious purposes, and students are compelled to attend school (until the age designated for dropping out).

However, these same students often voluntarily join religious clubs within public schools, such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Teens for Christ.

So here is the law and the distinction.

Prayer by students has always been and remains completely legal and fully protected by the law in U.S. public schools. Despite the misinformation promoted by political leaders, prayer was never banned in public schools.

The law from the 1960s did something quite different and in the interest of religious and non-religious people; it banned coercing children or teens to pray.

Religious freedom in the U.S. should be both the freedom to be religious or not and the freedom from government endorsement or denial of those beliefs or lack of organized faith.

If prayer is absent in public schools in the U.S., then that is the result of the choices of students—not a compelled outcome of the state through the institution of public schools.

But the argument that mass shootings in the U.S. are the result of prayer being banned in schools is not only flawed because it is factually untrue, but because it remains one of the many ways that political leaders and pro-gun ideologues use post-truth and failed logic to distract from the fact that only a couple real conditions exist to explain how the U.S. is by far the outlier in mass shootings among countries similar in any way to the U.S.

The absence of prayer cannot be the cause of mass shootings since prayer is not banned in public schools.

Mental illness is not the cause of mass shootings because the evidence shows that mental illness is more strongly associated with being a victim of violence, not committing violence. And all of the countries with few or no mass shootings also have citizens struggling with mental health.

Video games are not the cause of mass shootings because the research fails to show a connection between playing and violence, but as with mental health, all of the countries with few or no mass shootings also have access to violent video games.

Baseless scapegoating of prayer, mental health, and video games is a powerful example of how post-truth public discourse and political leadership are themselves deadly.

The real distinctions between the U.S. and countries with few or no mass shootings are access to guns and the amount as well as types of guns.

Several countries have taken actions that have in fact resulted in curbing gun violence, but that action had to begin with the truth, a truth grounded in guns themselves.

Yes, the U.S. also has ample evidence that a type of misogyny and male anger is also connected with mass shootings. These domestic terrorists are often white males who have expressed and even acted on racist beliefs and hatred or dehumanizing of women (domestic violence is a disturbing marker of predicting mass shootings).

But even these factual acknowledgements are incomplete unless we face the cold hard truth that access to guns and the amount and types of guns common the U.S. are essential parts of how the country is known for mass shootings and gun violence.

As the body count continues to increase and political leaders and the public grow numb to the horrors of mass shootings, some have come to see the “thoughts and prayers” response as hollow, even offensive.

In the wake of El Paso and Dayton, efforts to blame inexcusable terror on a lie about prayer in public school are themselves gross and immoral examples of post-truth politics and public discourse.

And thus, the darkest of ironies: The post-truth U.S. doesn’t have a prayer.