Category Archives: Prayer

Misunderstanding Prayer, Religion, and Public Education Again and Again

Poet e.e. cummings understood a foundational combination of approaches common in U.S. politicians; his satirical political speech as poem begins: “‘next to of course god america i/ love you.’”

Patriotism and religiosity are effective political rhetorical strategies, but they also should be red flags to anyone concerned about their nation or their religion (or lack there of).

Current POTUS Trump has matched the buffoonery of cummings’ cartoonish politician, and in keeping with that theater, Trump has grabbed some low-hanging fruit by once again igniting the prayer in public school debate.

The tension between prayer/religion and public spaces such as schools has a long and complicated history. But since the early 1960s, one fact has existed that almost everyone who joins this debate misunderstands or misrepresents: All adults and students in public schools are free to pray, or not, and all types of religious texts can be read and assigned as literature (but not to proselytize).

Here is what people misunderstand: The Supreme Court ruled against coercion by the state in terms of religious practices. The ruling is not about anyone being religious or not, anyone practicing religion or not, but about the role of the state in coercion of religious belief and practice.

In other words, anyone who is religious should welcome this clarification because it protects religious freedom from the potential of anyone in authority abusing that role for religious purposes.

Students, for example, are free to pray at breakfast or lunch each day in school; but also free from any school authorities forcing that behavior or denying those practices.

Also, when I was a public high school English department chair, we purchased a class set of Bibles to use during literature study; for example, students used those Bibles in activities designed to identify Biblical allusions in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is a secular and academic activity in which a religious text is perfectly appropriate.

Sections of the King James version of the Bible were also in the British literature survey textbook as an example of British literature.

Beyond understanding what the current legal status of prayer and religious texts are in the U.S., we should also consider that private spaces can be religiously hostile, legally demanding or denying religious practice. It is our public spaces that must remain vigilant about preserving religious liberty.

Public education is not simply lessons about reading, writing, and arithmetic; every policy and every practice in daily schooling teaches students not only who they are but how the world works, what is valued and what is mere rhetoric.

As another example from my public school teaching career, I was also a coach for many of the years I taught. Since prayer is a common part of the sports ritual, I had to confront my role as an agent of the state while coaching.

Traditionally, coaches gather teams for prayer and then some sort of pre-game chant; however, just as I would never (and should never by law) call a class of students to prayer, I did not ask my players to gather for prayer before matches.

Instead, I gave the team space before the game to gather if they wished (and not to do so if they did not) and pray as a team (I was not involved) before we then gathered as a team and did our pre-game chant.

While this was unusual and caused some concern among parents (most of whom wanted me to follow tradition and lead a team prayer), I was modeling proper professional behavior for a public school employee and honoring all of my players’ diverse religious and non-religious beliefs and practices.

Several players over the years who were not formally religious thanked me for the respect this process showed.

No one forced or coerced to be religious, no one denied their religious identities—this is the current law governing all public spaces in the U.S., including public schools, and it is the law that the deeply religious and the non-religious should vigorously support and protect as one.

Just as the Supreme Court ruling was more about coercion than about religion, political rhetoric about patriotism and religion are likely (as cummings’ first line shows—ending as it does with “i,” “god america i”) more about the interests of the politician than any commitment to a people or a faith.

Regardless of your religious affiliation, however, be wary of voting for anyone who cannot accurately describe the concept they claim to be defending.