Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
from Christians in the Public Square
by John Warwick Montgomery
High on the moral majority's agenda is the reintroduction of prayers in public schools-either by congressional act or by constitutional amendment, 'Many American evangelicals apparently favor such an objective. I do not, and my reasons are primarily theological.
We are not here discussing the voluntary use of public educational facilities by Christian groups. That issue-well settled for university-level instruction by Urn U.S. Supreme Court on December 8, 1981, in Widmar v. Vincent- permits Christian students, no less than others, to meet on campus for Bible study, evangelism, prayer, and so on. The confusion with the school prayer question is plain in a recent Newsweek article ("Once Again, School Prayer," Dec. 28, 1981), which discusses the application of the Widmar decision to high schools. We fully agree with David L. Llewellyn, a Simon Greenleaf School of Law faculty member interviewed in Newsweek, that Christian high school students should certainly be allowed to hold their club meetings on school grounds too-for no impossible gulf separates the maturity level of high school seniors from that of college freshmen!
But the school prayer issue refers not to the constitutionality of voluntary student religious meetings on campus. It refers to the permissibility of teacher or student-directed voluntary religious exercises in a classroom context. The latter activity was forbidden as unconstitutional in the well-know U.S. Supreme Court decisions Engle v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). Mr. Justice Clark, for the majority in Schempp, wrote, "While the Free Exercise Clause [of the First Amendment] clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the state to practice its beliefs." Such reasoning, however, did not convince those evangelicals who see America as essentially a "believing nation" now unable to teach prayer to its younger generation along with the three R's. For many conservative Christians, Engle and Schempp have become prominent signposts marking America's slide to moral and spiritual bankruptcy.
One could ask, 'Was America ever a Christian nation? Were the founding fathers predominantly evangelicals or essentially deists? Does the First Amendment forbid the political establishment of all religion, or did it forbid the favouring of one Christian denomination over against others?" The Calvinist "reconstructionists" and many grassroots evangelicals would argue that our country was founded on a theistic base and that public school prayer is simply a reflection of that perspective. I, however, would vigorously maintain that our nation is, de jure and de facto, a pluralistic society, affording religious neutrality-and evangelistic possibility-to all its citizens.
Yet evangelicals need not solve this thorny legal and historical problem to decide the voluntary school prayer issue: theological analysis offers an entirely sufficient answer.
Here Sen. Jesse Helms (R.N.C.) has unwittingly done us a great service. In a Senate debate on November 16, 1981, Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) asked of Helms: "Let us assume that a teacher of, say third-grade students, is a very devout Roman Catholic, and she goes into class one day and writes on the blackboard behind her desk the words of the 'Hail Mary.' She then announces, 'Children, we will now have a voluntary recitation of this prayer. Those of you who do not want to recite it need not recite it; those of you who wish to, please join with me.' Would it be the Senator's view that the Department of Justice, in such a case, should not go into court and a court should not entertain such a case?"
Helms replied: "I say to the Senator that the scenario he has concocted does not bother me at all. I am a Baptist. I would not object at all to my grandchildren being in a class where that happened, and I do not think the majority of the American people would." Pressed as to whether he would feel the same way if he were an orthodox Jew, Helms said that he would.
We find it remarkable that Danforth's very realistic "scenario" did not "bother" Helms "at all." Theologically, it ought to bother evangelical, Bible-believing Christians very much indeed. The Bible insists on prayers in the name of Jesus (John 14:13-14; Col. 3:17). Thus, in the voluntary prayer atmosphere Senator Helms is promoting, Christian children would have to be instructed by their parents and their pastors not to participate whenever school prayers were biblically unjustifiable. This would, of course, apply also to "Hail Marys" since "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5).
To be sure, Helms is thinking of a "theistic" (probably even evangelical) majority-as the Southern Baptists dominate so many communities south of the Mason-Dixon line. But that is not America from sea to shining sea at the end of the twentieth century. In Boston, school prayers might well be Unitarian; in Salt Lake City, Mormon; and in San Francisco, directed at best to Vishnu, and at worst to Anton La Vey's Satan. Surely such a result would be an abominable confusion of Law and Gospel.
And what about the plight of minority children in a predominantly evangelical social community? The advocates of school prayer think little of the deleterious effect of social pressure in driving them and their parents away from a free decision for Christ. Evangelism thrives on true freedom and is crushed by social conformity.
If we want prayer in school, the answer is perfectly plain: we can establish church schools to achieve that end. As Justice Clark said in Schempp: "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church, and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind."
Taken from Christians in the Public Square by John Warwick Montgomery, David Kilgour and C. E. B. Cranfield. Used by permission of the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, copyright 1996. You can purchase Christians in the Public Square by calling the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy at (780) 461-3076.
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