I thought it was an editorial snafu. “School Board Considers Prayer Policy,” the headline read. “Uh oh,” I thought, “somebody’s been working on an April Fool’s story, and dumped the wrong file into Page Maker.”
Sigh… I wish it were so.
Our Legislature, otherwise known as “Forlorn Hope,” has directed our school boards to adopt policy permitting public prayer under rigidly defined guidelines. Don Quixote lives, and gets his mail in Jackson three months a year. My guess is that the solons figured they could pander without risk – that the governor would allow the bill to die, but no, he signed it.
I suppose we’re lucky they didn’t decide to abolish women’s suffrage and rationalize the value of pi to 3 while they were at it. What do those guys smoke?
I have a word of advice to the local boards: Move very slowly on this one, ladies and gentlemen. Does the term “glacial pace” ring a bell? You have been set up.
There is absolutely no way this is going to pass legal muster. I doubt very much that anyone is going to sue you to force compliance with such a farce, but someone is sure to sue if you play along. The expense of defending your action is certain to exceed the risk of inaction.
School prayer advocates are nothing if not tenacious. I have to admire their determination while questioning their judgment – much like Pickett at Gettysburg. I could understand it if the movement were being prodded along by the guys you see genuflecting in airport corridors with one end pointed to Seattle and the other to Savannah, but no, these people are mostly Christians. That’s right … followers of the Jewish teacher who condemned public displays of piety for the approval of men in Matthew 6:5-13. Face it, guys. You are not praying when you get an open microphone, you are proselytizing. You are spamming your audience.
As James Dunn has observed, “The problem with theocracy is that everybody wants to be Theo.” What do you think the Friday night crowd’s reaction is going to be when the winner of the prayer lottery offers up his prayer and “Allahu Akbar!” or “Hare Krishna” or “Hail Mary, full of grace” crackles out of the public address system and echoes off the wall of the band hall? I’ll bet most of you would instantly bond with H.L. Mencken: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful, and his children smart.”
Religious freedom is not at issue here–unless it is a tenet of your religion that all should be compelled to subscribe to your faith by any means, fair or foul. You still have every right to practice your faith. You have the right to pray and proselytize. You do not have the right to force a captive audience to listen.
Public observance of religious symbols has a long and useful history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, medieval European princes, and modern states have all found it useful. George Washington recognized the “useful offices of religion” in promoting public morality and social conformity, though there is no evidence that he took the offices of his own church seriously. Napoleon Bonaparte was even blunter: “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet.”
The problem is that there are many people out there who take their religion seriously. A public prayer that is no more than a sanctioned cheer, an anthem, or a public service announcement offends them. Others find the form and manner offensive. It is the same conflict that caused so much trouble between the Jews and the Romans.
The Romans considered deification of the emperor as a harmless and unifying civic symbol. The Jews, who took religion seriously, were offended. Public prayers as practiced today are for the edification of Caesar – as embodied in school, community, or club. They are in no way a holy observance or ordinance. To act as if they were is an offense to the pious and of dubious worth to others.
SONNY SCOTT is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.