I attended Catholic parochial grammar school in the 1960s and even though I was very young at the time, I can remember the nuns buzzing about the U.S. Supreme Court rulings banning conscripted prayer and Bible reading in public schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962, Murray v. Curlett, 1963). I felt sorry for those poor kids in public schools for not being able to pray like me. By seventh grade, I was envying them.
The ban on school sanctioned prayer was an extremely bitter pill for evangelicals to swallow and remains a sour memory. The ban on school prayer was the first major defeat in the war to defend American “Christendom.” We’re still fuming about it 54 years later. But that was just the beginning. Since then, most every example of government-endorsed religious expression has been challenged in the courts with no end in sight.
From our history lessons, we know the Puritan Christian immigrants to this country could not imagine anything other than the theocratic form of government they imposed. Many universities got their start as church-sponsored seminaries. Mounting demand for religious freedom led to the prohibition of a state religion by the federal constitution adopted in 1793 but Christianity would remain as a major influence on federal, state, and local governments for 150 years. It was agreed from Maine to California that America was a “Christian nation.” Government sanctioned prayer and the reliance on Judeo-Christian laws, values, and “morality” were matters of unquestioned course. Americans had convinced themselves that God had set up a covenant relationship with the United States in the same way He had with ancient Israel; that America was THE “chosen” nation.
But things have changed in a big way in the last sixty years. The growing number of non-Christian immigrants to this country and those who rejected religion altogether began to challenge government’s sponsorship of Christianity. First to go was prayer in schools. Then Bible readings. Then such things as Christmas creches, etc., etc..
My take: Countries can’t be Christian, only people can accept Christ. We can no longer assume other citizens are Christians as was once accepted in this country. Christians can no longer impose their privileged status by claiming majority rule. That day is gone. That flag has flown. It’s obviously impossible to determine the number of genuine Christians in the U.S. but a 2014 Pew poll reveals only 25% of the population claims to be evangelical Christian (many say the actual number is quite a bit lower), 45% are mainline Protestant or Catholic, and the remaining 30% belong to other religions or are atheists/agnostics. The government is supported by taxpayers with a wide spectrum of beliefs regarding religion and it should be completely secular. If government sanctions one religious group it must in fairness sanction all of them. If we allow monuments of the Ten Commandments on our courthouse lawns we must also allow scripture from every other religious group. On second thought, the atheists will have something to say about that. No, government must be completely secular.
I choose not to pray with non-Christians. The Lord does not want me bowing my head in a prayer led by a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, etc. Why would Christian parents want their children to participate in prayers led by a Hindu or a New Ager in a public school? Christians look back with longing to a simpler time when the vast majority of people in this country professed to be Christians and the church had a strong influence throughout the culture. But the probable reality was that a very large number of professing Christians hadn’t accepted Christ at all but were just going along with the institutionalized flow imposed by American “Christendom.”
Christians, teach your children about the Lord every day in your homes. Bring them to church. But please stop complaining about prayer being banned from public schools back in 1962. Conscripted prayer in schools wasn’t a great idea then and it’s an even worse idea today. With America becoming increasingly secularized, maybe Christians can go back to spreading the Gospel instead of worrying about retaining their control of the culture or “reclaiming America for Christ.”