Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Prayer in Schools

There have been many instances in my life when I've been participating in a nice group conversation, happily chatting away and validating the feelings and beliefs of my fellow chatters, when someone looks at me and says "Well of course - YOU believe that there should be prayer in our schools, right?  I mean, of course there should be."

And I bring the fun to a screeching halt when I say "Actually I don't believe that at all.  I think there should always be a separation between church and state." 

It seems like I would be the least likely person to believe such a thing.  First of all, in case any of you hadn't noticed, I'm a nun.  Before I was a nun I was a secular person who was, in spite of being a wretched sinner, a fairly churchy person.  I, of all people, should be joining in with my fellow Christians and demanding that all the "God" references should be left in our political liturgies and that little children should hear prayer and the word of God in school throughout their entire educations. 

When I was in 4th grade in Rome, Georgia our teacher, Miss Berry, would take out a Bible at some point every day and read a few passages from it out loud to us.  It wasn't a big deal because back then, Miss Berry was reading the Bible to a room full of little southern Baptists and Methodists who believed exactly the same way she did.  At that time in history my small hometown was, for the most part, theologically homogenous.  The farthest we could even imagine from our own beliefs was the occasional Pentecostal or Holiness Church kid who might show up wearing a long modest skirt to gym class one year.  I never met a Jewish person until I was 19 years old, and I never met any Hindus or Muslims until I moved to New York City when I was 20.

I think that the movement to keep God in our government has good intentions at its core, but that in practice it is actually that massive and looming threat that we modern humans love to display in order to frighten the masses - the slippery slope. Proponents of school prayer are wildly gesticulating at a very different slippery slope than I am.  They believe that if we take the word "God" out of the pledge of allegiance and off our currency, and if we officially ban any mention of God and religion in schools, we'll become a nation of nonbelievers dancing around pagan bonfires and worshipping satan.  We'll lose, they say, the very foundation that our great country was founded upon - that we are one nation, under GOD.

Yes, we were founded by Christian men and women who believed in God.  I can't dispute that.  I can, however, dispute the assumption that America was founded to be a Christian, religious nation.  It was actually founded to be quite the opposite.  The first Pilgrim settlers were fleeing religious persecution because they lived in a nation, England, where church and state were completely enmeshed.  Their beliefs didn't coincide with the beliefs of their very Christian, very religious homeland and so their rights were restricted by the government and they fled.  Their desire for religious freedom continued throughout the existence of the original 13 Colonies, and was carried on throughout the American Revolution and persists to this day.

The Godly Government slippery slope that I envision can be better explained if I wonder, for a minute, what life would be like for me as a Christian if our nation's founders had been Muslim.  What if, when I went to elementary school, my teacher took out a Koran and read it to us every day?   What if I went to court for a traffic ticket as an adult, and there were calls to prayer at the courthouse and requirements for me to kneel and face Mecca when all I wanted to do was to get a stupid rolling-stop-at-a-red-light ticket off my driving record? What if my government restricted my rights as a Christian female by not allowing me to drive or have a job, or a checking account?  What if I was threatened with jail or fines for going to church and practicing my faith?  

When I see government and religion merge, this is the kind of future I see.  If our government decides that ok, folks, we're Christian so everybody needs to be totally fine with the ten commandment tablets in that Montgomery courthouse and just shut up about it, I would see that as a first step towards religious oppression.  Am I exaggerating?  I don't think so.  Even the most civilized nations that ended up practicing religious persecution started with small steps toward forcing everyone to believe the same way, and ended up jailing and killing people. 

If I ramp down my visualization of a Muslim nation and change our hypothetical official US religion to Christian - but Mormon Christian - how would that affect me as an Episcopalian?  How would that affect anyone who isn't Mormon?  What would our government look like if it became religious, but the religion didn't coincide with my particular beliefs - or yours?

I am a Christian, but I don't believe in a Christian government because I believe in religious freedom.  I believe that taking the word "God" out of government doesn't mean our government is Atheist, but rather that our government respects the religious beliefs of all people enough not to impose one belief system on them.  When you take away the word "God", you allow space for words like Yahweh, Allah and Dharma.  When you take away Southern Baptist prayers in fourth grade, you allow space for Jewish, 7th Day Adventist and Episcopal prayers.

God is good but religion can often become a clever disguise for power, money and politics.  It can be used to oppress innocent people and cause countless deaths.  Separating church and state was a miraculously radical and sound idea at the time it was proposed, and it still is.

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