Jason Koebler cites ‘The Aunt Sally Effect’1 as one of the reasons why support for in-school prayer is flagging. According to Schwadel, changing generations not changing attitudes explain the change in sentiment –– “as younger generations of Catholic and Protestant expanded their social networks to include people of varying religions, they became more accepting of the fact that not everyone is Christian.” Despite the decline, Koebler suggests,
Overall, Americans still favor prayer in public schools, according to a 2011 poll from Rasmussen Reports. According to that poll, 65 percent of American adults support prayer in public schools. But according to Schwadel’s study, many of those supporters are Evangelicals: About 73 percent of Evangelicals support prayer and reading bible verses in public schools, compared with about 65 percent of Catholics. Mainstream Protestants’ support fell below 60 percent in the 1970s, but data hasn’t been kept since then. Two Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s ruled that state-sponsored prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.2
I found the article interesting, both personally and professionally, for a number of reasons. Quite possibly the most notable reason being that I took a few moments earlier today to read Adam Hamilton’s post “Put God Back in Schools?” In the post Hamilton notes that one of the responses to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary has been to call for God to be put back into school, in the form of prayer and Bible reading. He argues that this response is lacking for a number of reasons, among them: religious diversity/pluralism in America; our country’s intention that schools be religiously neutral; and that religious education is not the responsibility of schools, but rather is the responsibility of parents, churches, etc.
Towards the end of the post, Hamilton makes a statement that is noteworthy. Essentially he says that prayer is allowed and/or permitted in (public) schools. The students possess the freedom to “bring their faith into schools. They are free to pray any time, provided they are not disruptive. They are free to talk about their faith, provided they are not belligerent or hurtful to other students.” I believe Hamilton’s point to be a valid one. Legislating religious education, in the form of mandated prayer and Bible study, isn’t the answer. Rather it is a copout. To legislate and/or mandate religious education and/or belief in God feels like a win for Evangelicals. But it’s not. What it is, more than anything else, is a convenient excuse to practice one’s faith in a comfortable way. The practice of one’s (Christian) faith is much more convenient if everyone is required to pray at the start of the school day or before meals.
Maybe we should be less concerned about fighting legal battles and legislation and instead teach our children and teens what inconvenient, turn-your-life-upside-down faith looks like. After all, Jesus seemed to practice a way of life that was anything but convenient. (He did after all practice an itinerant ministry in which he often found himself at odds with those whose practice of faith was convenient, systematized, and legitimized by legislated practices.) He didn’t beckon folks to follow him by taking up their gumdrops, rainbows and unicorns. He invited them to take up their cross and follow him. Let’s face it: Discipleship –– following Christ –– is hard. It’s inconvenient. It may well involve suffering and persecution.
But of course, those things don’t sit well with the cozy, comfortable respectability of North American Evangelicalism.