Challenging Assumptions

I was recently removed from a Facebook discussion after I challenged a cherished axiom of social/political/theological juncture.  (And no, it wasn’t about immigration.) I have also noticed that when I blog about anything that hints at scrutinizing accepted talking points, the traffic drops to nothing. People don’t even read just to say, “What an idiot.” When I want hits, I write sentimental schmaltz. Critical thinking is not a particularly popular pastime.

So what sorts of challenges are unwelcome? How about the one that most recently made me persona non grata.

Ever since Engel v. Vitale was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1962, prayer has become increasingly banned in public schools. What began as a ban on school-sponsored prayer during educational time eventually led to the decision in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), that student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause.  By extension this covers any student-led student initiated prayer at any school function.

Because Engel is a flawed example of judicial activism, it is bad. If prayer was constitutional for 171 years, it doesn’t suddenly become unconstitutional. This is just like the three-prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that sets out the requirements of any legislation that touches upon religion. If three prongs weren’t necessary before 1971, they don’t somehow become necessary afterwards. Any cases based on Engel and Lemon (like Santa Fe ISD) are, ipso facto, flawed.

To this point, I no doubt have my cheering section of politically active, conservative Christians behind me. This is, after all, pretty standard Strict Constructionist, Original Intent stuff. However, I think there is a need to re-evaluate, not the legal arguments, but the moral arguments that have become a popular extension from them.

As I mentioned above, I had my comments removed from a Facebook thread. This happened after I challenged the following statement: “Morals declined when we took prayer and God out of school.” (Being removed from a discussion is nothing new to me. I’ve even been thrown out of an entire conservative Facebook group for holding a minority opinion on an issue.)  This proposition has become as much a part of the warp and woof of Christian conservativism as the legal analysis of Engel and its progeny. How dare I question the unquestionable. Yet that is exactly what I do.

I do this for two reasons. First, and most simply, because the truth matters. Second, and perhaps more controversially, because, as I addressed in another instance on this blog less than a year ago, conservative Christians have succumbed to sloppy scholarship.

I do this from two sources of evidence. First, it is worth examining school-sponsored prayer in state education outside of the United States. Second, there is the issue of the historical record and proximate cause.

I bring to this discussion seven years of experience as a teacher in the state schools in England and Wales. As recently as 1998, it was statutorily re-affirmed that in state schools all pupils must take part in a daily act of collective worship unless their parent has requested a waiver. The acts of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.” Not only that, but children are also required to attended Religious Education lessons throughout the entire course of their compulsory education. The majority of these RE lessons must also be based on Christianity.

With that experience, and over a decade of living in conservative rural England, I can assure you that the continuation of prayer and even of Christian education in state schools has done nothing to slow the decline of morals, of the young or the not-so-young, in the United Kingdom. Robert Bork once wrote that America is slouching toward Gomorrah. If the United Kingdom sought to pursue the moral standards of Gomorrah and its sister city Sodom, it would be an upward move. These two ancient conurbations of sin are veritable Cities Set Upon Hills compared to the morality of Sceptred Isle.

But what of the possibility of an actual causal link between Engel and moral decline? This raises a couple of related questions. First, did the removal of the content have an effect? What was the nature of that content in 1962?

We first have to recognize that in 1962, prayer in school wasn’t particularly widespread across the United States. It was actually at its peak in the 1920s, though it had been ruled out in quite a few states before or shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Along with mandatory Bible reading, it was the subject of considerable litigation in the state courts, sometimes upheld and sometime overturned, based on state constitutions.

Even though it was patchy across the US, what was the content of prayer in schools in 1962? Let’s look at the prayer that was ruled unconstitutional in Engel. In New York, the following prayer had to be recited by a school official each day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” After Engel, that one sentence was no longer recited publicly at some point during the day. It that enough to send the nation into a moral tailspin?

I cannot count how many examples I’ve seen of charts, graphs, and tables marking the decline in morality since the Engel decision. The interesting thing is that they don’t chart back before 1962 to indicate trends already in the making and unchanged by Engel or its progeny. And of course they don’t demonstrate a direct causal link between the removal of a one-line prayer and the rise in violent crime, sexual promiscuity, music piracy, or whichever evil they are attempting to emphasize. Generally they are based upon the self-evident statement that such evils are what happens when God is removed from public schools. A little circular reasoning goes a long way.

I will finish by going to the heart of the matter. Did “we” (through Supreme Court justices appointed by three different Presidents before almost all of us were born) take prayer or God out of schools? I know I prayed in school long after Engel, which was decided two years before I was born.  Prayer is, after all, talking to God. And can anyone remove God from a school or any place else? On the other hand, how many kids were actually praying when a teacher or principal recited “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”? Or was it form over substance?  Can the acts of Supreme Court justices confer collective responsibility upon anyone, not to mention lives not yet in being?

In the UK, God is mentioned everywhere in school and He gets his own lessons, yet almost no one acknowledges Him. In the US, He is not officially mentioned and churches (other than liberal Protestant denominations) continue to grow. He is more openly acknowledged in the media and in politics than in 1962. There are more open visible followers of Jesus amongst young people in America than ever before. In trying to make a connection between the virtually symbolic act of removing prayer from schools and the abundance of sin, there has been ignorance of the fact that grace has much more abounded.

Would it be nice if we returned to the practice of a content-free, one sentence, ecumenical prayer in public schools each day? Perhaps. Is it going to stem the dishonesty, violence, fornication, or whatever other ills we identify in our young people or in our society? No. That takes real prayer. That takes changed hearts and changed lives.

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What It Was All About

On this, the 150th anniversary of the second day of the War Between the States, let us pause to reflect what it was all about. But this has been done so many time before, you say. Yes, but we still take opportunities like great round number anniversaries to reflect. However, it is also relevant because of the various civil wars currently raging in the Middle East. It is further relevant because of the cadre of newly elected officials in Washington who align themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The War of Northern Aggression, or as it is sometimes called, Mr. Lincoln’s War, was about one thing. Political self-determination. There is no question that the issue of slavery divided the country, but the war wasn’t about what divided the country. It was about what to do with a divided country. And it is all well and good to look back with 20/20 hindsight and make the moral judgement that the lives of 600,000 men and boys was worth the speeding up of the emancipation process, thus laying the groundwork for the hostility of many whites toward blacks for the next hundred years. However, justifying the war by the result does not explain why it happened in the first place.

Mr Lincoln was only interested in one thing. His single goal was to save the Union. A friend reminded me recently of his letter of August 22, 1862 to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I don’t believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be error; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

The turn of phrase “save the Union” sounds very noble, but what does it mean? It means that people who freely chose to associate themselves in a particular political arrangement were no longer free to change that arrangement. They bound future generations in perpetuity.  In Mr Lincoln’s view, the Constitution abrogated to words of the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Mr Lincoln had no regard whatsoever for the consent of the governed. The men of the Confederacy were not anarchists.  They had lawfully constituted and constitutional state governments. This was not good enough. Thousands upon thousands of young men were marched to their deaths to restore the national authority – to enforce at the point of a bayonet that Washington DC, not Montgomery or Jackson or Little Rock or Nashville or Austin or Richmond, was the source of civil authority.

This was made all the clearer during the so-called Reconstruction, when the Southern States, which according to the Northern States had never (and could have never) left the indivisible Union, were run as military departments. Their constitutional governments were suspended until such a time as it was determined that they had been re-created in the way the victors demanded.

Since this time, the power of the national authority has been steadily increased. The Supreme Court often gets the blame for this, but all the branches of government have played their part. Almost every day I come across provisions in the U.S. Code that should be left to the States. And those who decry the executive acts of the Obama administration overlook decades of incursions and usurpations of state sovereignty but administrations of both parties.

At the height of the hypocrisy is the support for self-determination in other countries by a government that refuses to follow its own Constitution and limit itself to specifically delegated powers. This is the legacy of the War Between the States.

Catching Up on Things I’ve Missed

I just read a wonderful Bible story that I had never read before. It is an Old Testament story that is referenced twenty-eight times in the New Testament, from Matthew all the way through to the Revelation. It is a picture of the Father’s only Son who find a Bride – a Bride who becomes part of the Father’s household. It is about prayer, worship, healing and spiritual warfare. It is about so much more.

The story is found in the book of Tobit. It has been read by Christians throughout the ages. Most Christians considered it a part of Holy Scripture for 1500 years. At the time of the Reformation, certain influential Protestant leaders decided that the Old Testament books that had originally been written in Greek rather than Hebrew should be set to one side. Not thrown out of the Bible, but clumped together at the end of the Old Testament. Calvin and Luther did not consider then canonical, but Luther’s Great Bible of 1539 and the Geneva Bible of 1560 included them, as did the King James Version.  In fact, every Protestant Bible included them into the 19th century.

Why, then, have they fallen into disuse by Protestants? Even those whose did not consider them canonical considered them “profitable to read,” as Luther put it – profitable enough that they printed and bound them together with the rest of Scripture. (Luther also considered Hebrews, James, Jude and the Revelation to be New Testament deuterocanonicals – of less value than the rest – but did not exclude them from his translation in the end.)

They originally fell into disuse in the late 18th century, so that when there was a paper shortage in the United States in the early 19th century, they were not printed in many Bibles. It is much later that the idea that they were Roman Catholic books and therefore unworthy of Protestant consideration crept in. That being said, the Anglicans have continued to use them as worthy reading and some are included the Lectionary to be read in services. But for many Protestants, there has been an assumption that the 66 books now contained in most Bibles is the way it has always been.

Despite my best intentions, I have not read all of these deuterocanonical Old Testament books. (“Deuterocanonical” means second canon, a term which could equally be applied to New Testament books that had a harder time of getting into the canon in the first place and were considered doubtful even by some Reformers, as noted above.) Despite their use in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles, I’ve not given them due attention.

As a result, for 47 years I missed out on the wonderful story of Tobit and Anna, Tobias and Sarah, Raguel and Edna, and Raphael. I think I may go read it again.