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.

Obama’s Deadly Confusion or Diabolical Deceit

It is hard to believe that President Obama hasn’t made the connection between science and theology. He’s either not so bright or ever so dishonest. First of all, he calls it difference between facts and ideology. It is nothing of the sort.

I’m sure all readers have seen the video clip of Obama signing the executive order lifting the ban on federal funding for killing embryonic humans. Here’s what he said: “As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

Here’s what he means: “As a person who wants to claim to be a Christian while offending no one, especially my liberal constituency, I believe we are called to care for those humans whose lives do not offend the abortion rights lobby and work to ease the suffering of a select group of humans at the expense of the lives of others. I believe we have been given this capacity by a Generic Non-judgmental Supreme Being, and the ability to choose our will to pursue this research — and the inhumanity and lack of conscience to think we can take innocent lives responsibly and call it science.”

So what drives Obama? It appears that the US can’t afford to let scientists in other countries get ahead of research in the US. Why? The only thing I can think of is that all of this federal funding will go to creating treatments  that will then make millions and millions of dollars for the health care industry. As Obama said, “When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives. No, we can’t let other countries transform people’s lives!

And why shouldn’t it be us? “But in recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.” That’s right if scientists say they are doing something based on facts, then there can be nothing wrong with it. It’s the fact, ma’am, just the facts.

So how can Obama then flip around and say “We cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.” So killing humans is not profoundly wrong and has a place in our society. And how, exactly is Obama going to guarantee the government never opens the door to human reproductive cloning?

After all, he has just opened the door to non-reproductive (in other words, embryonic experimental) cloning. Where is the ethical distinction that reproductive cloning is profoundly wrong yet killing embyronic human life is not? What if scientists decide that there is either great research value in a birthed clone or that even greater life-enhancing suffering-easing advancements will be accomplished this way? If those are the scientific facts, what right has ideology or theology to stand in the way?

Free Vote?

When members of Parliament are given a free vote, they are allowed to vote their conscience on a particular bill. Free votes are not particularly common, especially on significant legislation.

For Americans, the severe whipping MPs sometimes get may seem strange. In Congress and state legislatures, there are party whips who use various methods to persuade members to vote a certain way. They may be able to dangle carrots of certain preferential treatment or future committee assignments. Party discipline here is a different. Because the executive and legislative functions are so intertwined, an indisciplined party can bring down a Government.

That is why a Government that chooses to introduce very morally questionable legislation has to force members of its party to choose between the Prime Minister and their conscience. If a Government allows a free vote, they are saying that it would be nice if the bill were inacted, but not key to their policies and agenda for the country.

Backbench member of the party of Government are held in line with a lot of carrot and stick. Fronbenchers – members of the Prime Minister’s ministerial team – are held in line with their jobs. If a minister cannot vote with the Government, they are expected to resign and return to the back benches. This means a loss of between one-third and more that half of their salary, depending on their ministerial rank. Except for particularly high-flyers, it also means their hope for advancement in their political career is effectively over.

It is easier to return to the frontbenches after a scandal of immorality than it is over disloyality to the party whip. In other word, it is better to lie, cheat, steal, improperly use ministerial influence for personal gain, or cheat on your spouse using public money to finance it and cover it up, than it is to vote your conscience.

If you are still with me, I said all that to say this. Gordon Brown has determined that Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill now has parts that can be allowed a free vote and parts that can’t. Human/animal hybrids are now optional, as are saviour sibilings. However, embyro screening and lesbian parents are not. And once all the amendments have been voted on, regardless of the outcome, all ministers must vote for the Bill or resign.

Prior to the PM’s partial back-down, there were a dozen members of the Government who were willing to rebel, including three Cabinet ministers. Reports are that two of the three Catholics, Paul Murphy and Des Browne, are satified. Ruth Kelly, a member of Opus Dei, was reported back in 2004 to be “straight down the line” on abortion and other life issues.

The embryo screen provisions of the Bill are plainly contrary to Catholic teaching. This would specifically authorise the killing of embryos that do not meet certain genetic criteria. I’m also not sure how the idea that lesbian parents would both be able to register as parents on a birth certificate is in line with Catholic teaching either. Under this provision, children of lesbian parents will be forbidden to from contacting their fathers (since due the nature of the species, every has a male parent, whether or not that fits into the lesbian lifestyle) until they are eighteen years old.

When the dust has cleared, it will be interesting to see who has voted their conscience, or even for which Catholics the teaching of the Church is their conscience.