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.

Cease Praying in Somerset

Caroline Petrie is a community nurse who offered to pray for patient during a home visit.

The patient said she wasn’t offended, but she reported the “incident” to the nurse that changed the dressing on her leg the next day because she thought someone else might be offended if Mrs Petrie offered to pray for them. I suppose if someone is laid up with a bad leg, they have time to ponder the potential for political correctness in everyone else.

As a result, Mrs Petrie has been suspended without pay pending the outcome of an investigation. No doubt it will take a terrbily long time to determine if she offered to pray for the patient (which she acknowledges) or if the patient was offended (though she claims she wasn’t). I suppose they will want to find out if Mrs Petrie has actually offered to pray for anyone else. This would not be germaine to the actual incident for which she was suspended, but bureaucrats aren’t best known for due process.

What I’m not clear on is whether North Somerset Primary Care Trust has an actual official policy against prayer or whether it is rather a general policy against Christians.

Given the Third World quality health care in this country that can’t afford to pay for treatment that is standard in the rest of the civilised world, you would think they could use any available help, even in the form of divine intervention.

Making Sacrifices for Obama

I have seen it all now. I have seen it all.

It is bizarre enough that Pentecostals in Kenya are praying fervently for the election of Kenyan Barak Obama as President of the United States. Bishop Dr. Washington Ogonyo Ngede of the Power of Jesus Around the World Church believes he is anointed by God. Apparently Pentecostals in Kenya aren’t burdened by the same values as their American counterparts.

But it isn’t just Christians that are praying for Obama’s victory.

At Kit Mikayi, a sacrificial rock shrine 20 miles from Kisumu, about a dozen people have visited on the senator’s behalf, according to Jennifer Okot, an elderly villager who lives near the shrine.

Customarily, those seeking large blessings sacrifice a goat by swinging it by its legs so that its head and neck are bludgeoned against a large rock in a naturally occurring enclosure between two massive boulders that serves as the shrine’s sanctuary. The goat’s demise incurs the blessings of the rock shrine’s god, said Caroline Odhiambo, a 24-year-old who tends to the shrine.

Yes, Kenyans are sacrificing their goats so Obama can sacrifice American children.

In the US, most charismatic faith healers are supporting McCain and his charismatic running mate Sarah Palin. In Kenya,  “The charismatic faith healer Fr. John Pesa I says he has offered prayers for an Obama victory over the past two months in his cathedral of the Holy Ghost Coptic Church on the outskirts of Kisumu.” Pesa is a former Roman Catholic. Real Roman Catholics priests oppose abortion.

Prayer Warriors

Older Child: I’m doing “Our Father”.

Younger Child: It was your turn last night. I’m doing “Our Father”.

Me to Older Child: Younger Child is doing “Our Father”. It’s your turn to do “Most Holy Trinity. . .”

Older Child: Younger Child can do “Most Holy Trinity. . .”

Younger Child: I’m not doing “Most Holy Trinty. . .”!

Older Child: But I want to do “Our Father”.

Eventually everyone took their proper turn.

It’s not always easy being Orthodox.

In the Path of the Storm

Hurricane Ike is gaining strength and it is headed for my hometown. The projected path from the National Hurricane Center might as well have a bull’s-eye on the house where I grew up and spent nearly three weeks this summer. My parents are heading for the hills.

Fortunately my father is not feeling any side effects from chemotherapy, because he has to drive five hours to escape coming storm.

I always feel bad about praying that the storm will go somewhere else. That just means it will make a direct hit on someone else. Barring the dissipation of the storm itself, it is going to slam into the Texas coast somewhere. I just pray that if it hits my hometown, most things are preserved. Whatever survives the storm is my children’s inheritance.

Evangelical Leakage

I was surfing around the blogosphere and I have been observing some of the evangelical leakage to the Democrats in this Presidential election. It seems to come from three main sources, the emerging church movement, the black churches, and the apathetic. As I was reading in blogs, especially in the comboxes, I was struck by several things.

First, there is the appeal Obama has because he talks about compassion and helping the little people, especially with the big people’s money. It is spiritualizing the politics of jealousy. After all, Jesus said we should take care of the poor. Jesus didn’t seem to like rich people very much and said they would have trouble getting into the Kingdom of Heaven. The thing the emerging Christian socialist church seems to have missed is that Jesus never said we should rob the rich to take care of the poor.

What I have seen of the emerging “missional” churches seems to be Marxist Mennonite, squishy Anabaptist pietism, drunk deeply from the well of Ronald Sider. Obama is seen as the pacifist, caring candidate, who has adopted the views of the great philosopher Rodney “can’t we all just get along” King.

These churches also seem to be suffering from foetus fatigue. The abortion issue, for a long time the very first litmus test, is getting boring to some. The emerging church is quite wrapped up finding ways to live the word of Jesus in the New Testament and since Jesus didn’t talk about abortion, this has become a side issue. The only problem is that Christians that believe the Bible, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox (in other word, other than a small liberal fringe) recognise that abortion is murder. So it seems that mass murder is not the issue it used to be.

Then there are the black evangelical churches. These had been moving more and more toward the Republican Party because in a election between two white men, it was clear that while neither was perfect, the Republicans have stood for traditional family values and those issues which have been important to all evangelicals. They could see how uncomfortable white Democrats were when they were campaigning in black churches (something with which the IRS would have had a field day if it had been Republican candidates campaigning in white churches, but that’s for another time).

During recent elections, black and predominately white churches were joining together in various prayer gatherings and vigils. They were all praying for the election of candidates that reflected the same set of values.

Now there is a black candidate. As I have said before, he is someone who has nothing in common with them culturally. He is not a descendant of slaves or a victim of racial discrimination. But he is black, mostly because his supporters are suddenly happy to adopted the One Drop Rule, ignoring the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. Like I have said before, unlike almost all of them, he is actually an African-American. Suddenly the possibility of having a man with similar skin tone in the White House is all that matters.

Sadly, I don’t think that the addition of Sarah Palin to the GOP ticket will swing either of these segments of the evangelical vote. However, she has and will continue to energise the apathetic. These were the ones who got excited about Mike Huckabee. These are the ones the Left really loves to hate. In fact, the more the Left  vent their hatred on Palin, the more energised these people get. They had no reason to get excited about McCain, but now they have one of their own. Hopefully this will stop enough of the leakage.

Prayer Request Updated

I’ve known for some time that my father has prostate cancer. The cancer as not spread and there is a good chance of a full recovery.

However, I learned this afternoon that thanks to the very thorough examinations, blood work, x-rays, CAT scans, and a colonoscopy at one of the top cancer hospitals in the world, it has been discovered that he has colon cancer. It is pathologically unrelated to the prostate cancer. However, it is only because of the one that they caught the other.

He will be undergoing surgery on his colon on Thursday. The doctors are hopeful that they will get it all without the need for chemotherapy. Your prayers are solicited.

UPDATE:

Due to some bleeding, the surgery has been moved up to Tuesday in the early afternoon CDT (early evening BST).