Not a Prayer

The issue of prayer in the public schools is one on which a Catholic can easily find himself in company he would much rather not keep.

On the one hand, it is difficult to be in favor of a set prayer at the beginning of the day in public schools. Some of us remember our opposition to the baccalaureate services of yore when the impression could easily be gained that the public schools were Protestant establishments and listening to a preacher was the price of graduation.

On the other hand, many who oppose prayer in the schools have a conception of separation of Church and State which, while it professes to maintain that the state is neutral with regard to religion, in fact comes down to an official hostility toward religious belief. It is as if agnosticism or atheism were the constitutionally correct attitudes, at least publicly, with religious belief relegated to the privacy of one’s own home — with a consenting Creator, needless to say. Equally needless to say, neither pornography nor homosexuality are subject to such restrictions.

Protestants who oppose the school prayer amendment tend to hold a sectarian view of religion, by which I mean the view that religion is something that sets us off from the secular mainstream of society. The public society being secular, and thus more or less inimical to religion, it is thought to be illogical to expect state support for such specifically religious activities as praying. If our faith is so weak as to require the support of the secular state, the argument runs, it is a very weak reed indeed and needs support from a more reliable quarter.

It is of course diverting to watch politicians who speak unctuously on behalf of school prayer. Their support is said to be political in motivation, an allusion to the fact that some eighty percent of the population favors it. The suggestion is that those who oppose school prayer do so on purist constitutional grounds. Of course. One need only listen to Senator Lowell Weicker vow that he will never compromise the constitution to grasp this, at the same time wondering how so portly a statesman can manage a lean and hungry look.

No doubt it is possible that over eighty percent of the people have gotten the constitution wrong and born anew strict constructionists — the fundamentalists of the constitution — have it right. Is that relevant when the matter before us is an amendment to the constitution? To amend is to change, not to interpret.

It is repugnant to any believer, certainly to any Catholic, to think of his faith as a merely private matter having nothing to do with the res publica. One does not accept Christ as a personal savior in the sense of being mine and not yours. If Christianity is true, it is true for everybody and is relevant to the whole range of human activities. To be asked to act as if I held it to be true only for me is to be asked to engage in a species of apostasy.

It is equally repugnant to seek to force assent to Christianity, whether in word or deed. Unless it is freely given, the assent of faith is not given at all. It is not that we could force people to believe and shouldn’t: it is logically impossible to do so.

What we would like to think about political society is that, religious belief apart, there are widely shared decent convictions and attitudes which are the workaday basis for the political compromises which enable a pluralistic society to work. Alas, the time seems to have arrived when Nietzsche and Sartre must be seen, not as wild-eyed prophets, but as accurate describers of the political, social and moral consequences of the fact that God is dead.

It is possible for earlier opponents of Christianity — the opposition which ran from deism through pantheism and agnosticism to atheism — to imagine that without God society would still be propped up by a widespread acceptance of moral values taken to be rooted in the nature of human agents and of their society. Just as individuals who lose their faith often go on living in ways no longer supported by their lost beliefs, so societies retain Christian values after Christianity has ceased to be a vital force among their citizens.

Nietzsche and Sartre force us to see that what is being relied on are remnants, vestiges, racial memories, which under pressure swiftly evaporate. The abstract working out of this logic was relentless. Despite that, the atheist and humanist resist Dostoevsky’s dread that if God does not exist anything is permitted. Sartre is there to show them their reluctance has no theoretical support. A consistent atheism, Sartre argued, knocks the props out from under any and every moral position. Henceforth, a position is moral because I choose it, not vice versa. Before I choose there is nothing in nature or society or anywhere else which objectively constrains what I may do.

A Lowell Weicker who appeals to the constitution, with its theistically grounded general truths, to argue that any public support of theism is unconstitutional, is good for a few laughs, but then most politicians are. He clearly thinks the constitution is a document completely free of any appeal to belief in God. He further believes that this absence would not have any deleterious effect on society. We have only to look around and see what this judicially Gottsfrei attitude has done to American society.

Freedom of speech is now largely invoked to defend pornography.

The doctrine of equality is regularly invoked to deny manifest differences between the sexes.

The punishment of criminals is now taken to be the crime, and all night prayer vigils (prayer vigils?) attend the passage of mass murderers from this vale of tears.

A host of “rights” have been recognized which amount to a systematic assault on traditional morality and on the family.

The Supreme Court of the United States has given its official sanction to the slaughter of millions of unborn babies.

What has all that got to do with prayer in the public school? Well, we may agree that not all morality is Christian morality and yet suspect that Nietzsche and Sartre are right when they hold that any objective morality is at least implicitly theistic. When God can no longer be invoked in polite or public conversation, we are kicking away the objective support for all moral values. And then anything goes. As indeed, looking around us, we may see with our own eyes.

That is why someone who does not crave passage of the public prayer amendment craves even less the company of its opponents. The desire for prayer in the schools may well be a symbolic recognition by the great mass of the citizenry of what is at the root of many of the ills of American society.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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