School Prayer and a Sacred Profession

I want to step bypass the obvious disingenuousness of the recent Supreme Court ruling that seems to come down in favor of faculty led school prayer. The story of the case they were presiding over seems fairly clear cut, and hardly a case of private prayer. But that’s been gone over, many times over, online and on op-ed pages by other writers. I also want to bypass the calls for prayers of all faiths and no-faiths to be prayed in schools so that a certain brand of Christianity is not the only faith being… if not promoted, then publicly displayed. Some of those calls for prayers of other faiths are facetious – when you say you want Muslim or Wiccan prayers just to tick off Christians, you are not respecting those other faiths. Some calls for prayer are facetious, but not necessarily an insult to any serious kind of faith. Satiric prayers to the Flying Spaghetti Monster will not, I suspect, offend Pastafarians, whose religion is itself a parody of religion.

At one Facebook teachers’ group, someone posted a question about whether other teachers would start leading prayers at school. My own reply read, “While I understand the instinct to do non-Christian prayers, I’m standing by my very firm practice of being completely neutral at school. I support all my students – of any belief or none, as long as their beliefs don’t infringe on anyone else’s sense of belonging in my class.” And I stand by that. But others sincerely wanted to share their faith with the students – in a public school setting. Others were facetious. Others were serious about sharing alternatives to the Christianity the Supreme Court defended.

But I want to look a little beyond the story at the heart of the case and beyond the calls for other prayers. Full disclosure: I grew up in the United Methodist Church in Upstate New York, was very involved in district and conference youth events, and was a counselor at Methodist Summer Camp – Skye Farm Camps. Later in life, for a variety of reasons, I moved over to the Presbyterian Church – the church my wife grew up in. I have always been fascinated by the conflict, and relationship, between Science and Faith. I have also read a lot of different views of both. As you might expect, mine is a bookish faith. I’m not going to get much into the specifics of my faith (some might not call it that…) here. That is not my point. Charles Schulz once wrote that if he was going to talk of faith personally, he wanted wanted to be sitting and talking to a person or people about such personal things. I tend to agree with Schulz on this one.

Speaking of Schulz, he once addressed the topic of school prayer in a Sunday comic strip on October 20, 1963. After a long build up in which Sally Brown leads her brother Charlie Brown all over their house, she finally whispers a secret: “We prayed in school today.” Some people were horrified by the strip, thinking it trivialized a serious matter. Others were horrified because they thought Schulz was making a comment against the 1962 Supreme Court ruling banning school prayer. Others thought he was making a positive comment about prayer in schools and sent him gushing letters of praise. Schulz kept the strip ambiguous on purpose, but later wrote that he was not in favor of school prayer. According to the book A Charlie Brown Religion by Stephen J. Lind, “Years later, Schulz would explain that from a practical perspective, school-sponsored prayer was ‘total nonsense.’ Prayer was not only too personal, it was untenable as an officiated activity. ‘Is the teacher to going to be Catholic or Mormon or Episcopalian or what?’ he asked. ‘It just causes all kinds of problems. And what are the kids going to pray about anyway?’ It’s worth noting that Schulz’s very valid questions still only venture as far as different forms of Christianity. Today there are many more religions, and no religion at all, in our schools. Or maybe we are just aware of them more. But his point stands.

I was perhaps thinking of this idea of what kind of prayer would apply to anyone when I drew my recent cartoon about the subject.

I do wonder if the court realizes the potential can of worms it has opened. Does any faculty member, coach, or administrator of any faith get to lead prayers with students? I don’t think that’s completely clear. They are saying private prayers, off the clock, are fine (weren’t they always?), but they also know that’s not what the coach in question was really doing – so there seems to be kind of a nudge, nudge, wink, wink thing going on here. It’s Supreme Court Ruling as Innuendo.

My reasons to not pray in front of my students are many and varied, but really what it comes down to is this: a public school classroom, like public schools themselves, are mini-labs for democracy. We are supposed to be pluralistic: is our national motto not “e pluribus umum” – out of many, one? Not, out of many, but ruled by one group, which is a very different thing. As a teacher, as a representative of the state, I don’t feel it is my place to try to sell my students on my faith or non-faith or demonstrate my faith or non-faith for them with prayers.

My job is to protect my students’ rights to express their faith or non-faith as they see fit if they chose to write about it, read about it, or discuss it in class. I will occasionally have to tell a student their approach isn’t quite right for the particular assignment. I once had a student whose This I Believe essay about a personal philosophy was commandeered by his mother, who turned it into religious tract about how their Christian denomination was the only true religion. This went against the guidelines of the assignment from the This I Believe website itself. This was not a case of me trying to stifle his religious expression – it was a case of not doing the assigned essay, which is designed to practice very specific writing skills, according to the rules of the website it was written for. It was also a case of his mother obviously writing as assignment for him. I really do love to have involved parents – just not involved that way.

Speaking of parents, there has been a lot of talk about parental rights lately, mainly from one side of the political spectrum, but not entirely. In remaining neutral in class about issues of faith, I am respecting the rights of all my parents to raise their children in the faith or philosophy of their choice. Leading a Presbyterian prayer that mentions the predestination of some of my students for heaven and some for hell would not create the kind of welcoming and inclusive atmosphere I want for my classroom. It doesn’t matter if I totally dig John Calvin’s theology of predestination (I don’t) – my classroom is not the place for my views on religion. Just like a democracy, my classroom needs to be a place open to any religion or none. If you want parental rights of your own, you should want to respect other parents’ rights as well.

There are forces at work in our nation right now that really hate pluralism – they want us to be a Christian nation. This notion is ludicrous at best, terrifying at worst. Which version of Christianity gets to be the one in charge? Christianity is a faith divided. The divisions go far back into history and continue to this day – as we speak, the church of my childhood, the United Methodist Church, is headed for a schism that would leave it, well, less united. There is no one generic faith the whole country can get behind (an idea brilliantly parodied in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books as The Global Standard Deity), and to have any one denomination dominate the entire country as a theocracy is just… well, not what we are about. And also terrifying.

If you want to know what it would feel like to feel uncomfortable with expressions of faith, you don’t need to go as far as another religion (if you have one). Just visit a different branch of your own religion. I have been in Christian churches different from the tradition I was raised in that gave me the heebie-jeebies. That’s how 95% of my students would feel every time a teacher prayed.

Any faith or life philosophy that has to force itself on people is not making a good case for itself.

But I am not here on this blog in my role as a public school teacher, but in my off hours as a writer and cartoonist. So I will say these things about faith that I wouldn’t really say in class.

Jesus criticized people for praying loudly in public and told them to go hide in a closet to pray. There’s that. And that’s huge.

Jesus was pluralistic. Jesus was a Jew who didn’t try to convert everyone to Judaism. He also didn’t try to convert them to Christianity, because he wasn’t a Christian and Christianity didn’t exist yet. He did say to follow his way – which mainly involved helping people, telling stories, trying to get people to think (read the gospels with that in mind – it’s mind blowing!) And accepted people for who they were and loved them. Children. The evil occupying Romans. Samaritans, who were considered unworthy, but who he turned into the hero of his best known parable. He even loved the hypocritical religious leaders of his day – but he did it by having tough love on them. He was also willing to stand up to power – both the state and over-reaching religious people. That’s why they killed him.

Author, professor, and Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor once said that “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion – which is always a deadly mix.” 

In her book, Holy Envy, Taylor writes about teaching a world religions course and taking her students to mosques, temples, synagogues, and other houses of worship of various faiths. What she finds is that other faiths enrich her own faith and her students’. They are welcoming and don’t try to convert them. Two of my favorite words from the Hebrew Bible are “walk humbly.” We are all like the blind men in the poem I mentioned teaching a few posts back. Life is mystery.

Public school, like democracy itself, should be pluralistic. In a public school setting, we can approach the mystery of life and how we should live it from a variety of angles. My angle is through literature, essays, reading, writing, and discussing. On of my writing heroes, the late, great composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, was not religious, but said that teaching was a “sacred profession.” When my students discuss a great story, when I see them make a breakthrough and find their voice as writers, when I see them developing a capacity to see the world through more than once lens, when I see the light go on, as they say, I feel that sacredness in my bones. I suspect the same thing can happen in history, in science, in art, in theater (which means “Behold!”) – in any subject. Any subject is, as the Tom Wyman poem “Did I Miss Anything?” says, “a microcosm of human experience/assembled for you to query and examine and ponder/This is not the only place such an opportunity has been/
gathered/ but it was one place”.

I do not feel called to share my faith with my students directly. That would be a violation of my role. What I share with them instead is my respect, my awe, my wonder for the mysteries of life.

In the end, what I believe we are called to do is care. To, as Jesus put it, love people. As Mr. Rogers put it, to love them just the way they are.

Near the end of a recent school year, I was approached by a student who asked me a question. This comic strip is a simpler version of our dialogue.

Students can pray all they want – especially before tests (though I think any deity worth believing in would suggest study first). My students can share their faith with each other. They can write about it, read about it, discuss it. They are also free not believe in anything supernatural. Or to say the are Pastafarians who believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (I must say, the Pastafarians have one of my favorite holidays – International Talk Like a Pirate Day!)

The best classrooms are sacred spaces – take the word sacred however you want – not because people lead prayers in them or even say silent prayers in them. Classrooms are sacred places when different people from different faiths and non-faiths, different philosophies, and different backgrounds come together to learn together, to discuss, to explore both certainties and mysteries together.

It is sacred the same way democracy is sacred. It is sacred the same way being human is sacred.

That is why I look forward to teaching each year with both awe and wonder. I am entering a sacred space, a space full of different people I need to teach – no matter who they are.

That’s the way Jesus taught. (But I don’t talk about that with my classes.)