School Prayer

I’d like to start by talking about the Pledge of Allegiance.

The first Pledge of Allegiance in the US was written and publicized in 1885 by Captain George Thatcher Balch, with the intention of teaching patriotism to children in public schools, particularly children of the European immigrants who began to flood the US beginning in 1850. It reads:

We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!

The Pledge of Allegiance was rewritten in 1892 by a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, as a general pledge to a national flag that could be used by any citizen of any republic.

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

It was modified in 1923 to make it specific to the United States of America, and again in 1954 (during the post-WWII Cold War against the officially atheistic USSR) to include the words “under God.”

Reciting the Pledge was compulsory in public schools until 1940. The Jehovah’s Witness church, one of the American Fundamentalist sects of Christianity, claimed the Pledge was a form of idolatry in conflict with their religion, challenged the pledge in court, and won. Recitation was officially non-compulsory in public schools from 1940 onward, but in schools where reciting the pledge continued and continues to be practiced, it demonstrably causes discrimination against students who exercise their right to decline, and continues to come up in court cases, one of the most recent being in 2015.

My mother was a fundamentalist (not Jehovah’s Witness, incidentally — I’ve read that there are around 2000 distinct Fundamentalist sects in the US at any given time, and she was raised in one of the many). As a child, she taught me that the Pledge of Allegiance was idolatry, and was quite upset about it.

Every morning in school from the ages of five to eleven, I stood by my desk, faced the flag, put my hand over my heart, and recited a vow of allegiance to a piece of fabric using words like “Republic” and “indivisible,” words utterly meaningless to a six-year old. I had no real idea what it meant.

What I did know was that my mother did not approve, and that — presumably — God did not approve either. So this compulsory act every morning felt like a violation. It did not inspire loyalty to that piece of cloth, nor to the Republic for which it stood. Instead, it inspired distress, anger, and a certain contempt.

I remember the day that I saluted the flag with my hand over my heart with all the fingers curled, except for the middle one. I think it was fifth or sixth grade. I was careful, and was not caught by the teacher, though a couple of other students noticed, and that gained me a day’s notoriety. It was more pre-adolescent rebellion than anything else, and despite the notoriety, it made me feel worse than just going along. So I didn’t do it again. But the ritual was completely meaningless to me after that.

When I entered junior high school, we no longer had a home room, instead moving from classroom to classroom, and any time we might have spent flag-pledging was instead spent winding through the narrow, overcrowded hallways between classes. I don’t recall ever being required to recite the pledge in school after that, certainly not daily.

With that personal experience in mind, I’d like to talk about group prayer in school, particularly in sports.

It suffers from exactly the same defects as the pledge of allegiance.

It’s always easier to just go along, but if you don’t respect the prayer, or the religion, it feels like a violation. That sense of violation breeds distress, anger, and contempt. A constant diet of that in a school setting can be very, very dangerous, for the student (naturally), but also for the other students and teachers.

Students have the “right” to not participate in the group prayer, of course, but the reaction to that refusal in a team setting has very good odds of making you a pariah, meaning you might as well drop the sport and take up chess.

But why pray before a game at all?

Are you actually praying that God will support your team, or smite the other team, so that you can “win?” Seriously?

Are you trying to bind the outcome to God, so that if you lose, you can blame it on divine disfavor instead of poor playing? Or worse, so that if you win, you can claim that you are the favored children of God? Seriously?

Are you asking for God to make sure you don’t get injured on the field? If that’s a concern, why are you playing the sport in the first place? In a war, where the other “team” is literally trying to kill you, and you don’t really have the option of not participating, then yes. But intramural basketball? Seriously?

It’s none of these, of course, but I wanted to get them out of the way.

The coach, in these settings, is attempting to offer a blessing to his team. To do that, he needs to channel divine power — that’s simply the anthropological requirement for human beings: you cannot bless unless you have been blessed. It’s the same thing as a Medieval soldier being shriven by a priest before going into battle. It’s the same as the shaman of a tribe blessing the hunters before a hunt. It is offering a larger-than-life permission to go out and do what needs to be done, without fear, without doubt, without hesitation. It unlocks something primal in the human psyche. A particular edge.

But it loses all its power if you don’t say the words right.

Delivering a blessing is like fitting a key into a lock, and if the key is not the right key for the lock, or if you handle it badly, it not only won’t work, it will sow discord and confusion.

Here’s simple illustration. Take your typical all-white, all-Evangelical-Christian basketball team from a high-school in Indiana, and bring in a Pagan Druid to bless the team just before the Big Game against their toughest competitor. Does ANYONE think this would be a good coaching tactic? I certainly don’t.

Now consider the same team where the star player is Jewish. Or Muslim. Is an Evangelical Christian prayer going to unlock their edge? Unlikely. It’s going to trigger that distress, anger, and contempt, no matter how hard they try to let it slide over them. “This doesn’t include me,” they will think. “I’m not part of the team right now.” Maybe they’ll shake it off, and play well. Maybe they’re so talented that it just doesn’t matter. But you are handicapping them with this prayer. That’s really bad coaching.

You may have just as much trouble if some of your players are devout Catholics.

A great coach will understand all this, viscerally, and he or she will find better ways to bless their team. Just a heartfelt, “I am so proud of you all,” will do far more good for a mixed-faith team than any prayer to a God that some members of the team feel is someone else’s God.

Prayer should simply not be part of public school. In any capacity. Period.

In most cases, public prayer in schools serves no purpose but the narcissism of the self-justified “person of faith” leading the prayer. And regarding these, I shall simply quote Jesus:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:5 New International Version

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