Prayer and the Public Schools

John C. Rankin

(December 18, 2012)

Education is central to a biblical worldview, in the conviction that biblical theology is “the queen of the sciences,” the first subject to be taught as the basis of a truly liberal arts education, and located in the ten positive assumptions defined at

Education begins in the home, with the responsibilities of parents to teach and mentor their children. Education does not belong to the state – these are our children, and a limited federal government serves that reality. In the book of Deuteronomy, as Moses sums up the law in his final sermon, he touches on this assumption about the nature and importance of education. A sample:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them (4:5-9).

Hear O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them upon your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (6:4-9; cf. 11:18-21).

In-between these two passages Moses repeats the Ten Commandments (5:6-21). As he presented this second giving of the law, he commanded careful observation of it, and also established the basis for “the rule of law.” In the Mosaic law is wisdom, and if learned and lived faithfully by the Israelites, it would fulfill the vision of Zion as a “city on a hill,” as an inviting beacon for the surrounding pagan nations. The learning of these laws, and the faithful teaching of them to their children, would be a model that would win the respect of the pagans. How much respect do pagans give Christian education today? Do they view our concerns as Bible “indoctrination,” or is our witness one of the biblical foundation for the finest liberal arts education possible, based on the power to love hard questions?

In Moses’s call for us to teach the laws to our children, he emphasized what a wholistic enterprise it is – to teach them continually, day in and day out. Education is central to loving Yahweh with our heart, soul, mind and strength. In this quote of the shema, Moses says “heart, soul and strength” where the Hebrew concept of heart also involves the mind. In Jesus’s quote of it, as we can note in Mark 12:30, he specifically includes the “mind,” and in Deuteronomy 11:18, Moses speaks of the teaching process being to “[f]ix these words of mine in your hearts and minds.” In other words, education involves the whole person, and in the context of all of life. Not just the emotions, not just the mind. This is why education is principally the responsibility of the parents, and any public or private education must be in service to the larger educational context and influence of the parents, as is home-schooling by definition.

Out of the Clapham Society founded by William Wilberforce in 1787ff, which won the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself, there were many elements aimed at the reformation of “manners” (also needed today as a root remedy for much social evil) and society at large, including the impetus for the early Sunday School movement. The Society’s original members accomplished much, but sadly, they did not succeed so well at educating their very children and the next generation of the Society’s leadership. Their first-hand faith was won through conversion, principle, conflict, trial and overcoming success. The next generation held to the principles, but owned them in more of a second-hand fashion, thus their salting impact in society diminished. The third generation began to forsake the principles, and the forward movement of the Clapham Society’s original influence came to an end and was eventually reversed.

The same thing happened in ancient Israel – a lesson that the Clapham Society did not apprehend well enough. The succeeding generations of the post-exodus generation lapsed into cycles of apostasy and renewal. The Israelites were faithful so long as Joshua was alive, given the power of his leadership and his unrelenting faithfulness since coming out of Egypt. But all the others in the nation, save Caleb, were second-hand participants in the exodus (either as young adults under age 20, or as children, or as yet unborn at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea). But after Joshua died, the cycles soon began. The Israelites knew their history, but it had not been impressed on them well enough to impact their own lives, to own a first-hand, radical and faithful living of the covenant.

As we raise and teach our own children, do we invite them into a radical first-hand faith, or do we simply pass on to them a de factosecond-hand faith? (Assuming that we have a first-hand faith to begin with.) We cannot lead them into a first-hand faith unless a) we teach and live it thoroughly with them, and b) unless we teach them the ethics and power of informed choice, allowing them the freedom to say no to faith, so they can truly say yes. We cannot indoctrinate our children passively, or else they will eventually spit it out. We must model for them the power to love hard questions.

With the moral principle in place as to where the responsibility of education lies, we then have the freedom to choose what works best for our own situations – home-schooling, private education (Christian or otherwise), or government education. Jesus would have his people, in all capacities I believe, as salt and light, according to their callings and equippings

I believe in and support a truly public education which is equally available to poor and rich alike. But that is very different from modern “government” education. The origins of a public and free education are Christian, not secular or otherwise. Hannah More (1745-1833) was a member of the Clapham Society, and early in life a very successful writer. But later, along with Wilberforce, she dedicated herself to the reformation of society, and with a particular emphasis on ministry to the poor. In that context, the Sunday School movement began, as a means to reach the poor and teach them how to read. The motivation was to teach them the Bible, so they could come to know Christ, and improve their lot in life. Hannah More joined the movement and gave it its biggest impetus, with her stature and energy. It is a natural consequence of the ethics of only Genesis, especially in terms of the power to give, the power of informed choice and the power to love hard questions, that we should consider education as central to the missionary endeavor. The overwhelming number of private colleges, founded before 1900 in the United States, were Christian in origin, though many, like the concept of public education, have over the years fallen into secular, now pagan custody.

The United States in the early nineteenth century was an overwhelmingly Protestant nation. This cultural homogeneity made public education Protestant in nature, as it developed against the backdrop of home-schooling. Thus the idea of prayer in the “public” schools was natural. But with the advent of many Roman Catholic immigrants at mid-century, there began a backlash where Catholics did not feel welcome in public education, with its use of the Protestant King James Version (KJV) of the Bible for starters. So Roman Catholic parochial education blossomed as a means to preserve Catholic identity. I would argue that at this point in time a truly public education was in danger as a concept. It was public and free, and worked in a Protestant nation. But with the advent of major Roman Catholic immigration, along with a Jewish minority who developed their own educational system, clashes began. I believe a public education is still possible, but based on some radically biblical foundations that were not envisioned in the nineteenth century. It must be one where each religious community has the right to educate their own children without having to support the education of others by means of their tax dollars. But how to do that, with a universal and free public education being made available at the same time, based on respect for the image of God in all people – this is the challenge.

As the nation grew more pluralistic, resentment also grew against Protestant hegemony in the philosophy and practice of public education. Beginning with John Dewey (1859-1932), a philosophy of education was articulated and imported into the public schools that was expressly secular in nature, and in a purposed challenge to a Protestant and Christian philosophy. In the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing prayer in the “public” schools, this secular trend reached a major goal. And with subsequent Court rulings that banished even the posting of the Ten Commandments in “public” schools, banished the saying even of generic and watered down prayers by school officials, and more recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals attempt to rule that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, this secularization has become pretty well complete.

Thus the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has maintained a vanguard against any return to sanctioned public prayer in the government schools. In the process, the concept of a public education rooted in biblical ethics has been lost, and Christians are viewed by secular and pagan elitists as being opposed to public education. With this turn of events, the Christian school movement has grown, and a return to home-schooling has also mushroomed (largely but not exclusively among Christians), as Christians have felt banished from religious freedom in “public” education. (and hence, the frowth of home schooling). Those of us who are Protestant have a heritage where we who were once the majority imposed “prayer” upon non-Protestants. are now imposed upon by secularism and paganism. When will we ever learn?

Government run “public” education is in a shambles today, as dictated from “expanded government” monoliths such as the U.S. Department of Education (which should be abolished or radically downsized, consistent with the principles of a limited federal government). History and literature and science are giving way to deconstructionist and emotivist philosophies. Historical Christian holidays are muted and not allowed, and in their place, pagan mythologies are celebrated. Incivility, absence of discipline, and violence in the “public” schools is epidemic, especially in the ghettos, inviting a police state, and on it way to becoming pandemic apart from a redemptive intrusion into the culture’s choices.

For those who want to rescue a public education, policies such as school vouchers are advocated. With vouchers, parents will be able to select which school their children attend, public or private, using government vouchers representing their designated portion of the public monies, raised through taxes. Critics with vested interest in the status quo, such as the National Education Association (NEA), have said that such a policy would favor the rich and injure public education, and it would violate “the separation of church and state,” using tax dollars to support “religion.” But it proves successful where tried, especially for the poor.

I would favor a system where all tax dollars raised for public education would be available on a level playing field for individual parents to choose how to spend their portion. Schools would flourish, public or private, according to how well they educate the children. This is truly a public education, since all children benefit equally, regardless of whether their parents or guardians have contributed to the tax base that pays for it. It also maintains individual liberty and prerogative for the parents to chose how to educate their children. Currently, if parents do not like the “public” education available to their children, and they opt for private schools, they face a double jeopardy. Their taxes go only to the government schools, from which they then derive little or no benefit, and they have to come up with the extra money to pay for private education. Thus, the rich are at great advantage, as the elitist monopoly on “public” education monies actually serves classism. Middle-class parents have to sacrifice tremendously to afford private education for their children. It is the current system that favors the rich, not vice versa. Public school teachers send their children to private schools at more than double the national average, while clamoring for more money in the public schools. I know the personal dilemma with the financial crunch of not being able to send my children to Christian schools for most of their primary and secondary years.

In the face of the present reality, let me make a proposal Proposed Resolution #7 (click here and click here).

The genius I see in this proposal is its simplicity, and the genuine inclusiveness of unalienable rights based on the image of God. Namely, there is no doctrinally distinguishing language such as Christological references that would disinclude anyone. Even for polytheistic religions, most of them have place for a reference to one Creator, and along with secularists, the First Amendment guarantees their right to polytheism or secularism under the free exercise clause. Most importantly, what other historical basis is there for unalienable rights that allows for such religious pluralism? Thus I make observation that this Recitation in the Public Schools is not a prayer, but it is the celebration of the most critical piece of U.S. historical writing that establishes the basis for unalienable rights. The pedagogic power of the teaching of these words, along with the very words of the First Amendment, to our school children, is of inestimable value for preserving our religious, political and economic liberties. For celebrating the civil rights of all, over and against racist, sexist or classist bigotries.

It should also be a joy for those Christians who may be among us, and who, along with others, are sympathetic to a return to the pre-1962 understanding of organized prayer in the “public” schools. I believe the large majority of biblically committed Christians in the nation would be glad for such a historical recitation. I believe we would see how this Recitation is far more powerful in serving the religious liberty we have to teach our children about God and Christ, than would a coercive “school prayer” which indeed opposes the ethics and power of informed choice. Thus, I believe the adoption of this Recitation would end the campaign for a return to “school prayer.” This should therefore be a relief to secularists and others who fear such an imposition.

Should be. However, there will still be opposition…