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The Truth, Mainly - 01/29/1996

School prayer OK if it doesn't come out of the closet

Some of my colleagues in the American Association of Dirty Rotten Secular Humanists got upset recently when Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) introduced a constitutional amendment to allow student-sponsored prayer in public schools.

The concern was that as an alleged conservative, Rep. Istook wasn't showing proper respect for the wishes of the Founding Fathers, especially as they're expressed in the First Amendment's dirty rotten secular humanist Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

But you don't hear me squawking.

That's because I have no objection to anybody praying to the divinity of their choice in public schools or anywhere else. I say if it feels good, do it.

All I ask is that they do it right: if they profess to be Christian they should follow biblical instructions. When it comes to prayer in the schools, I'm a fundamentalist. I believe in the inerrancy of those scriptures I agree with. Especially the red-letter part where Jesus is quoted directly.

And you know what Jesus says about praying, don't you? Of course you do. But let me remind you.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this to the disciples:

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

So if that's the kind of praying Rep. Istook means—and surely it is since he's a Christian—why should we get upset over prayer in the schools?

Imagine the scene. Third grade arithmetic class. Test in progress. Johnny raises his hand.

"Please, ma'am," he says. "I need divine guidance on question #3 and the Istook Amendment guarantees me the right to ask for it."

"So it does," Miz Smith says, just before she lapses into King James English, "but you have to enter into thy closet to get it. Be thou careful of the brooms and mops. And be thou sure to shut the door lest ye be seen and heard of men, and thought a hypocrite. Remember, Jesus liketh not little showoffs."

So Johnny runs off to find the janitor to unlock the closet for him. He comes back a few minutes later, a beatific smile on his face and the answer to question #3 in his head.

Now who could object to such a scene? Certainly not me.

And that must be the kind of praying Rep. Istook has in mind—prayer that would be a confidential communication that only sender and receiver are privy to, with no hint of hypocrisy or ulterior motive, no whiff of holier-than-thou perfume, and certainly no suggestion of any intimidation of those fellow students who know the answer to question #3 without resorting to divine guidance.

The Truth, Mainly


In short, the kind of prayer that might be offered up in a closed closet.

Some of you might argue that I interpret "closet" too literally here, that Jesus didn't really mean we should get in there with the brooms and mops when we pray, that "closet" is just a metaphor for privacy.

If you want to start down that slippery slope of seeing metaphor in Holy Writ, I guess that's your business. But don't ask me to help.

Besides, if the closet is simply a metaphor for privacy, what could be more private than praying silently without telling anyone else what you're doing? And if that's what Jesus meant, why would we need a constitutional amendment to allow it in schools? Silent prayers would fall into the don't ask-don't tell category—like dirty thoughts and other interior monologues—and all of that's already allowable. How could it not be?

Which gets at what super-suspicious dirty rotten secular humanists are worried about. What if Rep. Istook has something else in mind besides silent prayer or closet prayer? What if he means the kind of audible, external, non-spontaneous, organized prayer meetings that pressure the little children to either join in or stay awake all night worrying about going to hell?

If that's what the amendment means, then we all ought to worry. It already has 101 co-sponsors. If it gets two-thirds approval in the House and Senate, then is ratified by 38 states in the next seven years, we'd be turning our children and grandchildren into scriptural scofflaws. As a school prayer fundamentalist, I'm afraid we'd be held responsible.

Remember what Jesus said about the street-corner prayer mongers (and if the closet is a metaphor, maybe the street corner is too): "Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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