No question before the country today, with the possible exception of the civil rights issue, goes deeper constitutionally and religiously than the proposed Becker amendment. If volume of mail is an indication, this so-called prayer amendment is for many citizens of greater importance than the civil rights bill. And while, as in the latter case, heightened feelings make it an explosive issue, substantial constitutional and moral problems are likewise involved. The need is to see the central issues behind the pejorative slogans of some proponents and some opponents of the amendment.

Simplistic solutions, based upon emotional responses to partial knowledge, can hardly provide adequate answers to questions on which thoughtful, patriotic, and godly Americans differ. Nor should weighty constitutional and legal problems inhibit discussion. The Supreme Court is an august body, entitled to respect. But it is not infallible, and criticism of its actions is an American privilege. Therefore, it is incumbent upon informed Christian citizenship to take time to ask and answer the question, “What about the Becker amendment?”

The proposal of such an amendment stems from two recent Supreme Court decisions—the first, ruling against the action of the New York State Board of Regents in composing and promoting a non-denominational prayer for use in the public schools of the state; the second, ruling against the devotional reading of the Bible and the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in Pennsylvania and Maryland. The former opinion (delivered June 25, 1962) stirred greater immediate reaction than the latter (delivered June 17, 1963), although the court’s reasoning against a state-composed-and-promoted prayer seems subsequently to have been better understood than the more subtle argument against the prescribed practice of reading a short portion of the Bible without comment and repeating the Lord’s Prayer. The dissatisfaction of many with other decisions of the court and the concern of large numbers of religious people about the trend toward secularism in public education have probably contributed to the unpopularity of the prayer and Bible-reading rulings. Many thousands believe that the Supreme Court placed a taboo upon the Bible in public schools and banished God from them. Out of the chorus of opposition to the action of the court has come the call to correct it by amending the first article of the Bill of Rights. Of the large number of amendments proposed—more than 150—attention during the hearings before the House Judiciary Committee this spring has been focused upon the one submitted by Representative Frank J. Becker of New York, H.J. Res. 693.

Article continues below

Many people, representing various shades of theological convictions and including numbers of evangelicals, are supporting the amendment. On the other hand, leaders (evangelicals also included) of virtually all major Protestant denominations are opposing it. And, as the hearings have been extended because of the many asking to testify, important principles are becoming clear.

The opinions in Engel v. Vitale (the Regents’ prayer case) and Abington School District v. Schempp (the Bible reading and Lord’s Prayer case, which includes Murray v. Curlett) comprise a book of 151 closely reasoned pages. Questions of constitutional law, political science, history, philosophy, education, and religion are involved. But this is not to say that the debate is beyond the comprehension of the layman in these fields. It is an American principle that the ordinary citizen is capable of coming to valid conclusions upon important and difficult issues and of expressing these conclusions through the ballot and free speech. That clergymen, lawyers, educators, and others are testifying and being widely reported means that an important process of education is going on.

What, then, are some main considerations relating to the Becker amendment? And in the light of them what conclusions accord best with evangelical conviction?

To begin with, it is necessary to know what the Supreme Court in Engel and in Schempp did and what it did not do. It did rule unconstitutional a state-composed-and-promoted prayer and state-prescribed devotional exercises consisting of Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer, even though pupil participation was officially voluntary. It so ruled on the ground that no state agency has any business setting official forms of worship. And it also concluded that, because of the readiness of children to conform and because of the weight of official sanction of such worship, the option of voluntary participation was invalid.

But the court did not banish God from the schools nor sanction atheism. It did not remove all prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. It went out of its way to declare that “religion has been closely identified with our history and government,” and it reaffirmed the court’s recognition (when in Zorach v. Clauson it supported released-time religious education in New York City schools) that “[we] are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” (cf. Mr. Justice Clark’s Majority Opinion in Schempp). Moreover, it asserted “that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion.… It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic equalities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment” (Majority Opinion in Schempp). The court based its action upon a strict concept of neutrality. “The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind.… In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a principle of neutrality” (Majority Opinion in Schempp). Those who agree with the court approve its strong interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and believe it has done both religion and the state a service in keeping the two apart.

Article continues below

Yet there are many who, for various reasons, do not agree with the court. For them its actions are incompatible with our national religious heritage and tradition, unrealistic in failing to see the impossibility of neutrality in education, and constitutionally questionable in the application of the First to the Fourteenth Amendment; they see the decisions as a long step on the road to secularism and as an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment. Such objections are not inconsiderable. It may be that in its zeal to preserve a strict separation of church and state the court has fallen into a kind of absolutism and that its application of the First to the Fourteenth Amendment will not bear close historical scrutiny. And it may also be that its emphasis upon religious neutrality has loaded the scales for secularism and that the removal of the recognition of God through formal devotional exercises is a deprivation. Perhaps the court ought not, as some say, to have ruled on the cases. But it did rule, and the practices it removed from the schools were religious practices.

Consider now the remedy proposed in the Becker amendment. Its advocates see in it a means for correcting the court, and the right of the people to amend the Constitution is indeed beyond question. Section I is not so much an authorization of prescribed devotional Bible reading and prayer as a removal of limitations upon them. Thus it would open the door in our religiously pluralistic society to a variety of state-prescribed devotional exercises. Section II anticipates possible future decisions against the practices it specifies. Section III states that the practices from which the amendment removes limitations are not an establishment of religion.

Article continues below

What are some objections to this proposed remedy? First of all, the fact that in our national history no amendment to the Bill of Rights has ever been adopted bespeaks the need for greatest caution. The article to be amended with its precise definition of church-state separation stands as a unique American contribution to government, basic to our most precious liberties and worthy of being preserved intact.

Again, by removing present limitations upon state-prescribed religious exercises, Section I of the amendment is dangerous. Under it there is nothing to prevent such practices as the devotional reading of the Bible and the Book of Mormon (in Utah and Idaho, for example) or the recitation of the “Hail Mary.” Moreover, Section I offers only a piecemeal rather than a basic remedy, and its voluntarism is not a true option in view of the pressure of conformity and of official sponsorship of prescribed devotions. As for Section II, it may well be unnecessary because of the court’s idea of permissive accommodation of certain aspects of religion to education, as in Zorach, and because of Mr. Justice Brennan’s recognition of this in concurring in Schempp that “there may be myriad forms of involvements of government with religion which … should not in my judgment be deemed to violate the Establishment Clause.” Among these involvements he mentioned military chaplaincies and prayers in legislative bodies.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.…

From the First Amendment to the Constitution

‘The Becker Amendment’

Section 1. Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school, institution, or place.

Sec. 2. Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution, or place, or upon any coinage, currency, or obligation of the United States.

Article continues below

Sec. 3. Nothing in this article shall constitute an establishment of religion.

Sec. 4. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by Congress.

What, finally, about evangelical response to questions posed by the Becker amendment? It is our opinion that, in view of the peril of weakening the classic expression in the First Amendment of our religious liberty, in the light of what the Supreme Court did in Engel and Schempp to maintain (overstrict though it may have been) full separation of church and state, and in consideration of the weaknesses of the proposed amendment, it does not merit support. While we recognize that other evangelicals feel differently, nothing in the present debate has changed our position respecting the unconstitutionality of state-prescribed devotions in public schools (see editorials in the July 20, 1962, and the August 30, 1963, issues of CHRISTIANITY TODAY).

Yet there are aspects of public education today that cause evangelicals deep concern. Chief among them is the steady undertow of secular naturalism that is manifest in much educational philosophy and practice and that may well violate the neutrality concept upon which the ruling in Schempp was in good part based. Indeed, the question has yet to be settled whether secular naturalism in public education infringes upon the free-exercise clause which balances the establishment clause of the First Amendment. We believe that Christians who stand for strict church-state separation in public schools should protest secular naturalism as a trespass upon their right to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. As the Committee on Religion and Education of the American Council on Education stated in 1947: “To vast numbers of Americans the denial of the supernatural in the classroom is a negation of their faith and to make such denial is to bring religion into the schools with a vengeance.… Religious people have every right to resent and resist an attack on their faith in the name of academic scholarship.”

We also believe that an effective mitigation of the trend to secularism may be the development of public school courses in the literary and historical study of the Bible, as suggested by the Supreme Court. To those who consider such teaching useless, evangelicals reply that the Word of God is not bound and that no school board or teacher can nullify God’s promise that his Word will not return unto him void. Let evangelicals, therefore, lead in urging public schools in their communities to teach the Bible as literature and history.

Article continues below

Another means of withstanding the trend to secularism may be shared time, which offers a collaboration between religious schools and public schools that, according to competent legal authority, may be constitutional and that in some communities is already being practiced.

The challenge is for us to lengthen the cords and strengthen the stakes of Christian education. Education is a total process. The public school, though essential, is not the whole of it. Equally and even more essential are the home and the church. Furthermore, it is a constitutional right for parents able to do so to choose independent Christian schools for their children. What is needed is a renewal of educational commitment in home, church, and Christian elementary and secondary schools. The Supreme Court decisions and the debate on the Becker amendment are a summons to responsible evangelical interest in and support of public schools, which remain a bulwark of democracy, and a spur for evangelicals to back wholeheartedly and sacrificially the agencies of Christian education open to them.

Jawaharlal Nehru

In Jawaharlal Nehru a giant figure passes from the scene, and a particularly agonized sector of this planet knows a profound loneliness.

In retrospect the man and his career seem to form a concatenation of contradictions. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, the handsome, cultivated, and sensitive Indian once said: “I have become a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.”

Molder of modern India and her prime minister for the seventeen years since independence, he tirelessly fought British dominion and spent years in British jails, but he scolded the Indians for not being more like the British.

He loved peace and was dedicated to the non-violence doctrine of his beloved leader Mahatma Gandhi; yet he used troops in Goa, Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Junagadh.

His friendliness toward the giant Communist powers that menaced his borders was coupled with hostility toward Indian Communists, hundreds of whom he jailed.

While maintaining his doctrine of nonalignment with Communist and Western power blocs, he asked for American and British help in India’s struggle to resist Chinese invasion.

Article continues below

He was an aristocrat who became a socialist, but he moved from a doctrinaire Marxism to become a pragmatic planner who accorded a significant role to private enterprise.

In religious and superstitious India, he was a devotee of reason. He studied many religions—Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism—and pronounced himself an agnostic. At one time he sought to point India from extreme religiosity to science. But in 1961 he spoke often of the need for “spiritual solutions” to India’s problems. “Yes, I have changed,” he told an interviewer. “The emphasis on ethical and spiritual solutions is not unconscious; it is deliberate.… I believe the human mind is hungry for something deeper in terms of moral and spiritual development without which all the material advance may not be worthwhile.… The old Hindu idea that there is a divine essence in the world, and that every individual possesses something of it and can develop it, appeals to me.”

In 1954 Nehru suggested a restriction on the number of foreign Christian missionaries that has reduced missionary personnel in India by about 20 per cent, but he often reminded Indians of the need for religious freedom. “Christians are as much Indians as anyone else,” he said. “They must have full opportunity,” he added in the course of condemning a movement that demanded Hindu domination. His advocacy of a curb on Christian missionaries, particularly in border areas, was politically motivated, he said, noting that foreigners were looked upon with suspicion in certain areas.

But if Nehru’s actions frequently did not fit into logical compartments, neither did the staggering immensity of India’s problems, which he made his own. He sought to leap the centuries without benefit of a totalitarian state, shunning the role of dictator that some tried to thrust upon him. He sought unity for a country terribly divided by sects, castes, languages, tribes, and clans. It seemed at times that only the mystique of his own person prevented the shattering of a brave show of unity.

Upon his successor, Lai Bahadur Shastri, falls an awesome burden as a subcontinent, and even Asia itself, hang in the balances. Lacking Nehru’s towering personal stature, he now must face the problems of poverty and disunity within and the problems of China and Pakistan without. Their resolution is in grave doubt. But he may swing his country closer to the West. And the West could breathe a sigh of relief that it would not be dealing with former defense minister Krishna Menon, left-leaning neutralist who was toppled from power by the Chinese invasion—a curious benefit from a dastardly act.

Article continues below

Pandit Nehru once proposed his own epitaph: “If any people choose to think of me, then, I should like them to say: ‘This was a man who with all his mind and heart loved India and the Indian people. And they in turn were indulgent to him and gave him of their love most abundantly and generously.’ ”

The Last Battle In Asia?

It is hard to see how the United States can avoid more direct intervention in the prolonged, bloody struggle for South Viet Nam.

“The battle in Viet Nam is the last one in Asia,” says the foreign minister of South Viet Nam, Phan Huy Quat. “If the misfortune happened to the free world of losing it, then even the ultimate sanctuaries, such as India and Japan, would be of little strategic value.”

Unfortunately, the current strategy for ridding South Viet Nam of Communist guerrilla forces seems inadequate. The new government in that country apparently realizes that victory entails a combination of military, political, economic, and social programs. But real progress continues to elude us.

Thus there emerges, on the one hand, agitation for more aggressive tactics to root out the guerrillas. On the other hand, an alternative—to accede to the demands for so-called neutralization—is what Secretary of State Dean Rusk rightly regards as “a formula for surrender.”

A particularly distressing aspect of the situation is the apathy of our allies toward possible loss of Viet Nam. The United States is again left holding the bag. Even the Vietnamese themselves apparently manifest some measure of indifference. One wonders to what extent the American image abroad has contributed to this apathy and unconcern.

Transcending The Meaningless

Twentieth-century man is not the same as the man of the sixteenth or the fourth century. If sixteenth-century man was driven by the anxiety of sin and guilt, twentieth-century man is haunted by a sense of meaninglessness that drains all purpose and joy from his life. Sin, like most other things, has a history, and in the process sinful men have changed.

The distinguishing mark of twentieth-century man is his sour and bitter view of human life. Many intellectuals, among them novelists, playwrights, social critics, and philosophers, regard life as a disease and human existence as a curse. They accept Jesus’ assessment of Judas’s life as their own, convinced that it would really have been better had they never been born. And masses of unreflective people instinctively regard the struggle of their lives as an aimless journey from an erratic sexual act to a final nothing.

Article continues below

Modern men are paying the price for refusing to take sin seriously. The bitter price is to read evil, irrationality, and death into the fabric of human life.

No view of life takes sin more seriously than the Christian view. Yet Christianity regards evil as an additive, something with which man has contaminated life but something God can and does remove through Jesus Christ. Thus the Christian can admit the full dimensions of evil and yet greet life with an affirmative attitude. For him to be alive is a blessing, a divine gift to be enjoyed. Life is a good thing. At the heart of reality is a transcendent divine goodness that created the world good and is greater than all its acquired sin and evil. The Christian with the Psalmist, therefore, sees the growing grass as a sign and guarantee that the mercy of God endureth forever. At the altar of redemption he sees room in the divine grace for the sparrow, for at the altar of God the sparrow finds a place to build her nest and raise her young. Even the existence of the sparrow is good—how much more human existence!

In a recent issue of the Manchester Guardian Weekly, Anthony Burgess assesses Franz Kafka. Kafka in his novels is said to present us with the public symbols he wrought out of the lonely agony of his inner life to purge the nightmare of his soul. Yet these projections of his private agony are not a “pilot for our pain” leading us into the harbor of redemption. Kafka, as Burgess admits, never found the harbor of Christianity but died alone in his sea of private darkness. It is not true—as Kafka’s own life demonstrates—that the nature of our sin and evil must first be learned from such artists as he, and that only then will the answers of revealed religion be understood. Our sin and loneliness can be understood only within the Christian faith. Outside it, they appear as darkness, not light, and only confuse and mystify. They do not lead to redemption. Until evil is seen in the light of God’s creation and redemption of the world, our abortive agonies and struggles are viewed as the very fabric of man’s life and world, a view that excludes redemption and ends in bitter cynicism.

Only within a Christian understanding of evil can life be accepted as good.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.