A year and a half has passed since the last major Supreme Court decision on school devotions. A number of surveys, including a CHRISTIANITY TODAY poll of educators, indicate that state and school authorities have responded in conflicting ways:

—Some have ignored or tried to circumvent the rulings;

—Some are avoiding everything religious;

—Some are cautiously exploring the court’s invitation to teach objectively about religion.

One out of four school officials responding to the CHRISTIANITY TODAY sampling indicated that his school or district has changed its prayer and Bible-reading policies since the Supreme Court rulings of 1962 and 1963. (Some of those reporting “no changes” said their policies necessitated none.) Court records show that a few school boards refused to comply until ordered to do so.

The majority of states with mandatory Bible-reading laws now hold them invalid, implicitly or explicitly. But a congressional survey made last year failed to turn up any state rulings against the Bible-reading requirements in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, or Tennessee.

Four days after the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a “Trojan horse” bill that would have permitted the daily recitation of four lines of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” including the words “In God is our trust.” But Governor Otto Kerner said the bill amounted to circumvention and vetoed it. In a New York case, the Attorney General issued a similar ruling. The Supreme Court’s dictum that what is being used is less important than what it is being used as is now widely applied.)

Some states, such as Mississippi, simply advised schools to continue Bible readings; others left the interpretation of the rulings up to local school districts. Authorities in Florida, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington have now discouraged or ruled against distributing Gideon Bibles in schools, and Michigan has enjoined a “Rural Bible Mission” school program.

Prior to the 1962 Engel decision banning state-composed prayers, an estimated 42 per cent of the nation’s schools conducted Bible leading, 33 per cent had homeroom devotions, and 43 per cent allowed the distribution of Gideon Bibles. Now many educators are evidently avoiding anything that might be construed as devotional or sectarian. “Frankly, most teachers are scared to death to do anything with religion,” the Arizona State Superintendent of Education has said.

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CHRISTIANITY TODAY’S survey indicated that some educators are “ignoring the Supreme Court’s invitation to teach objectively about the Bible and religion.” The court emphasized: “… the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program … may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

The sampling also showed that some teachers, parents, boards of education, and administrators are still “greatly confused” about what is allowed and what is not. But some schools have begun to experiment with the “objective” approach:

The Cornwall-Lebanon Joint School Board in Pennsylvania has voted to draft a twelve-year objective Bible-study program.

A high school teacher in Massachusetts is using the Bible as a “sourcebook for the humanities.”

In North Carolina, the Attorney General has approved an extra-curricular, off-school-grounds religion program using a mobile unit.

Thirty seniors at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, high school have enrolled in “The Bible as Literature,” a new elective course being offered in a number of Indiana schools.

And the confusion now is less—or at least quieter—than it was. Evidently the House Judiciary Committee hearings last year have helped to clarify the issues, as the committee chairman, Representative Emanuel Celler, believes. The hearings dealt with the proposed “Becker amendment” to the Constitution, which would have overruled the Supreme Court’s decisions on school devotions. Opponents argued that it would also have weakened the constitutional separation of church and state. (For an editorial opinion on the Becker amendment, see CHRISTIANITY TODAY, June 19, 1964.)

Frank Becker (R-N. Y.) did not stand for re-election in 1964. In his last act as a congressman, he wrote a letter to his constituents referring to the “still unfinished task of returning the right to pray in our public schools”; but enthusiasm in Congress has clearly waned. Some twenty “prayer resolutions” have been submitted to this Congress (there may be more to come); last Congress the total was over 150. Supporters of a constitutional amendment have been unable to keep the issue alive.

What began in 1962 as a highly serious debate seemed last year to be getting dangerously close to anticlimax when the focus shifted to such pre-brunch invocations as “God is great, God is good, And we thank him for our food.” A federal court in New York ruled that particular invocation legal in December, 1963; but a federal district judge in Michigan ruled a lunchtime prayer unlawful early this year, and the American Civil Liberties Union has contested the practice in a Virginia school district.

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“Out of the clamor of voices—‘by free trade in ideas’—a free society distills its own consensus,” said Mr. Celler last fall after the hearings.

The year and a half since the Abington decision banning devotional Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (“both the practices at issue and the laws requiring them,” in the language of the court) has shown how hard it is to reach consensus on terminology: One man’s “neutrality” seems to be another man’s “secularism.” The attorney general in one state ruled that school Nativity scenes are proper “so long as no religious significance is attached thereto,” apparently implying that the “religion” is in the eye of the beholder. The line between “teaching about” religion and “the teaching of” religion was found hard to draw: “When instruction turns to proselyting and imparting knowledge becomes evangelism is, except in the crudest cases, a subtle inquiry,” Justice Douglas wrote in a 1947 opinion. Experts did not always agree on where “establishment of religion” ends and “the free exercise thereof” begins. When a state “permits,” it may actually be promoting, an attorney general held.

Such semantic problems have enabled partisans on both sides of church-state debates to play the game of selecting isolated “proof texts” in Supreme Court opinions in order to emphasize one principle at the expense of another.

So far, the movement toward consensus appears to be largely negative, though the practices the court eliminated had more “symbolic value,” perhaps, than spiritual meaning.

Last year the court, in a Florida case, dismissed a complaint concerning baccalaureate services “for want of properly presented federal questions” (thus not ruling on the constitutionality of the practice) and declined to hear an appeal in New York contesting the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance when recited in schools.

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The question arises whether the court is serving notice that it does not intend to accept the role of a “super board of education for every school district in the nation”—Justice Jackson’s words in a 1947 case—or to enlarge the scope of its strictures against religious exercises in public schools.

Another question is whether the present cautious experiments in objective religious instruction, as sanctioned by the court, will allay educators’ fears that any religion in school is too much religion and will pave the way for widespread study of the Bible for its “literary and historic qualities.”

The President’S Ecumenical Circuit

Mirroring the dominant religious spirit of the age, Lyndon Baines Johnson seems bent on earning the reputation of “an ecumenical president.” In a recent span of five days, for example, he (1) showed up at St. Matthew’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic) for an annual “Red Mass,” (2) announced before a Jewish dinner his proposed exchange of visits with Soviet leaders this year, and (3) participated in his second Presidential Prayer Breakfast as Chief Executive.

In attending the St. Matthew’s “Red Mass,” so-called because of the color of the vestments worn, Johnson was making his first public appearance since his illness. With him were Mrs. Johnson, their younger daughter, 17-year-old Luci, and Paul Betz, 20-year-old pre-medical student at Mount St. Mary’s College. (Betz is Luci’s boyfriend and apparent prompter in her decision to begin instruction in Roman Catholicism.) The “Red Mass” is held for the purpose of invoking God’s blessing on the courts and the administration of justice.

Three days later, at a dinner meeting of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in Washington’s Shoreham Hotel, Johnson was plugging away for a “Great Society.” He cited Ecclesiastes 11:4, “He that observeth the wind shall not sow, and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.” An exchange of visits with Soviet leaders, he said, “would reassure an anxious world that our two nations are each striving toward the goal of peace.” The international Jewish human relations and welfare organization presented him with a citation for “distinguished contribution to the enrichment of our democratic heritage.”

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Back at the Shoreham by eight the next morning, the President appeared on two International Christian Leadership prayer breakfast programs—one for men, the other for women. He addressed both briefly.On Inaugural Day, Johnson ignored a public ecumenical prayer service hastily arranged after he had invited evangelist Billy Graham to preach a private inaugural sermon. The White House later invited inter-faith participants to share the service with Graham but left the ecumenical effort (which had announced to the press an invitation to the President) to paddle for itself.—Ed.

The men’s breakfast, thirteenth and largest of these annual events, did not attract as many upper-echelon government figures as had been seen in previous years. But among the 1,400 who did attend, along with Johnson and Vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey, were House Speaker John McCormack, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, and three Cabinet members: Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, Commerce Secretary John T. Connor, and Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Anthony J. Celebrezze. All were at the head table in the Shoreham’s spacious new Regency Room.

As in most prayer breakfasts of the type now being held in key cities, there was a minimum of praying and a maximum of speaking. The invocation by retired Lieutenant General M. H. Silverthorn, the “intercession for national leaders” by ICL founder Abraham Vereide, and the benediction by the Rev. Richard C. Halverson totaled little more than five minutes of the eighty-minute program. Nonetheless, the prayers (see editorial pages) were spiritually powerful interludes. Between them were breakfast (scrambled eggs and lamp chops), three speeches (the President, McCormack, and General Harold K. Johnson, Army chief of staff), Scripture readings (Psalm 1 and Matt. 6:24–33), and a solo by the popular gospel vocalist Tony Fontane, who meshed a stanza of “The Old Rugged Cross” into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” General Johnson, a survivor of the Bataan death march, spoke of the efficacy of faith in Christ in times of peril and made copious use of Scripture.

President Johnson noted that “in our history, it has been popular to regard with skepticism the private motives of public men—and never more than when they participate in meetings such as this.”

“I am sure such skepticism has been deserved by some,” he declared, “but I am more certain that only the unknowing and unthinking would challenge today the motives that bring our public officials together for moments of prayer and meditation.”

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The President concluded with the observation that “we could find no more appropriate way to begin our days and our duties than to pray—for as we are taught, ‘Except the Lord build this house, they labor in vain that build it.’ ”

He then stepped down the corridor to the women’s breakfast, where the program had included remarks by Mrs. Johnson and a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Dale Evans. He said he foresaw problems “too great to be solved by men’s minds or even by women’s hearts.… With the blessings that belong to us, with the duties which rest upon us, we have much to pray for—that we may be just in our strength, wise in actions, and faithful to our trust.”

There was a strange sequel to the events. Less than two hours after the benediction. Dr. Paul C. Aebersold, regarded as one of the world’s leading nuclear scientists, was rescued from the icy Potomac River after a leap from a bridge. Found in the pocket of Aebersold, who has been away from his post at the Atomic Energy Commission because of illness, was a program from the prayer breakfast.

Now that the prayer breakfast has become a national institution, there were almost as many views of its significance as breakfasters. At tabletalk one congressman called it “a mirror of the times, in which everything is done on a big scale—big business, big church, big prayer breakfast. If it doesn’t get folks going back to the obscure prayer meetings that are neglected in the local churches it will fail of its purpose.” McCormack spoke of the event as coming “clearly within the atmosphere of being a divine institution” and as a reflection of “the ecumenical spirit in which people of different religious beliefs are meeting with devotion to God and good will toward each other.” A businessman from Shelby, Ohio, active in a small denominational church, had another view: “It encourages a little fellow like me. We sometimes think the things that are important in our local communities lack effective commitment nationally. Here we see and meet politicians who are honest and stand above their parties, businessmen whose concern for Christian principles exceeds their desire for profits. I’m going back home with new zeal for the right things.”

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The Reds’ Debut

Cultivating a taste for Christianity among the Communist elite is a project that only an organization like International Christian Leadership would attempt. In Washington this month, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin and diplomats from Poland, Rumania, and Yugoslavia turned out for an ICL luncheon honoring the diplomatic corps. A spokesman for ICL said this marked the first time that representatives of the Communist bloc had attended one of the organization’s functions.

Luncheon guests heard a speech by Vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey. Msgr. Luigi Ligutti, Vatican observer to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, read from the fifth chapter of Matthew.

The luncheon was part of a two-day ICL seminar attended by 350 invited guests, including sixty labor union presidents. ICL has announced a thirtieth-anniversary seminar to be held in Seattle July 4–10. Evangelist Billy Graham, RCA president Elmer Engstrom, and rocket expert Wehrner Von Braun will be among participants, along with leading citizens from Canada, England, France, Nigeria, Greece, India, and Ethiopia.

The Education Bill

A House bill embodying President Johnson’s federal aid plan for primary and secondary education cleared its first hurdle this month by winning subcommittee approval despite a Republican walkout. It was also expected to be approved by the full Education and Labor Committee, inasmuch as Democrats on the committee outnumber Republicans 21 to 10.

Republicans boycotted the subcommittee’s vote on the education measure in protest of what they regarded as “hasty and superficial” consideration.

The subcommittee made some changes in the bill aimed at satisfying those who regard the measure as encroaching upon church-state separation. Under the amended version, parochial schools would not assume title to federally provided text and library books but would get them on an extended loan basis. Another change provides that supplementary educational centers (see “The Christian Stake in Federal School Aid,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, January 29, 1965) be under the control of a public agency.

C. Stanley Lowell of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State observed that the changes are an improvement but that the bill still violates the church-state separation principle. At POAU’s annual conference this month in Philadelphia, the organization’s National Advisory Council adopted a statement urging Congress to delete those proposals that would provide for aid to private and church-related schools.

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Dr. C. Emanuel Carlson, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, declared that the committee “now has in hand a bill which seems to please the great mass of organized public opinion. Its passage now seems probable.” He added that the bill “does seem to be an honest effort to meet the needs of our day.”

The bill thus far has had the support of such groups as the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the National Education Association, and the American Association of School Administrators.

Superseding Scripture

The “wildest secret thought” of Dr. Donald Soper, British Methodist leader, was revealed in an article he wrote for his denomination’s newspaper. This “thought” included his desire to ban Bible reading for one year, use political rather than biblical texts every other sermon, and prohibit all “evangelical campaigns” that stress conversion or revival. Unorthodoxy and Dr. Soper are no strangers. More than thirty years ago he was arraigned before the Methodist Conference for denying the Virgin Birth as a historical fact. (He was acquitted.)

Well-known in London for his open-air meetings at Tower Hill, Dr. Soper stated in his article that “the present situation regarding the Scriptures is intolerable. They represent an intellectual incubus that cannot be removed until an almost completely new start is made with this most controversial document.” Thus he wished that reading of the Bible could be barred for a trial period of one year, with exceptions being made for weddings, funerals, and teaching in some schools.

“Every other sermon preached in a public place should take a political text,” continued the 62-year-old preacher, who wants these texts expounded “in relationship to the government of the day, and in the light of the teaching of our Lord.” Believing that the words “conversion” and “revival” were “incorrigibly misunderstood,” Dr. Soper mentioned his desire for all evangelical campaigns to cease until the words could be used again “in their true meaning.”

One of his less startling statements was the wish to have earlier Sunday morning services. In England such an idea is new. Dr. Soper said it “would get pious lie-a-beds up at a godly hour.”

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Taking Them Seriously

“It was an historic event when a representative of the Government of the U.S.S.R. devoted such attention to a Christian peace movement,” said Professor Johannes de Graaf of Holland, after representatives of the Christian Peace Conference had a forty-minute interview in Moscow last month with Mr. A. I. Mikoyan, chairman of the Supreme Soviet. The purpose of the delegation was to deliver the “Appeal to Governments, Parliaments and Authoritative Personalities” formulated last July by the Second All-Christian Peace Assembly (see “Engineering Peace at Prague,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, News, August 31, 1964). The document was handed over by Dr. J. L. Hromadka, with a photograph album tracing the development of the CPC since its inception in 1958.

In his reply Mr. Mikoyan said it was clear from a scientific point of view that war could be abolished. There was no fatal necessity for war, he said, but neither was there any automatic assurance of peace. “We take your endeavors very seriously,” continued the Soviet leader. “It is important and just work you are performing.… Your ideas and appeals will find support from our Parliament and our government.”

The delegation included also Metropolitan Pimen of the Russian Orthodox Church and CPC general secretary J. N. Ondra. A notable absentee from this Kremlin occasion was Metropolitan Nikodim, who was attending the WCC Central Committee meeting at Enugu. Dr. Hromadka had expected to join him there but did not receive a visa from the Nigerian government.


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