Opinion | Pop Culture

School Prayer Doesn’t Need a Comeback

Why this prayer-loving, evangelical mom won’t be joining the movement.
School Prayer Doesn’t Need a Comeback
Image: U.S. Dept. of Education

It was a mistake to read about Janine Turner’s push to bring prayer “back” to school so early in the morning.

During those first few quiet moments—just before I rouse my middle-schooler for early morning band, then my daughter for her grade-school patrol duties, then my youngest for the nightmare that is waking up for second grade every single day—the last thing I want to read is anyone suggesting 15 minutes more of anything during the school day. Even if it is prayer. Especially if it’s prayer, actually.

Then came my next mistake of the day: reading what Facebook commenters had to say about the article. “It’s about time we put God back in school.” “No coincidence: schools got violent when we took God out of them!” Likes all around. These self-proclaiming Christian people were apparently totally comfortable with the idea that we are powerful enough to remove God from the world he created. Fine with this blasphemy that we can take God out of schools, just like we can take Christ out of Christmas.

This conception of God, though, is not one that I can get behind. I object to any mission to bring prayer “back” to school because I can’t support the faulty theology—downright heresyof implying God is only around to hear our prayers when the building sanctions his presence.

Prayer never left schools. And God never did either. To suggest otherwise should make us shudder. And yet, that’s what campaigns full of good God-fearing folks seem to be saying.

To what avail? What are we communicating with our laments over godless classrooms and demands for established prayer times? We insinuate we have the power to take and put God where we want him. We suggest the act of teacher-led prayer or a public invocation of God’s name keeps us from harm or makes a place more God’s and therefore more worthy than another.

Though I understand it’s pleasant for some to hearken back to a day when a tight-bunned teacher led children through a crisp Pledge and a Prayer (no matter what her heart, mind or soul actually believed) as somehow holier, better, safer, they weren’t. Schools with teacher-led prayer refused to admit black children. Schools with teacher-led prayer burnt to the ground. Students were still bullied. They still had sex, got abortions, and got high. Homes were still broken. Kids were still confused and frightened by their sexuality. Even back then. Even with all that prayer.

So what are we really hoping for pushing for prayer’s triumphal return to school? Sometimes, it seems just a fight.

And what a shame that is.

Because if we really cared about kids praying in school, we’d focus on teaching our kids to pray in school. If we really worried that God wasn’t present in public schools, we’d focus on teaching our kids to be Jesus in the schools—to turn cheeks, love neighbors and enemies, to be kind, to tend to the “least”—and to notice God everywhere in those schools. Especially since he is.

Besides the blatant mentions of God that do still happen in schools (i.e. the Negro Spirituals curriculum in music class and all those books by Christian authors in the library), you cannot study the universe, the laws of physics, the principles of math without seeing God. You cannot read a novel, smile at the language, suffer and rejoice with the characters, without feeling God. You cannot create an art project, learn to write without seeing God. You cannot sit in the crowded cafeteria, amid the hodgepodge racket and smells, without being in God’s presence, without spotting his image in the lonely kid over there, in the sporty kid over there, in the beautiful kid right here, in the tangles and pimples and stink. Or, if you can’t you’ve got some work to do.

One of the great joys of parenthood is teaching my kids to notice God, to see and taste and hear and smell and feel God in the everyday, in the special and the regular, in the weird and the wonderful, in each other and in the world at large. And the best thing about noticing God with us, is realizing we can talk to him—bring him anything. Anywhere. Any time.

Kids don’t need a teacher to lead them in forced prayer. They don’t need 15 minutes in a prayer closet. They just need to realize God is there, with them, holding them, delighting in them. And their classmates. And their teachers. And that they can talk to him. Maybe not out loud—God doesn’t want us disrupting our teachers or keeping others from concentrating. But they can offer something else: silent prayers during class, shared prayer-time with friends in hallways, at lunch, or even out-loud public prayers on the playground, by that flag pole public-pray-ers have become fond of.

But I suspect this is much less fun for some. It’s a whole lot sexier to decry persecution, to pretend we’re being bullied and battered by big meanies with the power to remove our God.

Christians do have a right to be concerned with discrimination and infringement on our First Amendment rights; we should not dismiss or ignore legitimate threats to religious liberty. But fighting for and with faulty theology hurts our cause. It puts our God in a terrible light and dishonors his name. He didn’t leave kids in the lurch in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruled school prayer unconstitutional. Our “immovable” God stayed put.

So let’s stop acting like God left. If we—or our kids—miss him and if we’ve stopped talking to him, we need to take ourselves—not the school board, not the Supreme Court—to task.

Caryn Rivadeneira is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics and the author of five books, including her most recent, Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed About God’s Abundance (IVP, 2014). Visit Caryn at carynrivadeneira.com.

January/February

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