Seeking real prayer or real power?

Posted: Monday, July 03, 2000

If the prayers of the administrators of the Santa Fe, Texas, school district had been answered by the Supreme Court last week, it would have been a loss for religion in America.

Now, before correspondence addressed to ``Dear Heathen'' wings its way to downtown Fort Worth, hear me out.

In order to pass the litmus test for publicly uttered ``prayer'' in a society filled with religions of all stripes, a message has to be so watered down, so sanitized, so cleansed of any meaning that it becomes worthless.

That isn't prayer. That's little more than a thought for the day, with all the spiritual heft of a smiley-face button.

An issue related to school prayer comes up every winter in the guise of the display of religious symbols on public property. Yes, such things can occur and still pass the separation-of-church-and-state test, under which no government entity can be viewed as promoting one religion over another. The Supreme Court, in Lynch vs. Donnelly, opened the doors for communities to display - and even pay for - a creche, and a Jewish menorah, and a Islamic crescent and star along with a Rudolph complete with blinking red nose, a lighted Frosty the Snowman and a row of candy canes on public property.

Voila - the all-American holiday display that can pass the separation test. It can also pass the separation-from-taste test. The significance of the creche, with its Christ child, Joseph and Mary, falls to the level of holiday kitsch.

Sorry, but the symbols of my faith are worth more than that. I would hope that Jews and Muslims feel the same way.

America is a nation of religious pluralism - and getting more so every day. Although the population at the time of the nation's founding was overwhelmingly Christian in nature, today non-Christian religions are represented in an increasing portion of the U.S. population.

When those numbers take on the faces of children seated at desks in schools supported by tax dollars, the government's neutral stand on religion - as articulated by the Founding Fathers in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment - is both visionary and necessary.

Besides, God can never leave a classroom if he's firmly planted in children's hearts. That's what people of faith should be concerned about, instead of fixating on what words are broadcast over a public address system before a football game.

And yet in the hours after the Supreme Court ruled that Santa Fe's policy for student messages and invocations was unconstitutional, the TV screen was awash in testimony from folks who, by golly, don't care a widow's mite what the high court ruled - there'll be prayer at Friday night football this fall.

The focus is so intense on the act of publicly speaking a prayer that some self-described religious people have lost sight of what the content of the prayer is supposed to be. We're supposed to be worshipping God, not coveting access to a microphone.

The actions of the intransigents in Santa Fe and other primarily Southern school districts who vow to ``get God back into the classroom'' point to the dark side of public proclamations of religious speech or displays.

``It is a way to signal who's in control,'' said Melissa Rogers, associate general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. ``It's a way to say, `We have the power to make this happen - and you don't.'''

Power. Control. Defiance of court rulings. Such aggression from people who were supposedly taught to behave otherwise.

``The `us against them' approach hardly lives up to the love and compassion that Christ called His people to live by,'' writes Derek H. Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Relations at Baylor University, in an editorial for the Journal of Church and State. ``In the end, Christians' greatest priority should be the gospel, not creating a Christian state. The result might be a more but never completely Christian culture, but one achieved through persuasion, not law.''

Jesus didn't care one nit about creating a Christian nation. He was about creating Christians. He neither asked nor expected the government to help him in that mission. It wasn't his way, or his intention, for one's walk in faith to happen by coercion.

Jill ``J.R.'' Labbe is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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