Praise The Lord And Pass The Amendment by Judith Hayes (April 1996)

Ayoung friend recently acquired her first teaching job, as a third-grade teacher, in our rural school district. Starry-eyed and idealistic, she was bubbling about all of her glorious plans for guiding these young, impressionable minds. When asked what she would do if she were forced to lead those young minds in a daily morning prayer, she looked stunned, then amused, then quickly dismissed the whole idea with a derisive chuckle and that supreme confidence found only in the young. It could never happen here, she assured me. (Didn’t Americans say that same thing just before the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 50s?)

When pressed for an answer, though, my young friend responded confidently that she would simply refuse to lead prayers in her classroom. And if her refusal meant her dismissal? Her confidence wavered, she looked thoughtful and puzzled, but she had no reply.

Many of us forget the fact that teachers are not in charge of their classrooms. School Boards are. And these have been systematically and successfully targeted by the Religious Right all across the country. These Christian fundamentalists are organized, they are determined, and they seem to be winning. State after state is endorsing voucher plans for private, religious schools, “creationism” is being taught in public classrooms, and prayers are being allowed in those same classrooms. If ever the phrase “slippery slope” could be applied properly, this is it. To say that these examples are the exceptions, not the rule, is the same as saying that there are only a few ants on the picnic basket.

Many people have told me that such examples are rare and isolated, so there is no need to worry. Unhappily, the people telling me this are freethinkers. But according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, there were 205 conflicts over church/state entanglement issues in 1995 alone. We are in the middle of a quiet revolution, and most of us don’t even know it.

Unbelievable as it may seem, today, in 1996, the United States Congress is considering constitutional amendments that would provide for “student-sponsored prayer” in public schools, and for the government to acknowledge “the religious heritage, beliefs or traditions of the people” and would forbid the government to discriminate “against religious expression or belief.” One of these amendments is disingenuously named “The Religious Equality Amendment.”

Equality? I think not.

The ego-blinded Christians pushing for this fail to consider that there are other religions. Shall a Jewish minority be forced to listen to Christian prayers in a public school? Shall a Protestant minority be forced to listen to “Hail, Marys?” Shall Christian minorities be forced to listen to Muslim prayers?

Let’s follow this through. To begin with, “student-sponsored” prayers are a laughable smoke screen. Most students don’t even want to be in school, let alone pray in it. But if “religious expression” may not be discriminated against, then in a multicultural school, Protestant students will have to be allowed to offer their prayers, Catholics theirs, Jews theirs, Hindus theirs, and Buddhists theirs. Muslims must be allowed to answer their many calls to prayer during the school day. Native Americans must be allowed their forms of worship. And students who worship Bob The Rain God must be allowed to do their rain dances, twenty minutes before the hour, and twenty minutes after, all day long, on alternating Thursdays. (Bob’s a demanding god.)

Does the word “chaos” spring to mind here? Even without Bob The Rain God, schools will dissolve into madness if such a thing ever comes to pass. One senator said this problem could easily be solved just by letting the “majority” rule. Wait a minute here. In a democracy such as ours, we are fond of saying that the majority always rules. But that is not true. It rules, but only up to a point. If a state were to decide, by “majority rule,” that slavery should be reinstated, the Supreme Court will tell that “majority” just what it can do with its votes. The same must hold true for school prayer. It flies in the face of our Constitution, and I don’t care if you get 100% of the vote on the issue, you can’t have it, any more than you can have slavery. Why is this so difficult to understand?

Here we are, faced with a bankrupt Social Security program. Medicare is struggling and facing more cuts. We have no national health plan, and we aren’t even close to balancing our budget or reducing the federal deficit. Battered women’s shelters can’t be built or funded quickly enough, and more money is being spent on cocaine than on cleaning up the environment. Every single day, all over the world, children are dying of starvation. And what are our elected officials in Washington, D.C. doing? They are wrangling over the wording of not one, but two public prayer amendments. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. Am I the only one who sees this as insane?

Tolerance is a funny thing. Like a lot of good things, it has a price tag. “Live and let live” is tolerance at its finest; it is also a form of apathy. As a rule, freethinkers do not tend to band together in fervently committed groups, fighting passionately for emotionally charged causes. Compare that to a Jehovah’s Witness. In fact, the only issue I can think of that all freethinkers agree on is the separation issue. Other than that, we’re truly a mixed bag.

Picture a typical Billy Graham Crusade. That man could fill Madison Square Garden if his promoters had only three days to do it. He is a brilliant orator. If you get the chance to watch him, or someone like him, do so. But don’t watch the speaker. Study the audience. There is a hypnotized, mesmerized look to those people. Power is being wielded there.

This is the main difference between freethinkers and the blind-faith-follow-like-sheep Christians. I can think of nothing, outside of sporting events or musical concerts, that could bring thousands of freethinkers together, and, further, bring them to their feet in wild applause and tears of joy. Can you? Even if you got the best freethinking orator around, someone like Steve Allen, there is simply no way he could arouse our passions to that extent. “Separation now!” just doesn’t pack the same wallop as “Soldiers for Jesus!” Does it?

The horrific abuses of power that always accompany theocracies, from the Pharaohs to the Popes, have been clearly documented. Yet this God/Government marriage is the obvious goal of the Religious Right. But why? Do we never learn from history? And how would the Christians feel if the God/Government marriage turned out to be a Muslim ceremony?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our secular democracy is the most successful in history. Why can’t we leave it alone? The constant harping about returning to our country’s “Christian roots” is nonsense. We were never a Christian country. Our Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, saw fit to leave God out of our Constitution. And most of those early Fathers were not Christians (Paine, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Allen, Franklin).

They say that in order to win a battle you must know your enemy. But the enemies of church/state separation are difficult to “know.” They come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Their only common denominator, aside from their desire to put Jesus in our public schools, is that, unfortunately, they visit their voting booths more often than the rest of us.

So, while the Religious Right exhorts its members with cries of “Onward, Christian soldiers!” we kind of just sit around. According to a recent publication, there are close to 200 humanist groups around the country. This is fine, except that we are not uniting our voices and demanding to be heard. We are not rally-organizers. There are more of us than people realize, but until we unite our voices, and sing more choral pieces and fewer solos, we will not be heard.

However, in the meantime, there is one thing we can all do in the privacy of our own homes. And that is to study our ballots, paying careful attention to School Board races, and make sure we vote. It may not be enough to stop the Religious Right steamroller, but it’s better than nothing.

To paraphrase, all it takes for America to become a theocracy is for freethinkers to do nothing.

© 1996 by Judith Hayes

Judith Hayes is a freelance writer who lives in California with her husband. She has completed her first book, based on previous columns, which will be published by the Foundation. Any mail sent to her c/o Freethought Today will be forwarded.

Freedom From Religion Foundation