The Bible in America: The Thunderbolt, Part I: Engel v. Vitale

Lots of fundamentalists feel that America has foolishly kicked God out of its public schools.  Try a simple Google search of “God kicked out of public school,” and you will find an endless collection of news alerts, opinion pieces, and videos from fundamentalists decrying the de-theized state of public education.

Many of these fundamentalist pundits insist that the start of the breakdown of public religion and morality was the US Supreme Court’s decision in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale.  In this case, the court ruled that New York State had no Constitutional authority to impose a short, bland, state-written prayer in its public schools.  The prayer mushed along in a no-man’s-land of interdenominationalism: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Due to both the blandness of this prayer and its imposition by state authorities, though, most leading Protestant evangelicals at the time SUPPORTED the court’s decision.  As opposed to later conservatives who locate the start of America’s public decline at the precise moment of the 1962 anti-prayer decision, the majority of conservative evangelical Protestants in 1962 thought the court had made the right decision.  As I argue in an article appearing soon in the Journal of Religious History, leading evangelical and fundamentalist intellectuals in 1962 showed surprising unanimity in their approval of Engel v. Vitale.

For example, William Culbertson of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute praised the decision.  “The public as a whole,” Culbertson argued,

“and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.  On the other hand, the case raised the ominous question of whether any kind of non-sectarian prayer or acknowledgement of dependence on God would be upheld by the Court.”

The editors of Christianity Today agreed that much conservative reaction to Engel had been “ill-informed and intemperate.”  Similarly, the National Association of Evangelicals commended the court’s decision.  Even the separatist fundamentalist Carl McIntire, who would soon become the pointman for conservative Protestant school activism, told a US House of Representatives committee in 1964 that he had originally supported the 1962 decision.

Not every conservative Protestant intellectual supported the Engel ruling.  Samuel Sutherland, president of Biola University, attacked Engel as pandering to a “very small, loud-mouthed minority.”  The decision was a sign, Sutherland believed, that the US was becoming “an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These days, with the benefit of hindsight, most prominent fundamentalist voices agree with Sutherland.  But at the time, conservative Protestants of many different backgrounds thought the court had done the right thing.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp and the de-theization of America’s public schools.

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  1. Hi, Adam: Required reading on the topic includes: _Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America_ (2007). You can read a REV of the book at:

    Do you feel that the initial support for the court’s decision in 1962 among evangelicals and fundamentalists came out of a view that only those who believe can be teachers of Christianity and spirituality? I pose this question because in Canada, the Ontario government, right after World War II, rolled out a framework for Christian education in its K-12 schools to replace the one-half hour system of instruction that existed at the time. Fundamentalists opposed such a curriculum framework. They feared that the curriculum could sanitize. The result: a bland and uniform Christianity being taught to students that misses the intricacies of denominations within the faith. However, when the province eliminated the curriculum in the late-1960s, these same groups opposed the move. One could extrapolate from the opposition that there was now an attitude that any Christian education in public school was better than none at all. Cheers!! Jon

    • Thanks for the reference, Jon. And I certainly do think that US conservative evangelicals did not want a bland, ecumenical prayer. Many voiced exactly that sentiment: better to have non-Christian schools than schools that teach a false or misleading generic “religion.” As I’m sure you’re aware, Jon Zimmerman has a great chapter on Weekday Religious Education in Whose America. In that religion-in-schools fight, conservative Protestants fought hard–in the decades in which many folks still insist they were in “retreat” from public engagement–to be sure that the religious lessons in schools would be suitable to kids from evangelical families. But many conservative evangelicals also opposed the notion of the state imposing a prayer at all. My hunch is that such opposition would dwindle to almost-nothingness if the prayer itself had not been so bland, but at the time many evangelical intellectuals voiced their satisfaction with the Supreme Court for recognizing the state’s inability to impose a prayer of any kind.

  1. The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp « I Love You but You're Going to Hell
  2. Required Reading: Kicking God Out of Public Schools « I Love You but You're Going to Hell
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