Why Would Trump Talk about School Prayer?

On the face of it, the statement was meaningless, or even weirdly insulting to evangelical activists. Yet President Trump announced yesterday that he was taking “historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools.” If students already had that right, why would Trump bother?Trump prayer anncment tweetThis move is not a new one for Trump. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall he made similarly meaningless promises to defend the use of the Bible in public schools. In his announcement yesterday, Trump declared,

in public schools around the country, authorities are stopping students and teachers from praying, sharing their faith, or following their religious beliefs. It is totally unacceptable.

Such a statement might seem ill-advised. After all, Trump has always bent over backwards to court support from evangelical Protestants. And evangelicals have long bent over backwards to prove that students DO have the right to pray, share their faith, and follow their religious beliefs in public schools.

For example, the See-You-At-The-Pole movement is all about demonstrating students’ continuing right to pray in their public schools. One might think that these evangelical activists would be offended at Trump’s assumption that they have not been praying in schools already.

I don’t think they will. Instead, I think a lot of MAGA Christians assume that their children are under threat. And to be fair, if you were to read only MAGA/Christian news, you’d get plenty of support for that mistaken notion.

Consider a couple of examples of the things some conservative Christians are hearing. Organizations such as Focus on the Family warn readers of experiences like the following:

  • A father expresses concern after his daughter, a high school student, tells him an education official stopped her from bowing her head to silently pray before eating lunch.

  • A fifth-grade student brought his favorite book, the Bible, with him to class to read during a free reading period. But according to news reports, the teacher had him come up to her desk and, in front of the class, left a message for his parent explaining that she noticed he had a religious book and was not “permitted to read those books” in her classroom.

Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction.

Or what about the sad story of ten-year-old Erin Shead? Erin was told by her teacher to think about her hero. She did. It was God. But then her teacher told Erin that God could not be her hero.god-is-my-hero

We could go on. Plenty of conservative Christians read stories like this and they fret about the state of prayer in America’s public schools. They might even send their own kids to public schools like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana, where old-fashioned evangelical Christianity still dominates the school. As the superintendent in Greenwood explained,

I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values.

What does Greenwood, Indiana have to do with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I don’t want to accuse President Trump of thinking strategically, but I think his announcement about school prayer might make political sense even if it makes no policy sense.

Yes, students are free to pray in their public schools if they want. And plenty of public schools—like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana—incorporate Christian values deeply into everything they do. It doesn’t really matter. When Trump voters read that a fourth-grader got in trouble for announcing that God was her hero, Trump wins. And when voters read that school officials are stopping students from praying, Trump wins.

It doesn’t matter that students actually have plenty of prayer rights already. Trump stumbled onto an issue that matters to a lot of people. Students’ right to pray is beyond dispute. But people still think it is under attack.

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3 Comments

  1. LisaM

     /  January 17, 2020

    And just remember that by edict from Trump, people are now allowed to say Merry Christmas again! Merry Christmas never went away, lots of people just decided to use Happy Holidays instead to include everyone.

    Reply
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