In the News: Missouri Voters Pass School Prayer Amendment

This just in: Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2.  OzarksFirst reports that the Constitutional Amendment received over 80% support yesterday at the polls.

Those who’ve been following this story know that the amendment is largely symbolic.  It guarantees people in Missouri the right to pray in public–especially including public schools–as long as their prayers do not bother anyone else.  This right has already been established by the US Supreme Court.  The kinds of school prayer deemed unconstitutional by SCOTUS in the 1960s were those imposed by the state and led by a teacher or school official.  The right of students to pray on their own has never been constitutionally threatened.

However, politicians and activists have long insisted that SCOTUS kicked God out of public schools.  This amendment is meant as a sort of line in the sand.  Fundamentalist Missouri wants to make it clear that students may pray in public schools.  Some voters have surely been traumatized by horror stories of students being suspended for Christian statements.  Teachers such as Bradley Johnson in California have claimed persecution when they have not been allowed to display religious messages in their public-school classrooms.

These sorts of highly publicized skirmishes inspired Missouri’s move.  As the sponsor of the amendment Mike McGhee explained in a National Public Radio story ,

“We are a religious country, and we want to take our country back, and we want to pray to God, and we can gather around the flagpole and say something to Jesus in our minds and in our hearts and it’s going to be okay.”

As everyone knows, in culture-war battles, symbolism matters.  Political moves like Missouri’s Amendment 2 help marshal the sides, force people to declare for one or the other.  In Missouri, this has meant, for instance, the public support of Catholic bishops for the amendment.  As McGhee argued, Fundamentalist America feels a powerful need to “take our country back.”

Can students now pray in Missouri’s public schools?  Yes.  Could they have before this constitutional amendment?  Yes.  But that doesn’t mean the amendment isn’t important.  To observers like those at ILYBYGTH, votes like the one yesterday in Missouri demonstrate the continuing power of Fundamentalist America.

Missouri Loves Company: Catholics in Fundamentalist America

Missouri’s Catholic Bishops support Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment.  In a recent statement, the Missouri Catholic Conference supported Amendment 2, which will go before voters on August 7.  The bishops’ statement argued that the amendment would ensure religious people’s rights in the public square.  As they put it:

“Increasingly, it seems, religious values are becoming marginalized in our society. People of faith need assurance that they remain free to exercise and express their religious beliefs in public, provided just order be observed, without threat of external pressure to conform to changing societal ‘norms’.”

For some, this defense of public religiosity by Catholic bishops seems unremarkable.  But from a historical perspective, this Catholic endorsement of religion in public schools signals a shocking turnaround in the history of religious life in America.

In the nineteenth century, after all, intense Catholic political pressure led to “Bible Wars” in public schools.  For many Protestants, the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in public schools seemed natural.  As Steven Green has argued in his new book, these nineteenth-century battles determined much of the role of public religion long into the twentieth century.

This history of Catholic protest against a Protestant-dominated public religiosity resulted in lingering anti-Catholic animus on the part of many conservative Protestants.  In the 1928 Presidential election, for example, self-described Protestant fundamentalists vehemently opposed Al Smith’s candidacy in the Democratic Party due to Smith’s Catholicism.

Yet even in the 1920s, we can see connections between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants.  William Jennings Bryan tried hard to recruit Catholic anti-evolution writer Alfred  McCann to testify at the Scopes trial, for instance.  These connections received a boost in the 1950s with the strengthening of anti-communism on the Right.  And Catholics such as William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly assumed new leadership roles in the postwar conservative revival.

By the 1970s, the issue of abortion fused even stronger connections between conservative Catholics and Protestants.  As Daniel K. Williams has argued, abortion politics brought pro-life Catholics into the fold of the “New Christian Right.”

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops demonstrates how seamless these connections have become.  Early 1920s fundamentalism in America often included a virulent anti-Catholicism.  But by 2012, we need to include conservative Catholics in any sensible study of conservative religion in American public life.

Some readers have objected to ILYBYGTH’s broad definition of “Fundamentalist America.”  And they are right: “fundamentalism” in the American context usually refers to one subset of conservative evangelical Protestants.  But if we hope to understand the broad sweep of conservative religious activism in America, if we want to talk about the conservative side of America’s culture wars over the proper role of religion in the public square, we need to include a much broader coalition of religious groups.  Not only conservative Catholics, but also Pentecostals, Orthodox Jews, Mennonites, conservative Lutherans, and others who don’t fit within the smaller boundaries of small-f fundamentalism.

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops is just further proof of how the times are a-changing.  When conservative Catholics can get behind an amendment protecting religion’s role in public schools, we know the old Catholic/Protestant split has become largely irrelevant.