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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