Why Are Some People so Uptight about School Prayer?

If you look at the rules, it’s a non-issue. As SCOTUS has made crystal clear, the rights of students in public schools to pray and read prayerfully from their Bibles have never been in question. Yet as Cavan Concannon pointed out recently, the issue still causes hi anxiety among some conservative evangelical activists. Why?SOTL

As Concannon points out, conservative groups such as Focus on the Family still ring alarm bells whenever there is a misunderstanding. As one FoF spokesperson warned recently,

How would you respond if one of these scenarios happened to your child, or to a student in your youth group? . . .

  • 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.

Not fiction, sure, but also not all that scary, once you read more about the stories. In one, the school district quickly apologized. In another the teacher said it didn’t happen. Still, there is no reason why students should have to even explain themselves. Their prayers should be un-challenged by their schools. The FoF folks are 100% right when they say, “schools should be celebrating these [prayer] rights and educating students about them, not stifling them.” Students have every right to pray and read the Bible in their public schools, as long as they don’t disrupt the day-to-day functioning of that school.

So what’s the problem?

That’s just it. In spite of the hi anxiety expressed by groups such as FoF, there isn’t really a problem. We do not see—contrary to FoF claims—“more news headlines like these every year.” We do not see—and I’ve been looking!—evidence that public-school districts are scheming to keep students from exercising their religious rights. We do not see, in short, any evidence that the “religious freedom” of conservative evangelical students is under attack.

So why do so many conservative activsts say that it is?

I’ve got a hunch. For the past century, America’s public schools have been moving in fits and starts toward a more secular dynamic. In the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, the so-called anti-evolution campaign was often actually an attempt to install frankly theocratic regime in public schools. One “anti-evolution” bill considered in Kentucky, for example, would actually have done a lot more than ban evolution. One amendment specified that Kentucky’s public libraries could not contain any books that

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

That’s right. Back in 1922, conservative evangelical activists didn’t only want their religion included; they wanted it to utterly dominate.

By the 1960s, conservative evangelical activists had long abandoned any hope of taking sweeping control of public institutions. But many were still shocked when SCOTUS ruled in 1963 that teachers could not lead students in the Lord’s Prayer or devotional Bible reading. Consider—as just one example—the fiery sermon delivered by The Rev. Ray Chamberlin on September 8, 1963, at Faith Baptist Church, Cynthiana, Kentucky, as reported in John R. Rice’s Sword of the Lord newspaper.

The problem, Chamberlin preached, was that public schools in America were meant to be Christian. As he put it,

Since the earliest days of our educational system in one-room log cabins, the Bible has been read and prayer has been made to the God of the Bible.

The recent SCOTUS rulings, Chamberlin warned, had thrown that worthy system into the garbage.

What was the solution? Chamberlin liked Alabama Governor George Wallace’s aggressive approach. If public schools stopped reading the Bible, he promised to go to that school and read it himself. Let them send in the troops if they wanted to.

But that’s just it. No one sent in troops. No one is hunting down religious students—Left Behind style—and forcing them to give up their prayer groups. With a few exceptions such as the ones FoF described above, religious students of all backgrounds are praying in their public schools if they want to.

I think the real problem comes from the unique history of conservative evangelical religion in America’s public schools. For good reason, conservative activists feel that they have lost something. As they repeat so often, evangelical Christianity really did serve as the de facto religion in a lot of America’s public schools. When schools act in secular ways, conservative evangelicals feel like they have been usurped, abused, mistreated.

Unlike other religious groups, conservative evangelicals feel like they were kicked out of public schools unfairly. It’s not that they actually are denied many of their rights as citizens. No, it’s more that they sometimes are treated like every other kind of citizen. Namely, they are welcome to express their religion in public schools, but they can no longer expect those schools to give their religion a special place.


Required Reading: Growing Up Un-Absurd with The Sword of the Lord

How can we get along with fundamentalists if we don’t embrace fundamentalism?  More specifically, how can we tolerate religious people who will not tolerate others?

Many voluble ex-fundamentalists out there (see a few examples here and here) wrestle with this question.  Some are angry, some bemused, some both.

Andrew Himes’ Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Seattle: Chiara Press, 2011),  offers a unique vision into the world of both fundamentalism and ex-fundamentalism.

Himes is the grandson of John R. Rice.  He was born in 1950 into one of the leading families of post-World War II fundamentalism.  The Reverend Rice led the branch of separatist, revival-based conservative Protestant evangelicalism, the branch that clung resolutely to the label ‘fundamentalist.’  In this sense, Himes’ meaning of ‘fundamentalism’ differs from the broader, cultural traditionalist definition we use at ILYBYGTH.

Himes broke bitterly with his family tradition in high school, but over the years, he came to embrace a more complicated relationship with his family’s vision of fundamentalism.  As Himes puts it, his grandfather remained “one of the kindest, funniest, and most honorable people I knew.”  But Rice also embraced “downright silly” notions of cultural separatism—no card playing, no movies, no short hair for women.  Even worse, Himes argues, his grandfather supported racial injustice in America and imperialist injustices in Southeast Asia. (5) The central dilemma for Himes is the same as it is for ILYBYGTH: How can we love someone whose ideas and policies seem so radically different from our own?

In his attempt to understand fundamentalism and his family, Himes tells the long story of evangelicalism in American history.  Indeed, those familiar with American religious history can safely skip the second and third parts of Himes’ tale.  Himes writes with an engaging style, weaving his own experiences into this long history.  However, his reliance on secondary sources leads him to make a few minor errors.  For instance, he repeats the story that John Scopes of the 1925 “monkey” trial had been teaching evolution for years, (179) when in fact Scopes had a very tenuous record of classroom teaching at all.  Also, Himes overstates the novelty of the Scopes trial in 1925. (180)  By that time, the notion of a media-grabbing “Trial of the Century” had been pioneered by the experiences of dramatic stories like Leopold and Loeb.  These are minor missteps in a tale that sweeps centuries of American history.  However, Himes’ book is also marred somewhat by a number of distracting typos and unclear footnotes.

These quibbles aside, Sword of the Lord is a great introduction to the world of separatist “Big-F” fundamentalism in the later twentieth century.  ILYBYGTH readers will likely appreciate several contributions of Himes’ work.

First of all, the intimate world of John R. Rice offers an eye-opening perspective into life in fundamentalist America.  To cite just one example, Himes tells the story of his childhood spent with colorful evangelists such as C.B. “Red” Smith and Apostle the Premillennial Horse.  This passage is so revealing I’ll quote it at length:

The summer after I turned 12 [c. 1962], C. B. “Red” Smith came to the Bill Rice Ranch and brought along Apostle the Premillennialist Horse.  On the first night of the camp meeting in the open-air tabernacle at the Ranch, Brother Smith himself stepped up to the pulpit and led the singing for the first gospel song.  He was a tall man with curly brown hair, a pink, whiskerless face, and laugh wrinkles around his eyes.  He tilted back his head on the high notes and pointed his chin down at the floor on the low notes, and held back nothing.

            “When we ALLLL get to heaven,” sang Brother Smith, “what a DAY of rejoicing that will BE!  When we ALLLLL see Jesus, we’ll SING and SHOUT the victorEEEEE!”. . .

            “We’ve got a guest speaker in the house tonight,” said Brother Smith with a big grin that showed off a gold-capped tooth.  “He’s a good friend of mine, and he’s come all the way from Jonesboro, Arkansas.” . . .

“Please allow me to introduce Apostle the Premillennialist Horse,” said Brother Smith with a twinkle in his eye.  “Apostle, say hello to all the folks out here.” . . .

            “All right now, Apostle,” said Brother Smith, “what’s our chapter and verse for tonight?”

            Apostle tossed his head, then picked up his right forefoot and stomped deliberately, four times in a row. . . . Apostle shook his head, cocked his ears as if considering, then began stomping his foot again, with Brother Smith counting right along with him: “One, two, three . . . fourteen, fifteen sixteen! Amen!  So that’s Thessalonians chapter four, verse sixteen, is it Apostle?” . . .

            My great-uncle Bill Rice stepped up to the pulpit, waved to the woman seated at the piano, and launched into a spirited rendition of an old revival favorite: “Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me!”

In addition to this kind of illuminating vignette of life growing up in a fundamentalist family, Himes also illustrates the difficulties of changing cultural identities.  For Himes, rejecting fundamentalism meant more than an intellectual decision.  It was more than a theological awakening.  He remembers spending teenaged hours “staring at the animals in the Racine [Wisconsin] Zoo behind rusting iron bars in their drab concrete cages.  I woke in the early morning hours crying piteously, half-remembering the fragments of a dream in which lost souls were dying and God was among the missing.”  (141)

In his youth, Himes swung to the opposite cultural pole, embracing Maoism and leftist radicalism.  In the end, he concluded that he had only “traded in one form of fundamentalism for another, equally rigid, dogmatic, and wrongheaded.” (294)  As a teenager, though, Himes’ transformation pushed him into a “deep pit of self-righteousness and suicidal despair.” (266)

Finally, Himes’ book offers a sympathetic yet critical biography of Himes’ grandfather John R. Rice.  Himes implies that Rice’s doctrinal rigidity may have been a result of his hardscrabble origins.  After all, a childhood spent motherless, left alone to tend for stock animals every year at Christmas, might have led to what Himes calls Rice’s childhood “fear of death and hell—an unsaved boy confronting the terrors of solitude and unknown dangers in a little house under the arc of the great Texas skies.” (105)  That kind of analysis may make sense in Rice’s case, but it doesn’t help us understand the strength and durability of separatist fundamentalism in America.  After all, many ardent fundamentalists had no such childhood, yet they embrace a strict doctrinal orthodoxy.

Childhood trauma aside, Himes offers a fascinating glimpse into his grandfather’s intellectual world.  For instance, Rice was a relative moderate on issues such as race.  In Rice’s time and place, that meant an eventual disavowal of the vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan.  It meant an insistence that God created all people equally.  But it did not include an embrace of social equality or of the Civil Rights Movement.  As Himes describes, Rice condemned the grisly murder of Emmett Till as a result of interfering activist African Americans. (258)

Rice was also a firm cultural traditionalist, insisting consistently on traditional family life, aggressive anti-communist foreign policies, and anti-abortion activism.  Finally, Himes chronicles the many splits and dissensions among conservative evangelical Protestants.  Rice eventually broke with Billy Graham over Graham’s ecumenism.  Later, Bob Jones Jr. broke with Rice for Rice’s willingness to be yoked with non-fundamentalists.

Those hoping to get the flavor of life in this fundamentalist subculture would do well to read Himes’ book.  By the time of his writing, Himes had overcome much of his bitterness against his grandfather’s faith.  Himes succeeds in his effort to paint a loving portrait without endorsing his grandfather’s ideas.

In the News: “Gay” Is not Slander in NY

In a story from my new hometown, a New York appellate court ruled recently that it no longer counted as slander to falsely accuse someone of being homosexual.  In this case, a woman spread a rumor that Mark Yonaty was gay in order to get his girlfriend to break up with him.  Yonaty sued and lost.  As the New York Times reported, the appeals court threw out earlier rulings in Yonaty’s favor, saying they were “based on a false premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”

What does this mean for Fundamentalist America?  On one hand, it could mean that FA will find itself more marginalized if it maintains its opposition to homosexual sex and relationships.  Some conservative groups, for instance James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, emphasize love and care for those engaging in homosexual behavior or identifying as homosexuals, even while condemning all sex outside of marriage, especially including gay sex. 

Other FA voices keep up harder-edged language against homosexuality.  A recent article by Bryan Fischer, for instance, on Rightly Concerned, affiliated with the American Family Association, notes that America must discriminate against homosexuals not out of hate but out of love.  However, Fischer also compares healthy anti-homosexual discrimination to other healthy forms of discrimination:

We discriminate against adults, even priests, who have sex with children. We discriminate against teachers who have affairs with students. We discriminate against teachers who moonlight in the porn industry. We discriminate against students who engage in sexting. We discriminate against rapists. We discriminate against those who expose sexual partners unknowingly to the AIDS virus. We discriminate against those adults who commit statutory rape against minors.

If the recent ruling from Albany is a bellwether for the direction of mainstream American culture–and that’s a big if–then Fischer’s type of argument is swimming upstream.  If it is no longer an insult to call someone ‘gay,’ then it will make no sense legally, politically, or culturally to discriminate against homosexuality. 

There’s another lesson we can draw from this article.  At least one gay-rights activist has warned that this decision must not be taken as the end of discrimination against homosexuality.  As the UK’s Daily Mail reported, New York activist Jay Blotcher insisted that being identified as gay could still summon up “something akin to a lynching mob” in parts of the country.  “It’s still a thorny issue,” Blotcher said. “Bottom line, just because you have gay characters on television that make everybody laugh doesn’t mean that the entire country embraces gay people as equal citizens yet.”

Blotcher’s comments illuminate one of the most puzzling aspects of these kinds of “culture-war” debates.  Instead of celebrating the achievement of mainstream acceptability for homosexuality, Blotcher emphasizes the continuing persecution of homosexuals.  Like Blotcher, many voices from FA insist on their own status as beleaguered cultural minorities.  This tradition among American Protestantism has long roots, back to the seventeenth-century persecution of “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” that led in part to the founding of New England.  In the twentieth century, fundamentalist activists have often used Blotcher’s language of continuing discrimination to defend the borders of Fundamentalist America.     

To cite just one example, in 1965 in the wake of the US Supreme Court rulings against school-sponsored religious devotions in public schools, fundamentalist editor and publisher John R. Rice insisted that “White Minorities Have Rights, Too.”  In the pages of his Sword of the Lord magazine (volume 31, September 3, 1965, page 1), Rice asked,

“If Christian people do not have a right to have the Bible taught in the schools, then infidels have no right to teach infidelity in the schools . . . . Why not have freedom in America as much for one minority as another?  Why not observe the rights of white people as well as the rights of Negroes?  Why not observe the rights of nonunion workers as much as the rights of union workers?  Why not observe the rights of Bible believers as well as the rights of the infidels in the churches and infidels in courts or schools?” 

Just as Jay Blotcher warned not to remove homosexuality from the category of defended minorities, so fundamentalists such as Rice insisted that they be allowed to claim minority status.  One of the quirks of America’s culture wars is that both sides often claim the rights and privileges of both majority AND minority status.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to understand the continuing propensity of fundamentalists to do both at the same time.    


The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp

If we listen to the voices of Fundamentalist America, we might conclude that public schools in America are terrible places to be.  Twenty years ago, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research warned that public schools had become “aggressively anti-Christian.”  The problems, Morris declared, went beyond the obvious:

Open drug sales and use, ethnic gang wars, and student/teacher violence are easily recognized problems, but how about the more subtle attempts at “values clarification,” or the encouragement of experimentation in “sex education” classes, or the inclusion of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, or easy access to abortions through school clinics.

Other conservative Christian activists agree.  Thirty years ago, Jerry Combee wrote,

the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

More recently, activists involved in the Exodus Mandate have warned that public schools “are no more reformable than Soviet collective farms. . . . Conservative school reformers are a lot like Civil War reenactors who specialize in Pickett’s Charge.  They never take the high ground; they never really win.”

This staggering decline in the quality of public schools began, many conservatives insist, when the US Supreme Court kicked God out of schools in 1962 and 1963.  In 1962, as we’ve seen, the court decreed that states could not impose a non-sectarian prayer in public schools.  More devastating to many conservative Christians, in 1963 the court ruled in the decision Abington Township School District v. Schempp that even Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer had no legitimate place in those schools.

Despite what many outsiders might think, the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism in America is truly kaleidoscopic, to borrow the phrase of religious historian Timothy L. Smith.  Different schools of thought among Bible believers disagree vehemently on questions of politics, culture, and theology.  Ask twenty “fundamentalists” what the Bible means and you’ll get at least twenty different answers.  Yet when it came to the Schempp decision, a variety of voices from around this diverse world all agreed.  This decision meant not only that God had been kicked out of public schools, but that Christianity itself had been kicked out of American public life.

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Schempp decision, separatist Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire still hoped that concerted political action might overturn it.  McIntire helped organize “Project America” to press politicians to adopt a Constitutional amendment in favor of prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  At first, McIntire repeatedly stressed his feeling that huge majorities of Americans would support such an amendment.  After a bitter political fight, however, McIntire acknowledged that it was hopeless.  Writers in McIntire’s Christian Beacon began to emphasize the notion that their beliefs made them a beleaguered minority in American life.  In 1965 one writer warned that America was “moving farther and farther from its Christian heritage.”  Another predicted that soon mainstream Americans would resort to “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

Other evangelical voices made similar about-faces in the aftermath of Schempp.  Baptist fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice reflected that the relationship between evangelical faith and public schooling had changed drastically.  He recounted for his readers how things had been radically different in the not-too-distant past:

Once when I was engaged in revival services in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I was invited to speak in every high school in the city and in the principal grade schools, both white and colored, and was gladly received.  The only people offended were those involved in the few elementary schools where I could not come for lack of time. 

Such halcyon days, however, had been destroyed by the cowardly Supreme Court.  Worst of all, Rice concluded, the court seemed to have the support of “the public sentiment.”

This sense of a drastic and sudden shift in the relationship between evangelical belief and public life was widely shared among all different sorts of conservative evangelical Protestants in the aftermath of Schempp.  One writer in the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly, for example, concluded that evangelicals must retreat to play the role of God’s “witnesses and lights in a dark place” in mainstream American culture.

Similarly, the intellectuals at Christianity Today articulated their shock and dismay of the implications of Schempp. At first, the editors believed that America’s “devout masses” still supported school prayer.  As did other evangelicals, however, they concluded bitterly that “In the schools secularization has triumphed.”  Instead of relying on devout masses, the editors soon hoped only to energize the “believing remnant” in America to support Bible-reading and prayer in public schools.

As we’ll see in future posts, the Schempp decision might not have had the drastic impact many of these writers assumed at the time.  Nevertheless, the degree of unanimity among a wide variety of conservative evangelical Protestants is remarkable.  From separatist fundamentalists to more ecumenical neo-evangelicals, prominent voices all agreed that this momentous decision had done more than just kicked God out of public schools.  In their opinions, Schempp had forced a sudden recalculation of the role of Bible believers in all of American public life.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part III: What thunderbolt?