The controversy over prayer in the schools strikes me as requiring some prayerful evaluation. Seemingly, anyone can pray in his or her heart at anytime and no one need even be aware. The proponents of prayer in the public schools seem not to be interested in the right to pray per se so much as in the right to public displays of piety, something that Jesus himself condemned in the Pharisees of his day.
The prayer in school debate seems often to center on the desire to invoke God’s blessing on some athletic activity, graduation ceremony, or other school-wide convocation. As noble as this may seem on the surface to the believers, it raises a multitude of questions that cannot be easily answered in our society. Who determines who prays, whom they pray to, and what they ask for? Is it edifying if a Muslim prays to Allah and a Christian is forced to listen? If it is to be a traditional Christian prayer, whose Christian tradition will we honor? The whole situation is divisive on the surface and seems no more appropriate than the action of the Pharisee who prayed loudly thanking God that he was not like the sinner next to him.
In particular, the idea of asking God to bless a football game strikes me as completely inappropriate. Why should God be interested in or concerned with competitive events like ballgames? Often this type prayer is justified by saying that God’s blessing is simply being invoked so all participants will be safe from harm during the game. There again, does it make sense to engage in an activity aimed at “ringing the opponent’s bell” and than to ask God to make the “bell ringing” temporary?
Some apparently see their local athletic struggles as some kind of metaphor for the classic struggle between “good” and “evil”, as if God was advancing his redemptive agenda through the work of the local team. Athletics are strictly a manmade source of entertainment though perhaps made almost sacred by years of cultural glorification. In reality athletic competition is in no way holy, spiritual, or necessarily even positive in effect. The effort to intertwine the spiritual with the physically competitive could not be more incongruous to the teachings of Christ where meekness, gentleness, humility, and love of one’s enemies are extolled. How far down the road to athletic success do you go on those virtues?
Graduation ceremonies and other school convocations can certainly be momentous events in the lives of our young people, marking significant milestones in their personal development. In that respect they stimulate personal reflection and introspection. These introspective moments would seem to be a more reasonable time for public prayer than an athletic event, but all the questions raised above still apply. If we publicly ask God to bless our young people on their special day, what does that imply about other young people not present and included in our requested blessing. Are they to be excluded from God’s blessing? Is God’s blessing there just waiting to be called down upon the many by the words of the pious few? Is that the way God operates? The bible says it rains on the just and the unjust. In the account of Job, a primary question was why the unrighteous prospered and the righteous suffered. If God’s blessing were there at anyone’s verbal beck and call, then such an outpouring of blessing would be transparent to all. My personal observation does not bare that out any more than that of Job.
In saying all this, I in no way deny or minimize God’s work in blessing mankind. I simply question man’s role in bringing about those blessings through pious acts, be they public prayer or whatever. God definitely works in and through our lives in many subtle ways. Being attuned to spiritual realities and wanting to commune with the Creator are positive virtues, but these attributes and desires require no public displays of piety nor any special legal or legislative action. Neither God nor the seeker of Him can be stymied in the pursuit of each other by those who may be disbelievers or adherents of other faiths. Therefore no governmental intervention is required to guarantee the right to prayer in school or any other public place. It is simply there already.