The school prayer controversy has festered for years now. Christian routinely complain that they cannot pray in schools because of court rulings to enforce separation of church and state.
Predictably many outside Christianity wonder how it is that prayer can be prevented since it is a individual dialogue between an individual and their god. I think this points out that the issue of school prayer for many is not about being able to pray at all. Instead it is about being able to pray out loud in public.
I suspect that the opponents of public prayers react to that exercise about like Jesus reacted to the praying Pharisee of Luke 18. Public prayers, whether in church or elsewhere, are veiled sermonettes, designed to propagate Christian dogma. Christian proselytizing through public prayer is too obviously an attempt to promote Christian doctrine in situations where the audience has no voice in whether they care to be involved. Non-Christians rightfully see it that way. Change the name of the religion and Christians would be up in arms.
I have heard it boldly stated that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. This is just someone’s attempt to justify their own attempts at religious indoctrination of outsiders. Our society is so permeated with the tenets and assumptions of Orthodox Christianity that there is no way that anyone can be shielded from its theology. But at the very least non-Christians should not have to put up with another dose of Christian dogma in a public forum. As long as the institutional church hangs on to hellfire and eternal punishment, every Christian prayer carries that message in the background. Sweet sounding words about love count for nothing as long as hell is threatened.
Jesus warned his disciples against public prayers. He instructed them to pray in private. If Christians in school want to pray in accordance with what Jesus taught, they are perfectly able, despite any governmental restrictions. Their private dialogue with God does not need to be broadcast to the world.
Given the above we all might wonder how public prayer became such a solid part of Christian practice. Prayers in the church service, prayers at funerals and weddings, prayers over restaurant meals, prayers must end with “in Jesus name. Where are the examples of the disciples praying out loud as a sacred ritual? Where is the one example of a public prayer ending with the words “in Jesus name”. All these exercises have become woven into Christianity by surmise and tradition. There is scant biblical support for this and decided biblical opposition for public prayer by those who follow Jesus.
If I were to take Jesus seriously, I’d conclude that what we know as public prayer is not prayer at all. If Jesus defined prayer as a private dialogue with God, then there is no such thing as praying aloud in public. No privacy in that.
Paul said pray without ceasing. Was that public prayer? Hardly. Ceaseless prayer has to be an on-going frame of mind, not a verbal exercise.
Eloquent public prayers can be inspiring for sure, but I believe Jesus understood how easily such an exercise becomes a ritualistic display of one’s own righteousness. For him, prayer was a personal talk with God, not another form of Christian sermon with every head bowed and every eye closed.