WASHINGTON -- There is no issue on which public opinion is more affirmative than the desire for a moment of prayer every day in the public schools. Nonetheless, the powerful minority of people who want no scheduled prayer in the schools insists on preventing it.
For myself, if I did not believe in God, I would think prayer was a useless waste of mental energy in its own terms but was perhaps of some utilitarian use to those who turn to it -- like athletes who pray before a crucial test to concentrate their mental energy.If I were an atheist, I do not think I would worry about my children being intimidated by the prayer of others. I would tell them what it felt like to be a Roman Catholic in my youth in a public school, where the prayers were distinctly Protestant and the atmosphere could not help being genteelly anti-Catholic. (What else do words like "Enlightenment" and "Protestant" mean?)
My father instructed me to hold my chin up and silently provide my own words where the public ones seemed wrong. Being in a minority is good, he said; it will make you stronger. Commitment should cost you something.
If I were an atheist, I would teach my kids how empty prayer is, tell them to respect others and encourage them to think against the crowd, as all good and strong people often have to do. Teaching children to grow strong by silently thinking that prayer is not for them, after all, is not a heavy assignment. It has the additional effect of teaching them respect for American pluralism and an appreciation of their own uniqueness.
So much for prayer in schools causing some to feel left out. Everything in school causes someone to feel left out.
But there is the further myth of "establishing religion." For a state to "establish" a religion (which is unconstitutional) takes some heavy lifting. Permitting a moment of prayer in the public schools doesn't do it and didn't do it for the more than 120 years between the founding of the public schools (in about 1840) and the concerted attempt to secularize them that began some 40 years ago.
The prayers that were once a part of our public education reflected a generic, majority vision -- a vision with deep roots in the nation's founding principles.
Indeed, the constitutions of most states -- Massachusetts, for example -- not only permitted prayer in the schools but mandated religious instruction, and mandated it so strongly that the state supplied financial aid for those schools that could not afford it.
In 1780, some in Massachusetts protested that this provision trespassed on their consciences. Not at all, John Adams replied. You don't have to believe anything you don't want to believe. But if you benefit from the good morals and sound public order that (experience shows) will result, you must help to pay for it.
Nonetheless, prayer in the schools seems to alarm those who would prefer the establishment of a totally secular frame of reference, no matter what the majority deserves. Although they may say that prayer is essentially meaningless, so much wasted breath or mental energy, that isn't really how they feel about it. It positively threatens them.
These powerful feelings lead some unbelievers to resist pluralism in this area utterly, and to make the schools over totally in their own secular image. They want the entire public square to reflect their monolithic views, and only their views.
John Adams predicted almost two centuries ago that one day atheists would try to impose their views on others, exactly as factions of believers had done in earlier times. That's human nature, he said.
He believed that Jefferson's anti-religious bigotry (even fiercer against Jews than against Christians) engendered a naive trust in the benevolence of his own faction, the enlightened. The totalizing ambition of the nonreligious, which Adams foresaw, is exactly what we are experiencing today. It is a great sin against pluralism -- one more in a long record of such sins.
The problem we now face is really a problem inherent in pluralism. In practically every area imaginable -- politics, ethics, the arts, history, philosophy, social ideology -- citizens in pluralistic cultures disagree. Usually, we seek out pragmatic means of mutual adjustment so that no one totalizing world view is imposed on all.
Couldn't we all find a more pragmatic way in this tiny area of a moment of prayer in schools? Let me try two practical suggestions.
First, we could choose a prayer (or prayers) that was of great historical significance to the public life of the founding generation; for instance, one of the Psalms conspicuously cited by Lincoln, Washington or Jefferson.
An example: the first act of the First Continental Congress was a motion for prayer after news had arrived that the British were shelling Boston and war might be imminent. That prayer turned out to be the 37th Psalm.
The Psalms tend to unite people. They have the advantage of being favorite prayers of generations of Jews, Christians and even humanists who read them rather as poetry than as prayers.
Second, a blue-ribbon committee could create a book of 200 or so "Favorite Prayers of the American People," one for each day of the school year, representing every religious and ethnic tradition, including Ethical Humanists.
Taking turns going through such prayers day by day would inform children of the immense and beautiful variety of the life of the spirit among Americans. Some children could actually pray the prayers, while others might listen to them merely as moments of history of an uplifting sort.
For Jews and Christians, prayer is a conversation with their Creator -- "the Love that moves the sun and all the stars," Dante wrote -- and a break from the humdrum of the everyday. In schools or other public places, "prayer" can be a moment to recollect the context of the American experiment, as described in the Declaration of Independence. For therein Jefferson included two names for God. And Congress, before being willing to sign it, added two more.
Jefferson's two names for God were Lawgiver and Creator ("laws of nature and nature's God" and "endowed by their Creator"). The two names added by Congress were Providence and Judge ("with a firm reliance on divine Providence" and "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions").
The state does not grant us our rights. These are endowed in us from depths far beyond the powers of mere states to effect. Unbelievers may not give to these depths the same name that believers do. Yet it will not hurt us, believers and nonbelievers, to take part in the same brief rituals that direct our eyes to these depths.
Where there are words about God, the nonbeliever can fill in the blanks with non-theistic content. Even the nonbeliever appeals to a cosmic vision -- of progress, say, or justice. Since nonbelievers feel comfortable with the Declaration of Independence, perhaps they can come to feel comfortable with a school prayer couched in the language of the Declaration.
Perhaps something like this:
Creator, who has endowed in us our inalienable rights, God of nature and nature's laws, undeceivable Judge of the rectitude of our intentions, we have a firm reliance upon the protection of divine Providence, which you have extended over our nation from its beginnings. Amen.
One thing I am sure of. We are a wise, generous and practical people, and sooner rather than later we will have the wit to find a solution we can all live with. School prayer is a relatively small and manageable problem, highly emotional though it has become in our time.
Michael Novak is a theologian at the American Enterprise Institute.