A prayer can be more than a prayer; it can be a manifestation of a person’s, or a people’s, overall orientation to life and the world. And a public school can be more than a school; as the institution primarily entrusted with imparting the essential values of the republic to future generations, it can be a site and symbol of the nation’s constitutive principles and aspirations.

So it should not be surprising that cases involving prayer in the public schools can provoke passionate reactions. When the Supreme Court invalidated the traditional practice of classroom prayer in the public schools in the early 1960s, the public reacted with outrage. Historian Bruce Dierenfield reports that the 1962 prayer ruling in Engel v. Vitale provoked “the greatest outcry against a Supreme Court decision in a century.” At a Conference of State Governors, every governor except one denounced Engel and urged enactment of a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

No comparable public reaction occurred last year when, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the court ruled, 6-3, in favor of a high school football coach who insisted on kneeling after games in a brief prayer at the 50-yard line (and was sometimes joined by players, of both teams). But the decision provoked fierce denunciations from critics. Prominent church-state scholars Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle called the decision “stunning.” Yale professor Justin Driver contended in the Harvard Law Review that Kennedy “represents a brazen, radical break with the Supreme Court’s long-standing tradition.”

The cases are not just about prayer. They are about the meaning of America —  about the kind of republic that we imagine ourselves to be, or aspire to be.

Maybe; maybe not. The court did not actually overrule its past prayer decisions. But it declined to follow doctrines that it had previously used in church-state cases, including the “no endorsement” doctrine, which says governments cannot do or say things that send messages endorsing religion. The disavowal of long-standing doctrine seems potentially momentous.

Even so, a detached observer might find the vehement reactions, then and now, puzzling. The so-called Regents’ Prayer invalidated in Engel (“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”) consisted of a single sentence with minimal theological content. It seems unlikely that the prayer did much to instill genuine piety; conversely, how burdensome could it have been, seriously, even for nonbelievers to sit through a few seconds of such pieties? And considering all of the controversial, occasionally eccentric, sometimes offensive expressions that teachers and coaches utter and that students have to endure on matters political, cultural, philosophical and religious, is it really such an outrage if a football coach wants to kneel for a moment of publicly visible reverence?

But these dismissive reactions miss the real significance of the matter. The cases are not just about prayer. They are about the meaning of America —  about the kind of republic that we imagine ourselves to be, or aspire to be.

More specifically, the school prayer cases present a conflict between two competing conceptions of the republic that we might call the “providentialist” and the “secular neutrality” conceptions. And the potentially path-opening Kennedy decision creates an opportune moment to pause and reflect on these conflicting conceptions.

Start at the beginning, with the providentialist conception. In his book “Providence and the Invention of the United States,” historian Nicholas Guyatt shows how providentialism, or “the belief that God controls everything that happens on earth,” was central to the way Americans understood themselves and their republic in the founding period and thereafter.

Guyatt distinguishes between “personal providentialism,” or the belief that God guides the lives of individuals, and “national providentialism,” which holds that God shapes the destinies of nations. In the colonial and founding periods, Guyatt observes, “many Britons and Americans came to regard personal providentialism as superstitious and backward even as they continued to believe that God directed the fates of nations.”

Nor was providentialism merely a peripheral feature of American life. On the contrary, it was central to “the invention of the United States” — and to the nation’s ongoing self-conception. Providentialist premises shaped public discourse, inspired hope and resolve in desperate times, and conferred on Americans a sense that their nation was not merely an association formed for mutual self-interest but rather a divinely-ordained entity with a providential destiny in the history of the world. And national providentialism prescribed that Americans should acknowledge and supplicate God not merely as private individuals but as a people, or as a nation.

The Supreme Court declared not that we are a “Christian nation,” but that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

Indeed, the American republic officially began with just such a supplication. In what we could call the inaugural inaugural presidential address, the man elected to lead the new nation began by thanking his fellow citizens for their trust in him and confessing his inadequacy to the great task. How could any mere mortal have the wisdom requisite for such a daunting challenge? President George Washington then simultaneously answered his own question and discharged an obligation: He declared that “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act (note that Washington was speaking officially, not just as a private individual who incidentally happened to be president) my fervent supplications to that Almighty being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States, a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.” 

Washington elaborated on the nation’s duty of gratitude to the Almighty. Speaking as the man who had held together the hungry, tattered troops at Valley Forge and who had later presided over a contentious constitutional convention, he was convinced that “(n)o people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand, which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States.” By any human calculation, after all, a happy outcome could hardly have been anticipated in the war against Britain, or in the constitutional convention. And yet these developments had been blessed by a “providential agency” that had secured their success.

As Washington suggested, prayer was central as both a practical and symbolic measure to the providentialist understanding. Which is hardly surprising: It is in prayer that a person, or a “People,” acknowledges God’s sovereignty and seeks God’s assistance. Thus, one of the first acts of both the Senate and the House of Representatives was to appoint chaplains to begin sessions with prayer. Congress authorized and presidents declared national days of thanksgiving and prayer. Prayers and reverent meditations have appeared in presidential inaugural addresses from Washington’s to Lincoln’s to Kennedy’s to Biden’s. Indeed, Lincoln’s magisterial Second Inaugural, now inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial, was, as Elton Trueblood explains, a “theological classic, containing within its twenty-five sentences fourteen references to God, many scriptural allusions, and four direct quotations from the Bible.”

The providentialist conception has been dynamically inclusive. As the religious composition of the country changed, the specific content of providentialist thinking changed, as well. Nineteenth-century American providentialism was predominantly a Protestant affair. As immigration brought more Catholics and Jews to the country, the Protestant quasi-monopoly would evolve into a more ecumenical faith.

This new situation was captured in Will Herberg’s classic “Protestant-Catholic-Jew.” Herberg described an America constituted by a “conception of the three ‘communions’ —  Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism — as three diverse, but equally legitimate, equally American, expressions of an overall American religion.” And as the Supreme Court’s Vietnam-era conscientious objection decisions would demonstrate, the idea of a “Supreme Being” could even be stretched to cover agnostics. 

As Herberg perceived, religious pluralism did not mean the end of providentialism. Indeed, national providentialism may have reached its culmination in the 1950s, the era of “piety on the Potomac.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower repeatedly endorsed the importance of religion to the American way of life. Congress, borrowing from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance; ratifying a statement in the national anthem, Congress officially adopted “In God We Trust” as the national motto. The Supreme Court declared not that we are a “Christian nation,” as the court had said in 1892, but rather and more ecumenically that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

And then, in the early 1960s in the school prayer decisions, the providentialist conception was officially displaced by a new constitutional paradigm —  by the “secular neutrality” conception. The key ideas now were that governments are constitutionally required to be “neutral” toward religion and confined, both in their purposes and (in a later elaboration) in their expressions, to the realm of the “secular.” Thomas Jefferson’s legendary “wall of separation between church and state,” in itself a laudable protection of the independence of religious institutions, was now reconstructed to be a wall of separation between government and religion.

It is paradoxical, perhaps, but true: A “religiously neutral” government is not religiously neutral.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that this new paradigm was in direct conflict not only with the American political tradition, but also with itself. Indeed, the very declaration that government must be secular and neutral toward religion itself contradicts the religious views of many Americans — views that teach in accordance with the providentialist tradition that government, while respecting freedom of conscience and refraining from religious coercion, is not supposed to be strictly secular and religiously neutral. It is paradoxical, perhaps, but true: A “religiously neutral” government is not religiously neutral.

The internal conflicts within the new doctrine were perhaps most starkly conspicuous in the court’s decisions concerning the teaching of evolution in public schools, which ruled that a state can neither prohibit the teaching of evolution nor prescribe a “balanced treatment” of evolution and creationism. In Epperson v. Arkansas, the court insisted that “the state may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which ‘aid or oppose’ any religion. This prohibition is absolute.” Arkansas had prohibited the teaching of evolution, the court surmised, because evolution was contradictory to religious teachings. In passing that prohibition, therefore, the state had acted to protect religion, thereby violating the constitutional requirement of religious neutrality.

As Justice Hugo Black pointed out in a concurring opinion, however, the court’s reasoning contradicted itself. If the schools are absolutely prohibited from either “aid(ing) or oppos(ing) any religion” (as the court said they are), and if evolution contradicts some people’s religious beliefs (as the court said it did), the more logical conclusion would be that the schools are constitutionally and absolutely forbidden to teach evolution. Perhaps the “evolution only” curriculum is indeed the best approach as a pedagogical matter, or even as a constitutional matter. But not based on the self-contradictory explanation given by the court.

The underlying premise informing the secular neutrality paradigm — one repeatedly asserted by the court — is that religion is a purely private matter. If that premise were correct, then perhaps government could remain neutral with respect to religion by staying within the domain of the secular, while leaving religion alone in the private sphere. Just as an empirical and historical matter, unfortunately, the premise that religion is purely or inherently private in character seems demonstrably wrong. Indeed, the myriad public manifestations of American providentialism should have proven that religion is far from being a purely private concern.

Still, one can understand why the “private religion” notion might have been enticing to someone like Justice William Brennan, who more than any other jurist was the architect of the “secular neutrality” paradigm. For Brennan, it seems, religion was — and needed to be — a private concern: after all, he had mostly gone to schools and later worked in secular or WASPish settings where he had needed to quarantine his Catholic faith to his private life. In ruling that the Constitution confines religion to the private sphere, Brennan was merely imposing a constraint on his fellow Americans that he had already instinctively adopted for himself.

Moreover, Brennan and his judicial brethren were understandably concerned about the perennial challenge of religious pluralism. In a religiously diverse nation, how is government supposed to respect and to retain the allegiance of a spectrum of citizens?

Treating religion as a purely private matter was far from being a perfect solution to that problem, and in officially preferring one kind of religion (i.e., the purely private kind) over others, the approach itself violated its own ostensible commitment to religious neutrality. Even so, this was — and for many, remains — a tempting response to a genuinely perplexing challenge. It is a sort of “if only” response. If only everyone could treat their religion as a purely private affair … (Of course, the adherents of any other position may think much the same thing: If only everyone could just see things the way I do, we could all get along nicely.)

For over a half-century, the secular neutrality conception has expressed the official constitutional position. But given its internal instability and its incompatibility with much in the American political tradition, we should not be surprised that the conception has never been rigorously implemented or enforced.

The conception has had far-reaching consequences. Religious-sounding justifications, once a familiar part of public and even lawyerly discourse, have largely been eliminated from the rationales that lawyers and officials give when defending challenged laws. (The marriage cases culminating in the Supreme Court’s constitutional legalization of same-sex marriage are an important case in point.) Until last year, public school prayer was consistently invalidated in its various forms — in the classroom, at graduation ceremonies, before football games, even in an officially prescribed moment of silence “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” Public crosses and religious displays and Ten Commandments plaques have sometimes been declared unconstitutional.

But sometimes not. And despite the efforts of Michael Newdow and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, “In God We Trust” is still inscribed on every dollar bill, and the Pledge of Allegiance persists in describing ours as a nation “under God.” Legislative prayers continue to be offered. Presidential inaugurations are still rife with religious imagery and expressions.

The much-decried Kennedy decision could provide an opportunity for more serious and less purely reactionary reflection on our situation and prospects.

Officially, these vestiges of providentialism are permissible because they have over time lost their religious significance and now serve mostly to “solemniz(e) public occasions, express confidence in the future, and encourag(e) the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society,” as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor contended. Critics find these official rationalizations disingenuous. Proponents may be equally disgruntled: Some public religious expressions persist, yes, but only under a sort of hypocritical fog of denial. And among a motley family of constitutional doctrines, many of which are obscure and unevenly applied, the jurisprudence of the First Amendment’s establishment clause has gained the dubious honor of being widely perceived as distinctively erratic or incoherent.

From either a secular or a providentialist perspective, this situation should come as no surprise. A secular observer might predict that the judicial effort to impose on the country a paradigm that is incompatible with much in the country’s traditions was bound to culminate in jurisprudential chaos. A providentialist might see our predicament as vindicating what providentialists have said all along — that, as Benjamin Franklin put it in a plea to the constitutional convention, “(w)e have been assured … in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it,’” and that “without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel.”

The much-decried Kennedy decision could provide an opportunity for more serious and less purely reactionary reflection on our situation and prospects. It was to be expected that devotees of the “secular neutrality” paradigm would be traumatized by the decision. But that paradigm, implicitly flawed from the beginning, has been visibly faltering for some time now. So we might at least try to imagine some better response to the genuinely formidable challenge of religious pluralism — some response other than pretending to a transparently spurious “neutrality.”

Indeed, given the difficulty of the challenge, and considering the fraught condition of American society and politics today, we might even consider other more desperate expedients. Like … prayer, perhaps? 

Steven Smith is co-executive director of the Institute for Law & Religion and the Institute for Law & Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.