For practicing Christians, Judaists, and Muslims, what is at stake in state-sponsored prayer in public schools is whether the particularities that make us what we are make a difference. Constitutional issues aside, there are strong theological arguments against legislating prayer for young people. Specifically, nonsectarian prayer speaks for no one in particular and addresses Whom it may concern. But Christianity, Judaism, and Islam speak of one, unique God, to whom, as Christians, Judaists, or Muslims, we are called by specific, and each of us thinks a unique, revelation. While individually and privately we may pray as undifferentiated humanity, in public we pray as the Body of Christ, the Church, or as Holy Israel, God’s first love, or as the Nation of Islam. We cannot say other people’s prayers and do not expect them to say ours, even while we affirm that all three of the great monotheist religions address one and the same God, the only God, who made heaven and earth.
State-sponsored, nonsectarian prayer in school violates those theological norms. For just as there is no such thing as religion in general, but only specific and concrete religions, that is, communities of the faithful, so there can be no such thing as prayer from no one in particular to no one in particular. That kind of prayer contradicts the convictions of religious communities that deem themselves distinctive, holy, and called forth by God.
True, when Jews and Christians gather for shared worship. Christians ordinarily forgo the name of Jesus Christ, and Jews will compose for the occasion non-canonical prayers or simply read a Psalm. But both participants understand that such prayers are merely occasional gestures of good will, that they hardly express the faith of the faithful standing before the God whom they know and love. Throughout history, Jews have recognized that Christianity and Islam affirm that same one Cod whom we know through the Torah, but simply because each of us concurs with the other’s conception of the One to whom we pray, this does not at all yield the possibility of common prayer. We speak each in our own, unique way; we honor the piety and prayer of others; but we do not participate and cannot participate in these prayers, unless we apostatize.
This is not to say that I do not share the concerns of those who advocate state-sponsored prayer in the public school. I share those aspirations, and I object to the rigid and ideologically radical secularism that has led us to the present impasse. It is one thing to say that the state will not sponsor public prayer through the schools. It is another thing to say, as has been said, the state will forbid evidences of personal piety and prayer; will provide no access to religious activities on its property; will discriminate against religious activities of a voluntary character on the part of students; will discourage Christian students from expressing their convictions concerning Jesus Christ and Jewish students from observing the commandments of their faith, all in the name of the separation of church and state. In one decision after another, the courts have systematically denied religious Americans the right to express their religious convictions on public occasions (school graduations, for instance). In the case of Islam and Judaism, the University of Virginia has declared that it will not support Christian student activities, since Christianity is a religion, but it will support Judaic and Islamic student activities, since these are ethnic cultures. I am sure Muslims will share the indignation of Jews in being dismissed as a nonreligion.
It is in the schools that the diverse families of America—diverse in region and race and religion—come together. It is in schools where youngsters most often discover not only who they are, but also what they are not. When it comes to prayer, pretending that we all can and should address God in one and the same way teaches two bad lessons. First, it denigrates important particularities: our way to God, known in a particular church or synagogue or mosque, now gives way to another path to God, which we too must walk. Second, it fabricates a common faith where there is none, and so places our common Americanness into conflict with our significant points of difference.
When I was in third grade, I discovered that not one of our Founding Fathers was Jewish. This harsh reality dawned in early November, when we as young Connecticut Yankees were studying Thanksgiving. Specifically, we were assigned the project of drawing pictures of the Puritan fathers going to synagogue—well, that is how I understood the assignment. So I asked the teacher, Miss Melcher, “How do you spell synagogue?” “Why do you need to know?” she asked. “To write under my picture. The Puritan fathers going to synagogue on Friday night.'” For, belonging to the Reform Temple in West Hartford, that is what my family would do. “They weren’t Jews!” she said scornfully. “They were Christians!” I was shocked and never believed anything Miss Melcher told us again, unless I could confirm it on my own.
As I grew older, I came to dread the occasion for international hypocrisy that classroom praying in the Protestant manner and hymn singing precipitated (“Faith of our fathers” did not refer to the Torah, I found out). And when the Catholics stopped the Lord’s Prayer before the words, “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen,” but loudly, ostentatiously said, “Amen,” a half-dozen words earlier, I was sure that prayer must confuse God. And maybe even offend Her.