When Prayer Left Public Life

Sixty years ago, a radical U.S. Supreme Court toppled a key pillar of Western Civilization by banning prayer in American schools

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963. The 8-1 decision declared it unconstitutional for American public schools to authorize prayer or Bible reading as part of their school day.

Though it was not fully appreciated at the time, the Court’s action was profoundly revolutionary in that it set a leading precedent for Western countries to confine religion to the private sphere. It hastened the process of overturning the tradition of Western Civilization, in which religion, specifically Christianity, played an integral role in the life of nations.

The case was brought to court by the family of Ellery Schempp, a Unitarian Universalist, who complained about his Pennsylvania school district having Bible readings every morning. Pennsylvania law at that time specified that:

At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.

There should have been nothing here to cause controversy given that well over 90 percent of the American population declared themselves Christian in a 1963 Gallup poll. Crucially, parents who objected were able to withdraw their children from the practice. As has so often been the case across the Western world since the 1960s, however, a court supported a small minority in imposing its will upon the rest of the nation. 

The Court’s ruling quoted from the dissent in a previous ruling of the Supreme Court, Everson v. Board of Education, stating:

The [First] Amendment’s purpose was not to strike merely at the official establishment of a single sect, creed or religion, outlawing only a formal relation such as had prevailed in England and some of the colonies. Necessarily it was to uproot all such relationships. But the object was broader than separating church and state in this narrow sense. It was to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion.

With this radical statement, the Court effectively declared that it is the goal and mission of the U.S. government to wage war on all manifestations of religion in public life. Not all Western countries have gone as far as the United States in this regard, but there is now a general consensus across the modern West that not only must Church be separated from State, but it must be sidelined completely.

The Supreme Court also talked about America having a “wholesome neutrality” towards religion. But is such neutrality wholesome? How does such neutrality affect the way a nation thinks about issues such as abortion, marriage, and the nature of men and women? Such religious neutrality makes it inevitable that a nation will ultimately come down on the liberal and permissive side of every issue, as it has no serious moral compass from which to draw. Such a moral compass is generally provided by strong religious values.

As a result, the West today is unable to defend itself. Groups like Black Lives Matter routinely attack the West’s supposed legacy of colonialism and racism and its defenders can only muster a muted response. A society with a definite religious identity would know how to respond to such subversive groups. A society based on religious neutrality, on the other hand, will consistently seek to appease aggressive minorities because, being neutral, it cannot take any firm stance on what constitutes the nation’s basic identity, principles, and values. Yet this tepid neutrality is supported by those across the political spectrum. 

Remnants of a religious identity still remain in the Anglo-Saxon nations, however, and despite what their ruling classes claim, they are not entirely religiously neutral. This was starkly illustrated earlier this year in the United Kingdom with the coronation of King Charles. As head of the churches of both England and Scotland, the king was first approached by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland who presented him with a copy of the Bible and addressed him in the following words

Sir, to keep you ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, receive this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.

After this, the king was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?

And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

After affirming this oath, the king also swore:

I, Charles, do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

As a Catholic, I am not a member of the UK’s “religion established by law,” but I was nonetheless glad that this Christian oath continues to be a crucial part of the coronation of Britain’s head of state. It provides a powerful weapon for the future defense of the country.

In spite of this strong Christian element at the heart of the royal coronation, the most recent census figures on religion in Britain reveal that only 46 percent now consider themselves Christian, and the largest rise has been among those of no religion, now at 37 percent. In the United States, around 63 percent still professes to be Christian, according to a 2022 Pew Research survey.

Given the decline of religion as a crucial factor in public life it is not surprising that the West is beset by social and moral problems. Research has shown that the practice of a religious faith has multiple benefits for society and the individual. For example, a study by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute found that the regular practice of religion strengthens that other essential societal institution: marriage. Religious practice creates greater marital stability and increases the inclination to marry. It also strengthens the relationship between parents and their children. The same study also found that religious practice has immense benefits for educational attainment, physical and mental health, and leads to a reduction in addictive behaviors.

A Christian revival in the West will be an essential factor in rescuing our society from the social and moral abyss into which it has fallen. Such a revival would inevitably need to be led by the churches, but there is little sign of movement there, as many denominations have become steeped in woke ideology.

Sir John Bagot Glubb, in his famous 1976 essay The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival wrote:

Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving.

This description undoubtedly applies to the modern West, which at present appears beyond saving. I am convinced that  a religious revival and the re-establishment of Christianity to its proper place in Western society is the only way to restore our civilization, against all odds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.