Prayer in School: Why Isn't Silent Prayer Good Enough?

Young girl prays before eating school...
Young girl prays before eating school lunch of soup, milk, and an apple. 1936. Part of U.S. Works Progress Administration Surplus Commodities: School Lunch Programs during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been thinking about the issue of school prayer quite a bit lately as a result of the new law we have here in Mississippi aimed at promoting it. Conservative politicians, pundits, and evangelical fundamentalist Christians have apparently decided that virtually all social ills could be solved through a return to formal school-sanctioned prayer such as what we experienced prior to Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp. Many recognize that teacher-led prayer is prohibited, and while some seek to overturn these rulings, others are content to bypass them in various ways.

Undoubtedly, the subject of prayer in school is a big one. I'd like to take it up in what is likely to be a series of posts to see if I can shed some light on what remains a confusing and commonly misunderstood topic. I recognize that some religious believers are going to cling to the view that school prayer is a magic solution to nearly every problem, but I hope that far more will come to recognize the ill effects of school-sanctioned prayer and join us in opposing it. This post begins the series by exploring why silent prayer is not sufficient for some religious believers.

School Prayer is Legal and Common

Perhaps the single most important source of confusion in the entire debate is the claim that prayer in school is currently prohibited. This is not true, and it has never been true in the United States. Any student, teacher, staff member, or administrator is perfectly free to pray silently to himself or herself at any time during the school day.

Students in particularly religious regions of the U.S. regularly engage in silent prayer prior to examinations. One can often see them mouthing recognizable words, clasping their hands, or looking skyward. This may strike some of us as a bit silly, but it is perfectly legal and fairly common. Moreover, no amount of government intervention could impinge on the right of students, teachers, staff, or administrators to engage in this sort of silent prayer.

Why Isn't Silent Prayer Good Enough?

Engaging in silent prayer satisfies many religious believers; however, there are plenty of others (e.g., many evangelical fundamentalist Christians) who do not find it sufficient. They seek to pray loudly so others can hear them. Most of all, they seem to want others to participate in their prayers by bowing their heads and remaining silent out of respect.

What is interesting about this desire for public, participatory prayer is that it is not at all consistent with what the Christian bible says about prayer. In looking at the Christian bible, one finds that the sort of deeply personal, private (i.e., silent) prayer these Christians find insufficient is precisely what is recommended to Christians. Prayer is supposed to be communication between an individual and the god in which he or she believes. In fact, the Christian bible explicitly condemns public prayer (see Matthew 6:5-7), as it is considered a form of hypocrisy.

If one believes that the Christian bible provides a reasonably accurate description of the Christian god, it stands to reason that this god knows one's thoughts and does not struggle to hear one's words. Christians would not hesitate to ridicule someone who prayed with a megaphone "so god could hear me" because they would find this wholly unnecessary and indicative of a lack of understanding of the god in which they believe. So then why is silent prayer somehow insufficient?

Other Functions of Prayer

To the degree that prayer represents communication with one's god, silent prayer should be perfectly sufficient. Since it is regularly deemed insufficient, one must ask whether prayer is being used for purposes other than divine communication. What might be some other functions of prayer?

It seems to me that there are at least two big ones, sought by many evangelical fundamentalist Christians, neither of which appear to be consistent with what their own bible tells them about prayer. The first would be the hope that their public prayers will convert others to their particular religious beliefs. Perhaps they believe that people who do not currently share their beliefs will be moved to do so by hearing their words. If they truly believe that, it would make sense that they would want as many people as possible to hear them.

The second would be the hope that their public prayers will make it easier for them to maintain their position of privilege or influence over the environment in which they deliver their public prayers. When they are delivering their public prayers, they command attention, receive respect, and exercise a form of control over the setting. To the degree that they find this appealing, it would make sense that they would insist on public prayer.

That is enough for one post, so I will pick up here in the next one I write in this series.