PRESIDENT Clinton was right to oppose a constitutional amendment to promote teacher-led prayer in the public schools. There is nothing in our customs or Constitution to prevent anyone from praying in public now.
The amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives, even though many House members support public prayer in the schools and elsewhere.
It should be pointed out to Congress and all religious citizens that the Bible disapproves of public displays of religiosity. Evangelicals on the Christian right who call for mandatory and preferably Christian prayer in the public schools should note the words of one of the four evangelists, Matthew: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing . . . in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men."
Isn't this one of the reasons why prayer is being urged for schoolchildren -- "that they may be seen?"
Matthew also warned: "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 'This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouths, and honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me.' "
The Old Testament teaches: "And, when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear."
Isaiah advises, as a substitute for displays of penitence, "Deal thy bread to the hungry . . . bring the poor that are cast out to thy house . . . thou seest the naked . . . cover him."
Even more noteworthy is the apostle James' comment: "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
Works that need doing
What about "works"?
If children are to learn about the works that need doing -- without which prayers are "the body without the spirit" -- teachers might as well choose meaningful prayers instead of rote incantations.
A few suggestions:
Pray that we understand that present nuclear arsenals are more powerful than a million Hiroshimas.
Pray that our leaders come to understand the deep-rooted, ages-old misery and despair in our own hemisphere and throughout the world, which fuel revolutionary fires.
Pray that the majority not turn away from millions of our fellow Americans who struggle to live below the poverty level.
Pray that we stop cutting programs to aid our poor and elderly neighbors, child care, school lunch and nutrition, food, shelter and medical assistance.
One such prayer could be offered each morning, until the words start losing meaning, as most prayers do. Then children might be encouraged to make different entreaties.
They might pray for respect for the equal rights and dignity of minorities.
Pray that no effort be made, under the guise of religion, to enforce conformity on young children by making them feel like outcasts if they pray differently or not at all.
Pray to understand that a "humanitarian" is not a wimp or an atheist or a subversive, but someone devoted to promoting the welfare of humanity, especially through the elimination of pain and suffering.
Pray to live by the words of a great American general-statesman-editor-humanitarian, Carl Schurz, who in 1899 said: "Our country. When right, to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."
Such daily supplications in the schools might lead future generations to the "works" without which faith is dead.
Meanwhile, denominational praying can thrive where it has long flourished -- in churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, homes and hearts of the faithful.
Jack L. Levin writes from Baltimore.
Pub Date: 6/18/98