During my first few years in elementary school in Elizaville, Kentucky, the morning routine was set. At the beginning of the school day we stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer (Protestant version). In 1962 the United States Supreme Court held, in Engel v. Vitale, that it was unconstitutional for students to be required to recite official prayers in the public schools. The pledge stayed; the prayer went.
Fifty-six years later, Engel v. Vitale remains stuck in the craw of some of the people I attended school with. They keep posting prefabricated memes on Facebook that there are killers in the schools because God is not allowed there, or that the Bible is prohibited there, &c., &c. They are, I think, still captive of the white Protestant supremacy that was the norm at that time and place, now alarmed that it is no longer so supreme.
When they talk of the United States as a Christian nation, I point out that the United States is a secular republic with a large number of Christian citizens, which is not quite the same thing. The Constitution mentions neither God nor Jesus, and the First Amendment, while guaranteeing free exercise of religion, prohibits “an establishment of religion” by the state.
When I was in high school, the substitute for an opening prayer was something called the “devotional,” and I was regularly conscripted, often at the last minute, to find some short, innocuous poem to read over the public-address system, the sort of bland substitute for full-throated prayer that usually prevails on public occasions. (When the chaplain of the United States House of Representatives presumed to offer a prayer that was about something, people campaigned to get him sacked.)
There might be a way to return prayer to the public school, but not in a way that I think would please these former classmates. The point of the First Amendment is that the state may not favor any particular sect. So if the Bible were brought back into the schools, it would be accompanied by the Torah, the Quran, the Vedas, the Sutras, secular humanist texts. Anyone here think that people would be happy to get the Lord’s Prayer back if it also came with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist prayers?
I thought not.
The United States was culturally and politically a white Protestant nation until the nineteenth century, when the influx of Irish Roman Catholics and Eastern European Jews, along with the acquisition of full citizenship by formerly enslaved people, began to broaden the national culture, the national polity, the national identity.
Engel v. Vitale was one step of many in the long process of living out the Constitution’s vision of a secular republic without a privileged class lording it over lesser groups. You might want to offer a prayer of gratitude for those efforts.
CORRECTION: The original text referred to the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, until my colleague Mark A. Kellner put me right.