A Trumped-Up Controversy? School Prayer in Policy, History, and Ethics

By: K. Healan Gaston

February 13, 2020

Politics of School Prayer

As a scholar of religion with one foot in the field of history and the other in ethics, my reaction to President Donald Trump’s recent declaration on school prayer is twofold. The historian in me finds an easy explanation: This is another in a long line of statements designed to stir up support among Trump’s base by pressing classic “culture wars” buttons. While essentially echoing guidelines on school prayer enacted in 2003 under President George W. Bush, Trump claims that his administration’s new guidelines take “historic steps to protect the First Amendment right to pray in public schools.” This framing matters because it posits the existence of a looming menace—in Trump’s own words, “a growing totalitarian impulse on the far left that seeks to punish, restrict, and even prohibit religious expression.”

Some have identified school prayer as the original culture wars issue. They argue that outrage following the Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, banning school-sponsored prayer, helped launch the intertwined careers of the Christian right and its most effective champion, President Ronald Reagan. Engel and its 1963 successor Abington School District v. Schempp, which ruled out Bible lessons in public schools, fueled the belief among conservatives that a pious, Christian or Judeo-Christian majority labored under the oppressive yoke of a socialistic, anti-religious, anti-American left. Reagan successfully mobilized that perception on the campaign trail and then in relation to his proposed School Prayer Amendment in 1982. As I note in my recent book Imagining Judeo-Christian America: Religion, Secularism, and the Redefinition of Democracy, Reagan invoked “the Judeo-Christian tradition” far more frequently than any other president—including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who first ushered the term “Judeo-Christian” into presidential lexicon. Reagan’s reliance on Judeo-Christian rhetoric helped to reinforce his accusation that secularism was fast becoming the official religion of America’s public schools. 

Trump has long followed Reagan's playbook in key respects. For instance, he used Judeo-Christian rhetoric early in his presidency to claim credit for making it safe to say “merry Christmas” again, without recognizing the irony involved. On school prayer, Trump invokes incidents of discrimination against Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students to divert attention from the main show: a simultaneous regulatory shift that will make it easier for faith-based agencies to deny services to LGBTQ persons on religious freedom grounds. To be sure, Trump has scrambled the logic of the Cold War on the global stage. However, thus far, his 2020 rhetorical strategy echoes the standard Cold War contrast between “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” America (often referenced simply as “traditional values”) and a “totalitarian” or “socialist” left. 

Still, while the historian in me sees Trump’s school prayer statement as primarily a form of political theater, as an ethicist I am troubled by the stark simplicity of that account. What are my professional obligations in taking that position, especially in conversation with students whose views differ from my own? Those who teach about religion and politics face unique and unenviable challenges in the best of times, and all the more so in a “post-truth” climate where the frayed body of shared public truths threatens to unravel completely. 

In the classroom, I habitually seek to create balance by narrating the competing perspectives: One side believes it is systematically oppressed, but the other thinks itself the aggrieved party. I might go on to explain that the current standoff dates back decades and rests on divergent perceptions of social reality itself. Scattered cases in either direction—too much prayer allowed here, too little there—become the building blocks for diametrically opposed views of the distribution of social power and the country’s direction. All the while, I remain well aware that my students may fall on both sides of that interpretive divide. 

At the same time, such efforts to create a “fair and balanced” classroom can backfire—especially for those not protected by a rapidly eroding tenure system. Simply narrating the competing positions in a controversy such as this one invites criticism from students, colleagues, and members of the public alike who would have me take a more committed stance by debunking one narrative or the other. In this way, those of us who teach about religion and politics can simultaneously become too conservative and too radical in the eyes of others, just by virtue of specializing in a topic where shared ground is nearly impossible to find. Moreover, a “fair and balanced” approach in the classroom, as in the media, can create a false equivalence between arguments with unequal warrant or foster the perception of a fifty-fifty split in opinion when the actual weighting is quite different. In this way, refusing to take a stand amounts to taking one. 

In any case, as my students well know, they can simply look up public statements such as this one to see where I stand on controversial issues outside the classroom. For this reason, as for many others, I must in good conscience stand by the professional opinion I outlined above, albeit with an acute awareness of the ethical ambiguity of challenging the sincerely held beliefs of numerous fellow citizens—including some readers of this forum as well as students in my classes—about the state of play in religion and politics today. From my own perspective, reflecting decades of study and personal experience, I cannot help but view Trump’s statement on school prayer as a political stunt designed to energize his base. I say this as one who takes seriously the complaints of anyone whose right to pray in the public schools has been violated, in keeping with the existing 2003 guidelines on the issue. However, as Trump’s track record amply demonstrates, he stands ready to use “war on religion” rhetoric to whip up fear and foment conflict under the guise of responding to a genuine public threat. 

The right to engage in voluntary prayer must not be unlawfully constrained in public schools, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that this problem is so widespread that we need a new set of guidelines. (This question of representativeness clearly troubles the president and his allies as well, as witnessed by their unprecedented insistence on mandated reporting of all complaints.) Furthermore, since the Trump administration has not substantially changed the existing guidelines, the president's bellicose rhetoric around the issue would appear to reflect his true intent. Otherwise, a low-key reminder of the existing policy would suffice. But no such common-sense approach can be expected from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the proverbial fox watching the hen house in her role as secretary of education. 

As I work to address these issues with care in the classroom, I am left wondering when and to whom our commander-in-chief will answer regarding “fairness and balance.” While he busies himself demonizing the media and the colleges and universities from his bully pulpit and styling himself as the great defender of “the right to pray,” who will defend the rights of journalists and professors to say what they see in cases like this, where fundamental issues of policy, history, and ethics are at stake?

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