Looking to a Historical Argument for Present-Day Consensus on Religion in Public Life

By: David Mislin

February 13, 2020

Politics of School Prayer

It is unsurprising that the Trump administration chose to release new guidance on school prayer on National Religious Freedom Day. In recent years, religious conservatives have increasingly framed demands surrounding a range of social policies in terms of religious liberty. The administration’s insistence on the right of students to engage in non-compulsory prayer during non-instructional time fits a well-established pattern.

In offering this guidance, President Trump did not appear to want to meaningfully change policy (observers have noted this new guidance differs little from that offered nearly two decades ago). Rather, the guidance seems intended to further rally his base of evangelical Christian supporters and to draw contrasts with Democrats. By presenting himself as protector of the right of students to pray at school, the president believes he can further claim the mantle of defender of religious freedom. Progressives, meanwhile, are cast as the villains. They seek, in Trump’s words, “to punish, restrict, and even prohibit religious expression.”

While it is tempting to view political quarrels over both the broad concept of religious freedom and the particular issue of school prayer as a unique feature of our highly polarized moment, both have been divisive issues for a long time. As the historian David Sehat has written, there have been two distinct visions of religious freedom at work throughout U.S. history. One view holds that the absence of government involvement in religious matters gives Americans the right to bring their beliefs into public life. This view is the basis of the Trump administration’s policies. The alternative vision, which informs the perspective of many of the president’s progressive critics, is one of a secular public life where government institutions do nothing to foster religious practice.

In recent decades, this divide has manifested itself in the contentious debate over school prayer. As Neil J. Young has documented, a large majority of Americans opposed the Supreme Court’s rulings in the early 1960s that prohibited school-sponsored prayer. They feared that the end of organized school prayer would damage the moral character of the nation. My own research about religion in small towns in the mid-twentieth century has likewise shown widespread opposition to these rulings, even among people who otherwise disagreed strongly with religious conservatives. But in an important sign that today’s cultural debates are not new, liberal-leaning mainline Protestant denominations and their ecumenical body, the National Council of Churches, supported the Supreme Court’s decisions.

This long history of division and conflict might suggest the impossibility of any broad, bipartisan agreement on these issues. 

The potential for such a consensus does exist, however. It is to be found in an argument popularized by a group of theologically liberal Protestants a century ago. These liberals, who came to prominence in the late 1800s and were influential for the first half of the twentieth century, sought to find a middle ground in matters of religion and politics. They broke with their more conservative co-religionists by expressing doubts about the reliance of Christianity on government support. But they retained strong faith commitments and rejected the arguments of secular Americans who saw little value in religious belief. 

The argument these liberal Protestants made against Christian reliance on government support had several facets. On the particular issue of public prayer—including prayer in school—they noted that hypocrisy invariably seemed to result when people were coerced, even subtly, to pray. In their view, rather than encouraging the cultivation of religiosity, such practices led to diminished respect for religion. What should have been deeply held commitments were instead reduced to empty outward expressions done for the approval of one’s peers.

But the critique of these liberals went beyond public prayer. Rather, they decried all instances of Christian leaders or institutions looking to the government for support. They insisted that Christians admitted their own impotence when they sought any kind of support from government. Religion functioned the best when it won the support of people through the efforts of its own institutions, not when it demanded the support of government.

Protestant liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pulled no punches in suggesting that their co-religionists who wanted the aid of government were weak. They argued that it represented a betrayal of the very core of Christianity “to stoop to ask the aid of those secular powers which her founders were not afraid to withstand.” What made this argument so potent was that it did not require Christians to downplay their faith commitments. On the contrary, liberals urged people to cultivate strong faiths. Rather, it depicted people who looked to the government for support of their religious practice as those whose faith was weak.

To be sure, in 2020, the possibility of creating any bipartisan consensus any issue related to religious freedom seems remote at best. In part, this reflects the reality that today’s religious liberals are firmly aligned with progressive politics. No group occupies the middle ground in the way that their forebears did a century ago.

But if such consensus is to be achieved, the argument advanced by Protestant liberals over a century ago would appear to offer a sound foundation. The notion that religion appears weak and when forced to call on government to protect its interests would seem to offer the greatest potential for unanimity across the political spectrum.

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