I must begin by saying that I like to pray. I pray daily. I pray as a practice of gratitude for the things that are so easy to take for granted. I pray to train my heart toward generosity for those who do not have the things I often take for granted. I pray because I know my natural disposition is to think of 'me' first and that the divine disposition is one that thinks first of 'we'. I know that prayer works because I am not the person I was when I didn't pray.
On the other hand, I don't believe in the simplistic arguments that are floated from time to time which treat prayer like a magical spell. The most recent version of this tale, as reported by Fox News, suggests that the absence of prayer in schools leads to all the problems in our society. It pretends that rights have been taken away and that some evil, secularizing force, is working to destroy our schools, our families, and our nation. This false narrative suggests, and sometimes states, that some of the things we collectively should be concerned about, like unplanned teenage pregnancy and gun violence, would suddenly be fixed by a teacher leading a collective ‘Christian’ prayer.
I love our city of Redmond. I deeply appreciate having neighbors with interesting ethnic and religious backgrounds. I appreciate the unique viewpoints and the diverse cultural expressions that are represented here. In some ways, Redmond is a great example of what the United States can be, even if we are not perfect. This community (and country) I love is not Christian, at least not with a capital 'C', and I am totally okay with that. You see, my Jewish and Muslim neighbors pay taxes at the same rates that I do. So do the Sikh, the atheists, and those nominally interested in anything religious folks. Should they pay for Christian prayer in our public schools? I don’t think so.
One of the things I love about our country is our freedom is exercise our religious beliefs; even the crazy ones. Teachers and students can pray and read religious books on their free time. Students can start student-led religious groups and our laws are designed to promote equal access for all to school grounds. If a parent really feels that prayer is a crucial part of daily education they can enroll their child in a parochial school or teach them at home. Our faith communities are free to start these schools if they want to work collectively to provide them. With options likes these, I don't understand where the injustice is.
At the end of the day, I wouldn't want a random teacher, or some other designated person, to become a surrogate religious teacher for any of my children. Even though I am a Christian I recognize the diversity within my own tradition. For example, there are churches here in the city of Redmond that could never accept me as their pastor because I have the wrong body parts. Similarly, there are pastors like me that find nothing wrong with homosexuality while some of my Christian neighbors might teach that it is an abomination. And that is just the sprinkling of the diversity contained in a single faith tradition.
As a Christian I often look to the Bible and the words of Jesus to try to wrestle with questions of faith and practice. For some reason, Jesus didn't think to directly address the question of prayer in the 21st century, but he did speak once on the topic of public prayer. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Again, Jesus is not speaking to prayer in 21st century U.S. schools but it would be hard to take those words as a ringing endorsement of public, enforced prayer either. Since I have told you what I am against, let me now tell you what I would be for.
At the church I serve, we have been starting our worship service with a minute of silence. I've found that it helps us to gather ourselves, to slow down for a moment, and to be fully present as we worship. Because I have seen and heard from my members how valuable this practice is, I could be supportive of a few moments of silence at the beginning of the school day. Students could choose to say a quick prayer during that time. Others could try to transition from the many distractions that keep young people from focusing on their studies. A teacher of faith might say a quiet prayer for their students, even if it only serves to give them more patience for their difficult work. All participants could be reminded to silence their cell phones.
We live in a crazy world that is moving at breakneck speeds. We all could afford to slow down in a non-sectarian kind of way. An intentional time of gathering ourselves and transitioning to learning might be helpful for both teachers and students alike. At the same time, it still respects the diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural beauty of the world we share. For these reasons, I could support a moment of silence but would not support mandated prayer in our schools.