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‘Prayer in schools’ is almost never about prayer in schools

‘Prayer in schools’ is almost never about prayer in schools October 21, 2021

Overall, I enjoyed this CBS News mini-doc on “The Right’s Fight to Make America a Christian Nation,” which I found thanks to Messiah U. historian John Fea (who’s featured in it).

I recommend this report as, on balance, a positive contribution to our national understanding of white Christian nationalism. But I also have some quibbles and concerns. OK, then. …

CBS’s sympathetic profile of the Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach who got himself suspended for insisting on pre-game sectarian prayers at midfield did a good job at presenting the coach’s perspective. That’s helpful. We can clearly see his passion, his sincerity, and his utter inability to consider or even to see anyone else’s perspective. Alas, CBS also failed to look at anyone else’s perspective in that opening story — and that is less than helpful.

Their report thus takes at face value — and amplifies — the coach’s contention that his public sectarian prayers are purely voluntary and not in any way coercive for anyone there who doesn’t share his specific strain of sectarian belief or doesn’t wish to participate in his particular performance of sectarian piety.

What the report doesn’t acknowledge, in other words, is that the Very Nice coach is a sectarian bully — someone who follows, almost verbatim, the script of an after-school-special on the dangers of peer pressure: C’mon, everybody’s doing it. Don’t be a loser. Play along. His story absolutely is one of religious persecution, but he’s the inquisitor, not the victim he wants to imagine. He created an awkward and awful situation for any of his players who might be atheists, or Muslims, and also for any of his players who might be Catholic, or Reformed, or actually Baptist Baptists.

The coach’s story was presented in a framework that misleadingly presents “religious” and “secular” as opposites. That framework distorts both his story and the First Amendment. The opposite of “secular” is not “religious;” the opposite of “secular” is “sectarian.” And so, in practical terms and in day-to-day reality, the opposite of secular government and secular schooling is the exclusive establishment of a particular sect.

And ultimately, inevitably, of just one sect. Establish official school prayers and those prayers will not be generically Christian prayers, or even generically Protestant or generically white evangelical prayers. They will be prayers that specifically establish Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 sectarian religion in a way that is inhospitable to the equal participation even of Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 believers.

When we crawl inside the cramped perspective of this sectarian coach and embrace his idea that non-sectarian must mean anti-religious without questioning it, we participate in that establishment of sectarian religion. That framework centers, privileges, and elevates one specific sect by making that sect the sole representative and sole legitimate expression of “religion.” It flattens and blurs and demotes every other sect into a single, second-tier category of non-religion and anti-religion, unwilling to acknowledge or to allow any distinction among them because the only fact about any of them permitted to be recognized is that they are Not The One, True Sect.

Starting with that framework also colors the helpful reporting and commentary that follows. Dr. Fea and actual-Baptist Brian Kaylor (of Word & Way) have some helpful things to say about “school prayer,” but squeezed into the template established by that “persecuted” coach those insights are harder to hear. If we accept the coach’s framework, then Fea and Kaylor become merely voices from the vast, undifferentiated category of the anti-religious.

The other mostly unchallenged framework in CBS’ reporting on this coach’s story is that this is all about First-Amendment questions of church and state. The white evangelical football coach in a predominantly white suburban school is presented as being upset over “prayer in schools.” Then they turn to Dr. Fea, asking him about prayer in schools, and he only has time to slightly expand that context, describing Engel v. Vitale as just one part of the social changes of the 1960s. And thus the suggestion that this is all mainly and mostly about church/state abstractions carries over into the following segment about the Trump-venerating “Patriot Church” in Tennessee and its white Christian nationalist mission.

I call shenanigans. “Prayer in schools” is almost never about prayer in schools. It is almost always a pious-seeming, and therefore more acceptable proxy for cultural hegemony in schools, which is to say for white cultural hegemony in schools, which is to say for the ongoing and intensifying whitelash against the Civil Rights Movement. If someone tells you they’re upset about Engel v. Vitale, then nine times out of 10 what they’re really upset about is Brown v. Board of Ed.

That pattern was firmly established before I was born and it has persisted in glaringly obvious form throughout my entire life, but it’s considered rude to mention it out loud. I think it’s far more rude — and far less honest — not to acknowledge the reality of it. The perennial argument over “prayer in schools” is always, as Dr. Fea politely says, a part of the ongoing argument about the social changes of the ’60s, which is to say it’s always, always, always entangled with the ongoing opposition to the Second Reconstruction.

CBS news knows this, too. That’s why their report turns, eventually, to the voices of two thoughtful Black Americans, both people of faith, who argue against the establishment of sectarian government. But the link between the establishment of white sectarian religion and the establishment of whiteness is acknowledged only elliptically, never quite directly stated.

So let’s state that directly here: “Religious liberty” is the new “states’ rights.” Let’s not pretend we don’t all know exactly what that means.

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