Maybe We Should Endorse Prayer In Schools: One Christian Social Worker’s Perspective
I’m learning a lot from my social work research methods course. In a section under conceptualization and indicators and dimensions, I came across an interesting point that stimulated reflections on Christian commitment and its relationship to the public realm. The authors write, “Let’s imagine that you are interested in studying the attitudes of different religious groups about the term social justice. To most social work professors and students, a belief in social justice implies politically liberal views about such issues as redistributing wealth, women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights, and not imposing the prayers and symbols of a particular religion on students in public schools, among many others…”
The term impose caught my eye. As far as I can tell, Christians believe that God is the one who does saving, not humans. So to what end do we impose or demand religious beliefs, commitments, allegiance, or behaviors in families? What about in public spaces? What, after all is the purpose of demanding that children pray Christian prayers in school? Or what is the reason that we demand our children believe X,Y, or Z about God, especially if God is the one who saves, when and how and if God wants? Do we not demand as much precisely to limit certain kinds of behaviors, thoughts, actions while also motivating other kinds of behaviors, thoughts and actions? This is why nearly every good middle class evangelical parent loves to send their child to youth group but is then horrified when their child begins to fully identify with Jesus’ teachings and comes home in judgment of the parent for their wealth, demanding that the parents are hypocrites for not selling everything and moving out into the mission field. In this way, isn’t the middle-class evangelical logic the same as our late capitalist commodity society whereby we want the commodity but without its harmful substance? Decaf coffee is coffee without the caffeine, light beer is beer without the calories, chocolate laxatives are chocolate without the health risks, pornography is sex without love, our foreign policy and drones are wars without casualties for us, Washington is politics without politics, liberals want revolution without the cost of revolution, and middle class Christianity wants a religion without Christ. Isn’t this why the demand for prayer in schools is effectively a demand for Christian commitment without Christ and the gospel… That is, the imposition of prayer schools has until now not been about the gospel, it has been about the manipulation of children and their behavior in to socially acceptable modes that eventually reproduce status-quo norms that swear allegiance to American society as such. And that is not the Christian gospel or Christian commitment.
I think I understand the need for discipline. I think I understand the need for socialization. I think I understand the need for guidance and mentorship. I think I even understand the need to inculcate particular norms, habits, and practices in children so that they will be productive participants in our society. I just wish we wouldn’t call this the gospel. And that is because the gospel is not something that humans can impose on others. It is a work of God whereby persons are liberated and freed from the ways of this world, freed from subservience and allegiance to law and order as such. The gospel is what shatters and resists, emancipates and releases persons from conforming and obeying the norms, habits, and practices that govern our society and its laws and institutions. So unless school prayer is about calling on God to disrupt and liberate all persons from the social institutions of oppression – institutions that undoubtedly include both our public and private education institutions with their current socialization and reinforcement of capitalism, classism, racism, sexism, and heterosexism school – then the imposition of school prayer seems antithetical to the gospel and Christian commitment. For this reason and against this backdrop, us social workers might ironically consider advocating for Christian prayer in schools… only this time, prayers that welcome and endorse Christianity’s revolutionary commitment to a gospel that calls us to replace our allegiances good morals and good behaviors that serve America with liberative actions that refuse oppression and discrimination of any kind whatsoever.