In the early years of this century, while there was still prayer in public schools, we saw the first stag movies, racial segregation was enforced, and lynchings were common in the Bible Belt. Big cities were ripped by the submachine-gun fire of gangland wars, and the heartland was preyed on by megacrooks John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. We lost scores of thousands to a flu epidemic, and the Great Depression impoverished millions.
But since prayer has been barred from public classrooms, we have eliminated smallpox and polio, ended segregation, enjoyed repeated boom times, won scads of Nobel Prizes for medicine, seen ever more kids be graduated from high school and college and routed godless communism.
This exercise in selective memory and the willful muddling of coincidence with cause and effect is by way of suggesting that the pleas for returning prayer to public schools, animated by the two recent schoolhouse shooting sprees, promise more delusion than hope.
The pleas are heartfelt. (Unless you count the radio commercials the ever-hustling Christian Coalition is running in key presidential primary states Iowa and New Hampshire.) Puzzled, distressed and caught in a cacophony of agendas, we look for an easy out. For many, having public school pupils pray seems just the thing.
That seems so in part because we misremember the past and misread the present.
It is now widely assumed that prayer and Bible readings were universal in public classrooms before the Supreme Court in 1963, as the hype has it, "threw God out of the schools.'' In fact, a 1960 survey found that only five states required Bible reading. Eleven had declared the practice unconstitutional -- Illinois as early as 1910. Many schools in states that allowed prayer and Bible reading practiced neither.
And, contrary to what the hellfire-and-brimstone politicians would have you think, America is flat-out the most religious developed nation. A survey of 60 nations found that 44 percent of Americans attend religious services weekly. Our closest competitors are the Canadians at 38 percent. Most other nations are in the 20s, with some as low as 5 or even 2 percent. Another measure: 84 percent of Americans believe in heaven; only 31 percent of Germans and 27 percent of the French do.
About two-thirds of us belong to a congregation, up from 59 percent in the fabled 1950s -- and incomparably more than the 17 percent affiliation in 1776 when, as tendentious legend mangles history, we are wrongly said to have been founded as "a Christian nation.''
Our careful separation of church and state has been an incomparable boon to religion. To rail now that what ails us -- and something always ails us, after all -- could be fixed if only the government had children recite faithless pseudo-prayers is to counsel illusion and seed bitterness and nurture futility. A faux, state-run piety would be an insult to the honest faith at which Americans excel.
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