Amidst the growing excitement these days about democracy breaking out all over the world, one might be tempted to call for greater respect for “the will of the people” right here at home. New polling by Rasmussen indicates that 65% of Americans favor prayer in our nation’s public schools. So why not give the people what they want?
The argument that whatever the majority wants, it should get, is a dangerous and misguided understanding of democracy — one which quickly leads to an ugly state of affairs in which the rights and dignity of minorities is readily ignored. Tocqueville called this phenomenon “tyranny of the majority”, but whatever it is called, it is a real problem when we fail to recall that terms like “will of the people” refer to both a collective people and also to all of the individuals who make up that collective.
While public policy cannot always reflect the desires of the latter, it must at least respect and protect them. Those advocating for the reintroduction of prayer in our public schools need to pause and reflect on how that would be accomplished if prayer were indeed to make such a return. That same poll by Rasmussen holds additional information which suggests one way that might be done.
I am not suggesting that now is the time to bring back prayer to our classrooms, but as one who prays, as one who sees that this issue isn’t going away, and as one living in a time when the reintegration of faith and public institutions is on everyone’s minds, I am suggesting that we might begin to think about this question in new ways.
Perhaps we should consider thinking about prayer without God, or at least without religion. Apparently that is what millions of us are already doing anyway. Rasmussen’s polling indicates that while 65% of Americans want prayer in public schools – higher than last year, a decreasing number of us see religion as playing an important roll in our lives.
In other words, we seem to value prayer more than religion, and that may be a really good thing. In fact, it may be that this seeming preference for prayer over religion indicates a kind of common sense or popular wisdom from which the policy makers and religious leaders who debate the place of prayer in our public schools, could learn a thing or two.
What would it mean to embrace the importance of expressing gratitude and hope, the substance of most prayers in virtually all traditions, without resorting to any specific tradition or prescribed form of expression? What might happen if students were given a moment of silence every day for such reflection? What if we were really daring and called such moments, moments which are already observed in classrooms for all kinds of events, moments of prayer?
A large percentage of Americans seem to have already figured this one out – embracing prayer with increasing enthusiasm while diminishing the role of particular religions. That may well be a threatening trend for some practitioners, but it might also be a way of thinking about an endlessly divisive issue in a way that respects the will of the majority while also respecting and protecting the equally valid and important will of the minority.