2017-07-12
Adapted from "Whose America?" published by Harvard University Press.

On July 27, 1962 Martin Luther King was conducting a "kneel-in" protest in Albany, Georgia--literally on his hands and knees praying to fight racial segregation. But when asked by a newspaper reporter what he thought of a recent Supreme Court ruling banning teacher-led prayer in school, King--a preacher and a son of a preacher--gave his full support to the court's decision. It was "sound and good," King declared, "reaffirming something that is basic in our Constitution, namely, separation of church and state."

The following year, Alabama governor George C. Wallace threatened to conduct his own type of "pray-in"--against the Supreme Court. Wallace was already famous for his defiance of court-ordered integration, "standing in the school-house door" to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. "If [the Court] says we cannot read the Bible in some school," Wallace announced, "I'm going to that school and [sic] read it myself."

These two reactions represented a critical shift in the politics of public-school religious instruction. During the 1940s and 1950s, conservatives and liberals supported prayer in school. They differed on the content--liberals stressed the "social teachings" of the Gospel and conservatives emphasized its message of personal salvation in Christ--but both camps agreed upon the need for religious instruction in public schools.

But in the early 1960s, the politics shifted dramatically--and to a degree rarely understood, the cause of the change was not faith but race.

Many blacks claimed that the special circumstances of African-American communities necessitated public school prayer. Traditionally, blacks noted, their schools had placed a heavy accent upon religious exercises. When the Supreme Court barred these rituals, it also attacked an important part of the African-American educational heritage.

At North Carolina's all-black Caswell County Training School, for example, "chapel" services anchored the weekly schedule. In the wake of Engel v. Vitale, blacks from the Caswell area felt cast out to sea; by 1967, they were circulating petitions for a school-prayer amendment. Elsewhere, blacks cited the dire social problems afflicting their neighborhoods--especially crime, drugs, and unwanted pregnancy--and argued that prayer might help relieve them. "[T]he schools have gone to the devil and the children have gone to hell under the present setup," intoned a black legislator from New York's Harlem district, backing a state law for silent classroom meditation. Subtle church-state concerns paled next to the poverty and chaos of inner-city America, which could only benefit from the hope and discipline that school prayer provided.

But black and liberal leaders' affection for prayer in school was outweighed by their impulse to defend the court's civil-rights rulings. Departing from the court on school prayer, it seemed, would undermine its precarious authority on civil rights. Civil-rights supporters often backed the prayer ban on the simple principle of "my enemy's enemy is my friend": since so many segregationists attacked Engel, integrationists needed to come to the Court's defense.

A few days after the Engel decision, for instance, New York's leading black newspaper published a fiery column supporting the Supreme Court's prayer ban. Its argument focused less on church-state separation than who was attacking the court rulings. "Among the loudest complainants are Senators Talmadge of Georgia and Eastland of Mississippi," wrote James L. Hicks in the Amsterdam News, citing two of Congress's most vehement segregationists. "Do I need to say anymore?" Although the Court's 1954 anti-segregation ruling "was molded in the image of Jesus Christ," Hicks noted, men like Talmadge and Eastland had refused to abide by it; now these same racists insisted that the Court's prayer decision was "preventing them from living like Christ."

An accompanying cartoon depicted a pair of white "Church Bigots," carrying Bibles and a sign that pleaded, "Supreme Court Unfair--We Need Prayer!" The prayer protesters were trampling upon two other demonstrators, one black and one white, whose sign demanded "Equal Rights for All." Like Hicks' column, the cartoon scored white hypocrites who seized on the prayer issue to block the black freedom struggle. The cartoon's caption, "Standing in the Way," contained a second implication: any black who supported school prayer would also assist the racist foe.

The prayer issue also split white civil-rights supporters. Spokesmen who praised the Supreme Court's liberal rulings on race often condemned its prayer prohibitions. "New justices discovered the injustice toward the Negroes hidden behind the fair-sounding slogan of 'separate but equal,'" noted a Catholic diocesan newspaper in Indiana, in an attack on Engel. "Someday soon, God willing, new justices will discover the injustice to religious people hidden behind the slogan of 'separation of Church and State.'"

Among Protestants, by contrast, most race liberals seem to have endorsed--or at least accepted--the Court's bans upon prayer and Bible reading. After court's 1963 decision in Abington v. Schempp, which barred religious use of the bible in schools, the general board of the National Council of Churches--already America's foremost theological tribune for racial equality--voted 65 to 1 in support. "[W]orship is a distinctive function of the church," the NCC proclaimed; if performed in school, it would lose its sacred quality and undermine "genuine Christian faith." Witness students' mockery of the Lord's Prayer, which they often bowdlerized with lines like "Give us this day our jelly bread" and "Lead me not into Penn Station."

To Christian Conservatives, the court rulings were part of a bigger assault on their values. "The Supreme Court has taken God out of our schools and freed many known criminals thru technicalities," wrote one parent. "Our televisions and newspapers scream violance [sic] is the order of our day, our Attorney Geneal [sic] Clark writes that he can't touch Stokely Carmical [sic] and the various looters and burners in our cities," wrote one right-wing critic. " It's like Sodom and Gomorrah--like Rome--America is rotting from within. Immorality is flourishing and pre-marital sex is being condoned even from the pulpits; juvenile delinquency is on the rise. America is in an advanced state of moral decline."

Despite the National Council of Churches firm stand for the Court, local ministers as well as laity rallied against it--and, increasingly, against their national leaders. In Indiana, for example, one prayer supporter scored the "hollow, hypocritical hallelujahs rising from certain doctors of divinity" in 1963--the "men of turncoat cloth" who had turned away from God in His moment of need.

Some admitted that the ban on school prayer was not the sole reason for America's epidemic of pornography, crime, and civil unrest. Rather, the prayer ban functioned as the primary symbol of an evil, decadent elite that did cause such ills: "liberals." To some critics, especially fundamentalist Christians, these despised "liberals" were quite literally agents of Satan. Others identified liberalism with "loose convictions," as one Californian wrote, noting an overall erosion of "courage and backbone"--that is, of moral standards--in the body politic.

Many fundamentalist Protestants still eschewed politics. In 1965, for example, future Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell attacked clergymen who participated in civil rights protests. "Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners," Falwell declared. But for many evangelicals, it was a call to action. "If we stand idly by and let things like this go on, I fear that in generations to come when God is mentioned to a child they will say, 'Who's that?'" an Ottumwa, Iowa woman wrote in 1968, explaining her own "conversion" into the politics of school prayer. "Christians of Ottumwa, stand up for your religious convictions!"

Tensions occasionally gripped this growing coalition of patriotic societies, women, Catholics, and fundamentalists. Whereas so-called "evangelicals" welcomed Catholics into the school-prayer fold, for example, the fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire and his followers still eschewed any cooperation with the "Beast of Rome."

For most of their history, American Catholics were the country's foremost champions of church-state separation. After the courts ruled against school prayer, however, Catholics "made a complete reversal" and became "the most vigorous defender of religious practices in the public schools," as school prayer opponent Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress ruefully reported. Nearly every leading Catholic cleric condemned the Engel and Schempp decisions, while several Catholic newspapers warned that "litigious minorities"--meaning Jews--would face violent retribution if they continued to resist school prayer.

Long a persecuted minority themselves, Catholics--like African-Americans--discovered a new affinity for majoritarian politics during the prayer struggle. "Catholics do have short memories," wrote one Jewish spokesman in 1962. "[T]hey seem to have forgotten their own struggles against the Protestants . to prevent Bible reading and prayer recitation in the public schools--presumably because they were not Catholic enough."

To Catholic spokesmen, by contrast, the Church's position had remained consistent throughout. During the vicious "Bible riots" that swept several cities in the 1840s, Catholics "did not ask that prayer in the schools be discontinued," as a Philadelphia diocesan newspaper screamed in 1962. Instead, a New Mexico paper added, Catholics objected only to "forced participation in Protestant practices," especially study from the King James Bible.

Now the Supreme Court proposed to strip all religious practices from the schools, thereby enshrining "secular humanism" as a "state-sponsored religion," as one bishop complained. Here Catholics began to echo the rhetoric of fundamentalist Christians, who slowly entered the political arena to fight for school prayer. "The Catholic Church (properly led) could have great impact . if it would but 'ecumenicize' with the real Protestants--the more fundamental types," a leading Catholic litigator argued. "There are vast areas for common action with these people."

That "ecumenization" indeed came to pass. A coalition of religious conservatives put aside their differences in service to the larger cause of school prayer. Ironically, this "New Christian Right" would echo one of the Left's most enduring traditions: civil disobedience. Citing Daniel's refusal to obey Darius' ban upon prayer, one rural New York minister argued that the Bible actually mandated resistance to Engel and Schempp. "A Christian surely can not let her mouth be stopped by state directives," the minister declared. "If opening her class with prayer were to cost her her job, it would not be the first time that a Christian suffered because of convictions."

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