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Driving prayer from the classroom


For half a century, God and Jesus Christ were in the classrooms of Pontotoc County, Miss. Today we celebrate that they are gone.”

The speaker is Nadine Strosser, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, at their annual convention in Santa Fe, N.M. The ACLU is presenting its highest award and a standing ovation to Lisa Herdahl, who -- with the help of the ACLU and People for the American Way -- drove a stake into the heart of school prayer and drove God and Jesus Christ back into those kooky fundamentalist churches where they belong.

Herdahl is the heroine of “School Prayer: A Community At War,” the documentary by filmmakers Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane, to be aired on PBS July 20.

Herdahl, raised in a Christian home in San Diego, moved to Wisconsin, then with her husband and six children to Mississippi in her husband’s search for work. But when she heard prayer over the public-address system in her son’s school, she raised hell. Her protest led to a two-year legal and -- more important -- ideological battle over whether the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the community’s freedom to worship according to its own tradition or the individual’s right to be protected from the community’s public prayers.

I must say that there is something creepy -- perhaps it would be kinder to say very sad -- about the several militant teenage hero-atheists and their parents who have made their way into print and onto the TV screens this summer, in the national flood of coverage about school shootings and wayward youth.

There’s something equally disturbing about the militantly prayerful teenagers and their parents who can’t wait to send these nonconformists to hell to burn forever and ever.

On the surface, the controversial issue is the sometimes mandatory, sometimes voluntary school prayer -- and variations on prayer, like Bible study groups -- that local public school systems in places as sophisticated as Calvert County, Md., and as backwater as Pontotoc County, Miss., have imposed on the young as one more attempt to instill some kind of personal morality.

Below the surface is a world-view that sees contemporary culture, particularly the materialistic secular culture dominated by the entertainment industry that has emerged over the last two generations of economic prosperity, as inimical to the values that keep the embattled family from falling apart.

In short, society is a roaring lion seeking to devour the young from the moment they walk out the front door after breakfast on the way to school till the moment they turn off the TV and fall into bed at night. And in a year when alienated teenagers at several high schools have demonstrated the depths of their nihilism by gunning down their classmates, those who hold this view may have a point.

On June 21, talk show host Brian Lehrer on WNYC in New York tried to reduce to absurdity the Congressional proposal to display the Ten Commandments in public places by pointing out that there are “several versions” of the Ten, that his Jewish Bible demands the death penalty for anyone who breaks the sabbath, and so on. Callers told tales of how much they had suffered by being forced to hear offensive words like God and Jesus Christ in public places. Last week an “atheist” high school student registered the same complaint on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Meanwhile, in Calvert County, Md., The Washington Post (June 22) has found Nick Becker, 18, who has gained national notoriety by protesting a prayer at his high school graduation. Son of two federal workers who occasionally attend Methodist services, baptized in the Greek Orthodox church and raised a Methodist, Nick began to question religious beliefs in high school. We do not know how parents, ministers and teachers dealt with his questions -- or if they ever even knew or cared. We do know that this otherwise very bright young man, a math whiz, has filled a few cubic inches of his new void with his electronic gods -- his stereo, drums, guitars, keyboards, videos and films.

He has created video spoofs where Joe DiMaggio and Groucho Marx burn in hell for not being Christians, a horror movie about a family who get chopped up and put in a bathtub, a math puzzle about how long it takes a 20-pound bag of severed thumbs to fall from the top of the Sears Tower and smash to the pavement into “a disgusting, bloody mess.” Conservative columnist Cal Thomas checked Nick’s popular Web site and deemed him another Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold in the making.

When Nick refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance the ACLU backed him and the principal who threatened to suspend him had to apologize. When he protested the Lord’s Prayer at graduation he won again; when some prayed aloud at graduation’s “moment of reflection,” he walked out in protest. Of course the authorities and the local community overreacted again and again and barred him from the graduation boat ride and branded him a devil-worshiper.

In structure, “School Prayer: A Community at War,” which documents over a year of the controversy, is a balanced examination. The camera moves between the Herdahl family as they chop wood, do household chores, drive to school and court, and their opponents, like the Rev. Doug Jones, pastor of the Victory Baptist Church, Jerry Horton, the superintendent of schools, and Lisa Gooch, who had initiated the intercom-led prayers when she was a student in 1978.

Both sides get a more-or-less equal chance to speak for themselves; but in the context of basic American mythology -- as well as Constitutional law -- there’s no way for organized religion to win. Lisa Herdahl is the lone individual standing up against the forces of blind conformity. True, the Lone Ranger and Tonto -- played by the ACLU and People for the American Way -- ride in to help; but it’s her tenacity in the face of social ostracism, the loss of her job and death threats in the mail that enables her to triumph.

She “wins” when the Federal Court at Oxford, Miss., in 1996 outlaws the school prayer and Bible classes and requires the community to pay Herdahl’s $144,000 legal costs. Ironically, the impoverished local citizens must raise the money to pay her through church collections.

By then the film’s evidence that the religious leaders are narrow-minded bigots may have won viewers to Herdahl’s cause. Church services include exorcisms over parishioners moaning on the floor.

On the other hand, the film’s most ambiguous moment shows Herdahl teaching her adolescent son Kevin how to fire a pistol. The presumption is that the townspeople are literally planning to kill her family and that she and her children are ready to shoot it out.

The film’s first weakness, it seems to me, is its failure to examine moments like this. How serious was the evidence of “death threats”? Were these investigated? If the mother is giving her son a handgun, haven’t things gone too far? Kevin tells us that the local boys say “nigger” and that “Mississippi is a different country from any place in the U.S.” It is true that Mississippi and its neighbor Louisiana consistently rank at the bottom of various lists, like the one that ranks quality of education; but what does this have to do with school prayer? Why do we see only the prayer of the fanatics?

Finally, there’s something odd about us never seeing the husband and father, described as a “very private person,” while Lisa Herdahl is enough a “public person” to fly with Kevin to appear on a Chicago TV talk show.

The documentary’s other failure is it’s not considering a non-polarized point of view. Nick Becker’s math teacher suggests that “although he looks for tolerance from other people he doesn’t necessarily give it himself. ... He’s just so overwhelmed by his convictions.” Michael Novak, in a New York Times op-ed essay on school prayer (June 18), says that if he were an atheist he would not worry about his children being intimidated by the prayer of others; he would teach them how empty prayer is and have them build their character by silently enduring the words that mean nothing to them. “So much for prayer in school causing some to feel left out. Everything in school causes someone to feel left out.”

A few of my fellow Jesuit professors begin class with prayer; and for them, I think, it works because it’s in the context of a Catholic university, in the relative intimacy of the classroom, and because the gesture obviously flows from both their priesthood and their style of teaching. Personally, I like prayers at faculty meetings, formal dinners and private meals and presidential inaugurations.

But my problem with prayer over the intercom, particularly in public schools, is like my problem with classes taught with teachers or students wearing hats or classes taught outdoors on sunny days. They trivialize prayer and education. Both prayer and learning are serious business, hard work: They demand absolute concentration.

Thus, I suggest, the disembodied voice once emanating from the speaker on the wall in rural Mississippi was neither religion nor education; and the ACLU, congratulating itself for having banished God and Jesus Christ from the classroom, had better look again.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is writing a history of Fordham University.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999