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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2003, Vol. 30 No. 1

'Moral' Victories: Ronald Reagan and the Debate over School Prayer

Lawrence J. McAndrews


In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the United States Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that voluntary recitation by New York public school students of a one-sentence non-denominational prayer composed by that stateís Board of Regents violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The next year, in the Abington v. Schempp case, the Court decided that voluntary recitation of the Lordís Prayer and reading of the Bible in public schools were also forbidden by the First Amendmentís admonition that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Prior to these rulings, thirteen states had permitted the Lordís Prayer and twenty-six states had allowed Bible reading in their public schools.1

For the next two decades, Congress attempted to effectively overturn these decisions by amending the constitution. School prayer amendments fell nine votes short in the Senate in 1966, and twenty-nine votes shy in the House of Representatives in 1971. A decade later, President Ronald Reagan fulfilled a campaign promise by proposing to Congress a constitutional amendment to restore school prayer. "Nothing in the Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions," read the amendment which Reagan sent to Capitol Hill on May 17,1982. "No person shall be required by the United States or by any state to participate in prayer." It was hard to find a more representative explanation for Reaganís popularity than this simple yet potent plea to "return" American society to the putative values and virtue which proceeded Engel v. Vitale, when teachers exercised authority, students learned right from wrong, courts respected legislatures, and the federal government yielded to the states. Yet despite the enormous authority of the Presidency and the overwhelming attraction of this amendment, it would lose in the Senate two years later. The President waited too long to exert his power, and the amendmentís popularity was too shallow to effect legislation.2

The "Culture War"

In a larger sense, the debate over school prayer was about neither school nor prayer. It was a weapon in the artillery of both sides of the countryís emerging cultural divide, between those who longed for a time that had been and those for whom that time never was. By the time of Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp, the religious Right and the secular Left had already declared war on each other.

"A tidal wave of change," writes Garry Wills, "seemed to make all institutions of authority falter during the Sixties. Churches, schools, the military, the courts, Americaís moral claims on other countries, past and present policy, patriotismóall were under siege" (pg. 117) in the eyes of many Americans. The turbulence of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and the liberalization of college campuses, according to Mark Noll, "significantly widened the gap between values and behavior. Conservatives continued to emphasize preaching and teaching, the shaping of high personal moral standards, and, above all, the personally redemptive experience of salvation. Liberals, on the other hand, increasingly attached importance to behavior." To religious conservatives, it mattered less how one acted than whether one believed; to religious liberals, it mattered less whether one believed than how one acted. The battle lines were clear.3

The turning point in the "culture war" arrived in 1973, when the Supreme Courtís Roe v. Wade decision effectively legalized abortion, persuading cultural conservatives that even human life was expendable in the eyes of "secular humanists." Yet rather than concede defeat or escalate its offensive, the religious Right changed its tactics.

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