I was reading a news magazine recently about Pat Robertson, former candidate for President of the United States, owner of the Family Channel on cable TV, and head of the very conservative Christian Coalition. It said that he plans to go to Congress and introduce an amendment to the Constitution that would allow “moments of silence” in public schools. It said he figures this should be acceptable because he thinks it doesn’t violate the principle of separation of church and state in that it doesn’t prescribe prayer in school, just moments of silence. That scares me.
I remember my mother telling me when I was young that the end doesn’t justify the means. I think there’s sound wisdom in that.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea of instilling family values. I like the idea of mom and dad marrying and raising children to be positive, healthy, contributing members of society. These are good things, as I see them. And, as I understand the people of the religious right, I think these are the kind of family values that they want and which most of us agree with. But achieving the end of instilling family values does not justify whatever means are used to achieve them. History teaches us that from such well intentioned actions have come some of the cruelest hatred and oppression.
In Sam Keen’s new book, Hymns to an Unknown God, he says that when people, “ . . . claim to possess the only true revelation of God, they provide themselves with a theological justification for war. There is a high degree of correlation between true believers, known gods and high body counts.” If you have trouble with that, review your history book for what happened in the Roman Empire, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, and even today in Rwanda and Bosnia. In each case, the true believers started with what seemed like good intent and eventually used it to generate high body counts. Somehow we humans always seem to gravitate that way and I don’t think that we in the United States are somehow immune to that terrible gravity.
So far, we’ve managed to avoid legally declaring this to be a country of one particular religion, thus leaving room for all of us and our potpourri of beliefs. We’re all the richer and safer for it. Our Constitution mandates that there be no laws restricting freedom of religion. That prohibition is there because the people who crafted the Constitution came from places where there was no such protection and they knew full well the terrible price that is eventually paid when religion and the state are mixed.
We as a nation have consistently said that freedom of religion also means freedom for all religion and from religion. That specifically means that we have the right to practice religion as we see fit, but that freedom does not give us the right to force others to do as we do. Institutionalized “moments of silence” in our public schools would violate that freedom with a tacit instruction to pray in the prescribed manner.
The place for formal prayer in schools is in private institutions; prayer doesn’t belong in the state arena. I don’t want prayer in public schools forced on anyone’s children. I don’t want us to take this step backward to having a state-endorsed We and They society. Indeed, it’s taken decades of civil rights work for us to agree that we can all eat at the same restaurants, use the same seats on busses and not be subject to employment discrimination based on gender and race. Let’s continue to break down the We versus They mentality, not build it up again.
I don’t want those who want us to conform to their views to use principles that most of us support to manipulate us because it will inevitably lead us into a downward spiral. The end does not justify the means. What history teaches us is that when true believers attempt to force us to their way, their means will likely separate us and become the beginning of the end. And that end is cruel and, ironically, even god-less.
Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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