May 2000 Church & State | Viewpoint

Well, I see where someone has stolen a plaque of the Ten Commandments from the Morgan County, Ind., courthouse. Reporters have expressed surprise, because one of the commandments, as we all know, is "Thou shalt not steal." Can't thieves read these days?

I heard about the theft a week or so after I had come across an interesting survey reported at the 1987 meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association. In one of the very few scientific studies of the impact of school prayer on crime, researchers had compared the behaviors of Catholic high school seniors attending parochial schools against the behavior of Catholic high school seniors attending public schools.

The findings were unexpected: Greater percentages of parochial school students reported alcohol, cocaine and marijuana use than did public school students. Specifically:

Forty-five percent of Catholic school seniors had been drunk during the two weeks preceding the survey, compared to 39 percent of public school seniors.

Twenty-one percent of Catholic school seniors had tried cocaine, compared to 17 percent of public school students.

Forty-four percent of Catholic school seniors had smoked marijuana during the prior six months, as compared to 41 percent of public school students

Forty percent of Catholic school seniors had shoplifted during the preceding year, compared with 29 percent of public school seniors.

In most categories, the statistical differences were not large, and there are numerous possible explanations for the results, none of which justify disparaging Catholic schools. Many problem-teens are enrolled in religious or other private schools by parents hoping for stricter discipline; private school students also have higher disposable incomes and can more easily afford drugs and alcohol.

But clearly prayer in the classroom was insufficient to prevent these teen behaviors.

Both the study and the theft of the Ten Commandments tablet reminded me of conversations several years ago with the Rev. Lou Wargo, who at the time was pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Indianapolis. He commented, "Religion is not magic, and I am not a witch doctor."

Lou would complain when some group or other wanted to "improve morality by mandating school prayer or Bible study, or -- shades of our current Indiana legislature -- posting the Ten Commandments. "Do these people really believe that generic religious symbolism changes behavior, or that watching supposedly religious people exhibit their disrespect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights teaches kids to be law-abiding? We teach a lot more by our behavior than by our public pieties."

So true.

A friend of mine runs a mentoring program for at-risk youth, with the motto, "What you see is what you'll be." Our children need parents, teachers and other authority figures who don't just recite the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments, but who actually live by them. They need daily interaction with adults who act with integrity and intellectual honesty, adults whose behavior is shaped by sound values and informed by compassion and openness and humility.

Our kids need role models, not magic.

Sheila Suess Kennedy is assistant professor of law and public policy at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Indianapolis. She is a member of Americans United, and former Republican candidate for Congress. This article first appeared in The Indianapolis Star.