Public Schools

In The Wake Of The Uvalde Massacre, Talk Of School Prayer Is Yet Another Distraction

  Rob Boston

Members of the U.S. Senate have reportedly reached an agreement on a package of gun-safety laws. The move comes in reaction to the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, May 24.

Some will say they’re not doing enough. Fair enough. But they are at least doing something that could have a positive effect. That beats what the Christian nationalist brigade is offering: unhelpful stunts of distraction and misdirection.

It was only a matter of time before school prayer got drawn into this discussion. Stung by criticism that Republicans were willing to do nothing but offer “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of the shooting, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said recently during a House committee hearing, “Look, maybe if we heard more prayers from leaders of this country instead of taking God’s name in vain, we wouldn’t have the mass killings like we didn’t have before prayer was eliminated from school.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) followed that up with an equally insipid comment, remarking during a press conference, “We had AR-15s in the 1960s. We didn’t have those mass school shootings. Now, I know it’s something that some people don’t want to talk about, but we actually had prayer in school during those days.”

My friend Steve Benen at “Maddowblog” did a great job explaining how voluntary prayer has never been removed from public schools and noting the irony in the Republicans’ position: They don’t trust teachers to offer instruction about race or history but believe they’d do a swell job running children’s religious lives.

I would just add that the GOP’s fondness for school prayer is anchored in a misty-eyed view of America that never existed. To hear them tell, all public schools had school-sponsored prayer, and everything was just peachy keen until that mean old Supreme Court tossed it out in 1962. At that point, everything started going downhill.

There’s a lot wrong with this picture. For starters, not all public schools had official prayer. Policies varied from state to state and even district to district. And where they did exist, school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading were always controversial. People were challenging them as early as the 1840s and began filing lawsuits in state courts 20 years later. (Among the most vociferous opponents were Catholics who spoke out against Protestant religious exercises being imposed on their children.)

Official school prayer has never been idyllic and sweet. It has been a problem from day one – and that’s just one reason why the Supreme Court invalidated it 60 years ago.

Nor does school-sponsored prayer have some sort of magical ability to ward off every social ill. That’s a common claim of Christian nationalists, but a moment’s thought demonstrates that it’s absurd. To cite just one example, official school prayer in the 1950s existed alongside institutionalized racism, xenophobia and suppression of women’s rights. (For more information about school prayer’s long, troubling history, see this special issue of Church & State.)

Christian nationalists and their GOP allies will do anything to avoid overdue discussions about guns, violence and school safety. Talk of school prayer is yet another distraction. Let’s hope the American people don’t let them get away with it.

Photo: U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert. Getty Images.

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