Church attendance is not one of President Reagan’s priorities. Like so many of his countrymen, Reagan prefers to spend sabbath mornings beyond range of the preacher’s hum and the chancel choir’s wakeful blast. Good enough. If the U.S. leader delights more in the Sunday paper than the weekly bulletin, if he chooses to watch vintage Roadrunner cartoons instead of witnessing the baptismal rite, if he wants to forgo suit and tie and remain in flannel pyjamas, who is to say he should be denied the privilege?
Yet aides at the White House claim that President Reagan, in fact, laments his absence from the pew. They plead that this fine and considerate man stays home only because his appearance would upset the routine of other churchgoers and occasion such an unholy stir that solemnity, and perhaps safety, would be gravely compromised. Recently, the president himself was moved to explain, “I represent too much of a threat to too many other people for me to be able to go to church.”
With all due respect to Mr. Reagan, the people of the United States know better. The danger is not that Ronald Reagan will go to church and disturb the peace but that he will mistake cathedral spires for enemy missiles and order a retaliatory strike. The record shows that this is a president who avoids organized worship whenever possible, his perfect right in the home of the free. Separation of church and state is a cherished American ideal. If a president wants to sleep late on Sunday morning, many would agree we are better off for his snoring.
How remarkable, then, to find Mr. Reagan lobbying with apostolic fervor for a measure designed to invite the church into the public domain. The president, who, for all we know, has no more inclination to pray than he does to wear ballet tights to meetings of the National Security Council, has been harping for weeks about the necessity of a constitutional amendment that would permit prayer sessions in the classroom. “Americans are turning back to God,” he rejoiced in a speech before the National Association of Evangelicals. “Faith and hope are being restored.” Not surprisingly, the crowd answered, “Amen.”
It is the belief of Mr. Reagan that school authorities should be allowed to set aside a few minutes each day for
religious activity—for a time when students might stick their Bubble Yum under the desk and begin communication with their God. Kids jabber with friends at lunch and in the corridors and on the bus ride home. What possibly could be wrong with affording them the chance to engage in higherlevel discussions? We all know how passionately the average 12-year-old longs to bend the divine ear and what dislocation the child will suffer if, immediately after the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, the teacher does not undertake a daily meditation. The president wants to rescue the youth of America from such despair.
In his campaign Mr. Reagan is supported by the familiar coalition of TV evangelists and crypto-Calvinist diehards who have convinced themselves that if only the children would pray our suffering country would be saved from the moral doom so long impending. Cu-
‘He will not disturb the peace in church but he may mistake the cathedral spires for enemy missiles'
riously, those are the folks most determined in other matters to lift government off the backs of the people and who see in every social program the portent of Soviet-style centralization. Those who want kids in home room to cease discussing the virtues of break dancing and begin negotiating eternal salvation are the same freethinkers who denounce federal regulations demanding racial integration in the schools. On the issue of prayer they want a constitutional amendment. Regarding school busing, they perceive government action as unpatriotic.
While the president was exhorting Congress to accommodate his brethren on the fundamentalist right, the Supreme Court, in another matter, did its part to smudge the line between church and state. Pawtucket, a city in Rhode Island, had sought, and in turn was given, permission by the judges to erect a taxpayer-supported crèche during Christmas observances—not a terribly big deal, one might agree, but hardly an encouraging development in a country founded by resolute souls who arrived in wooden ships to escape the rigors of
an imperious king and his religion.
The difficulty with the crèche decision and with the push for school prayer is that such actions have the effect of establishing Christianity as the national religion. Currently, children of all persuasions are entirely welcome to pray silently whenever spirit or situation move them—before trigonometry examinations, upon being nabbed in the rest room with a smouldering cigarette, on the afternoon report cards are issued—and, even if they fell to their knees and made raucous supplication, the teacher likely would do nothing more than apply a cool compress and suggest a nap.
An informal approach is not satisfactory to Mr. Reagan, nor to others who ordinarily extol the virtues of personal expression. They want prayer ordered, imposed and uttered aloud—insisting all the while that minority rights will not suffer in the process. All creeds could be accommodated with skilful use of neutral language, they say. Everyone will feel at ease—Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Confucianist, Hare Krishna, Ethical Culturist, whomever—when the Christian kids begin to pray. Agnostics and atheists may remain silent, should they have the courage.
Prior to the March 20 Senate vote on the proposed amendment, Washington took on the atmosphere of a tent meeting. Demonstrators chanted: “Kids want to pray! Kids want to pray!” A woman pulled a mannequin dressed like Jesus from her station wagon and set him up on the sidewalk. President Reagan invited 20 senators to the White House for a last-minute pep talk. Remarkably, only four legislators bothered to drop by—an omen, to be sure.
On judgment day senators defeated the proposal soundly, the president’s fear of a catastrophic “religious vacuum” notwithstanding. Subsequently, the White House issued an official lament. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, warned that infidels on Capitol Hill would be smitten at the polls come November. Representing the opposing view was another churchman, Rev. Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches. Kelley noted that prayer amendments have been defeated seven times since 1962 and added, “I think the right side has prevailed again.” As even the unsanctified might say, “Glory be.”
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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