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Coerced Prayer?

School Prayer

Mandated school prayer was ruled to be an unacceptable practice in the United States. By a majority of 8-1, the Supreme Court decided that school-mandated prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although many evangelicals lament the Court’s decision, maybe the ruling contained more wisdom than previously considered. For the record, I am …

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Mandated school prayer was ruled to be an unacceptable practice in the United States. By a majority of 8-1, the Supreme Court decided that school-mandated prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although many evangelicals lament the Court’s decision, maybe the ruling contained more wisdom than previously considered.

For the record, I am a baptist pastor. Baptists have traditionally recognized that religion needs to be freed from state power. Baptists believe that Christianity is a faith that demands its followers make an uncoerced and conscious decision to either accept or reject Christ. Christianity thrives in pluralistic societies because the Christian faith puts forth rational and practical answers to life’s most difficult questions. Baptists have always realized that our faith does not need state power to advance its cause; therefore, thoughtful preachers accepted the court’s decision to abolish state-mandated prayer.

Nevertheless, state-sponsored prayer has made its way back into the public-school system under a different name –”Mindfulness Training.” Mindfulness has been called the ‘heart’ of Buddhist meditation and is thought to be an essential tool to help identify the inner cause of suffering.[1] The Buddhist faith does not posit belief in a personal deity; therefore, individual prayer is not part of its religious practice. However, Buddhism replaces prayer with personal meditation. Mindfulness Training is a meditative practice in which one aspires to be diligently aware of one’s body, feelings, mind, and thoughts; it is often considered to be the most critical aspect of the Eightfold Path leading to nirvana. Mindfulness meditation involves giving attention to breathing as one seeks deeper and deeper insight into the nature of reality as marked by dissatisfaction, impermanence, and lack of solid self.[2]

Mindfulness Training is fast becoming the prayer of choice in our American public schools. According to KQED News, “Mindfulness has become a core social and emotional learning strategy” for educating our nation’s youth. In my upstate New York school district, ten to fifteen minutes of the school day are set aside for the practice of Mindfulness Training. Teachers are trained and encouraged to implement Mindfulness Training as a response to the ever-growing distractions of technology and chaotic schedules.

To be clear, I do not believe there is a conspiracy on the part of school boards to favor Buddhism over and above other faiths. Nor do I think that there is some subversive plot to undermine the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Excellent and caring teachers are merely looking for methods to combat overstimulation, overcrowding, and overwhelming anxieties that are plaguing our children. The challenges facing educators are enormous, and they need our prayers and support.

Nevertheless, I do wonder if we have become so religiously illiterate that we no longer have the ability to recognize religion at all? Moreover, have we become so spiritually void that we cannot even recognize when the establishment of a religion is taking place before our very eyes? If a teacher were to implement the Lord’s Supper as a means to settle young minds and bodies and to provide emotional comfort in the classroom, would we not all argue that a line had been crossed? Why are we willing to accept other religious rituals when they are introduced and sanctioned in the classroom? Admittedly, when a majority of people ascribed to Christianity, it was easier to distinguish what constituted as religious establishment and what did not.

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe my Buddhist neighbors (as well as other religions) have the right to practice their religion in public. I will contend day and night that religious freedom for all people is essential to our democracy. My concern is the state sanctioning one particular religious practice over another.

So how might Americans respond to the challenges of religious pluralism? I would like to put forward a few suggestions. First, Americans need to recapture a vision of religious liberty. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right for all people. Christians particularly need not fear pluralism; pluralism casts a unique backdrop whereby the claims of Christianity can shine forth. State-imposed religion robs individuals of their freedom of choice and undermines human dignity. Moreover, coerced faith is a deceptive faith. How many people have been misled believing their national religion results in personal salvation? Christians of all people can feel comfortable standing up for the religious rights of their neighbors, and Christians must speak boldly against state-mandated religious practice. Religious freedom is a vital component to evangelism.

Second, Americans must recover a religious vocabulary. Americans have lost the ability to talk about religion publically and substantively. Therefore, when we are confronted by practices such as “Mindfulness Training,” we do not even recognize its religious nature. Moreover, we have no vocabulary to express why imposing such practices violates the religious liberty of students and teachers. Our culture values pragmatism –if something works it must be okay. But our failure to articulate why specific practices violate religious freedom ultimately undermines personal liberty and our constitution.

Third, Americans will need to be prepared to lobby for religious accommodation. Throughout the era of Christendom, there was little need for mainstream Christians to ask for religious compromise. The average American Christian has not been accustomed to asking for religious exemption; after all, a majority of people at one time ascribed to some form of Christianity. But we no longer live in that world. Students that are not comfortable engaging in Buddhist meditation should be encouraged to exercise his or her right to practice the religion of their choice and ask for a religious accommodation. Many schools have allowed Muslim students to face Mecca and Jewish students to refrain from non-kosher food. Surely, Christian students can be allowed to open their Bibles and meditate on the scriptures during “Mindfulness Training.”

Please understand, I am not suggesting that Christians are victims; victimization is not befitting of our faith. I contend that America is special because we are a nation that allows all religions the space to practice openly and freely. Nevertheless, I am proposing that consistency be applied across the spectrum. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that schools cannot coerce students to participate in a state-sponsored religious activity whether that activity is called prayer or “Mindfulness Training.” All students and teachers have the right to ask for an exemption during this time or at least an accommodation to mediate in a manner congruent with their specific beliefs. Although evangelicals lamented the decision to end school prayer, perhaps in an increasingly pluralistic America, we see there was more wisdom in the court’s decision than evangelicals first thought.

[1]Xinghua Liu et al., “Can Inner Peace Be Improved by Mindfulness Training: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Stress Health J. Int. Soc. Investig. Stress 31.3 (2015): 245.
[2]Leslie Stevenson, Thirteen Theories of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2017), 72.

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Dan Trippie

Dan Trippie is a native of Buffalo, NY. He received his Bachelor of Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and studied at Reformed Theological Seminary before receiving his Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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