Ebert on school prayer

03.05.03

Josh pointed me towards this great article by Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times on the issue of school prayer in the U.S. In it, Ebert argues that while he has no problem with personal prayer, the problem comes with public prayer aimed at either recruiting others or else making them feel excluded. He defines the distinction as “vertical” and “horizontal” prayer:

This is really an argument between two kinds of prayer–vertical and horizontal. I don’t have the slightest problem with vertical prayer. It is horizontal prayer that frightens me. Vertical prayer is private, directed upward toward heaven. It need not be spoken aloud, because God is a spirit and has no ears. Horizontal prayer must always be audible, because its purpose is not to be heard by God, but to be heard by fellow men standing within earshot.

To choose an example from football, when my team needs a field goal to win and I think, ”Please, dear God, let them make it!”–that is vertical prayer. When, before the game, a group of fans joins hands and ”voluntarily” recites the Lord’s Prayer–that is horizontal prayer. It serves one of two purposes: to encourage me to join them, or to make me feel excluded.

[ . . . ]

This simple insight about two kinds of prayer, which is beyond theological question, should bring a dead halt to the obsession with prayer in public places. It doesn’t, because the purpose of its supporters is political, not spiritual. Their faith is like Dial soap: Now that they use it, they wish everyone would. I grew up in an America where people of good breeding did not impose their religious convictions upon those they did not know very well. Now those manners have been discarded.

I agree with all of that so far. Individual prayer is fine. After all, I went to a religious school most of my life, where daily prayer was just part of the routine. But of course it wasn’t compulsory for me to have gone there – I could have gone to a public school where religion wasn’t forced down anyone’s throats. Prayer aimed at excluding those different from oneself is another story.

And here’s the kicker:

Because our enemies are for the most part more enthusiastic about horizontal prayer than we are, and see absolutely no difference between church and state–indeed, want to make them the same–it is alarming to reflect that they may be having more success bringing us around to their point of view than we are at sticking to our own traditional American beliefs about freedom of religion. When Ashcroft and his enemies both begin their days with displays of their godliness, do we feel safer after they rise from their devotions?

Good question.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adem 03.06.03 at 9:13 AM

I am somewhat versed in Christian-Jewish history. It isi strange that Jews or Christian could support prayer in schools. During the Roman Empire, everything had a particuar god devoted to it (trade guilds, schools, the army, etc.) One also had take part in ceremonies to show loyalty to the state. Even if you did not believe in the god, it mattered not. The important things was showing concern for Rome, and be part of the community. Jews and Christians objected to these practices. In fact, it was offensive to them to even participate in an event or go to a meeting where a god was being honored or sacrificed to (even though the ceremonies sometimes lasted only a few minutes). John of Patmos, who wrote the book of revelation, was a devout christian who was originally jewish, so he had mentality of both communities. He stated that any christian who took part in anything that had to do with other gods would be punished because by doing so, they no only insulted Yahweh, but also would slowly water down the tradition. They were the biggest threat to religion, not the pagans. It was the people on the inside who could do the most damage by slowly altering the true customs and beliefs. For these reasons, jews and christians refused to take part in such activities because of the implications. It is strange that many Judaeo-Christians today do not remember that taking part in an event, even with a short “ceremony” or prayer that is not your belief, was offensive to their “spiritual ancestors”. But they cannot understand that when other people say that their official prayers turn a football game into a semi-religious event. Their predecessors understood that, what can’t they?

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2 segacs 03.06.03 at 3:32 PM

Adem, probably because to many religious Christians, it only bothers them if the “official” ceremony is from ANOTHER religion. They simply don’t see the other side of the coin. To them, if the religious ceremony is Christian, it’s the “right” religion and everyone else should stop whining about it. But you can bet that if they started implementing compulsory or “forced voluntary” Muslim prayer in schools, there would be an uproar.

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3 James 03.07.03 at 3:14 AM

In the U.S., most Christians don’t have strong memories of living in Rome, nor family traditions tied to it.

On the other hand, the weaving of religion into everyday life, including schooling, is a very strong tradition in Europe, and was especially so at the time when the U.S. was created as a state by Europeans such as the Puritans seeking to practice their Christian religion. If you ever have a chance to visit the U.S. South.

If anything, the more usual alliance in this shifting set of alliance has traditionally been between Jews and Muslims, both of whom have a tradition of using day schools to pass on their religion. This has particularly been the case in Ontario, where lawsuits have been periodically filed throughout the years by joint groups of Jewish and Muslim parents, regarding the Ontario government’s funding of Catholic and only Catholic religious schools. (Tied to the BNA Act and so forth.)

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4 James 03.07.03 at 3:19 AM

Incidentally, Adem’s use of the term “Judeo-Christian” to describe real, living (or dead) people is an anachronism, to say the least.

Jews and Christians are, obviously, adherents of different religions, and of different traditions; this is true of Christians and Muslims as well, as you may be aware. The term “Judeo-Christian” itself is a Christian one, usually used to describe a set of values and beliefs held by Christians and which they believe to be built on Jewish antecedents which the Christian religion apparently helped to improve and extend.

When you look at its usage, it tends to be employed in an attempt to render certain Christian values as “universal”, but is of course antithema to Jews under the impression that theirs is a real, live tradition rather than the fossilized antecedent to someone else’s.

(Meanwhile, to state the obvious, Jews and Christians tend not to have a shared historical spin on much of, well, history. Their relations in historic Europe weren’t so hot.)

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5 Adem 03.07.03 at 12:44 PM

The term is descriptive, not an anachronism. If is a socio-historical term first used in 1899 according to the Oxford dictionary. The context implied that modern Judaism and modern Christianity are NOT the same religion, but share a similar historical origins (the first Christians were considered both by themselves and by othter Jews, to be Jews) and have a certain continuity between them. It does not imply that they are the same, but sometimes for simplicity, one must use general terms, the same way Episcopaelians and Pentacostals are ultimately not the same religion,
but one can still bracket them within Christianity, but it depends on the context being discussed. It can be used by some in a religious comtext to insinuate certain ideas, but that is not inherent in the meaning of the term. Maybe some Christians think they improved original Jewish teachings, which many modern Jews also believe they improved and expanded. The term was also used to include Jews within the Western tradition, rather than thinking of them strictly as Arabs or Semites (even though many Jews are in fact descendants of various tribes from the Caucasus).
It is used to denote speicifc religious tradition, which is the tradition that began with the Biblical and emerged into what today have become Christianity, modern Judaism and in some cases Islam. The term Judaeo-Christian is used many people in many different circumstances. The standard sociological and historical definition of Western civilization is that which has to do with 1. The Greco-Roman tradition & 2. the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

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6 James 03.07.03 at 4:55 PM

The standard sociological and historical definition of Western civilization is that which has to do with 1. The Greco-Roman tradition & 2. the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Well, the standard European and Western sociological and historical definition, anyway. Standard anythings are a reflection of an accumulation of past practices, not a validation of accuracy and correctness. Past practices in the Europe and the West aren’t what one would call racism-free — which is why, as we move forward, we look at the past critically and learn from historical mistakes. Or we try, anyway.

But you don’t really address my two points.

The first is about ideas. “Judeo-Christian” is a term with a specific meaning. That meaning is to cast the modern West as Christian, and Christianity as the logical follow-on to the Judaism it superseded. You should feel free to use any words you like, of course, but surely it’s helpful to understand the implications of the Christian-centric vocabulary you choose to adopt. In talking about values specific to the three faiths which originated in the Levant, I find it less discriminatory to talk of “Abrahamic” values. You might want to consider it. (Alternatively, if you think that “Judeo-Christian” is actually meaningful as more than a paper-over for Christians seeking to cast their view is universal, then surely you should be talking of a Judeo-Christian world and a Judeo-Muslim world, yes?)

The second point was about people. You talked about “Judeo-Christians”. Unlike the ideas context, the people one is nonsensical. There are no “Judeo-Christians”. There is noone who describes themselves as such.

Now, I understand why those who seek to divorce the Jewish people from its Middle Eastern roots and heritage would find it rhetorically strategic to promulgate that kind of idea — that is, to seek to align Jews and Christian Europe as closely as possible and, thus, to bind Jews with what is these days positioned as the Middle East’s opposite, and push them away from the Middle East itself.

But it’s not because propaganda works that it’s respectable. If you want to spew age-old (and deeply hurtful) lies about how Jews are foreigners with nothing to do with the Middle East, who don’t really belong in the Levant, are the deluded descendents of a Turkic band of Khazars (your “Caucasus” reference), or other lies, you should at least do so honestly — not embed it in catchphrases that play on prejudices without admitting to the idea being pushed.

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7 Adem 03.07.03 at 10:46 PM

Conservatie Christians may use the term with a specific connotation, but that is not the only one, and I do not find it acceptable that the Christian Coalition hijacks terms. Both when it was coined as well as now, there can be more than one meaning for term. In the historical texts I have read, that is the term they use to desribe the Western tradtion. The general definition is being historically related to both Judaism and Christianity. Next, the West has been predominantly Christian! Whether we like it or not, every nation in Europe as well as North America was governed by Christians since the Middel Ages. The vast majority of the Western populations were and are Christians of one denomination or another. Every other religious denomination as well as non-religious individuals are in the minority at the moment.
That noone describes themselves as Judaeo-Christians, but no one describes themselves as revelationary positivists, but the term is useful in describing that specific epistemological system. Most people with those beliefs are probably unaware of the term. Judaeo-Christian is a general term used to include the Jewish and Christian traditions. The first Christians were all Jews and essentially had Jewish beliefs with a few additions. When one talks about the similar ethics of Judaism and Christianity, one uses the term Judaeo-Christian. It is also used by Jewish and Christian theologians who dialog with one another. They may not share beliefs about Jesus etc., but they do have common ground, because both their traditions emerged from the same context.
Just to let you know, I personally am not trying to divorce anyone from anything. The political implications of the points I raise are irrelevant to me. I the some of the Jewish population is descended from certain populations, that has nothing to do with the current Middle East crisis. The only thing I am concerned with is the evidence for or against a certain proposition. The political or emotional implications of it are irrelevant in deciding if it is true. If you have any info on the Khazars I would appreciate it. As far as I know, there is significant documentary evidence suggesting that sections of the Jewish population are descendants of several populations who converted in the Middle Ages. Most of the evidence I have read is not from Palestinian supporters. If people consider themselves bound to a traditon because they feel like it, or because their ancestors did, is fine enough for me. I don’t divide Jews into groups and say half of them don’t belong here or there. My only interest is the history of various populations throughout history. There is ample evidence that many Jews, who happen to be white rather than Arab color, are descended from people who took up the faith in the Middle Ages. Chalking it all up to propaganda because some people use historical facts for political purposes is not honest. How people use a fact has nothing to do with its historicity.

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8 James 03.11.03 at 1:09 AM

I do not find it acceptable that the Christian Coalition hijacks terms. Both when it was coined as well as now, there can be more than one meaning for term. Great. But we’re talking about a term that was invented in, by, and for the Christian West long before anything like the contemporary “Christian Coalition” existed.

It was invented with a purpose, and it is used to particular effect — two, really, by cementing the West to Christianity, and by writing off any Jewish influence thereupon as the ancient contribution of a fossilized, now superseded, people, survived today by people who — like all heathens — have not yet seen the light of Christ but, of course, must be made to.

That’s not something marginal to or added onto the term; it’s where it comes from. That it gets used by well-meaning people all the time is quite predictable, just as others will talk quite well-intentionedly about the Muslim terrorism problem; the point is that the language we choose has political implications and using it reproduces those implications.

Like you say, the West has been predominantly Christian! Whether we like it or not, every nation in Europe as well as North America was governed by Christians since the Middel Ages. Exactly. For you, of course, this talk of “Judeo-Christian ideas” or, better, a mythical group of “Judeo-Christians” has nothing to do with writing minorities out of history; like, you know what you mean, right?

But, then, it’s all empirical innocence here; while the rest of us trip across highly selective histories and patchworks of half-truths dressed as just the facts, ma’am, you stride a world of apolitical truthtelling and unmotivated dialogicians — or, as you put it, The political implications of the points I raise are irrelevant to me though, admittedly, There is ample evidence that many Jews, who happen to be white rather than Arab color, are descended from people who took up the faith in the Middle Ages. Chalking it all up to propaganda because some people use historical facts for political purposes is not honest. How people use a fact has nothing to do with its historicity.

Of course not. I’ll take a pass on this discussion of “white rather than Arab color”, whatever that means — one hopes the good people of, say, Beirut and Damascus have been alerted about this new coloring policy — and simply wish you the best of luck in your historical research about the ancestral forebears of some of the world’s Jews — research which, of course, exists outside that tainted realm, politics. A quick Google search will find you loads of fellow truth-seekers; this is probably as good a place to start as any, though (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Cyprus/8815/Khazars.html):

In the film, Ted Pike makes the assertion (as have most anti-Semitic groups, including the Nazis) that the Jews of European origin, the “Askhenazim” (who comprise almost 80% of today’s Jewry), are actually descended from a medieval people called the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The logic of the argument goes something like this; if 80% of all the Jews in tile world are not really Jews, then, firstly, these Jews have absolutely no claim, biblical or otherwise, to the Land of Israel. Secondly, these Jews are in no way the people of God, and thus, have no place in the promises or plans of God. Thirdly, if the vast majority of present-day Jews are not Jews (therefore, not Semitic) at all, then it cannot be considered “anti-Semitic” to oppose them.

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