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school prayer

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.