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What would Jesus do on prayer?

Millions of Christians are charting their moral course through the sirens and sharp rocks of daily life by confronting temptation and tough choices with a question: "What would Jesus do?"

Except for the presumptuous who know what Jesus would do, it is hard to say how he would respond to real-life dilemmas. How, for instance, would he react to these Alabama scenes, metaphors for moral choices anywhere?

Surely he would smile approval on the Randolph County High School students kneeling voluntarily at the end of football practice to recite the Lord's Prayer, or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Auburn and Alabama gathering for prayer before and after games.

But what about the two little girls crying in the hallway of a DeKalb County school, banished because their Seventh-day Adventist faith wouldn't allow them to say a teacher-imposed Protestant prayer? Would Jesus thank the teacher or comfort and defend the little girls?

And what would his conscience compel him to do about the serial abuse of little Jewish boys and their sister in a Troy school?

The mother first saw trouble brewing when her eldest boy was receiving an award for his 4-H work and a teacher shoved the boy's head down on his desk during a teacher-dictated Christian prayer.

Then, the boys came home with swastikas drawn on the backs of their clothes _ even on the little girl's box of crayons.

When the boys were allowed by their parents to wear yarmulkes in tribute to the slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one boy was beaten up in the bathroom and the other had his yarmulke ripped from his head and tossed around the school in a game of keep-away. At the end of the school day, he had to retrieve the cap from a trash bin.

Ironically, the mother and father had met in Germany where both were serving their country in the military and where their faith was no problem.

Heartsick, distraught, too poor to afford the move to another state, they sought free legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union _ declining monetary damages because they knew the schools' financial condition.

Isn't it at least conceivable that, in this instance, the unpopular ACLU and the teachings of Jesus merged? That family was certainly poor in spirit, needing a blessing. No doubt they were despised and needed a friend.

What would Jesus do: defend the Christian majority because they speak his name, or offer solace to the poor outcasts who worship his father in a temple rather than a church?

Most compassionate souls would take the all-American stance and pull for the underdog. Because that is so, it should be easy to solve the school-prayer controversy _ if the debate hadn't been hijacked by polar opposites.

What we hear is a dialogue of the deaf, or at least the unhearing. On one side are hair-trigger civil libertarians who'd arrest a child caught saying grace in a school cafeteria. On the other are Protestant ayatollahs who would enforce a state religion.

Both history and the law are against the rise of an American ayatollah. Mr. Justice Robert H. Jackson, later to be chief judge of Nazi crimes in Nuremberg, made that point eloquently in a 1943 opinion, Barnett vs. West Virginia School Board.

His majority, which included an Alabama Baptist, Justice Hugo Black, supported Seventh-day Adventists who believed that saluting the flag violated the First Commandment and ruled against the State School Board on West Virginia's attempt to enforce patriotic conformity.

Attempts to compel uniformity have never worked, from the Roman Empire's attempt to stamp out Christianity to the Inquisition's insistence on Roman Catholic conformity to the Puritans' punishment of Baptist dissent.

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Jackson wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

That is all Black wrote 19 years later in the much-misunderstood 1962 prayer decision. He said government _ in that case, the New York Board of Regents _ can't compel students to recite an official prayer.

History, law and common sense offer a simple solution to the school-prayer controversy. It is this:

Almost any kind of voluntary prayer in school is permissible, but no big or little ayatollah _ no teacher or school board _ can impose on students any government-sanctioned form of worship. Would Jesus favor coercion?

Brandt Ayers is publisher of his family-owned daily newspaper, the Anniston Star, in Alabama.

Creators Syndicate