Volume > Issue > On School Prayer

On School Prayer


By Robert Coles | November 1983

All during my school years, elementary and secondary, I remember those first minutes of the day, Monday through Friday from September to June: we arrive in the classroom, we sit down and are called to order, our teacher reads to us from the Bible, we pray, then we stand and salute the flag, and to it and our country pledge our alle­giance. When my own children came of school age I was utterly amazed to learn that none of that routine was to be theirs. School prayers were not for the offspring of the liberal intelligentsia, nor sa­luting the flag. What if there were a child in the classroom who had his doubts about the existence of God? What if, indeed, his parents were convinced atheists, and have taught him a similar line of thinking? What about the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court’s rulings?

As for the flag, when my children had started school the American flag, in one sad and thorough­ly obnoxious display after another, was being drag­ged through the streets, spat upon, desecrated, mocked. Should children be “indoctrinated,” I be­gan to hear asked, in “vulgar nationalism” (one re­mark I heard in a New England town meeting in 1970), or in “chauvinism,” another description I heard compared unfavorably to — well, “the phi­losophy of spaceship earth,” which urges commit­ment to what the speaker called “a larger entity”? Only to such “entities” ought we “feel loyalty,” he kept insisting.

At the time and later, I was more than a little perplexed by my own conflicts as to what and whom I should “feel loyalty.” I had been much in­volved in the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s, and I had been saddened and angered by the way both Democrats and Republicans (John­son and Nixon) were conducting our various adven­tures abroad, in Vietnam, Chile, the Philippines, and yes, Central America: a sad spectacle of collu­sion with awful, awful “principalities and powers,” all in the name of an “anti-communism,” which it­self helps maintain or generates corrupt statist oli­garchies. Meanwhile, there is the horror of so-called “communism” — the dictatorships that control Poland and Rumania and Czechoslovakia and, not least, Cuba; and of course, the horror of the mur­derous sponsor, the band in charge of the Kremlin. But as I come up with this recitation, I feel, yet again, a surge of gratitude for being an American — that I don’t live in a totalitarian country, whether of the “Right” or the “Left,” that even with the serious flaws in America’s foreign policy, it is a country I can deeply love, and toward which I can “feel loyalty.”

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