Prayest in thy closet…not thy classroom.

Authors note: I originally posted this February 9, 2010.

3 Nephi 13:

5 And when thou prayest thou shalt not do as the hypocrites, for they love to pray, standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

These two verses remind my wife and I of arguments for school prayer. They rarely have anything to do with humble communication with God. Instead, they are about using prayer to make a political statement.

Am I painting advocates of school prayer in an inaccurate light? Probably. Having grown up in a place with considerable religious diversity, I have never been comfortable with public religion. I am not talking about public expressions of religion, but instead public endorsements of religion. Such endorsements violate the social contract that makes it possible for a community with such pluralism to exist.

Those who use of prayer for political points will have surely have their reward.

21 Replies to “Prayest in thy closet…not thy classroom.”

  1. I basically agree. When I was in high school there was a group that would gather in the courtyard every morning for a little sermon and prayer. I was occasionally tempted to join them–rather, I was tempted to join my non-LDS religious friend in participating–but I never did, primarily because I was uncomfortable with its public nature. I often thought of the scripture you quoted. If it had been in a classroom, then I probably would have participated.

  2. I have a testimony that these same verses apply to prayer in church as well. Note that synagogues are called out first.

    I look forward to the mental gymnastics justifying public prayer even at church.

  3. Reminds me of a story included in this years Young Men manual:

    “Bill was taking a speech class in school and was assigned to give a speech on a controversial subject. The speech would count for half his grade. Unable to decide on a topic, Bill prayed for help. The impression came to him, ‘If you’re looking for a controversial subject, choose the Book of Mormon.’

    Hoping not to offend anyone, Bill began his presentation explaining the history and content of the book. But again the Spirit came upon him. He thought to himself: ‘I don’t care what happens to me, or what happens to my grade. The Book of Mormon is true, and they all ought to know it.’ So he began to teach as if he were speaking to investigators, bearing his testimony of the Book of Mormon.

    When he finished, he waited for the other students to make fun of him. Instead, they wrote very positive responses. A few wrote, ‘You have almost convinced me of the truth of what you said.’ Another student wrote, ‘I really would like to know more about your church’ (adapted from Gene R. Cook, ‘Trust in the Lord,’ Ensign, Mar. 1986, p. 79).”

  4. Chris,
    I totally agree with you. Of course, I grew up in secular Southern California, and didn’t even realize that anyone wanted prayer in schools (until I was at BYU and, it turned out, some of my classmates thought that taking prayer out of public schools was the worst thing since legalizing abortion).

    The funny thing is, my wife totally doesn’t get why I find it so horrible. She grew up in the South (not a hotbed of Mormon friendliness), and had prayer starting her school days (which, at some point, became moments of silence with the lights turned out) and starting football games. She finds the idea of prayer in school totally noncontroversial. Weird, huh?

  5. “not a hotbed of Mormon friendliness”

    That’s the rub though, isn’t it? Maybe you’ve heard of this case: brought by an LDS family and a Catholic family, which made its way all the way to SCOTUS. The HS started football games with a prayer, but somehow the prayer was always offered by the majority southern Baptists, not by the Mormon or Catholic.

    The case, which ended up banning prayer at public HS football games, enraged a lot of conservative Mormons (the “worst thing since legalizing abortion” folks), but I think a lot of conservative Mormons are too quick to forget that when you trample on the minority…that might someday be you.

  6. I went to private schools all the way up to college and had prayer and mass as part of my school curriculum. I do not think it was just to be seen of man. I guess it can become that. It was just part of our communal identity, like the moment of silence is now for my daughter at school. (I do encourage to say a private prayer in that moment of silence.) I think public prayer is mainly about community, not politics.

  7. I grew up in a predominantly LDS community and we did not have prayer in our schools — except at our graduation ceremony. And if my memory serves me correctly, those prayers were offered by a Protestant and a Jew. So, for a long time, I saw nothing wrong with prayer as long as it was inclusive and not exclusive. But in so much of the country, the issue is not really prayer or religion but power. The Texas case is a perfect example. And then you get into questions of what constitutes a religion, should witches be able to pray, should Scientilogists be allowed to pray, what about those who have no religion etc. In the end, keeping prayer out of schools where it would be seen as school-sponsored or endorsed seems like a pretty good idea.

  8. I always thought praying in school was a sign of self-righteousness on the part of the controlling party. I was most annoyed by the BYU professors (outside the Religion dept) that started every class with a prayer than those that just stuck to the subject matter.

  9. I have mixed emotions about this, because there are probably kids who would be sincere and benefit. Prayer is powerful. I can see, though, how it could turn out to be a competition against who’s more spiritual. Probably not a good idea.

  10. A few years back I listened to tapes of the Greatest Presidential Speeches of the 20th Century, and FDR and Eisenhower each ended one of their speeches by leading the nation in prayer, a bit like Gordon Hinckley once did with the Church in General Conference. A public gesture like that requires some goodwill from all sides. The non-religious have to put up the prevailing sentiments of their countrymen. The religious have to not think of such displays as some triumph over non-believers. That goodwill seems absent today on either side, which is a bit of loss for us.

    “And again, I command thee that thou shalt pray vocally as well as in thy heart; yea, before the world as well as in secret, in public as well as in private.”—D&C 19:28

  11. “12.A few years back I listened to tapes of the Greatest Presidential Speeches of the 20th Century, and FDR and Eisenhower each ended one of their speeches by leading the nation in prayer, a bit like Gordon Hinckley once did with the Church in General Conference. ”

    Does it make me one of “non-religious,” because I think that sounds more creepy than cool. I am all for a form of civic religion, like Rousseau, I find much of what passes for religion to be divisive. Yet, I am not sure if that is what most religious folks are looking for.

  12. The first part. It is what is in the heart that makes a public prayer hypocritical. The love of being seen as righteous in the eyes of man. There was a time that I did not bless my food in public because of those verses, but I have always been uncomfortable eating without a blessing. I thought to myself one day that I always blessed the food at home and I was not being or thinking any different by blessing it in a public eatery, and just started doing it.
    As for the prayer in public schools, it was a practice for many years in the South where I was raised. It became political when different groups objected to it, even if they were not required to participate. It seems that there can be no middle ground. I think that the clause about passing no laws respecting religion has been interpreted much more broadly than the drafters may have envisioned.


  13. I do not believe the Supreme Court baned prayer in pubic schools. What they did was to say the State (teachers etc) could lead it. My daughter had it right when I asked if she ever prayed in school. She said yes, before every math and English test.

  14. Too true Chris.
    I totally agree with the point of this post.
    No one should ever do a good thing publicly, because then other people could read their minds and assume they were just doing it to be hypocrites.

    With that in mind, parents shouldn’t pray in front of their children. We’ll send a letter to the first presidency and let them know the bloggernacle has spoken.

    But we shouldn’t stop there. Parents also shouldn’t do good deeds in front of children. No service to their fellow men, no home teaching, no baking bread for a neighbor. Heck parents shouldn’t even brush their teeth in front of their children, you know, unless they’ve brushed their teeth morning and night every day of their life. Because otherwise, they’ll be hypocrites.

  15. I think a BYU law professor said it best when discussing the Texas case cited above. It’s not about religion, he said, it’s about power.

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