Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’ [i] “The Times They Are A Changing” Bob Dylan 1964
Most of us, including me, were panicky as our date on the calendar approached, although there was no preparation possible. We did not know the script, only that we needed to report to the principal’s administrative office five minutes before school started and face the microphone that transmitted our voice to fifty speakers and every classroom and hallway.
Each morning before classes started in junior high school (now middle school) and high school while we were in our home rooms, announcements were made by a senior about the day’s activities in the school, what was on the menu for lunch in the cafeteria, where the yellow, uncomfortable bus without seatbelts would wait after school for those who wanted to go to the hockey game, and other prosaic details about our shared lives. We passed along the schedule and agenda items from a single bullet points page that the principal’s secretary prepared. Finally, we would call the school to silence and begin our school day with a short prayer, a Bible reading, and the Pledge of Allegiance Under God.
The prayers were basic and ended, as I remember, with the “Lord’s Prayer.” The Protestant kids would continue with “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever and ever, Amen.” The Catholic kids in the classrooms would remain respectfully silent after “But deliver us from evil,” which always seems like a good idea anyway, as rare is the person who foregoes a little extra protection from evil. A few remained silent for the “Lord’s Prayer,” but most of the Jewish kids would join in; the familiar beautiful thoughts had been first prayed by an obscure Jewish rabbi a couple of thousand years ago[ii]. The Bible reading was usually from a Psalm common to both Jewish and Christian traditions. I know some who feigned teenage boredom with the whole thing, but I knew no one who was offended. To my knowledge, none of the other kids admonished those who did not join in – their prerogative and none of our business as to why. We had our heads down and did not notice. After all, the tradition, especially in the Eastern part of the country, was as old as public schools in America.
They cried out, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” The Gospel According to John, 19:15[iii]
All of this changed in 1962 with the Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale followed a year later with Abington School District v. Schempp which banned Bible reading in schools. Engel arose not from a groundswell of grass roots support, but from a small group of parents in Nassau County in New York who took issue with the Regent’s Prayer, which was composed collaboratively by a group of ministers, priests, and rabbis. Then it was endorsed by the New York School Boards Association and the New York Association of Judges of Children’s Courts for use in the public schools. A less offensive prayer would be hard to find: Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” Eleven of the thirteen lower court judges who considered the case ruled in favor of its constitutionality. However, the Supreme Court struck it down.
Common knowledge, which is often wrong, holds that the profound cultural changes we have lived through bubbled up from the bottom. Quite to the contrary, the transformation has been led from the top down and much of the change effected initially by judicial action as it discovered never thought of constitutional wrinkles one after another[iv]. Wave after wave eroded what had been solid ground for the first two centuries of our history until it turned to quicksand. As John Adams [v]memorably said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This wisdom and the understanding of the necessary people who can sustain a republic were accepted by the great majority of our citizens then. No longer of course.
Decision upon decision from Engel through Roe to Obergefell and many others pared away the wisdom of millennia until the full narrative was revealed. The original Jeffersonian “wall of separation” no longer merely proscribes a direct state affiliation with a particular church. Religion now is barely tolerated and relegated to the private, the weak-minded, and the superstitious. Consciences informed by religion should decorously remain silent in the “naked public square.”[vi] The robust “freedom of religion” enshrined in the First Amendment has morphed into a much weaker “freedom of worship,” and then only if it stays locked behind the walls of our church or synagogue or mosque like an embarrassing uncle. Lest we mistake the marginalization of Christian religions as a side effect, we need to understand that this is not an incremental decrepitude, but a usurpation. There is a new church in the land, a deliberate replacement, a secular “progressive” church of the state with its own sacraments, edicts, commandments, and sacred ideas, ruthlessly enforced with enormous power by Puritans who make the Salem witch trials look halfhearted. And woe unto us if we are not paying attention.
Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children…” The Gospel According to Luke, 23:28
[i][i] Happy 80th birthday, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. From 57 years ago: The Times They Are A Changing’ On his eightieth birthday, he has an interesting birthday well-wisher, singing a Dylan tune: Every Grain of Sand
[ii] Although the rabbi escaped obscurity and gained quite a bit of notoriety after rival religious leaders conspired with the state to murder Him, and He confounded them by rising from the dead.
[iii] Biblical quotes are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE)
[iv] Such nonsense and creative interpretation are replete in these decisions: “emanations and penumbras” of a constitutional right to privacy was most well-known. Or Judge Anthony Kennedy’s notorious fiat “mystery passage” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which pontificated that one has “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Really? No objective reality that transcends and precedes subjective experience? Kennedy’s ruling read much more like some beer and bong saturated midnight session in a graduate dorm, or the faculty lunchroom self-congratulatory proclamations of orthodox progressive tripe than ably articulated legal reasoning.
[v] This was not to say that all the founders and authors of the Constitution were regular church goers. Only 17% of Americans were such when the country was founded. However, almost all citizens subscribed to the understanding that such a form of government could only survive if the people being governed were grounded by a transcendent and common moral compact that called all of them to ready sacrifice for something greater than themselves.
[vi] “Naked public square” is a term coined by Father Richard John Neuhaus decades ago in the journal he founded, “First Things.” Father Neuhaus was describing a secular public arena for debate that increasingly sought to muzzle religious voices.