Atheists v. Evangelists: The School Prayer Decision of 1962

How much has America changed in the past 50 years? Imagine kids in American public schools now starting each day with a prayer.

School prayer was a standard part of schooling until June 1962. In that month, the Supreme Court, in its Engel v. Vitale decision, ruled that public-school praying was unconstitutional.

It was just as Billy Graham had feared. In February, he had warned Post readers—

The issue of prayers in public schools is now before the Supreme Court and, if the Court decrees negatively, another victory will be gained by those forces which conspire to remove faith in God from the public conscience.

American democracy rests on the belief in the reality of God and His respect for the individual. Ours is a freedom under law. But it is also a freedom that will evaporate if the religious foundations upon which it has been built are taken away.

As he wrote in “Our Right To Require Belief,” the elimination of school prayer was part of—

Billy Graham.
Billy Graham on the cover of the Post.

a movement gathering momentum in America to take the traditional concept of God out of our national life. If this movement succeeds, IN GOD WE TRUST will be taken from our coins, the Bible will be removed from our courtrooms, future Presidents will be sworn into office with their hand on a copy of the Constitution instead of the Bible, and chaplains will be removed from the Armed Forces.

Graham believed the United States had grown and prospered because of an alliance, rather than a separation, of church and state. The leaders of the new country intended the United States to be essentially Christian.

The Great Seal of the United States is our complete acknowledgment that we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Our national emblems testify to the fact that we are a people “under God.”

The Preamble of our national Constitution speaks of “the blessings of liberty.” The men at Philadelphia could never have written that document if they had not had faith in God.

Reverend Graham was far from alone in his belief. A great number of Americans had grown up with the idea that Christian faith was a necessary part of the country’s government. In “Our Right Not To Believe,” which appeared in the Post a week before Graham’s article, Robert Bendiner showed how personal faith had become a requirement for civic participation. Eight states required office holders to believe not only in a Supreme Being but also a “future state of rewards and punishments.”

Eleven states call for official oaths ending with the phrase “So help me God,” and congressional statues require the same words for Federal jobholders—except for the President of the United States. His oath of office is prescribed in Article II of the Constitution itself, the only one so imposed, and in it, significantly, there is no reference to a Supreme Being.

Still other states have so-called blasphemy laws, forbidding the public casting of doubt on the fundamentals of religious belief, though such laws are very rarely invoked.

With state governments so invested in religious beliefs, it’s not surprising they made prayer a part of the daily schedule. How could a student hope to hold office or appear in court without a spiritual life?

In a number of states atheists may not serve as either witnesses or jurors. As the Maryland law runs, a witness or juror must believe that he “will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore, either in this world or in the world to come.” Contradictory testimony is nevertheless as common in Maryland as it is elsewhere, the threat of consequences in the next world notwithstanding.

Unlike Graham, Bendiner believed the Founding Father did not envision a faith-based nation.

The fundamental nature of the United States was not religious but rationalist.

The prevailing spirit among them was that of deism.  Forerunners of modern Unitarianism, the deists were selective concerning the Bible—insofar as they accepted it at all—and they believed a Supreme Being to be vaguely inherent in Nature but very different from the personal God of the Scriptures.

Men had to determine for themselves a basis for rational morality, and they had little use for theology or the ceremonials of organized religion.

Jefferson, he stated, was certainly not a church-going man and Franklin, as characterized by one noted biographer, was a “pagan skeptic.” And then there was Thomas Paine, the militant atheist, who no one would ever accuse of being a ‘man of faith.’

Yet faith was essential in modern American government, Graham asserted. Our ‘right to require belief’ didn’t apply to students. We needed to require belief in lawmakers so they would be guided by principles higher than self-interest. Such an idea, Bendiner argued, would be meaningless ultimately.

In the end, if the state can demand officially—or public opinion unofficially— that office-holders acknowledge a conventional religious belief, then state and public are entitled to examine credentials… to demand that a candidate’s conviction be genuine, not just a matter of political convenience. And there’s the rub. For who is to be entrusted with the inquisition required to winnow out the real from the synthetic in religious conviction?

Happily the thought is preposterous as well as illegal.

But it’s easy to talk about the beliefs that shouldn’t be imposed. People need some belief to face the future. Can we preserve our freedoms and our tradition of reason and law guided only by a desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? As Graham asks,

What good does it do to become the wealthiest nation in the world if we are spiritually bankrupt? What would we have to offer the world?

We need a vision, he argues: faith in a greater goal, something to keep us moving forward when the way is uncertain and the old solutions no longer seem to work.

Faith… is not the way a coward flees from reality. It is the projection of reason beyond the limits of present knowledge.

Our beliefs make us what we are.

POST script:

This is the prayer that sparked the Supreme Court challenge:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Had the Supreme Court decided that school prayer was consistent with the Constitution, the United States would be a different country today. But then, the country would have had a different Constitution.