05/09/2014 06:57 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

The Supreme Trivialization of Prayer

The surest way to weaken a religion is to get the government to endorse it.

That may not have been the insight that led the founders of the United States to disallow the government from establishing religion.  They were responding to the outrageous treatment of religious minorities by the state-church system that had prevailed till their time.  But since 1787, history has provided abundant examples of the disastrous marriage of religion and government.  In Europe, where state churches continued to exist, religion largely dried up except among immigrant communities.  In Iran, theocracy has turned off much of a generation from taking Islam seriously. 

The majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have just concluded that it's okay for prayers at public meetings to be explicit in theological particularity.  Now the town councils can choose to have fundamentalist Christian prayers at the start of all their proceedings, without any need to be religiously inclusive.  All over the Bible Belt, this is no news:  you're hard put to find a public school where dogmatic evangelical Christianity isn't pushed on kids by school staff members, the Constitution be damned.  Public life is a suffocating atmosphere already for members of religious minorities, or people with no religion, in big swathes of the United States today.  (See more about this at

The result of this de-facto establishment of religion by government?  The de-evangelization of America and the trivialization of Christianity.  Young people know that their elders are flailing harder, yelling louder, pulling out the stops to get them to go with the conservative Christian program.  But the kids are bored by the trite prayers at public meetings and the preachy posturing by teachers and administrators at public schools.  The evangelical establishment has become so desperate to get the public's attention that it wants the government to impose its faith on the people.  But school prayer is even less enticing for students than canned spinach in school lunch.  We're at 25 percent of young adults with no religious affiliation, and that figure is rapidly growing.  Even the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, is bleeding members. 

Conservatives believe that government is our enemy.  Why would they want government to get into the prayer business, any more than they want it to be in the health care business?  Nobody can manage religion effectively.  It's like herding cats, especially in the case of Christianity.  Evangelicals often deny that there is any legitimate form of the faith other than their own.  That leads to denial that there is any diversity among themselves - but nothing could be further from the truth.  Just on our campus at USC, we have 43 evangelical Christian clubs, each of them distinct from the others, and new ones register with us every year.  They all compete for a shrinking number of evangelical students.  Which manifestation shall the government establish as the normative version of conservative Christianity? 

Faith certainly has a role in public life, but not in contexts where it could be perceived as being forced on people.  We can't count on the dogmatic Federalists who dominate the Supreme Court to protect religion from the smothering embrace of government.  It's up to us to offer kinder, gentler, and humbler forms of faith that refuse to be trivialized. 


Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California