Religion Today

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Its O.K. to Pray in Your School

The school year has almost arrived. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.

What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?

Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Wiccan. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.

It is also O.K. for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.

Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.

What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?

It is not O.K. to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.

Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student. In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not.

These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Ten Commandments: A Christian Tale

From the end of World War II to the mid-1960s, religious films reflecting a Christian outlook and emphasizing biblical or early Christian themes constituted a popular American film genre. There were biblical romances, such as “David and Bathsheba” and “The Story of Ruth,” as well as Christians in Rome films, such as “The Robe” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” By 1961, a string of Jesus films had begun. But the most popular of all was “The Ten Commandments,” which appeared in 1956.

It is surprising that this story of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt to give them the “law” was such a hit with American Christians, for the law is an anathema to Christian theology. Although Jesus was careful to indicate he did not aim to “tear down” the law, but to “fulfill it,” the early missionary Paul thought the opposite. In his Letter to the Romans, he spent the first eight chapters arguing that the “law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2) prevented salvation and that Jesus freed Christians from bondage to the law.

To overcome this problem, film director Cecil B. DeMille had to Christianize the tale. Borrowing from the Puritans and from earlier Christian ideas about Moses, he made the entire story into a foreshadowing of Christianity. Robert Torry and I discuss this in our new book, “Film and Religion: An Introduction,” and show that DeMille used two main approaches to accomplish this.

First, “The Ten Commandments” turned Moses into a forerunner of Christ by assigning him events from Jesus’ life. Moses’ birth shows this clearly. While the biblical story of the baby Moses being found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket floating in the Nile gives him a special upbringing in the palace, the film provides Moses with the signs of a special birth like Jesus.

A star appears to signal his birth and when the pharaoh consults his wise men, they tell him that it indicates the fulfillment of a prophecy of a deliverer for the Hebrews. Like King Herod, Pharaoh then orders the killing by sword of all the newborn male babies. Years of rumors followed concerning a deliverer for the Hebrews, just as Jesus’ lifetime was filled with rumors of a messiah who would deliver his people from the Romans.

When he grows up, Moses discovers his Hebrew origins and goes out among them. After Moses killed an overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave, the Bible story has Moses running away for fear of discovery. The film, by contrast, adds a Jesus-like trial in which he is accused of being the deliverer who will destroy Egyptian society by freeing the slaves. When Pharaoh seeks to pardon him, Moses answers the king in a way that forces his punishment, as Jesus did in his trial before Pilate.

Second, the law itself undergoes the most important transformation in “The Ten Commandments.” The film does not present Paul’s idea of the law that enslaves humankind, but a law that sets people free from tyranny.

Most important, it is a law written on people’s minds and hearts, as the film repeatedly indicates. At the film’s start, Moses is described as “a man upon whose mind and heart would be written God’s law.” Later, Moses tells Joshua that the Israelites will go to Mt. Sinai where God will “write his commandments in our minds and upon our hearts forever.”

God’s interview with Moses at the burning bush makes clear this characterization of the law refers to Christianity. This scene is quite faithful to the biblical text, with nearly all dialogue coming from the Old Testament Exodus story. But God tells Moses his ultimate intentions with a sentence taken from the New Testament, “I will put my laws into (the Israelites’) mind and write them in their hearts.”

This line from Hebrews 8:10 cites the prophet Jeremiah (31:33) predicting a “new covenant” which will come, and Hebrews interprets this covenant as the one established by Christ. So, “The Ten Commandments” uses this key phrase to present the giving of the law to Moses and the Israelites as a spiritual encounter akin to the inner, spiritual change of each individual in Christianity, and not a mere legal contract.

“The Ten Commandments” film thus presents the story about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their receiving of the law as a story that more than foreshadows Christianity; they become a type of Christian, guided to a relationship with God by a Christ-like savior, Moses, and linked to God through spirit of the law written on their hearts and minds.

Flesher’s and Torry’s book, “Film and Religion: An Introduction,” is published by Abingdon Press (2007) and is available from the UW Bookstore, and local and online bookstores.