MARCH 29, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Sightings sees so many things that we who write it are not easily surprised by what we read. Surprised I was, however, by the penultimate paragraph and punch line in a David Brooks op-ed (New York Times, March 22), which seemed to be leading to a pitch for prayer in public schools. At the last moment the columnist drew back and came up with a more promising, if more radical, proposal. The edit is receiving much attention, but, for newcomers, here goes:
Regular columnist Brooks, typed-probably self-typed-as a conservative, waded in to the controversy about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Using David L. Chappell's A Stone of Hope as a launch, he showed how important religion has been, and is, in American life. Brooks's predictable slap at mainly northern and, of course, "secular liberal" activists, we can pass by. Demeaning them (a standard move these years) this time focused on the claim that they all had "an optimistic view of human nature," and thus could not get the point when attempting to bring about change among ugly and prejudiced humans. Again, that is, of course, slanderous: we are talking about people who have stared the Holocaust in the face, not trusted much of anyone these years, etc. But... to the positive point.
Brooks and Chappell are dead-on when discussing the black and Southern ("which we might today call the religious left") clergy associated with Martin Luther King, preachers who welcomed as "allies" those starry-eyed liberals. Further, accurately, theirs was "not a political movement with a religious element. It was a religious movement with a political element." Why? Because they read the Bible as instruction "about what human beings are like and how they are likely to behave," prophetic language more accurate than that of social scientists. Chappell and Brooks overlook the fact that King and company also read prophetic language that out-optimizes the optimists, inspiring "I have a dream" and "promised land" language of hope and resolve. But, again, they are dead-on about the black church leaders' realism.
After the pitch for biblical realism, which I for one applaud, I expected Brooks to follow through predictably but, no: "The lesson I draw from all this is that prayer should not be permitted in public schools" and then, unpredictably, he continued, "but maybe theology should be mandatory. Students should be introduced to the prophets, to the Old and New Testaments, to the Koran, to a few of the commentators who argue about these texts."
The term "theology" is a bit too formidable, and making it "mandatory" is an invitation to chaos. But, if what is meant is teaching the young about the functions of prophetic language in a complacent society, the way people of various faiths have been moved, and get moved, to action, more power to Chappell and Brooks and the non-mandated, but gifted and willing, teachers. Many of their colleagues may be inept, but the ept ones-not given to ideology but to understanding-can help prepare more informed citizens.
Brooks drew the proper line: public schools work for educating, not for "mandatory" worshiping. Let us pray? In church. Let us learn? In church and school.