Bahai News -- Public prayer fanatics borrow page from enemy's script. (Up front: news and opinion from independent minds).

Public prayer fanatics borrow page from enemy's script. (Up front: news and opinion from independent minds)

Author/s: Roger Ebert
Issue: May-June, 2003

The Bush administration has been dealt a setback in its campaign to allow prayer in our public schools. The full 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has voted 15-9 to back the 2-1 vote by its earlier panel finding the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because of the words "under God."

The pledge, written in 1892, had those words added to it in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration, and I remember a nun in our Catholic school telling us we had to say it because it was the law--but it was wrong, because it violated the principle of separating church and state.

We started every day with classroom prayer at St. Mary's School, of course, but Sister Rosanne said there was a difference between voluntary prayer in a private religious school and prayer in a school paid for by every taxpayer--a distinction so obvious that Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft are forced to willfully ignore it.

Ashcroft said after the ruling that his Justice Department will "spare no effort to preserve the rights of all our citizens to pledge allegiance to the American flag"--a misrepresentation so blatant that it functions as a lie. The pledge remains intact and unchallenged. The court said nothing about pledging allegiance to the flag. It spoke only of the words "under God"--which amounted, the court said, to an endorsement of religion.

This is really an argument between two kinds of prayer--vertical and horizontal. I don't have the slightest problem with vertical prayer. It is horizontal prayer that frightens me. Vertical prayer is private, directed upward toward heaven. It need not be spoken aloud, because God is a spirit and has no ears. Horizontal prayer must always be audible, because its purpose is not to be heard by God, but to be heard by fellow men standing within earshot.

To choose an example from football, when my team needs a field goal to win and I think, "Please, dear God, let them make it!"--that is vertical prayer. When, before the game, a group of fans joins hands and "voluntarily" recites the Lord's Prayer--that is horizontal prayer. It serves one of two purposes: to encourage me to join them or to make me feel excluded.

Although some of the horizontal devout are sincere, others use this prayer as a device of recruitment or intimidation. If you are conspicuous in your refusal to go along, they may even turn and pray while holding you directly in their sights.

This simple insight about two kinds of prayer, which is beyond theological question, should bring a dead halt to the obsession with prayer in public places. It doesn't, because the purpose of its supporters is political, not spiritual. Their faith is like Dial soap: Now that they use it, they wish everyone would. I grew up in an America where people of good breeding did not impose their religious convictions upon those they did not know very well. Now those manners have been discarded.

Our attorney general, John Ashcroft, is theoretically responsible for enforcing the separation of church and state. He violates his oath of office daily by getting down on his knees in his government office every morning and welcoming federal employees to join him in "voluntary" prayer on carpets paid for by the taxpayers.

His brand of religion is specifically fundamentalist evangelical. As his eyes lift from beneath lowered lids to take informal attendance, would he be gladdened to see a Muslim, a Catholic, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Baha'i, a Unitarian, a Scientologist, all accompanied by the chants of Hare Krishnas?

Under Bush we have had a great deal of horizontal prayer, in which we evoke the deity at political events to send the sideways message that our enemies had better look out, because God is on our side. This week's Newsweek cover story reports that the Bush presidency "is the most resolutely `faith-based' in modern times."

Because our enemies are for the most part more enthusiastic about horizontal prayer than we are, and see absolutely no difference between church and state--indeed, want to make them the same--it is alarming to reflect that they may be having more success bringing us around to their point of view than we are at sticking to our own traditional American beliefs about freedom of religion. When Ashcroft and his enemies both begin their days with displays of their godliness, do we feel safer after they rise from their devotions?

This article by film critic Roger Ebert first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 5, 2003. For more information, visit

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