Living on a (Deconstructed) Prayer

Geoff Davidson

Geoff Davidson earned his B.A. in Religious Studies and Political Science in 2009. He went on to earn his M.Div. from Baylor University in 2012. He is currently employed at Habitat for Humanity of Waco, Texas, while also working as a supply preacher.

Last week a state representative in the Alabama Legislature lit up social media by proposing a bill requiring public school classrooms to begin each day with the examination of a text. The politician in question is Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, and the bill is HB318. Why is starting the day with a text stirring up so much controversy? The text in question is a prayer; namely, any prayer used in the opening of Congress. 

The word “text” is commonly used to signify a piece of literature, but more broadly a text can be anything considered as an object of criticism. My time in Dr. Trost’s religion in film classes taught me that lesson full well. By this standard, a prayer is most certainly a kind of text. This text, after being prepared by a chaplain or other guest of Congress and immortalized in the congressional record, would be printed or digitized, transferred to the teacher, and then read verbatim to a room full of young Alabamians. Not dissimilar from the process by which any other text arrives in the classroom.

What will students do with the texts laid before them? Humanity’s natural instinct is to examine and deconstruct the world around us. Whether or not they have been trained in criticism models (will this be included in the fifteen minute exercise required by HB318?), students will be invited by simple human curiosity to examine the daily prayer readings. While this would be a worthwhile and helpful pursuit, their criticism likely would not end with the words of the prayer itself, and that’s where Rep. Hurst’s bill finds itself in trouble amidst multiple layers of criticism. If a prayer is a text, the bill requiring the reading of a prayer is certainly a text as well. Likewise the lesson plan for each morning’s study can be examined as a text. Although it does not seem students would be explicitly asked to interpret these texts, I wager they would. What is the grade schooler’s, “Why?” in response to a difficult lesson plan but an examination of the authorial intent of the text known as the lesson plan?

This leads us to two of the stickiest wickets in criticism: authorial intent and reader response. While academia argues whether these can be ascertained with any kind of certainty or if we should even try, authorial intent and reader response are enshrined as important parts of public discourse. As mentioned above, students engage the authorial intent of the lesson plan text when they ask why they are required to complete a task. Were this bill to go anywhere, it would likely be subjected to the so-called “Lemon test”, a three-part test for determining whether legislation is in compliance with the Establishment Clause. This precedent was set in Lemon v. Kurtzman and dictates that government action must have a secular purpose, must not have a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and must not foster government entanglement with religion. Here we see authorial intent and reader response used as criteria by the Supreme Court in the first and second prongs, respectively (and arguably both in the third).

The bill itself states its purpose is to study the formal procedures of Congress, a purpose echoed by its author. But opponents argue the intent of the bill is to make sectarian prayer a part of public school. Even the bill’s author has compared the requirements of his bill to the prayers delivered in legislative assemblies by religious practitioners. What would a court find to be the intent of this bill? Let’s say, hypothetically, that the bill is enacted and Rep. Hurst did indeed intend the bill to be merely an academic endeavor. How many students, the readers of the bill text, would see the debate over the bill as data and interpret the bill to be a form of religious promotion, despite Rep. Hurst’s assertions? Would their interpretation be affected by interpreting which prayers their teachers chose to read? How would such students respond to the exercise? If, however, Rep. Hurst intends to promote a particular religious practice, as his opponents allege, how would students respond to this intent? Would they gather that the verbatim recitation of prayers is a component of Rep. Hurst’s religious practices? Would students see his conflicting statements as evidence of underhanded means of promoting religion, ironically alienating them from the religion the bill could hypothetically be promoting? Perhaps Rep. Hurst should spend some time studying with the fine folks of Manly Hall before deciding if this bill is the best means to achieve his intentions, whatever they may be.