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Brother Gingrich's proposal hasn't got a prayer.

Before the piously correct, politically ambitious and other backers of Newt Gingrich get too far along with their plans for school prayer, perhaps they could bless the nation with a definition of prayer.

Do they mean spontaneous prayer, as when charismatics speak in tongues? Or contemplative prayer, the specialty of the Trappists, Carthusians and other cloistered orders? Or is it praising Allah on a prayer rug or blowing a shofar in the synagogue? Should it be the prayer of petition, the kind popular with chaplains of football teams, especially on Super Bowl Sunday when God is surely watching both the game and the spread?

Is prayer talking to God? If so, that leaves out the Hutterites who say prayer is listening to God. Is prayer asking God for favors? If so, that excludes such Native Americans as the Lakotas who believe prayer is seeking eternal connection with the Great Spirit.

What of the word God itself, defined in as numberless ways as there are countless cultures, religions and sects within religions, with blood ever flowing when God's army on this side of the river declares war on the faithless pagans on the other. To Jews reciting the Shemah Israel prayer, God is "King of the Universe." Hindus have Krishna and Vishnu; Buddhists Beingness. Others believe that God is known in the mind or experienced in the heart or they side with Einstein who felt God in the breadth of the universe.

Newt Gingrich pledges to settle all this by the Fourth of July. Perhaps enlightened by divine guidance, he prophesies that by that date a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress will approve a school prayer constitutional amendment.

Then it's on to state legislatures, pressured to spend years and years on an issue deemed top priority by Big Government in Washington, the monster that supposedly is ticking off voters in the first place.

Rep. Ernest Istook Jr., a second-term Oklahoma Republican assigned to carry out the prayer plan, says the amendment he and Brother Gingrich have in mind will not require participation by children and that the prayer won't be written by anyone in government.

So who will write it? Each state can spend a few more years wrangling about that. One suggestion: Don't lay this one on the teachers. They have predicaments aplenty now, from dealing with bluenose censors prowling library shelves for books they want yanked, to facing classrooms often packed with rude, selfcentered and uneducable kids who became that way because their parents never bothered to teach them civility or morality.

Instead of prayer in schools, the drive should be for religion in schools: as a subject to be taught. I'm ever amazed -- blown away some days -- by the ignorance of my students about the world's religions. When I ask Christians in my classes to describe the differences between Abraham and Moses or Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, few know. Jewish students aren't any more informed about the basics of Christianity. Neither can offer anything more than a few mumbled syllables to questions about Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism. Atheists and agnostics tend to dismiss belief as irrelevant, huffing that it's a waste of class time to discuss superstitions.

With some coaxing, I've been able to persuade some of my students to study the history of faith and belief, which includes prayer. Should they stick with this study, which ought to last a lifetime, they'll eventually come to the story of the episodic tries of some U.S. politicians to impose prayer in public classrooms. To date the response to these efforts has been a prayerful "God help us."
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Title Annotation:school prayer
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 16, 1994
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