Our Father Who Art Not in Public Schools

School Children

By bob k

The Professional Golfers’ Association of America (to its own embarrassment) had a “Caucasians Only” membership policy until 1962.

Viewing a recent miniseries about the Kennedys reminded me that it took the United States National Guard to overcome the objections of the Governor in getting James Meredith (a black student) admitted to the “all-white” University of Mississippi in 1962.

Were we to trot out letters from 1959, written by the presidents of the PGA and the University itemizing the justifications for these exclusionary policies, they would be no more than historical curiosities. The idea of 1959 letters having “enforcement” power over 2011 social policies, regardless of the “authority” of their writers, is an unsupportable concept.

In fairness, the context of the times must be considered. Smart people, fifty years earlier still, wrote treatises explaining why women should not concern themselves with “men’s business” like voting.

Thus, when in the debate over the Lord’s Prayer in AA, Bill Wilson’s 1959 letter addressing the subject is advanced, our respect and gratitude to our founder exhorts us to ignore fifty-two years of dramatic changes in our North American societies. Bill’s 1959 position that potential objectors included only newcomer atheists and agnostics was certainly closer to truth in 1959 than in our modern era of vastly broader parameters of spirituality and religious faiths. To be non-denominational in the nineteen fifties was to respect equally Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and all other Christian Protestants plus possibly Roman Catholics and Mormons.

Today huge numbers of God-loving Americans, Canadians, and of course, AA members do not follow or belong to these more conventional religious groups. Within my small to medium sized home group, we have a Zen Buddhist, three Hindus, a Jew, and a majority who have no (current) religious affiliation and categorize themselves as “spiritual”. The meaning of non-denominational has been expanded.

The appropriateness of Lord’s Prayer use in AA really hinges on the answer to a single question: “Is the prayer predominantly Christian, or is it generic?” Bill, as he must, addresses this issue and makes a very cogent argument in the context of nineteen-fifties America: “…it is sometimes complained that the Lord’s Prayer is a Christian document. Nevertheless this Prayer is of such widespread use and recognition that the arguments of its Christian origin seems to be a little farfetched.”

“Widespread use” absolutely was truer fifty-two years ago.

We recited it in football huddles, cub scout jamborees, political rallies, and in our state-sponsored public schools. A Supreme Court decision of 1963 led eventually to the removal of the Lord’s Prayer from public schools on the grounds that it is NOT generic. Rarely has an issue been more debated – the ultimate determination being that the Lord’s Prayer and other Christian teachings and readings contravened the public schools need to be public and totally non-denominational.

In AA we take pride in being “not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination…”

Using the Lord’s Prayer in our meetings is in contradiction to our own stated policy of non-alliance. The “widespread use” defence is without validity in today’s world.

The use of the Lord’s Prayer is now quite restricted to churches, Christian events and AA.

When I was an elementary school student at the time of Bill’s letter, on meeting a new kid the common first question was, “Do you go to Catholic school or Protestant school?” In 1959, there was very little ‘political incorrectness’ in such a question. Ninety-nine percent of students were Protestant; eighty percent went to Church on Sundays. It was a different time. In 1959, the Christianity of the Lord’s Prayer was a debatable point.

Possibly Emmet Fox (of Sermon on the Mount fame) erred in calling the prayer “the most important of Christian documents.” Billy Graham and others have called the Lord’s Prayer “a concise summation of Christian doctrine.” Famous Christians tell us that it is a Christian prayer. And the Supreme Court has demolished the “generic” argument. Too denominational for public schools, it must be too denominational for us as well.

In 2003, the Grapevine published a wonderful article, “Is AA Just for Christians?” by Barb C., a Jewish woman from Gainesville,Fla. She very eloquently states her frustration at being told she could choose her “own conception of God” and then, at the end of every meeting, being confronted with someone else’s.

I hope she is still around.

Alcoholics Anonymous is so inclusive in so many ways, but not in this. The use of the Lord’s Prayer in AA meetings inadvertently (at best) sanctions the Christian religion with which it is associated, and bestows upon it some level of “officialdom.”

Arguments of tradition could be made in favour of sustaining the racial prejudice in the examples at the start of this article. Tradition should not trump principles.

Bill’s letter also offers a version of the commonly used “disclaimer defence:” “However, around here, the leader of the meeting usually asks those to join him in the Lord’s Prayer who feel that they would care to do so. The worst that happens to the objectors is that they have to listen to it. This is doubtless a salutary exercise in tolerance at their stage of progress.”

A bit insensitive in an organization with the slogan “You are no longer alone.”

Again the courts provide helpful information. Justice Clarke writes in rendering the district court ruling – “The fact that some pupils, or theoretically all pupils might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony.”

The Lord’s Prayer is not religiously neutral and is no longer in “widespread use” outside of Christian gatherings. The worst offence in its use is that we contradict our own stated resolve to be non-denominational. It’s time to move forward to a more spiritually neutral tomorrow.