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.


3 Responses

  1. Harry says:

    This discussion is among the most useful presentations of this issue. I live in both the US and in Mexico and am appalled that it is taking so long for this issue to be wisely resolved in both “home countries.”

    It is wisdom such as yours that helps to give us courage to continue our efforts. I have tolerated this intolerance in AA for 27 years. No more.

  2. Larry K says:

    This topic is one of the few “hot button” issues that I have to deal with. When I came in to the “rooms” of AA I was in small town Ontario and I really wanted to fit in. I didn’t fit anywhere else!

    Night after night and meeting after meeting we would close with either the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Over time and over a lot of heated business meetings, the Serenity Prayer seemed to start becoming the more popular and more acceptable form for closing the meeting. We always had old timers who would step back or leave the room. They wouldn’t object but they wouldn’t participate. They never explained why they wouldn’t participate either. It took me years of sobriety before the subject was ever broached. Not all, though most, would not discuss anything to do with religion as it is an outside issue. Several of these men were very passionate Christians and in their practice the Lord’s Prayer must be kept private and behind closed doors. I checked that out and the entire run up to the Prayer. Reading Matthew 6 1-13 tells the exact opposite story of what our Christian AA brothers and sisters are telling us.

    I don’t care what anyone believes… so long as it is respectful to others. After all… they aren’t my beliefs. I only have my own to consider and that is a big enough job in itself.

    So my single concern with this whole issue is that we are true to AA’s first principle; Universality. What we speak influences those who listen to us. Positively or negatively our messages will illustrate hope found in our experience and strength. I need to remain true to myself, but I must keep the gate open for all. That means I have to deal with all who will turn their backs on this prayer. That includes many Christians who will not wear their sacred bonds on their sleeves.

    So, as a member of AA who is committed to keeping the gate wide open, I don’t support language that only serves 30% of the world’s alcoholics. And let’s not kid ourselves: Alcohol Kills More Than Aids, TB and Violence combined each year.

  3. John M. says:

    Great contextualizing of history with respect to the issue of the Lord’s Prayer, Bob.

    I wrote somewhere else at this site that some would like to follow everything previously associated with AA as if we could freeze time. I’m hearing a lot these days from people in the program who are saying that AA has worked for over 75 years. So why change it?

    Yes, happily, AA has worked for over 75 years, but has it worked as effectively as it could? Have such things as you write about actually diminished the effectiveness of AA by “turning off” those who are desperate for recovery but who simply cannot abide the religious overtones of AA?

    Roger C., in his “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA,” has quoted Bill W. from the 1961 Grapevine confessing that in “AA’s first years, I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.”

    AA history shows a Bill W. who was ever so self-reflective, sensitive to the needs of others, inquisitive and honest. We all need these same Bill W. attributes to make the next 75 plus years of AA even more effective than the first 75.