As the 2020 election approaches in the United States, President Donald Trump is adding school prayer to the list of contentious issues up for debate. At a rally in early January he announced plans to “safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools.” On the schedule of the White House later this week is a plan to issue new “guidance on constitutional prayer in school.”
This announcement comes after a year in which officials in six states, including the populous swing state of Florida, considered bills permitting the study of the Bible in classrooms. Last January, President Trump tweeted his support for these laws.
The evangelical proponents of the legislation insist that the Bible would be treated as a historical and literary source, not as a means of religious guidance. Critics oppose them for fear that their real intent is to teach Christianity.
Efforts to return religion to public schools threaten to reignite one of the oldest debates about the separation of church and state.
Educating moral citizens
As a historian who has studied how American Protestants have engaged with the culture at large, I know that the question of religion in education was among the first social issues to split American Protestants into competing liberal and conservative camps.