When Prayer Isn’t the Answer - Word&Way

When Prayer Isn’t the Answer

New York City Mayor Eric Adams doesn’t believe in the U.S. Constitution. The Democrat who took office last year didn’t say that in so many words, but he nearly did.

“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state,” he declared at an interfaith breakfast on Tuesday (Feb. 28). “State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them. That’s who I am.”

Adams made his remarks about governing like God shortly after being introduced by his adviser Ingrid Lewis-Martin as a “chosen” leader who doesn’t believe in church-state separation.

“In government, many times it’s said that one has to separate church from state, but we have an administration that doesn’t believe in that,” Lewis-Martin said. “We have a mayor, who you will hear from shortly, who is definitely one of the chosen.”

Adams started his rant about serving in a “God-like” manner by saying, “Ingrid was so right.” As Adams delivered his meandering, rambling sermon — that even involved him pulling out a sponge as a metaphor about soaking up and wringing out God’s blessings — he offered a policy example of what his rejection of church-state separation would look like.

“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” he claimed.

Screengrab as Eric Adams speaks at an interfaith breakfast in New York City on Feb. 28, 2023.

Adams didn’t offer an original thought. Many people who push for official, government prayers in public schools claim that gun violence occurs because we allegedly kicked God out of the classrooms.

But it’s pretty stunning to hear the mayor of the nation’s most populous city repeat this inaccurate argument — especially given the religious diversity of New York City. After all, 40% of the population adheres to either a non-Christian faith or claims no religious tradition. Even among Christians in the Big Apple there’s remarkable theological diversity about God, prayer, and more. And all of that diversity is protected by the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

“That separation is not anti-religion, as Mayor Adams seems to imply. Rather, it is what protects religious freedom for everyone,” explained Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (and I serve on AU’s board of trustees).

“It’s especially disheartening to hear the mayor of New York City promoting right-wing, Christian Nationalist talking points about prayer solving gun violence,” she added. “Not only is it simply untrue that prayer alone will end school shootings, but his words ignore the fact that students are free to voluntarily pray in public schools because of the separation of church and state.”

Similarly, Rabbi Abby Stein, who was present at the interfaith breakfast inside the New York Public Library’s main branch, told the New York Daily News that Adams’s remarks were “unhinged.” She added, “When elected leaders start calling their beliefs more important than serving the people, that’s very dangerous.”

Even if we don’t consider the constitutional problems with government prayer in public schools, and even if we ignore the religious pluralism of New York City, the remarks by the mayor of the city that never sleeps are offensive and even blasphemous as he blamed gun violence on a Supreme Court decision protecting the religious liberty rights of students.

So during the annual “Public Schools Week” occurring right now to advocate for teachers and others leading public education, this issue of A Public Witness looks at the reinvigorated crusade by politicians across the country to push official, government prayer in schools. And then this class session ends with an explanation of why Adams’s remark about gun violence in schools is dead wrong.

Pushing for Prayers

Last week, I served as a presenter for a webinar sponsored by Christians Against Christian Nationalism. Along with Maggie Siddiqi, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education, I spoke about “advancing religious freedom in public schools.” During the webinar, I outlined various types of bills being pushed in state legislatures that would undermine public education by pushing a sectarian agenda. One of the areas I highlighted was the effort to promote prayer in public schools.


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