The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America.

Author:Haberman, Aaron L.
Position:Book review

The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America. By Bruce Dierenfield. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. 240 pp. $35.00.

Today, issues like abortion, intelligent design, and gay marriage represent the battlefields of the so-called culture wars that political pundits claim divide red state and blue state Americans. But the origins of the culture wars can be traced to a different issue: school prayer. In 1962, the United States Supreme Court in the ease Engel v. Vitale struck down state mandated public school prayer. The ruling angered countless conservative Christians, and precipitated the eventual rise of a new potent political block known as the Christian Bight.

In The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America, historian Bruce Dierenfield charts the origins and conesquences of that momentous case. He argues that the prayer controversy is significant for several reasons: (1) it shows the power. that Protestants have long held over American political and educational institutions; (2) prayer represents an issue that, unlike most controversies in American history, the political system did not resolve quickly; and (3) the controversy inaugurated a radical new jurisprudence where schools "that had been founded to instill religious truths were now ... to be inoculated from religious instruction and worship altogether" (p. 4).

After tracing the widespread practice of school prayer duringh the nation's early history, Dierenfield spends the bulk of the book on t e specific origins and evolution of the Engel case. And it is in those chapters that he makes his greatest scholarly contributions. Much of his anal sis is based on interviews with all of the major figures in the cause adding a personal dimension to his (including powerful examples of the harassment that many of the plaintiffs endured in the years surrounding the case) that is missing in other accounts of the prayer controversy. He also fleshes out the broader importance for church-state conflicts of the socio-economic transformations that the United States went through after WWII. Other scholars have noted that post-WWII affluence, Cold War fears, and a 1950s obsession with juvenile delinquency, led to a retrenchment of traditional American values including increased church attendance, and in the case of New York state, a prayer (which became the basis for the Engel case) composed by...

To continue reading