A Message of Belonging

June 14, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — June is busting out all over -- and so are caps and gowns. So are state laws requiring that ''student-led'' prayers be allowed at high school graduation ceremonies. Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi have enacted such laws, and measures are pending in Florida and the District of Columbia. Even President Clinton stated in April that prayers at graduation ceremonies should be permissible.

While much of the momentum for graduation prayers comes from proselytizers, many Americans who might otherwise object to government-sponsored prayer allow an exception for high school graduations.

Why? The answer can't be theology, because such prayers don't contain any. Whether offered by clergy or students, the sanitized ''nondenominational'' prayers preferred at graduation ceremonies are unavoidably boring, because they are deprived of their greatest power: conviction. It would be unthinkable at a public school graduation for a rabbi to recite the ''Sh'ma Israel,'' glorious words reflecting 5,000 years of devotion, or for a Baptist student, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, to shake the rafters about the sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ. Such prayers would be unacceptable in the public arena because they are too sectarian.

Then why are many Americans prepared to sacrifice their deepest religious beliefs just to have ''dumbed-down'' prayers at high school graduations? The answer, I believe, is a desire to solemnize a rite of passage for which our society as a whole has no equivalent: the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Unlike tribal civilizations, we give our children little guidance in navigating the perilous pitfalls of adolescence. We can't, for we spend too little time with them. Ancient societies provided young people with challenges worthy of their energies; modern culture treats youth at best as a distraction, at worst as an irrelevance. No wonder that for today's teen-agers becoming an adult has degenerated into drinking alcohol and having sex -- at earlier and earlier ages.

And yet, when high school graduation rolls around, some ancient memory within us recognizes the event for what it really is: an initiation ceremony. We realize that graduation has very little to do with a prescribed curriculum and 12 years of institutionalized education. It has to do with a journey human beings have made for hundreds of thousands of years -- the journey into maturity.

At such times we long for our most profound wisdom. No wonder religion is often called to play a part -- we know this march of the generations is serious stuff, and we want all the help we can get.

But under the First Amendment, we must tread carefully when religion is involved in a civic ceremony. As is wisely acknowledged by the amendment's Establishment Clause -- ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'' -- mixing religion and public life is dangerous business. The danger comes because religion is the area of our lives where we have the deepest convictions -- and therefore the deepest differences.

Yet to function as a society, we must learn to live with those deepest differences -- to borrow a phrase from the Willamsburg Charter Foundation, an organization promoting religious tolerance. That means that on occasions like high school graduations, we look for what unites us, rather than what divides us. But we should not try to paper over our differences by devising ceremonial prayers that diminish religion rather than honor it.

The valedictorian at my stepdaughter's high school graduation last year articulated this idea best. She said that we all want to find a place where we belong. That's precisely what the Establishment Clause gives us: a nation where, regardless of our religion, we belong. Thus, prayers are inappropriate at high school graduations because they inevitably leave someone out.

Indeed, the most moving aspects of graduation ceremonies are their universal themes about growing up -- themes that tell everyone present, whatever their religious beliefs, ''you belong.'' When an a capella trio at my stepson's 1991 graduation sang these words by Kahlil Gibran, every parent -- Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and agnostic -- was touched:

Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself

They come through you but they are not from you

And though they are with you

They belong not to you.

Even without tribal shamans or watered-down prayers, today's graduating seniors manage to evoke the awesome mystery of life's passages. Their graduation ceremonies seek to convey the same message shared by all initiation rituals throughout time: this is your community -- and you belong. That's exactly the message the Establishment Clause is designed to protect.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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