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The Reactionary Utopian
November 4, 2015

Do We Have Souls? 
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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[Classic: November 1994] — I’ve noticed that in the eternal debate over prayer in the public schools, one issue is never even brought up: Does prayer work?

Obviously one side must think that it does, and the other side probably doubts it. Yet you never hear the former say: “Children should be encouraged to pray for God’s guidance and protection so that they will receive it,” To which the other side might reply: “We don’t even know that God exists. And even if he does, he may not answer prayers.” Or even: “God doesn’t exist. Prayer is a waste of time.”

Unless you believe that man has an immortal soul, there are limits — rational, logical limits — to how deeply you can believe in human dignity.

 

No, the question just isn’t discussed in those terms. Instead it is framed in cultural, Constitutional, and even touchy-feely terms. “Children have a right to pray.” “The state must not endorse religion.” “Monotheism is our heritage.” “No child should feel pressured to pray.” And so on.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, as they say, because I think state education is wrong and sinister to begin with. Any argument for separating church and state applies with equal strength, at least, to letting the state control children’s minds. Even now the public school system is aggressively trying to shape children’s attitudes on race, sex, and other matters that are none of its business. Liberal and feminist teachers with a captive audience of little kids and a missionary attitude often succumb to the temptation to preach and bully.

But on the Constitutional question, the pro-prayer people are right. Nothing in the Constitution forbids state-sponsored school
prayer. The Supreme Court’s arguments to the contrary are baseless.

Since the 1940s, the Court has adopted the view that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the rights listed in the Constitution binding on the states as well as the federal government. The “incorporation” doctrine, dubious enough in general, is indefensible when applied to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion....” (Assuming a mere prayer is an “establishment of religion.”) Whatever the merits of an official state church, it would abridge no “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

An analogy: Congress has no Constitutional power to impose a national health care plan, but if it did enact one, we wouldn’t say it had violated a citizen’s right not to have national health care. We — a few of us, anyway — would just say that Congress had usurped more power.

 

In our stupid pragmatism, we keep trying to fashion laws for human beings without defining human nature. It can’t be done.

But back to the prime issue: Does prayer work? (The Court tacitly assumes that it doesn’t.) The evasion of this question is typical of our public discussions. All sorts of political issues hinge on presuppositions about religious questions. And Christians have pretty much dropped the whole subject of the soul.

Congress has no Constitutional power to impose a national health care plan, but if it did enact one, we wouldn’t say it had violated a citizen’s right not to have national health care.

 

Yet what else is finally at stake in abortion? Would you lightly kill a being with an immortal soul in need of God’s grace? Many Christians, who feel strongly that the answer is a horrified “No!” have accepted the secularist premise that we can’t talk about that in public.

Nothing illustrates more powerfully than the abortion controversy that unless you believe that man has an immortal soul, there are limits — rational, logical limits — to how deeply you can believe in human dignity. This has nothing to do with how well-meaning you are. If you don’t believe that the soul exists, you are bound to regard pro-lifers who want to save even the tiniest embryo from destruction the way you’d regard the Hindu who believes that an insect may contain the transmigrated soul of one of his ancestors. You may be touched by his piety and conviction, but it will seem wildly exaggerated.

In our stupid pragmatism, we keep trying to fashion laws for human beings without defining human nature. It can’t be done. You can’t make laws appropriate for man, any more than for dog, until you decide whether the critter is angel, beast, or what.

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This essay is included in a new collection of Sobran columns titled Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society (fgfBooks, 2015). It was published originally in the November 1994 issue of Sobran's: The Real News of the Month, published by Griffin Communications.

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Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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