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The Good Old Days
The Good Old Days when Prayer was Forced on Kids in School
Before The Court Ruled - Were They Really “The Good Ol’ Days”?
Before The Court Ruled - Were They Really “The Good Ol’ Days”?
By David Lee
Did the Supreme Court decisions that banned coercive prayer and Bible reading from public schools bring about a decline of American culture? David Lee examines the claims and finds evidence to the contrary.
Religious groups often claim that upsurges in crime and violence occurred as the result of US Supreme Court decisions that removed prayer and unison Bible verse recitation from the nation’s public schools. Those rulings including Engel v Vitale (1962), which struck down a government-composed prayer in New York state known as the “Regent’s Prayer,” and the combined cases Abington Township v Schempp and Murray v Curlett (1963) which challenged prayer and Bible verse reading in classrooms.
Critics of these decisions often cite the early 1960s as a benchmark in American culture which “kicked God out of our schools,” resulting in a corresponding decline in morality. Everything from rising rates of teen pregnancies, drug abuse, juvenile violence and other behaviors have been cited (often with little supporting evidence) as the result.
I wanted to examine the claim that any upsurges in crime and violence which characterized that period in American history did not begin until those Supreme Court decisions of 1962-1963. My sources included almanacs, encyclopedias, and other public record that can be found in any large library. The World Almanac was helpful in providing crime statistics on a state-by-state basis, as were volumes of The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. These handy guides can direct you to other sources such as popular magazines with subjects dealing with “juvenile delinquency,” “crime,” “divorce,” and other topics for a given year.
Information can also be gleaned from religious periodicals of that period. These often provide us insight into the contemporary view of the moral climate of the country from the viewpoint of Christians.
The yearbooks mentioned below often discuss crime statistics from two years earlier, that is, two years prior to the publishing year of the book. The reason for that is the final crime statistics for, say, 1959 would not be released until 1960, and would be unavailable for the 1960 edition of the yearbooks. The 1961 edition would then report on the 1959 totals and, if possible, statistics for the first few months of 1960.
The Colliers 1961 Yearbook (which discusses crime statistics for 1959) noted on page 173:
Crime registered a new all-time high in 1959, some 69% higher than a decade earlier and 128% greater than the rate in 1940.
According to FBI information, the crime rate continues to outpace population growth at a rate of 4 to 1, and serious crime increased 11% over last year’s figures for the first nine months of 1960.
The author of this section, Donald J. Newman, while discussing the numerous murders, forcible rapes, and aggravated assaults recorded in 1959, writes on page 174: “Little wonder our world reputation is as notorious for crime as it is famous for technology.”
Why is this? America has a reputation for crime? Before the Supreme Court removed “God” from the public school classrooms? According to the same author in the Colliers 1962 Yearbook (p. 174), America’s incarceration rate of 119.8 adults for every 100,000 persons in the population was the “highest” commitment rate in the world. He adds (p. 176 of the same edition) that crime in the United States increased 100% in major cities since 1951. In the 1963 edition he wrote that crime rates had surpassed population growth at a ratio of about 5 to 1 over the previous five years (p. 185). These were statistics from 1961 and hence before the Supreme Court decisions of 1962-63.
What is surprising is that these increases in crime came during a religious revival in the 1950s that had caused “under God” to be put into the Pledge of Allegiance and “in God We Trust” put on the back of our paper money - all accompanied by a 25% claimed increase in total church membership from 1950 to 1959. 1
In the 1962 edition (which discussed the statistics from 1960), Newman wrote that the rate of crime increased 13% over 1959 and 24% over 1955. The reported robbery rate had increased 24% since 1955, while burglary increased 29% over the same period. “No crime decreased during this time” (p. 172).
Colliers asserts in the 1963 edition that when the Engel v. Vitale case was decided, an estimated 75% of school systems in the South had religious services and Bible readings (p. 224); yet, in the 1964 edition (p. 238) it reveals that the South also had the highest (1962) murder rates. Newman also mentioned that attacks on police officers increased greatly in 1961. Los Angeles reported that the rate of such attacks tripled in 1961 while New York reported that during the first seven months of 1961 some 1,400 NYC police officers were also assaulted. All of this took place while “God and the Bible” were still “in” the classroom.
Further, in the 1963 yearbook Newman added that there were 13,190 reported assaults on police officers nationwide during 1961, four thousand more than in 1960. “This increase in assaults on the police is consistent with the trend of recent years and is of great concern to law enforcement officials.… Many of these assaults involved attacks by groups of otherwise law-abiding onlookers while police were performing duties” (p. 187).
In his article for the 1961 edition of the Colliers Yearbook, Donald Newman observed on p. 179:
The immediate outlook for crime and delinquency prevention is discouraging. There is every reason to believe that crime rates of all kinds will continue to increase during the sixties and that in many areas major crises of a nature now only dimly perceived will occur... Certain problems such as heroin and morphine addiction have every possibility of reaching epidemic state... Youth gangs show no inclination to lessen, and we have yet to develop generally satisfactory methods of focusing their activities in law-abiding directions.
This sounds like a newspaper article from our own time! The writer adds that the US adjudicated 200,000 juvenile delinquents in 1940, which increased to 280,000 by 1950 and swelled to 700,000 by 1958. Newman writes that these statistics came from the “Children’s Bureau” database and were considered the best available. In the 1963 edition, he writes that 1961 was the twelfth consecutive year for increased rates of juvenile delinquency (p. 187).
Further evidence suggests that problems with schools cannot be associated with the removal of state sanctioned prayer and Bible verse recitation, contrary to the claims of many religious and political groups. According to the 1961 Colliers, there were serious educational concerns in the early 1960s and before, although they addressed a range of policies and behaviors. In the “Education” section the author noted:
The year 1960 witnessed a continuing concern over the state of education in the nation, along with evidence that changes were demanded by the times … Among major developments during the year were: (1) the 16th consecutive year of increased enrollments in public schools … (2) acute shortages of classrooms and teachers at every educational level (p. 203).
Most of the strident voices in criticism of education had become muted. The views of Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover continued to receive some publicity. In testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, he restated his views about the ineffectiveness of American education and the need for a European pattern of academic rigor in the nation’s high schools...
The quality-in-education theme was also reiterated by the New York Times. Taking issue with a statement by President Eisenhower in which he termed as ‘spurious’ assertions about deficiencies in American education, the Times editorialized that such assertions were genuine. It added:
The problem of American education goes deeper than the lack of buildings or lack of equipment or lack of scholarships or even lack of personnel. It involves quality; quality of teachers, quality of instruction, quality of curricula, quality of students, quality of output, quality of standards. (p. 205)
On page 208 of Collier’s, other concerns were expressed:
There seemed to be accumulating evidence that discipline was the number-one student problem. Dr. Lawrence Vredovoe of UCLA reported discipline to be the chief concern among parents and prospective teachers. Reporting from a study he had conducted, 80% of a group of 3,500 future teachers said poor discipline was their main worry. Of a group of 2,400 parents, 80% listed poor discipline as their chief complaint against the schools. In a group of 160 school administrators, 124 stated that the major cause for dismissal of faculty was ineffective ability to maintain discipline.
One source, however, questioned these perceptions and painted a different picture:
“The Gilbert Research Survey, which more usually polls student opinion, turned to a sample of 900 teachers for their opinions about teenagers. The number one complaint was lack of courtesy and respect for their elders. Other peeves of teachers included carelessness, poor grammar, and incessant talking. The teachers blamed poor parental supervision” (p. 208). 2
In reviewing this body of research, it became obvious to me that any problems associated with the public school system did not begin with the removal of state-sanctioned prayers in the early 1960s. They were already there. Colliers even notes on page 208 that the dropout rate in 1959 was almost 50% of all those who had entered the first grade, and 21% of those who had reached the tenth grade! The author added:
Shortages in school housing, in adequate facilities, and in teaching staff presented one dilemma. The values, morals, attitudes, ambitions, and behavior of young people - particularly the adolescent - presented another. Questions of antisocial and delinquent behavior and the weak holding power of the schools (dropouts) seemed to receive prominent attention. (p. 207)
What about divorce rates at the time of the school prayer rulings? It is often claimed by the religious right that divorce rates were holding steady in the United States until 1963, then according to some, skyrocketed - and even tripled - in the fifteen-year period which followed.
First, this claim presupposes that all divorces are bad. It overlooks the fact that in some cases, divorce can be a positive thing in a person’s life, especially for those locked in an abusive and dysfunctional relationship. When untold millions of women suffered in bad marriages under stricter divorce laws, it became a blessing to many when those statutes were liberalized in the 1960s. In some cases, children were helped by this new policy. They no longer had to suffer under an abusive father or mother. This in no way is meant to minimize the potential tragedy of divorce, but merely point out that not all divorces are bad. As the laws became more liberal in the 1960s, this opened the door for many women - and perhaps men as well - to find a way out of bad marriages.
Second, divorce rates were not holding steady until 1963. Divorces had been increasing since the early 1900s as gender and family roles reflected the changes of industrialization, technology, and social trends such as the granting of the electoral franchise for women. The World Almanac in 1978 lists divorce rates for every five year period from 1890 to 1975. The rates were very low in 1890, but they increased steadily from that point. The biggest increases followed wars. The longer America was involved in a war, usually the higher the increase in the divorce rate. It had nothing to do with the Supreme Court’s decisions in the 1960s.
On page 952 of The World Almanac, the divorce rates are shown. Below, first I list the year, then the number of divorces per hundred marriages. Then I give the total number of divorces as reflected in the Almanac. From 1900 on, I also indicate the percentage of increase over the previous five years, and for every year ending in 0 I give the percentage of increase for each preceding five year period and the preceding ten-year period.
|1890:||5.87 per 100 (33,461 total)|
|1895:||6.51 per 100 (40,387 total)|
|1900:||7.86 per 100 (55,751 total) 20% increase since 1895 33.9% since 1890 (a war)|
|1905:||8.07 per 100 (67, 976 total) 2.7% increase since 1900|
|1910:||8.76 per 100 (83, 045 total) 8.6% increase since 1905|
|1915:||10.35 per 100 (104,298 total) 18.2% increase since 1910|
|1920:||13.38 per 100 (170,505 total) 29.0% increase since 1915 52.% since 1910 (War again appears to play a role.)|
|1925:||14.76 per 100 (175,449 total) 10.0% increase since 1920|
|1930:||17.39 per 100 (195,961 total) 10% increase since 1920|
|1935:||16.43 per 100 (218,000 total) 5.5% decrease since 1930. (Was the Great Depression a contributing factor?)|
|1940:||16.54 per 100 (264,000 total) a 0.7% increase over 1935. This reflects a slight increase, still in the aftermath of the depression, and a 4.9% decrease for the decade.|
|1945:||30.07 per 100 (485,000 total) a whopping 81.8% increase since 1940.|
|1950:||23.10 per 100 (385,000 total) a 23.2% decrease from 1945, but back to prewar totals.|
|1955:||24.62 per 100 (377,000 total) a slight increase during the cold war years of 1950-55 and the Korean War.|
|1960:||25.80 per 100 (393,000 total), an 11.7% increase since 1950, and this during the \revival\ period of the fifties, putting \Under God\ in the Pledge of Allegiance, etc. It was also a 4.8% increase since 1955.|
|1965:||26.61 per 100 (479,000 total) a slight 3.1% increase since 1960, the fifth lowest 5-year increase since 1890. The Vietnam War had not yet begun to take its toll on marriage rate. The long, drawn-out conflict would do so, however, and the Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s would become the scapegoat.|
|1970:||32.80 per 100 (708,000) a 23.3% increase over the previous five years, the third-highest five-year increase since 1890. The other three big increases followed war (20% in 1900, 29% in 1920 and 82% in 1945). In 1970 the USA was in the midst of an increase. The ten-year increase was 27.1% since 1960, the fourth-highest ten-year increase since 1890.|
|1975:||48.13 per 100 (1,036,000) a huge 46.7% increase in just five years, still during the Vietnam War. This was the second-highest five-year increase (1940-45 was the highest) and once again war plays a crucial role.|
Changing moral standards surely had something to do with rising divorce rates as well. Women moved into the marketplace and were thus able to “afford” divorce. Increasingly they built careers apart from any financial dependence on males. By 1976, the divorce rate had increased further, to 50.49 per 100 marriages. Since then, however, first-time marriages have been holding steady as “successful” while repeat “failures” and multiple remarriages kept the divorce rate hovering around 50%.
From the statistical evidence, there is little to support the claim that the Supreme Court rulings in the early 1960s which addressed the problem of unison prayer and Bible-verse recitation in public schools was a significant and direct contributor to crime rates, serious violence, or divorce. Other factors clearly intervened. War appears closely associated with divorce rates, for instance, and one may look for causative factors related to crime in a number of areas - economic changes, unemployment rates, poverty, or lack of educational opportunity. Clearly, these areas were problems for a changing American society emerging from the aftermath of World War II, and entering the convulsive period of the Cold War. There seems nothing to suggest that these problems were triggered by removing prayer and Bible verse recitation from the nation’s public schools.
1. These church membership figures are found on page 506 of the 1962 Colliers Yearbook. The article on church membership states that in 1900 total church membership was only 36% of the US population. By 1926, the US Protestant membership was recorded as 27% of the total population while Catholics were 16% of the population. However, by 1958 the Protestant membership was 35.5% of the population and Catholic membership had risen to 22.8% of the total (63% combined total). The year-by-year totals for the 1950s shows the “total” number of Protestant church membership (and how it grew).
In the 1963 edition, the total church membership for the year 1961 is given as 116,109,929, up from 114,449,217 in 1960. Claimed total church membership represented 63.4% of the estimated American population (p. 515). The total population of the United States had increased from 151,325,798 in 1950 to 179,323,175 in 1960, an 18.5% increase.
2. Crime rates have varied considerably since 1962, but the point of this article is to demonstrate that any periodic upsurge in crime did not begin in 1962 or 1963. It had already begun to rise, and it was not until around 1992 when crime statistics began to decline. We are still a long way from the relatively crime-free period of the 1940s - but then, most young men were drying on foreign battle fields fighting tyrants.
Many people look back to 1961 and yearn for the “good old days” prior to the Vietnam War, before the Kennedy killing and exploding rates of illicit drug use, divorce, and broken families. Putting the Ten Commandments, prayer, or the Bible into public schools, though, will not be the magic solution to these problems. They were “in the schools” throughout the 1950s when crime was increasing. They did not help then, and it is unlikely that they would help now.