Football

Growing up in the South, there was always prayer with the Friday night lights. 

It was extremely common, if not expected, that you'd toss up a team prayer before the football game started at my Christian high school, that you might have a Bible verse on your eye black. There, it was just the culture, and a perfectly reasonable one in a room of predominantly like-minded believers. 

When you're surrounded by people of faith in church-minded setting, it's perfectly fine to express that faith at all times. Private schooling institutions in part exist in order to educate based on commonality in faith. Not all kids who go to these schools are religious, necessarily, but most are. The high school I went to was a Christian one, and a pretty loving one at that. Sure, like every religious space, things could've always been better and more accommodating, but it was a place where faith made sense.

It never occured to me growing up in those spaces that someone could been made to feel ostracized if they didn't share the faith that I had, if only because pretty much everyone I was around was a part of the same denomination, or at least something extremely similar. If you don't grow up in a public school, it can be hard to understand what would happen if faith and state could mix in such a melting pot like a high school football field.

Having covered football in Williamson County for four seasons now, I've had mixed emotions when I'd see a team break down the huddle with the Lord's Prayer, or see two squads engage in a post-game prayer. On one end, it was a warm reminder of the Friday nights I had in high school, of the bond that can come from sharing your faith with others after a night of heated competition. It always seemed to be in good faith, and most likely involved a host of those who shared the same pews.  

On the other hand, public football fields are government-funded spaces, places where people's faith can't and shouldn't affect their standings within that community. We draw the line between the church and state because we know the danger of blending them in a multicultural, multi-faith society. As badly as folks would like you to believe, America is not a specifically Christian nation. It is a nation of religious freedoms (and freedom from religion), and it's got to stay that way. 

Public football teams aren't youth groups. They're publicly funded sports programs that should accommodate people of all faiths (or those who aren't of a faith), if only because people of all walks of life are paying the taxes to keep those schools and teams running. 

The Supreme Court ruled this week 6-3 in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a landmark case involving a football coach who held public, audible prayers at midfield after football games, inviting his players in to join him. His school district fired him in 2015 after asking him to cease the public prayers, citing the Constitutional idea behind the church and state separation.  

The decision will inevitably open up the possibility for people working in public schools to hold open prayers, regardless of the makeup of those present, as the Court felt that school districts punishing this would infringe on someone's First Amendment rights. The Court felt that one should not be punished for public expression; it focused more on the one expressing that the ones being expressed in front of in its ruling. 

Including prayer in secular spaces like public schools has long been a push of the evangelical right, seen as a battlefield of suppressed freedoms and, in some cases, a desire to "see God return to public schools." 

As a Christian, it never bothered me to see a team pray after a football game. Though, I feel that football culture is often deeply misguided in the way it unleashes faith in its locker rooms, in using God as some sort of advocate for your team's potential performance and using prayer as a way to cajole heavenly favor for the end result on the scoreboard. As the old saying goes, "God doesn't care who wins or loses your football game." There are often believers on both sides of the ball. 

As political writer David French opined this week about the Christian reaction to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the culture of "winning and losing" is zapping Christianity of its potency to reach people. The mixing of politics and faith is turning the church into a polarized place where you're only welcome if your ballot matches mine. "Winning" prayer on the football field does about as much good to advance God's kingdom as your field goal kicker nailing three points from the 40-yard line. It only seeks to serve those whose duty it is to serve. It may establish something you feel is a right, but that right can still be exercised in the wrong ways. 

Those who advocate against this blending, in keeping that separation between church and state a hallmark of how America functions, are often called "enemies" to the faithful. If you have an enemy, how can you evangelize them? Forced religion is no religion at all, and critics of the Supreme Court decision rightly worry that the ruling could open a culture where those on any given football team who do not prescribe to the majority faith could be discriminated against.

As college football journalist Alex Kirshner wisely says in satire, "Prayer circles led by high school coaches are not compulsory. If a player walks up to their coach and says, 'Hey Coach, I'm not doing that because it makes me uncomfortable,' the coach will always reply, 'Thanks for keeping me in line!' Then the player will get more playing time." 

It's ignorant to think that Christian prayer on multi-faith football fields won't cause consternation for those who don't share in those beliefs, or won't spark worries about retaliation for noncompliance. Of course they will. 

What happens if a Muslim athlete doesn't wish to recite the Lord's Prayer after a game? What happens if a Jewish student doesn't feel comfortable with a pre-game speech that uses Christian ideology? What happens if a student with no faith background doesn't kneel for the team prayer and a coach calls him out in front of the team or uses it against him on the depth chart? 

More often than not, public exclamations of faith on the football field are done with pure intent. In such a tumultuous time as we live in, a public school football coach saying a prayer with his athletes doesn't feel like something dangerous, or even vaguely controversial. Under the Court's decision, it will now be seen as a freedom of expression. 

Though, as strange as this sounds, the Christian public school football coaches who really care about the totality of their locker rooms can show Jesus most prominently by letting the line between faith and the locker room stay in place. 

In the Gospel, one of Jesus' most cutting parables comes with comparing the loud prayers of a religious leader on a street corner to the quiet, private prayers of a "tax collector," someone Jesus' society deemed "unworthy." In the parable, the religious leader delivers a loud, boastful prayer, thanking God that he's nowhere near the morality level of people like this lowly tax collector that he's in the proximity with, likely to a crowd of supportive followers. 

The tax collector, though, prays humbly in silence, his eyes away from his creator, asking for mercy. It bothers me that this "tax collector" might've been an alright guy in a difficult profession, made to feel unworthy by a society who judged him for not being like they were. Jesus closes the parable by saying it's the humble man who earned God's favor, rather than the prideful one who likely earned the favor of his flock. "For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted," Jesus says in Luke 18:14. 

There is always harm in public prayer in multi-faith spaces, even when no harm is intended. While it's hard to want to compare a good-willed football coach to a haughty preacher, there is still a social pressure that can be applied to athletes who don't share the faith of their leader when that leader publically expresses their faith. All players of all belief systems deserve the same level of treatment, and they shouldn't be pressured to feeling like their standing in the eyes of their coach depends on a bended knee they may not, and shouldn't have to, share.

The Court's ruling doesn't change the inherent morality of the issue. Just because something might now be legal doesn't mean it's also become right.

Jesus' ministry always involved turning the common thought of the time on its head and challenging the faithful to think more about their neighbor than themselves. Fighting for prayer in public spaces may offer validation, but it won't help further Jesus' mission. The powerful prayer in private for the athlete on a team who might be struggling, or the involvement from the coach to be a mentor and support system for that athlete, will do far more to advance God's kingdom than the holy team breakdown after a game ends. 

A coach can offer a sacred bond for a growing athlete, someone who pushes them to be better, celebrates with them with the wins, supports them during the losses, helps them grow in skill and in character. A player's beliefs should never separate them from the joys of athletics, the ups and downs of competition, the camaraderie of being on team and the power of becoming close to a coach who might become a mentor, a father-figure and a friend. 

Christians can't let personal victories overshadow the harm they might cause others. While I don't inherently believe a public school football coach should be fired for praying on a field, I also don't think public prayers do much good in public spaces like this, particularly in this context. They carry a higher possibility to alienate and ostracize rather than support and evangelize. Those wishing for a "Christian nation" ignore the one they are already a part of daily, and the impact that belief can have when carried out like the savior who set the example they follow daily. 

We have private schools for a reason. We have spaces where people of faith can gather in commonality of faith on a sports field because they all, in theory, consented to being in that environment. There isn't consent for all in a public school to have to subscribe to one faith on a team that is shared by the coach. 

If Jesus was a football coach, it's of my opinion that he wouldn't be praying on the 50-yard line after the game. He'd save his ministry for the spaces in which it was both appropriate and unexpected, the spaces in which it could really take root. He never conformed to what was popular in his culture, and as I've always felt, Jesus would probably tick off a lot of Christians if he were still with us today. Churches don't often consider what role modern Christianity would play in Jesus' time. Have we ever stopped to think that the patriarchy Jesus preached against in the Gospel might be the one now that bandies his name every Sunday?

The continued mixing of church and state might make life a lot more convenient for Christians, but it sure does make it harder for the Gospel (good news) to take root for those who actually need it.  

A core tenant of Christianity is being a servant to those around you. If faithful public school coaches can serve their team by showing Jesus rather than just talking about him because they "have a right to," they might get the results they're looking for at the end of the day. We live in a country where every Christian coach will have a choice now on the sideline as to how they'll choose to live out the Gospel. Rather than choosing to pray at the 50-yard line, I hope coaches will continue to choose their locker. To me, that's where Jesus is, not under the Friday night lights.