Friday, November 25, 2005

Football and Prayer: "It's Not About Religion"

From today's New York Times, here's a story that illustrates why some of us Christians prefer to keep prayer out of schools and other public places--through the quoted words of people defending school prayer.

In this case, the prayers are those of the East Brunswick Bears, a high school football team in New Jersey. Their coach, Marcus Borden, is suing to reclaim the right to lead his players in prayer before games. (They can and do pray on their own, but Coach Borden contends that his rights have been abridged by the school board's new policy forbidding him to take part.)

The kids and parents quoted in the article support the coach. Typical comment from a former East Brunswick player named Matthew Weiss:

I don't understand how a football player can score a touchdown and go down on one knee and bless himself, and he doesn't get in trouble. That's probably the next thing that the parents will go after.

(It's not that tricky, Matt: The football player doesn't represent the government; the public-school coach does. There's a big difference.)

But more telling remarks came from Gwen Bloom, whose son, an offensive lineman, is the only Jewish player on the Bears. According to the Times, Ms. Bloom . . .

. . . was not bothered by Borden leading her son and his teammates in prayer. "It's a tradition, like eating turkey on Thanksgiving," she said. "You're just sharing your thanks and appreciation. It's not about religion."

Stephen Halpuka, a former Bears player who's now a college student, defended the practice in similar terms:

"When I first heard about the controversy, I couldn't believe it," he said. "We just took the pregame prayer as an almost ritualistic activity. Coach was always really clear. He'd say, 'If you don't like it, you can go outside the room.' I can never remember a teammate objecting."

Halupka said his coaches at Muhlenberg [College] lead the team in pregame prayers. "It's almost like a moment of silence," he said. "The coaches ask us to pray in our own way. It's pretty much like what Coach Borden was doing."

So what is Coach Borden suing to defend? Pregame prayers that are basically devoid of content--"an almost ritualistic activity" that amounts to "a moment of silence" and that "is not about religion" but is purely "a tradition, like eating turkey on Thanksgiving." In other words, a gesture in the direction of God--and a rather empty one at that.

Of course we all know why the coach's prayers had to be watered down of any specific content. It's because we live in a pluralistic society, where (believe it or not) Jews are allowed to play high school football. (Who knows, there might even be an atheist or two wearing shoulder pads somewhere.) If you're going to come up with a prayer that speaks for a diverse group of believers and non-believers, it'll have to be pretty darn vague.

I have nothing against an occasional vague, ecumenical, feel-good prayer. At times, such prayers feel appropriate--for example, during the many interfaith memorial services after 9/11. But how close to the heart of anyone's actual faith does such prayer go? If the players regard it as unrelated to "religion" and so meaningless that they can't imagine why anyone would object to being pressured to take part, does it even deserve the name "prayer"?

Jesus, of course, advised his followers to pray in secret rather than in public (where "the hypocrites" love to pray--Matt. 6:5-6). He had in mind a more intimate, personal, real conversation between the soul and its maker--not a social ritual equivalent to passing the chestnut stuffing. Yet prayer in an American public school must inevitably be just such a watered-down, empty ritual. Otherwise it would quickly alienate and anger any student or parent who didn't share the specific faith it expressed. Is that really worth suing over?

My advice to Coach Borden: Chill out. Your faith isn't being suppressed. All you've lost is your power to make a bunch of teenagers bow their heads and mumble some empty words. Not quite the stuff of martyrdom.

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