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'No Pray, No Play' Trivializes Piety

September 07, 2000|CHARLES A. KIMBALL | Charles A. Kimball is chairman of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C

This summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision banning school sponsored or endorsed prayer before high school football games was not well received in many quarters. In towns and cities across the South, tens of thousands of evangelical Christians are organizing "spontaneous" recitations of the Lord's Prayer prior to Friday night games.

As an ordained Baptist minister, a parent of a high school student and a devout football fan, I am fascinated, confused and disturbed by this new manifestation of piety. Something doesn't add up.

Several leaders of groups like "We Still Pray" in Asheville, N.C., contend that they won't stand by while God is "excluded." They agree with those who suggest that God was removed from public schools in the 1960s. These folks are determined to bring God back into public life.

What kind of theological understanding is at work here? Devout Jews, Christians and Muslims understand God to be omnipresent as well as omnipotent and omniscient. Is there any place--including high school football games--where God isn't present? Surely God's presence doesn't depend on human invocation.

And why football games? Why is there no furor over excluding God from high school soccer games? Golf matches? Volleyball? Why is the Lord's Prayer deemed the appropriate public prayer before a football game? Because this is the only prayer many would-be participants may know well enough to recite in unison?

Many evangelical Christians these days wear a cloth bracelet with the letters WWJD prominently displayed. What Would Jesus Do is meant to remind the person to reflect continually on his or her behavior in light of the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps a little such reflection prior to reciting the Lord's Prayer at football games would help. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had strong words for those who displayed their piety in public settings:

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)

Jesus then offers the Lord's Prayer as a model. Do you see the irony? Jesus teaches the Lord's Prayer after explicitly teaching how not to pray. This movement uses the Lord's Prayer in precisely the kind of way Jesus warned against.

So what is the message the organizers are trying to send? Do some see this as a collective act of defiance, a way to tell the government to stop intruding into our local communities? Perhaps. Others may be trying to say that we are free to pray in this country at any time and in any place we choose. While I affirm this heartily, I also fear the message being communicated is far less positive.

Last week, on the morning after an organized, "spontaneous" recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Santa Fe, Texas, the Rev. Alex Yovan, a religious leader in the school district whose case prompted the controversial Supreme Court decision, told NBC's "Today" show: "This issue is much bigger than prayer in our schools. It is about our relationship with Jesus Christ. Those that do not have one are standing against us."

If this is the underlying motivation, then a strong message is being sent to neighbors who don't share the same religious views. Jesus' teachings on how to treat one's neighbors are to the point. In response to a question about what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus says: "You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:25-27)

Turn the picture around and the power of Jesus' teachings comes into even sharper focus. Imagine yourself in another setting where you are the neighbor, a part of the religious minority. Imagine yourself, for instance, as a Christian in the world's largest Islamic country, Indonesia. What message would you take away from a soccer stadium filled with Muslims chanting the first chapter of the Koran in unison? Would it make you feel better if a Muslim leader explained that they just wanted to be sure God's presence was not "excluded" from the event? Again, Jesus offers sage guidance in the Golden Rule: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

History and numerous contemporary events remind us how easy it is for human beings to be caught up in popular movements intent on defending or propagating their religion. Simplistic slogans, such as those found these days on T-shirts declaring "No Pray, No Play," illustrate the point. Ironically, zealous movements often trivialize the very things they seek to defend. In this case, authentic prayer and religious freedom for every citizen are in danger of being undermined. As this popular movement grows, it is well worth asking, "What would Jesus do?"

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