Where’s a Good Closet When You Need One?
To nobody’s surprise the Supreme Court just ruled in favor of a Washinton State high school football coach who was fired for making a practice of praying on the fifty-yard line after every game. Prayer in public school settings has been a thorn of contention for decades, often brought before the courts and until now seen as an out of bounds establishment of religion by the state, a violation of the First Amendment.
Obviously, the teams are going to swap ends after this ruling and a similar one two weeks ago allowing public funding of private religious schools. Folks looking to re-establish sectarian prayers as a fixture of public-school life will be playing downhill now, with the prevailing wind of Supreme Court rulings and sentiment at their back.
The really funny thing about this ruling is how thoroughly it endorses the practice of bad Christianity.
Conservative Christians make a big show of their religiosity, attending mega-churches the size of NBA auditoriums and hewing to Southern Baptist and other fundamentalist teachers who profess to take every word of the Bible literally. Public prayer is celebrated at every opportunity, but with all their literal reading and interpretation of the Bible they seem to have overlooked a direct commandment on the practice of prayer from Jesus, their savior and personal leader.
From Mathew 6:5, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
That would seem to be a very clear instruction needing no further clarification, but Jesus goes on, 6:6 “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Their lord is not done with commandments on prayer, 6:7 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words, and 6:8, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him”, and in 6:9, which recites the text of “The Lord's Prayer”.
It seems beyond obvious that the Lord and Savior of the Christians saw prayer as a private affair between believer and the Almighty, saw public demonstrations of prayer as a performance that brought dismay and possible rejection from the object of that prayer.
It would be hard to find a more public venue to demonstrate prayer than the middle of a football field at the end of a game. Bible Belt Americans are known for their devotion to “Friday night lights”, and as testimony in the case shows, the players noticed the coach kneeling down and joined him as a regular practice. It would be hard not to join, whatever their beliefs, given the peer pressure of teammates and fans and the power of the coach to play them or have them “ride the pine”.
Possibly this is one reason that Jesus gave such specific commandments on prayer, the knowledge that when performed in public prayer can lose its personal and private nature, can even become coercive. In any case we will now be seeing a lot more public prayer, garnering the public reward he warned of.