“Volunteering” to Pray: Church, State, and College Football

The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) campaign to remove religion from American public life has opened a new front: stopping public prayers at college football games. It sent “cease and desist” letters to the University of Tennessee recently, asking that both its Knoxville and Chattanooga campuses end their rituals of pregame prayers. Chattanooga complied, but the Volunteers are standing strong, saying that the First Amendment (freedom of religion and of speech) permits nonsectarian prayers.

As I argued previously with regard to prayers at county council meetings in Rustburg, Va. (“Thou Shalt Not Say Jesus”), there is a big difference between a prayer being inappropriate, and a prayer being unconstitutional. The Freedom from Religion folks would like to see all prayers at state institutions banned. But many public universities, including my beloved undergraduate alma mater, Clemson, have continued offering prayers while requesting that the clergy keep a lid on theologically specific language. You know, stuff like “in Jesus’s name.”

Committed Christians should be ambivalent about the prayers themselves. I personally have no need to have prayers offered at events like football games, especially if we cannot utter the Lord’s name during said prayers. Who benefits from a prayer that says, effectively, “O Great Deity, whose attributes we cannot mention, keep the players from being hurt”? It would be better to have a moment of silence and let believers say specific prayers delivered in the quiet of their mind.

But unconstitutional? The mere mention of the Deity, or even of Jesus, at a public venue hardly represents an establishment of religion. The Founders, including Thomas Jefferson, would have found such rabid secularism unfathomable. (Remember, the same Jefferson who wrote of a  ”wall of separation” between church and state also hosted a church service in Congress’s chambers the same weekend he sent that letter in 1802.)

We can be sure that the FFRF and similarly litigious secularists will not rest until every vestige of religion is erased from public life. No more ”In God We Trust” on coins, “Under God” in the pledge, manger scenes and menorahs during the holidays, “so help me God” in oaths of office, Bible readings on days of national remembrance, memorial crosses, chaplains, or anything else that would ostensibly poison their secular public sphere with the taint of religion.

In spite of all the messiness of maintaining liberty in our diverse society, we should very rarely permit legal restrictions of free speech and the free exercise of religion. We should only do so in very pressing cases (such as the classic ban on mischievously yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). Propriety and prudence — not the Constitution — might dictate that the Volunteers’ prayers remain vague and nonsectarian, or that someday they might end them altogether. But let’s also stand against those who would enlist the courts to ban the utterance of specific religious words in public. Religious speech deserves special protection, not special restrictions.

  • Brian Westley

    “We can be sure that the FFRF and similarly litigious secularists will not rest until every vestige of religion is erased from public life.”

    It would help if you wouldn’t lie about atheists. This is one of the reasons the FFRF and other groups have to fight so hard against Christian supremacists.

    Try to find a lawsuit against a ten commandments monument on church property. — that’s part of “public life,” yet there are no lawsuits. And no, you can’t make up future ‘crimes’ and claim it will happen eventually.

    Now to address some of your laundry list:
    ” No more ”In God We Trust” on coins”

    Which there shouldn’t be, of course. The government should no more put this on coins than “gods are myths” on coins.

    ““Under God” in the pledge”

    I have this odd idea that public schools should NOT drill mindless theism into grade-school kids and leave religious instruction entirely to parents, where it belongs. You know, religious freedom and all that, by having the government stay OUT.

    “manger scenes and menorahs during the holidays”

    On church property? Fine.
    On your property? Fine.
    On government property? If it’s part of an open public forum, fine. If not, no, it’s not fine to have my government promote your religion. Kindly return the favor. Wait, it’s not a “favor”, it’s a right.

    ” “so help me God” in oaths of office”

    “So help me god” has never been required in the entire history of the US. The very first piece of legislation passed by the very first congress was the Judiciary Act of 1789, which has always allowed for affirmations, and all similar legislation since then has followed it. It would be unconstitutional to require a religious oath.

    “Bible readings on days of national remembrance”

    You can certainly read your bible on whatever day you like. Out loud, even.

    “memorial crosses”

    Like creches above, on your land or a public forum, fine. Not on government property that belongs to everyone.

    “chaplains”

    Atheists in the military have been asking for humanist/atheist chaplains for years now, and there are more atheists than there are Jews or Muslims in the US military, yet they get chaplains and atheists do not. How is that fair?

    “or anything else that would ostensibly poison their secular public sphere with the taint of religion.”

    Please don’t martyr yourself; it’s been done before.

    • Vision_From_Afar

      ::slow clap::

    • Ted Seeber

      ““We can be sure that the FFRF and similarly litigious secularists will not rest until every vestige of religion is erased from public life.”

      It would help if you wouldn’t lie about atheists. This is one of the reasons the FFRF and other groups have to fight so hard against Christian supremacists.”

      Thus proving that he didn’t lie. You win the Alanis Morrisette Ironic Comment of the Day Award.

      • Brian Westley

        “Thus proving that he didn’t lie.”

        Your comment makes no sense at all. The original claims that “secularists will not rest until every vestige of religion is erased from public life”, which is false, and I gave an example of religion in public life that “secularists” are NOT trying to erase — ten commandments monuments on church property.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.net/b cl

    ::loud laugh:: followed by facepalm. Not at the original post, but, the whiny atheist who thinks the majority should cater to his views. Of course, obnoxious Christians are no better, but it just bums me out that we have all these atheists who think they have a monopoly on interpreting separation.

    • Brian Westley

      If you have any *intelligent* response to any of my examples, feel free to state specific objections to one or more of them.

  • http://patheos.com Had3

    The author is correct, speech about Thor, Zeus, Ra and others needs to be protected from monotheists who would question their existence and keep us from praying to them before football games. Ha!

    • Philip Jenkins

      G. K. Chesterton held that blasphemy necessarily implied belief. After all, he said, just try to think a blasphemous thought about Thor. Tough, isn’t it?

      • Brian Westley

        Chesterton said a lot of very silly things to try and paint his religious opinions as inevitable conclusions. His arguments strike me as the philosophical equivalent of three-card monte.

  • Bernard Ortcutt

    What is “non-sectarian prayer”? “Non-sectarian prayer” isn’t non-sectarian, it’s just generic, Christian prayer.

  • Jennifer Allen

    I didn’t get past the first half of the opening line: “The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) campaign to remove religion from American public life has opened a new front:…”

    Any author who makes no distinction between ‘public life’ and ‘on public property’ is too dishonest to bother with.

  • C Alan Nault

    Regarding prayer, I can’t understand why the people that call themselves Christians don’t follow the teachings of Christ as quoted in their Bible.

    “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

    But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Matthew 6:5-6

  • Proteios1

    Ffrf are really just a bunch of bullies. Tey will threaten and force to get their way. It really doesn’t matter what local communities or colleges or any entity wants of themselves, their agenda is pretty ruthless and they are an incredibly intolerant bunch.

    • Brian Westley

      Oh dear, they will “threaten and force” to have a court of law review the actions of public employees to see if they’ve violated the constitution. Yeah, what “bullies” to make sure the law is being followed correctly.

  • L

    I haven’t read Chesterton extensively. However, building on that statement blasphemy is one sin it is impossible for a non-believer to commit. a non-believer cannot actually, in a spiritual sense, be held to account by a just God, for defaming a being in which he or she does not place faith.

    Only a believer in God can actually blaspheme God, by making God out to be something God is not.
    We Christians have an unfortunate tendency to confuse blasphemy and idolatry and plain disbelief. Blasphemy and idolatry are sins of believers. Not believing, well, I’m not sure that’s even a sin. I don’t believe more times a day than I do.

    Chesterton’s “Thor” comment ~ no doubt intended to be witty ~ has all the tin-eared circular logic of a conservative Christian presuming he is speaking only to other conservative Christians, which is ironic considering he was lamenting a decline in belief.

  • L

    It is funny though – and makes its point to its intended audience.


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