Football without a Prayer: Why Pre-Football Piety is a Bad Idea

Image: Seth Hahne

How should Christians respond to attacks on pre-game prayers by groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation? Drew Dixon argues that if we pause to consider the matter biblically, we might side with the atheists.

I like to pray and I like to watch football. I love Jesus and I love my church. So why would I support efforts to remove public prayers from football games? I support such efforts precisely because I love Jesus and His bride, the church.

This year numerous public high schools across the country stopped offering publicly led prayers before football games. Schools in West Virginia, Georgia, and Texas have ceased pregame prayers due to pressures from Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) which has sent letters to schools threatening legal action if the prayers did not cease. The FFRF has been successful, in part, because of the Supreme Court ruling that “banned high schools from amplifying school-sanctioned pregame prayer.”

Image: Facebook

As more and more schools complied with the FFRF’s wishes and the Supreme Court’s ruling, more and more Christians took to the internet to try to amass support against prayer bans. In Texas, the “No pray, no play” movement was born, a grass roots movement attempting to get people to recite the Lord’s prayer out loud before games. Numerous Facebook groups have also sprung up. Others, like the University of Tennessee, have simply ignored the Supreme Court ruling and the FFRF and pressed on offering pregame prayers anyway.

I live in a small town in Northeast Alabama. As you can imagine, people here very much value football and religion. Last year, a school in my county received a letter from the FFRF and consequently ceased their pregame prayer. This resulted in surrounding schools, like the one in my town, following suit. When word came that the local high school (for which I work part time as a soccer coach) was going to stop having a publicly led prayers on Friday nights, a number of people in my community were upset. I wanted to ask people where the Bible commands that public prayers must be offered before football games, but I couldn’t because of the way the discussion was being framed.

Image: Facebook

Some student pastors in my area made copies of the Lord’s Prayer and encouraged students to start a movement to recite the prayer out loud during the moment of silence. I serve as the student pastor at my church, so instead of telling my students what to do, I asked them their opinion.  Their response surprised me. One of my older students, himself a football player said, “wouldn’t saying the Lord’s Prayer out loud like that be like a slap in the face to the people who object to prayer at football games? Those are the people we ought to be showing love to and pointing to Christ—forcing them to listen to a prayer that they object to seems the wrong way to reach out to them.”

My students were not particularly angry about the change in pregame ritual. They were content with the freedom they enjoy to personally talk to their classmates about Jesus and didn’t feel that their “rights” were being violated by the school.

I think my students had the right perspective. In fact, I think theirs is a more Christian perspective than outrage, protest, or ignoring school sanctions. I believe this for three reasons.

First, if we value freedom of religion, we should not force others to participate in our religious rituals. Consider the moral outrage that people would express upon arriving at their local high school’s football game to find the announcer asking everyone to face eastward as the Salat is recited (Muslim confession) and Shahada (Muslim prayer offered seven times a day while facing Mecca) is offered. The thought of such a thing is laughable because Christians vastly outnumber Muslims in America. And yet we do something similar every time we offer prayers “in Jesus name” under the Friday night lights. If we value freedom of religion, we ought to fight for it not just for the majority religion, but for all people, whether they share our values or not. There may come a day when Christians are in the minority in America at which point we will wish we had fought for freedom of religion when we had the benefit of greater influence.

Image: Facebook

Secondly, if we believe the fundamental Christian doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, we should not support efforts to force people to listen to Christian prayers. One of the primary reasons many Christians support public prayer at school is because they believe that through such prayers people will hear the gospel. However, the gospel is a message that Christians are called to preach to all people, not to impose on them. While the Christian church has been guilty of trying to grow by conquest in the past, such methods of evangelism are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:29-31).

I recognize that asking people to bow their heads as someone offers a prayer over an intercom is a far cry from demanding that people confess Jesus under the threat of the sword. However, when prayers are offered at civic events we are forcing people to endure, if not participate in our sacred rituals—something Jesus never did.

While I do not agree with the practice of offering prayers at football games, I at least wish I could say that the public prayers I have heard clearly articulated the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I believe that He is the world’s only hope of salvation and that he died for the sins of the world so that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. And yet I have never heard such truths articulated in a football prayer. I think if they were, pregame prayers would have been abolished in most schools long ago. This makes me wonder if the motive behind efforts to protect football prayers has less to do with the gospel and more to do with our desire to be in control.

This brings me to my final reason for supporting efforts to remove prayers from football games: the Bible sees two settings in which Christians should pray–in their closets and in the local church.

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. But when 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).

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:41-42).

The Bible envisions public prayers being offered in the context of local churches because prayer is a theological activity. When we pray to God out loud in church we are expressing what we believe about Him, about His kingdom, and about our place in it. Our corporate prayers teach doctrine and the New Testament is clear that Christians must teach sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10, 6:3; Titus 1:9) Thus the local church is an appropriate place for corporate prayer because those who pray are held accountable by the church. They submit to the church’s statement of faith, membership covenant, and leadership. For example, if a member of my church were to pray to Allah in one of our services, we would have reason and grounds to correct this person. Such a prayer clearly goes against our statement of faith and our membership covenant requires us to offer correction.

While it may seem out of the realm of possibility for someone to pray to Allah at an American football game, it is not uncommon for prayers to be offered to general deities or assumptions made about God and His will that are contrary to Scripture. And in such a circumstance, there are no grounds by which to correct such unbiblical assumptions. Consequently, I find it odd that so many Christians are determined to fight for prayer in a place where it isn’t protected, sacred, or particularly helpful. It is interesting to me that Christians claim to support prayer in school because they want the gospel to be proclaimed. And yet, when prayers were being freely offered in schools and at football games, no one seemed to be too concerned about what “gospel” was being articulated.

Nowhere does the Bible call Christians to pray at government sponsored events. The Bible calls us to proclaim the gospel on street corners and in center of towns and every where we go, but it never requires that we force the government or anyone else to publically honor our religion. I believe Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). The New Testament envisions a kingdom that resides in the hearts of people. It is a kingdom that grows through the preaching of the gospel; not through legislature, courts, or magistrates.

I fear that this culture war to keep the government from “taking God out” of our schools not only distorts the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, but shirks our responsibility to safeguard the gospel and proclaim it to the ends of the earth. I do not trust our public schools to get the gospel right nor do I expect them to preach it. Those duties fall to the church and so long as the church distracts itself with “culture wars”, I expect the church to fail to honor these sacred duties.

This fantastic illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad. Do it five minutes ago. 

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Steve Olson

    I find myself agreeing with you. Mostly. I’m a Lutheran though so of course I’m going to find something to nitpick. While it is hard to really find the Gospel in most public prayers, you and I diverge somewhat on the Gospel message. While Jesus did say He was the Way, the Truth, and the Light, if we distill the Gospel down to seeing it as simply a message designed to bring others to salvation we miss the larger and in my opinion more important of His teachings. The Gospel is not just about salvation in the sense of what happens to us after we die. The Gospel proclaims a radically different way of looking at society in the here and now. Jesus proclaimed a message of reorienting our priorities from the powerful to the oppressed. I find it impossible to envsion a scenario where a public prayer relies on Matthew 25. I cannot envisage sending young men (or women for that matter) onto the field of battle with the words “when you ignored the least of these” ringing in their ears. Yet that is what we are supposed to be about. If that was what we were talking about on Friday Nights then I might even have to rethink my stance on public prayer.

  • http://www.fidesviva.com Nathan DeFalco

    Excellent piece. I do agree with you. The same would go for “holiday parties” instead of “Christmas parties” and so on. But, make no mistake, the pre-game prayer issue has far reaching implications. With public schools ever encroaching on our educational needs, the FFRF is seizing on the opportunity to promote separation of church and state. In other words, they can shut religious people up without looking like they’re trampling on the first amendment. If public schooling wasn’t so influential, looming over every county in every state in America, this wouldn’t be an issue.

    The FFRF’s agenda is to shut religion out. Maybe not 100% but at least to the point where it has zero influence in our culture. You can make up your own motivation for Christians who have to deal with this and need something to feel okay about the change taking place, but any opposing sides won’t care. Now, if Christians had taken a stand to have those prayers REMOVED for the reasons you mentioned, THAT would be something!

  • kevin fry

    I won’t deny your right to hold your position concerning what is hypocrisy and good or bad for the body of Christ. I think in general, reactionary actions to criticism, even persecution, leave us open to acts that are more prideful than evangelical. To that extent, i’d not be completely opposed to your sentiments.
    I do think you need to do quite a bit more research on the supreme court’s ruling on prayer and schools. I won’t claim to be an expert, but you seem to be off in some basic elements. The point of case law involving prayer in schools, Lee vs Weisman, had to do with school’s entangling themselves in religion (in that case, specifically, even presuming to tell clergy how to pray), not the mere broadcasting of independent acts of prayer. In fact the court noted “[a] relentless and all-pervasive attempt to exclude religion from every aspect of public life could itself become inconsistent with the Constitution.” Of course schools and governments have been left to struggle with how to apply this decision…there are vastly different guidelines and/or advice from state departments of education on the topic.
    It should be noted, however, that the FFRF’s position is obviously provocative if, as you say (and I’ll emphasize IF since I certainly don’t assume authority or intimate knowledge on their actions), they tried to influence University of Tennessee to cease this practice… since they certainly know Universities and Colleges are expressly excluded from the school prayer issues see- -Tanford v. Brand, 104 F.3d 982 (7th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 814 (1997) (university students are mature enough to understand that a prayer delivered by a clergy at a state university graduation ceremony is not an establishment of religion); see also Chaudhuri v. Tennessee, 130 F.3d 232 (6th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 523 U.S. 1024 (1998) .
    If, as you present it, the FFRF’s actions are intentionally provocative, it will take an extreme act of Christian maturity to resist unprofitable reactions—it is an element of the human condition, it is very difficult to resist provocation to a fight. Shakespeare recognized so well in the Merchant of Venice
    “If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
    do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
    If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
    I doubt throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, like stopping public prayer altogether is really any better solution. Overreaction in either extreme is likely unhelpful to the cause of Christ. One should neither cower when taunted, nor act unbecomingly or proud in opposition.

  • http://swesleymcgranor.wordpress.com S. Wesley Mcgranor

    The postmodern have no place… But subjugated, in order to tame their destruction. If by some remote and abstract attempt at faith, one must ponder if simple(ton) faith–without direction is a relationship with Christ.


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