Football coach David Kennedy recently won his Supreme Court battle for the right to pray after games. Author and lawyer David French agrees with this decision. Here is why they—and many Christians cheering this decision—are looking at the wrong thing. We still need to think carefully about a Christian approach to public prayer.
In its rash of decisions over the past few days, the Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that football coach David Kennedy has a Constitutional right to walk to midfield after games to lead his team in prayer. Author, Constitutional scholar, and evangelical Christian David French likely cheers this decision, along with many other Christian people around the nation.
David French is an expert in constitutional law. I am about as far from “expert” in that field as one could possibly get. But I do know sports and religion. That knowledge leads me to believe Christians in America are missing some key truths about sports, prayer, and faith.
We can start with French’s misunderstanding of the power of a football coach. He and the majority of the Court equate a football coach in a community with any other employee in a school. Constitutionally, they may be correct. Realistically, they could not be more wrong.
There is not a more team-oriented, religiously affiliated, conformity demanding sport than football. Coaches insist on loyalty to themselves and to “team” above any individual expression. Patriotism and prayer are standard procedures in the sport, as are expressions of religiosity. It is hard to believe that this was lost on Coach Kennedy.
A football coach exercises tremendous power and influence in a school or community. Walking to midfield to pray is not a coach offering a lesson in free exercise choices. It is a de facto command. And the athletes are expected to follow, whether they agree with the coach or not.
In other words, there is nothing “voluntary” in football, particularly at the high school level. The player who skips those “voluntary” activities will suddenly find himself volunteering to be the water boy. From the first practice they are told they know less than they think they do, so following their coach is paramount to success.
Kennedy knows this. He also knows that players are likely to imitate the actions of the men who play on Sunday afternoon and often gather for prayer after games. While those professionals are acting voluntarily, it is hard to see how Kennedy’s imitative and intentional actions are not coercing his players to a specific religious activity.
This is the nature of the the argument over prayer at public school events that has raged for almost half a century. Is it a public endorsement of Christian faith for a leader who is paid by the state to engage others in Christian activity? Many Christians are ecstatic with this Supreme Court decision, which seems to decide the matter at least for the near future. But as David French and others cheer for this victory, they are forgetting the most important question about public displays of religious devotion: Are they Christ-like?
Again, my view on the court’s interpretation is merely an opinion. That, along with $5.78, will get you a coffee at Starbucks (at least a small one). Or maybe a gallon and a half of gas. Even if the court says that Christians have a right to pray at midfield, we must still ask if it is the right thing to do.
When I played and coached football, I leaned much more towards French and Kennedy’s position. What was the harm in leading the guys in the Lord’s Prayer before games? Now, I wonder. How many students felt uncomfortable with the Lord’s Prayer? Did they participate with a heart for the Lord, or as a ramped-up pregame ritual? Why does “the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory” become relevant under a goal post before an athletic competition?
And how many people are very un-comfortable with all the public displays of religion in school, but feared the backlash of the majority? This points to the larger, deeper, and more spiritual conversation that American Christians need to have. Is our prayer more effective when we present it for all to see? And does coercing people to join us truly furthering the cause of Christ?
In Matthew 6, Jesus tells his disciples and the listening crowds that prayer is far from a matter of public production. In fact, he says that prayer should be the opposite of attention seeking behavior: “5And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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.”
If our prayers are just as powerful and valuable from the closed door as they are from midfield, then why do we insist on praying where the entire stadium can see us? If God hears the prayer of the faithful in secret, then why do we insist on making such things so public? Are we looking for God to change hearts and minds, or are we looking to be the center of attention for both God and society?
Christianity in America over the last 75+ years has embraced a cultural ethic of making a grand production of all things, including public prayer. We emerged from the model of Jesus Christ doing everything possible to escape the crowds and shifted to a faith that takes much more of a “Pick me!” vibe.
The problem is that this mindset is not supported by Christ or by the Scripture that points us to Christ. Being the loudest one in the room makes our faith the strongest in the room. In fact, attention-seeking behavior may pull us—and others–further AWAY from Christ rather than towards Him. Nowhere is this more visible than in Jesus’ teaching on prayer.
By walking to midfield and praying out loud, the coach clearly sought a reaction from his team and the fans. French may make a solid case for Kennedy’s constitutional rights, but he makes no case for the rightness of Kennedy’s actions in light of the guidance of Christ.
I know nothing about this coach and only know French from what I see in public. I cannot know either of their motives, much less their hearts. But in the light of Scripture, how such actions further the name and work of Christ. In fact, I would argue that most symbolic displays of prayer may reduce the practice of prayer from Jesus’ intent. Such generic, symbolic prayers allow us to pat ourselves on the back while letting someone else do the hard work of prayer for us.
God indeed loves a martyr who willingly makes a sacrifice for Christ’s cause. But David French seems to miss the fact that Coach Kennedy sought martyrdom without a worthy cause. The purpose and power of prayer is not enhanced by making it into a production for his players or the public.
Perhaps Coach Kennedy’s legal right as an American is to pray at midfield with everyone watching. But as followers of Christ, we recognize that Jesus does not need any additional eyes on us in order to make our prayers effective and righteous.
David French is better served to use his platform to make this point. Rather than cheering for our newly discovered ability to make a spectacle of our prayers, we should seek to return to following the teaching of Jesus on the subject. Christ does not need our spectacle. Rather than putting on a show, we might serve Christ better by pursuing a humble sincerity of heart that no school district or court can take away. And that Jesus himself prefers.