The Supreme Court recently decided in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a now-former high school football coach had the right to lead his team in public prayer following games. The central constitutional question was whether such prayer was “state-sponsored” endorsement of religion. (The high school in question is public.) Also at issue was whether some athletes may have felt the need to please their coach — and to ensure playing time.
Following the decision, I reminisced about my childhood athletic experiences. I was a three-sport athlete in a public high school in the late 1980s. At the time it was common for coaches to lead teams in prayer following contests or practices. The “prayer circle” often included members of opposing teams, which we viewed as a gesture that transcended competition and sportsmanship. To my knowledge, no one — whether a student, parent or spectator — ever voiced opposition.
Did I feel coerced to participate? Not at all. Indeed, as a lifelong Christian, I welcomed it. As far as I knew, so did all my fellow athletes. While it was clear that some students were more devout than others, I would have been quite surprised if my “less believing” teammates felt uncomfortable. It never occurred to me that coaches might dole out playing time based on whether a student joined the prayer. Of course, I can’t say for sure whether some athletes felt pressure to participate. And, to be honest, I probably would not have been sympathetic to any who did not want to participate. (I have matured since then, despite what my two teens might say.)
Millions of Christians, especially Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, are rejoicing at the court’s decision — their concerns about school officials “indoctrinating” children notwithstanding. We should be clear that their joy is not about fealty to the Constitution; it is about the notion that Christianity is being “attacked” in America. To be sure, America is much less religious than it has been in decades past.
Further, millions of people who formerly might have been silent about their opposition to Christianity are forcefully speaking out. However, opposition is not oppression. Religion — especially Christianity — is protected in America perhaps more than in any other nation.
As an Evangelical, I am grateful that I have freedom of religion. And, as an American who understands our history, I embrace the fact that freedom from religion is equally important. Christianity is not built on coercion or chauvinism; it is based on grace (from God) and evangelism. If more Christians were more concerned with presenting our faith in a loving and persuasive manner, we would lead more people to Christ. Spreading the “good news” — with a good attitude — should be our focus. Research shows that negative public perception is one of the key reasons why hundreds of thousands of people leave our faith each year, not to mention the millions of nonbelievers who want nothing to do with Jesus based upon their experience with Christians.
Some will argue that they are not willing to “compromise” their beliefs, even if it means that there will be fewer Christians. First, there is no need to compromise one’s beliefs, though it is clear that some tenets of Christianity (as many practice it) run counter to a pluralistic democracy. Second, many of my fellow believers have either forgotten or are unaware of Apostle Paul’s strategy: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). To make matters worse, the sad reality is that too many of us have sold out our faith to a political party that places white Christian nationalism above the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.
Unfortunately, too many Christians want to create a de facto theocracy. Indeed, far too many favor tactics and even laws that are more appropriate for countries like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan than the U.S. They seem not to understand (or care) that the Constitution’s establishment clause guarantees that people of other faiths are equally able to express their beliefs. Lost on them is the irony of exercising one’s constitutional rights in such a way that is likely to result in the reduction of others’ rights. Further, it will be interesting to see their response once Muslims and others begin to assert their right to public prayer.
I pray for the day that more Christians will have as much zeal to fight for those whom Jesus called “the least of these” as they do for the right to publicly parade their piety.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.