My dad was a mailman with a high school education, not a constitutional scholar. And although he was a deeply religious man, led by a Christian faith that informed every facet of his life, he was no theologian.
But back in the days when, here in South Texas, high school football games always began with an unashamedly institutionally sanctioned Christian prayer over the public address system, he was smart enough to note the irony involved in praying for victory and the safety of the players, on the one hand, and exhorting them to beat hell out of their opponents, on the other.
His homespun wisdom came to mind when I considered this fall’s dust-up in Kountze, Texas, where high school cheerleaders hoisted huge paper banners inscribed with Bible verses for their football team to burst through onto the field.
One banner quoted Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” Another proclaims Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Most citizens of Kountze, a town of 2,100 near Houston, had no problem with the banners. But someone complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., whose officials contacted the Kountze district superintendent, Kevin Weldon, who banned the banners.
In October, a state district judge ruled that the cheerleaders could continue to use the banners until the case goes to trial next summer.
I share my father’s skepticism about our efforts to mingle religion with public institutions, which are meant to be available to and suitable for people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And generally, neither the state nor the church benefits very much when they get mixed up with each other.
As a rule, the state isn’t well served by religion. Look at Iran. The religious right can say what it likes about our nation’s Christian origins, but whatever the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and mothers, clearly government and law were meant to depend on principles derived from rationality and reason, not revelation.
Religion, on the other hand, isn’t particularly well served by overexposure to the state and its secular institutions. Institutionally sanctioned Christian prayer in public schools and before football games was always more or less at odds with Christ’s injunction in Matthew 6:6 to go into your closet and pray in secret.
The Kountze cheerleaders aren’t to be faulted for their earnestness and faith, but surely it’s a distortion of some of the essential principles of Christianity to apply them to something as trivial and violent as a football game. It’s not my place to say what Christ would think about modern American football, but he did say, “Blessed are the meek.”