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"No Pray No Play" - What Went Wrong?

James Still

September 1 marked the opening football game of the Santa Fe High School, where last year's organized prayers, conducted over the public address system, led to a recent Supreme Court ruling banning the pre-game prayer. School officials announced last month that they would prohibit the organized pre-game prayer. In protest against the ruling, Christian organizers called for a "spontaneous prayer" to begin immediately after the school band played the national anthem. The organizers predicted that the 5,000-seat stadium would be full and that another 10,000 Christian supporters would be outside joining in as well.'

But a strange thing happened to the well-organized "spontaneous" plan to have 15,000 Christians reciting the Lord's Prayer in unison: few bothered to participate, preferring instead to cheer for their teams as they were being introduced onto the playing field. What went wrong? The organizers of the non-event are asking themselves that very question today. And I'm sure they are lining up their scapegoats to take the blame, including the Supreme Court, those meddling secular humanists, as well as an apathetic godless public. Of course, the real reason will escape them. So long as the Christian right continue to see faith as a blunt instrument to be wielded for secular means, few will ever understand why their marvelous plan backfired.'

The "No Pray No Play" plan fizzled out for two important reasons. First, it was not organized. When school administrators chose student leaders to recite the prayer over the public address system, delaying the game until the prayer was finished, everyone attending the game was quite literally a captive audience. It was easy for the Christians in the stand to share in the ceremony because they did not have to do any work. If any felt it was wrong, guilt or peer pressure kept them silent. Those who felt true piety could bow their heads and participate without doing anything. Even the most football-hardened Christian fan needed only to show silent respect knowing that the prayer would soon be finished and the game would begin. Taking away the element of organization meant that the audience had to work a little to participate and it obviously just wasn't worth it to most of them.'

The second reason it failed is because Christians, most of whom are serious about their faith and not out to use it for political grandstanding, try to emulate Jesus Christ in word and deed. And the lessons about organized prayers were not lost on Christianity's founder. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd gathered at his feet, "take care that you don't flaunt your religion in public to be noticed by others. Otherwise, you will have no recognition from your Father in the heavens" (Matt. 6:1). The moral of the story is crystal clear: for what purpose and to whom do you pray? Do you pray in order to show your neighbors how pious you are? Then your prayer is blasphemous because it is not between you and God but between you and the world. God is an awkward onlooker in a transaction that seeks primarily the approval of a watching American public. Knowing that such motives can corrupt, Jesus went on to caution, "when you pray, don't act like phonies. They love to stand up and pray in houses of worship and on street corners, so they can show off in public" (Matt. 6:5). To thwart the phonies Jesus recited the Lord's Prayer, the very prayer ironically that the "No Pray No Play" organizers co-opted in order to once again stand up and show off in public. I wonder if the religious right will ever learn the lessons of Christianity?


  Christianity, Prayer