Recent news stories have reported on a New Jersey football coach who resigned because he was prohibited from leading his team in pre-game prayers.
Let me start by saying I am an evangelical Christian and have pretty hard-core beliefs about the rights of individuals, particularly students, to express their faith, to include religious themes in their school work, to perform Christian-themed music and dramas during school talent events, etc. If a school administrator had ever tried to stop one of my kids from carrying a Bible, participating in voluntary prayer or openly discussing their faith with another student, I would have sued him back into the Stone Age.
You might be surprised then to learn that I am adamantly opposed to teachers and other school officials leading students in prayer or the conduct of prayer rituals, even by students, at officially sanctioned events. Why would I take a position that is seemingly so at odds with my core beliefs?
Throughout the vast majority of the United States, most religious practices and beliefs are rooted in a traditional Judeo-Christian belief system. As such, prayers conducted before a football game or at a graduation ceremony, even if so bland and non-proselytizing as to be meaningless, are generally offered in the context of the traditional Jehovah God of the Old and New Testament. However, that is not the case in all corners of our nation.
I had the privilege of serving our nation’s Air Force while assigned to Hickam Air Force Base on the beautiful island of Oahu in the beautiful state of Hawaii. Because of the arrangement of military housing in that location, my family and I actually lived not at Hickam near the Honolulu metropolitan area, but at Wheeler Air Force Base in the central part of the island just outside of the small pineapple-farming town of Wahiawa.
In Wahiawa we found a small Baptist church that met our family’s needs. However, Christians and others from various Judeo-Christian traditions were in the very distinct minority in this little village that was populated predominantly by people of Japanese and Chinese ancestry. Rather than a church on every corner, as is common in the continental 48 states, Wahiawa had a Shinto or Buddhist shrine on every corner.
Because we worked in the youth department of our church and taught teenage Sunday School classes, we were anxious to be involved in the lives of the students we worked with. So we were quite excited to be able to attend our first football game at Wahiawa High School. Upon our arrival at the stadium, it seemed like so many other high school athletic events we had been to in many other places. The teams were warming up, the band was gathering, the ROTC was preparing to raise the colors – a pretty typical fall ritual.
Coming from a fairly traditional Southern upbringing, I was not at all initially surprised when a voice came over the PA and asked everyone to rise for the invocation. I had been through this same ritual at many other high school events and thought nothing of it, so to our feet my wife and I stood, bowed our heads and prepared to partake of the prayer. But to our extreme dismay, the clergyman who took the microphone and began to pray was not a Protestant minister or a Catholic priest, but a Buddhist priest who proceeded to offer up prayers and intonations to god-head figures that our tradition held to be pagan.
We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese-American hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions.
I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.
As I thought through the incident over the next few days I supposed that the duty of offering the pre-game prayer rotated through the local clergy, and we just happened to arrive on the night that the responsibility fell to the Buddhist priest. After inquiring, however, I learned that due to the predominance of Buddhist and Shinto adherents in this town, it was the normal practice to have a member of one those faiths offer the pre-game prayer, and Christian clergy were never included.
Needless to say that was our first and last football game. Although many of the students we worked with continued to invite us to the games, we were forced to decline. We knew that if we were to attend again we would be forced to abstain from the pre-game activity. And not wanting to offend our neighbors and colleagues, we simply refrained from attending.
The point is this: I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.
We often advocate the practice of Judeo-Christian rituals in America’s public schools by hiding behind the excuse that they are voluntary and any student who doesn’t wish to participate can simply remain seated and silent. Oh, that this were true! But if I, as a mature adult, would be so confounded and uncomfortable when faced with the decision of observing and standing on my own religious principles or run the risk of offending the majority crowd, I can only imagine what thoughts and confusion must run through the head of the typical child or teenager, for whom peer acceptance is one of the highest ideals.
I would say in love to my Christian brothers and sisters: Before you yearn for the imposition of prayer and similar rituals in your public schools, you might consider attending a football game at Wahiawa High School. Because unless you’re ready to endure the unwilling exposure of yourself and your children to those beliefs and practices that your own faith forswears, you have no right to insist that others sit in silence and complicity while you do the same to them.
I, for one, sleep better at night knowing that because Judeo-Christian prayers are not being offered at my children’s schools, I don’t have to worry about them being confronted with Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Satanic or any other prayer ritual I might find offensive.
Though the opinions expressed in this article support the policy positions of Americans United as regards to prayer in public schools, Gary B. Christenot is an evangelical Christian who is in strong disagreement with most of the positions and agenda of Americans United. In the interest of furthering public debate, Christenot has agreed to have his views on this issue published in Church & State. However, the inclusion of his opinions in this publication are not to be construed as expressing any support for the larger views or mission of Americans United.