Opinion: Prayer Controversy at Tennessee

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People that know me know that there are few things in this world that I love to discuss more than sports and religion. It’s not often that these two topics converge, but when they do I relish the opportunity to give my opinion on both.

Several news outlets, including Yahoo! Sports and Fox News, reported on Wednesday that the University of Tennessee’s chancellor asserted that pregame prayers at its football games and other sporting events weren’t unconstitutional¬†and would be continued after being prompted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to discontinue the practice. Among other things, the letter from FRFF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor¬†stated that the prayers by clergymen, many of which invoke the name of Jesus Christ, “are sectarian in nature” and are in violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” She states that Tennessee’s “encouraging or endorsing [a] religious ritual” such as prayer is an example of the institution “lend[ing] its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 15% of the U.S. adult population that is nonreligious.” In her opinion, the prayers at Tennessee “include sectarian or proselytizing devotions, such as praying in the name of Jesus Christ.”

I’ve got a million problems with this situation, not all of which I have the time to get into. So I’ll just hit the highlights.

  • This organization is from Wisconsin and is meddling in the business of the flagship university of Tennessee. The political, social, and religious climates are extremely different in these two areas of the country. The letter states that the FRFF was contacted by a Tennessee alum about the prayers. One alum. One. Is this really a big enough deal to raise a stink, upset social balance, and anger the tens of thousands of Tennessee alumni, fans, and supporters that this story has reached? You be the judge.
  • Gaylor said in an story published by the Knoxville News Sentinel that the nonreligious fans in attendance were “getting prayed at during events” and that “it’s a sock in the gut…to go to a sporting event and then be told to conform to someone else’s religion.” I’m really not sure how a prayer thanking Jesus for the contributions both competing institutions have made to the world at large and asking for world peace and player and fan safety during the game (as is the custom for most invocations at college sporting events) constitutes being “prayed at” or being “told to conform to someone else’s religion.” Maybe that’s uncomfortable. I could understand if the clergymen embedded subtle phraseology in their prayers that encouraged conversion to Christianity. But it really seems blown way out of proportion.
  • It’s hard to convince me that praying at a football game, especially in the Deep South, constitutes governmental endorsement of religion. This isn’t a sport finance article, but absolutely $0 of Tennessee’s athletics budget comes from state appropriations. Meaning no taxpayers are footing the bill for a dime of Tennessee’s athletics expenditures. But I’ll even play their game for a minute, saying that since the athletics department is affiliated with the university as a whole, everything that happens in an athletics context is endorsed by the university, which is funded in part by taxpayer dollars. I’ll admit, I can’t find the percentage of Tennessee’s budget comes from state appropriations. But I can tell you at South Carolina that figure is less than 10% from the state, and, to my knowledge, 0% from the federal government. Assuming Tennessee is in a similar situation, the prayers would at best constitute a state endorsement of prayer/religion, not a federal one, which is what the Establishment Clause applies to.

But perhaps the most maddening part about all of this is the hypocrisy on the part of the FRFF. Organizations like this preach tolerance and acceptance, saying that members of society feel marginalized when their personal beliefs come under attack in situations like this. But this is not what they practice. They don’t seek freedom from religion, they seek freedom from the Christian religion by personally attacking Christians’ beliefs and practices, such as prayer or Jesus being the only means of salvation. The nature of tolerance is to accept all people’s viewpoints as legitimate and to refrain from trying to convert or convince them otherwise. Maybe they’ve convinced themselves that that’s what they’re actually doing here. But beneath the surface, they harbor at best annoyance and at worst seething hatred towards Christianity because they view the people practicing it as intolerant. They fail to see that the very tolerance they preach isn’t extended to those in the majority, who are seen as conniving zealots that haven’t yet seen the glorious illumination of enlightenment.

I concede that my viewpoint is a bit biased. But I hope the logic is still sound. It will be interesting to see if anything more comes from this, and whether other institutions that pray before athletic events, including South Carolina, will feel the repercussions.

Photo Credit: Knoxville News Sentinel

Published by

Randall Stewart

Randall is a senior at USC majoring in Sport and Entertainment Management. He's spent three seasons covering high school football for various newspapers, spent 11 days in Omaha covering the 2012 College World Series, and has had articles appear in seven different newspapers. Even Clemson's student paper. Which is probably either the high or low point of his career.

  • Author

    A friend who spent a few years in law school informed me that I’m wrong on my third bullet point, where I state that the Establishment Clause doesn’t apply to this situation. I don’t understand all the ins and outs of the court cases establishing that precedent, but I trust his judgment.

  • USCAlum

    Religious rituals, like praying, are appropriate in the privacy of one’s home and in their respective place of worship. Sporting events are not inherently religious. The game of football does not require prayer or a blessing before kickoff in order to function. Sanctioned prayer at sporting events is an exploitation of the opportunity to use a loudspeaker to promote religious ideas before a large crowd, whether they choose to participate or not. The slippery slope on this kind of thing is huge. Are you going to give the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster their due time too? Doubtful.

    By allowing Christian prayer and no other religious rituals, there is a not so subtle implication that the praying is useful, “right” or “true” in some way. This leads to further implication that the other views of that religion are also true, including but not limited to, jesus being the only source of “salvation”, that other religions and non-believers are destined for an eternity of torture for a finite lifetime of offenses, that we must plead to god for protection and safety, that we have to thank him for any and all good things that may come our way, while never blaming him for the bad things (he is in control right?), and that we must be constantly praising and loving him (a love built on fear).
    Leave religion out of sports. Leave religion out of politics. Leave religion out of public schools. Leave religion out of the courts. Keep it in the home and the church, where it belongs.

  • Author

    Loving the respectful dialogue and difference of opinion. I wish more people had commented on this piece. I think in reading your comment I realized that those of us who are in favor of this sort of thing look at what the FRFF is doing as an attack on what we believe, while those who take the opposite viewpoint see it as an opportunity to return things to how they should be, with no partiality or favoritism toward one belief system.

  • boogerso

    USCAlum: I appreciate your sentiment. There is certainly something a little pushy about this sort of prayer. Furthermore, there are plenty of good reasons to ban this type of thing (I’m not sure why a Christian would ever expect that government would support this type of thing). However, to say that religion is a private affair is to make a religious/theological claim in a public way yourself.

    The Christian story is about God redeeming the entire world from human sin. It is inherently public, because it involves every inch of creation, not just our private, individual spirits in their quest for heaven (or whatever).

    This doesn’t mean that we ought to pray at football games (as a Christian, I’m not sure we should). But it does mean that our reason for banning it cannot be because religion ought to be “private.”

  • Muslim

    Imagine at the next USC game everyone does our prayer:

    Standing, raise hands up and say “Allahu Akbar” (God is Most Great). Standing with hands folded over chest, recite the first chapter of the Qur’an in Arabic. Then recite any other verses of the Qur’an that you would like. “Subhana rabbiyal adheem” (Glory be to my Lord Almighy) Raise hands up, saying “Allahu Akbar.” Bow, reciting three times, “Subhana rabbiyal adheem” (Glory be to my Lord Almighty).

    Now, how do you feel? That is likely how I feel every time they praise Jesus Christ, as well as all the atheists, Jews, etc. in the audience.

    • iambateman

      Hey “Muslim”, this is a very legitimate question, and definitely needs to be part of the discussion.

      I don’t have any great answers, but I appreciate your perspective. Thanks for weighing in!

    • SthrnBrn

      How many Muslim countries can a person openly praise Jesus? It is our freedom on religion that allows you to do that without being decapitated.

  • Reilly

    I’d like to see other faith’s prayers and rituals represented before football games. As long as it is solely Christian prayer I fully think they are 100% justified calling into question the role of religion at a state institution (athletic events are still subject to university rules and thus state policy) and the fact that it’s present in the “Deep South” has nothing to do with it. Religious climate should never enter the conversation because that’s merely a shrouded form of majority tyranny (there is the climate because the majority are Christians).