Thoughts and Prayers

It’s late, and I need to go to bed, so I’ll keep this one short. I see a lot of people out there bloviating about the catastrophic moral horror of the Supreme Court’s decision in its recent “50 yard line prayer case”: Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District. Setting aside the absurdity of the very idea of American football, I don’t see the problem here. Can someone explain to me what the big deal is about this case, whether constitutionally or morally?

The idea seems to be that if a coach prays silently (but openly) after a game, he’s “coercing” his student-athletes into praying alongside him. No, he isn’t.  It really is that simple. The sheer act of prayer is not an act of coercion. Beyond that, there’s no evidence  that Kennedy coerced, pressured, or manipulated anyone into praying who didn’t want to pray. Some students joined him, others didn’t. The ones who didn’t don’t seem to have been penalized for not doing so, and the ones who did don’t seem to have been rewarded for doing so. The argument against this ruling seems to consist in the sheer blank assertion that the very sight of a man praying is an act of coercion or manipulation–or is one, where children (minors) are involved.

I’m sorry, that just seems preposterous to me. I’ve seen my share of coercion in life, and been on the receiving end of a fair bit of it. The sight of a guy kneeling on the 50 yard line and praying about football really doesn’t qualify. To think so is to fail to observe the transparent distinction between coercion and comedy. This is a case that decidedly falls on the comedic side of that line.

You might try to argue (as so many people are) that it’s very suggestive of a man, or a coach, to pray in the presence of his young and suggestible wards. I would quibble at the idea that suggestion is necessarily involved in a silent act of prayer, or that the youngsters are quite as suggestible as all that, but whether that’s so or not, suggestion isn’t coercion. Sorry.

You might say that coercion aside, if suggestion is involved, the suggestion being made is inappropriate. “Inappropriate” strikes me a discursively inappropriate word, mostly void for vagueness, but even if we grant the “inappropriateness” of the man’s conduct, I would dispute the idea that there can be a constitutional ban on inappropriate suggestions that might adversely affect the problematically suggestible. I would even dispute the idea that there can legitimately be a constitutional ban on inappropriate suggestions in a quasi-educational context by a quasi-educator at a public school.

Legalities aside, the idea is just plain silly. It presupposes a degree of micro-management of people’s speech acts that would either be a menace if carried out in a literal way, or a dead letter if construed more realistically. You really cannot go around through life cocking your ear at every goddamn thing that someone says and enforce the maxims of some ineffable Canon of Appropriateness against them.  To think this way is to regard free speech as a dispensable frivolity that be can gutted anytime anyone feels affronted by anything. Well, it can’t.

It’s also to treat America’s youth as so lacking in agency or epistemic wherewithal as to be molded like putty by anyone who says anything–or fails to say anything. Frankly, this strikes me as a better description of its adults than its children, but regardless, the remedy in either case is not to deprive them of the sight of human beings in prayer. Just a hunch, but I’m inclined to think that five minutes in front of the Internet, which they all have on their phones, affords a glimpse of worse things.

I know how shocking this may be to some, but it is an incontrovertible fact that (some) human beings do pray, and you might think that education should help those unacquainted with this fact to become better acquainted with it. One way of doing so is by what Russell called “knowledge by acquaintance”: if you have never come into contact with the phenomenon of prayer, it will be a great epistemic help to you to see someone in the act of prayer. Seeing is believing, or so they say. 

“Oh, but what if the coach is Muslim, and leads his students in Muslim prayer?” Yeah, that tactic’s not going to work on me. One particularly dumb meme making the rounds asks rhetorically whether people would be OK with a coach’s reciting the Islamic call to prayer on the 50 yard line of a football field. If I were God, there’d be a special place in the Fiery Pit for anyone who actually did that, but the Islamic call to prayer is of necessity recited out loud, whereas Kennedy’s prayer was “recited” entirely in his head. That seems a relevant difference. And anyone who’s had to endure the call to Tarawih prayers–which go on for a full hour at about 3 am every night for the month of Ramadan–should be able grasp the difference. If you’re unfamiliar with it, check out the third video below for assistance. To conflate silent prayer with Islamic adhaan is like conflating Gorgoroth with ASMR.  Easier said than done (see the guide for the perplexed below). But give it a shot, if the inclination hits. 

Feel free to school me on this one. Meanwhile, now I lay me down to sleep…. 

21 thoughts on “Thoughts and Prayers

  1. Thank you for this, Irfan, because I will admit I only read the headlines of the story and assumed the prayer was a team thing where those choosing not to participate could be at a significant disadvantage.

    I still have a problem with it, not so much with the performative aspect of public prayer — that is just “cringe,” not criminal, and while I’m pretty sure there’s a good New Testament verse about the evils of performative public prayer, I’m way too lazy to look that up.
    What bothers me is that (and again, I did almost zero reading on this) I’m assuming this is a public school teacher performatively praying on the 50 yard line, and in that moment he is a paid agent of the State. As such, he should not be repping any church while on the clock — he’s free to pray or flagellate himself or believe in trickle-down economics on his own time, but this is, in my mind, State time, and by praying performatively on State time he is violating the same principle that the Supreme Court just ignored, to the detriment and humiliation of everyone who possesses a uterus. No church on State time. When they go originalist, we go more originalist, because they are fundamentally stupid.


    • Chalmers: … while I’m pretty sure there’s a good New Testament verse about the evils of performative public prayer, I’m way too lazy to look that up.

      You are probably thinking of Matthew 6:5-8. Jesus is teaching the disciples; these are the instructions he gives on prayer immediately before he gives them the Lord’s Prayer.

      5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

      7 “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

      (Revised Standard Version)

      Chalmers: I’m assuming this is a public school teacher performatively praying on the 50 yard line, and in that moment he is a paid agent of the State. As such, he should not be repping any church while on the clock….

      Well, Kennedy is a public high school football coach not a teacher — or at least the case is about his role as coach (I don’t know whether or not they had him teaching one or two social studies or driver’s ed courses; but it doesn’t matter much either way for the legal and constitutional issues in the case).

      He was praying on the 50 yard line of the football field, but (by the time of the events that the case is about) was doing so after the game was over, he was expressly no longer expected to supervise students, and he was done with his job for the night.(*) So part of the legal issue at stake was precisely whether or not to count this as something he was doing “on the clock” in the relevant sense — so, e.g., whether it counts as “government speech” or “private speech” by someone who happens to be a government employee, and whether or not it counts as speech “ordinarily within the scope of his duties as a coach” during a time when the district “allowed other on-duty employees to engage in personal secular conduct”.

      The majority held that what he was doing with the prayer is more like a teacher wearing a yarmulke in the classroom, a teacher’s aide saying grace while eating lunch in the school cafeteria or a coach making a cell phone call to friends or family after the game, than it is like leading a class in prayer over the PA system during the school day. I.e. that it is private expression with a presumption of being protected by the First Amendment rather than government speech (which both has almost no First Amendment protection, and also would implicate an Establishment Clause issue).

      I don’t know for sure whether the majority is right about that or not, but the question of whether or not he was in fact acting in his role as an agent of the State during the times in question, and I think whether the majority is right or wrong on this particular case I do think they are (and should be) trying pretty hard to be careful about delineating what state employees are saying in the scope of their role as state employees without just sweeping everything they say or do into an unprotected-government-speech zone.

      For reference, opinion is Kennedy v. Bremerton School Dist., 597 U.S. ____ (2022).

      (* Kennedy had previously been doing a lot more than that — holding prayer meetings and inviting other teams to them and the like — but was instructed not to do so, at which point the school district disciplined him and he stopped doing those things, and limited himself to the 50 yard line prayers. I think the dissent in this case attaches more significance to the overall pattern of conduct than the majority opinion does, in order to highlight the potentially coercive aspects of what he was doing vis-a-vis students, whereas the majority opinion is written to be decided narrowly on the question of three after-game prayers after being warned by school administration.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for that primer on the facts, Charles (sorry, I mean, “radgeekdotcom”). And thanks also for identifying the relevant Bible passage. I think we probably both agree that the passage is not meant to be a literal prohibition on public confessions or professions of faith. Jesus’s advice here is a bit of hyperbole reminiscent of Aristotle on the mean: since we have a natural tendency to showboat in our public professions of faith, better that we should pray in private than lapse into pseudo-pious virtue signaling. But the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion itself were all public events involving public professions of faith, all central to the Gospels. So the latter half of the passage can’t be taken all that literally.

        Liked by 1 person

        • So the latter half of the passage can’t be taken all that literally.

          Oh, for sure, — it doesn’t matter too much to my heathen life or manners either way. But I agree that the focus of the teaching seems pretty clearly to be on the (extremely typical) heart religion focus on motivation, piety and humility, as opposed to or even at the expense of hypocrisy or sterile ritualism. I think the specific context — the disciples want to be given a formulaic, ritualized devotional prayer, like other faiths have, and are about to be given one, in this case the Lord’s Prayer that immediately follows in the text — that context, I say, is very important to the specific meaning, and the idea is more of a rabbinical “Better you should go lock yourself in a closet, even!” than some kind of legalistic injunction about the place even for that prayer, let alone profession and evangelical devotion generally.

          Liked by 1 person

    • (Responding mostly to Chalmers)
      I’ll try not to repeat too much of radgeekdotcom’s recounting of the facts, which is perfectly accurate. But to respond directly to your concern: Kennedy was a football coach at a public high school. He was terminated from his job after being asked to tailor his overtly religious conduct to the dictates of the school superintendent, which he did. What he did prior to this instruction is irrelevant to the case. The case concerns his termination and the reason given for it. The reason given was that his post-instruction behavior, while in adherence to the instructions given to him, still might be construed by a reasonable person as government sponsorship of religion.

      What was he doing? On three occasions, he spent a few moments praying by himself, either silently or quietly, on the 50 yard line of the school football field, after a football game, to give thanks to God for…God knows what, but I guess something related to the game. I don’t think he can accurately be described as praying performatively; just the reverse. He asserted that the game was over (which it was), and that he was off the clock (which also seems accurate), so that the prayer was done in a private moment. Each instance of prayer lasted about 30 seconds. The only tie to any claim to “government sponsorship of religion” was the fact that he was a public employee on public property.

      I don’t think any reasonable person could justifiably make the inference made by the school: that a private person’s 30 second prayers amounted to “government sponsorship of religion,” or the appearance of it. Only a very unreasonable person would come to that conclusion. A reasonable person would infer something tailored precisely to the facts in front of her face: that a football coach who happened to be a public employee was, in his private capacity as a Christian believer, praying at the school’s football field because the content of his prayer had something to do with the game that was just played–which was, lo and behold, a football game. So why exactly was he praying at that particular site? Was it because he wanted to proclaim Christianity the law of the land? Or was it because the prayer was about football, and a football field seems like the right place for a prayer about football? The present eminently reasonable person concludes: the latter. Cringe? Yes. Theocracy? No.

      It takes a huge effort of will to contort this very ordinary, very banal, obviously private behavior into a case of “government sponsorship of religion.” As the Court correctly argues, if this is government sponsorship of religion, then any overt display of religious sentiment by a public employee on public property qualifies as one, including wearing a yarmulke, wearing a Muslim skullcap, wearing hijab, wearing a Sikh turban, wearing a necklace with the Cross attached to it, having a tattoo that says, “Jesus is My Bud,” etc. Those expressions of religious sentiment are more overt and more performative than anything that Kennedy did. In my view, all of them are constitutional, and all of them are morally harmless. I have very little sympathy with this Court, but in this case, the majority opinion strikes me as nearly 100% correct on the strictly legal issues.

      Consider an example. Suppose we’re talking about a normal sport, soccer. Suppose that I’m a Muslim soccer coach fasting for Ramadan. Let’s say that the fast breaks just after a game ends. As people are milling about after the game, I inconspicuously break my fast on the sidelines, starting with the customary prayer, then eating a a fast-breaking meal. Would a reasonable person infer from that behavior that I want to turn this country into an Islamic theocracy? Or would they infer, instead, that in a non-neurotic world, there is nothing wrong with breaking your fast in front of other people? The latter, I’d say.

      Suppose I do this a couple of times, and the students notice. They ask me what I’m doing. Am I allowed freely to tell them? Or must I hide my faith beneath the proverbial bushel? (Sorry to mix faiths here.) I’d say that I retain a First Amendment right to tell them.

      Suppose they insist on joining me? They, too, start to fast and break their fasts with me. Problematic? Not in my view.

      This scenario only gets problematic when I use my “office” as coach to start to proselytize, however subtly you want to define “proselytization.” But you can’t define it into existence in cases where it plainly isn’t there. And there have to be some such cases–cases where a person is simply expressing her religious faith in a public fashion (even on public property) without demanding that others join in.

      So much for the dry legalities. But my post wasn’t really about the legal issues. It was about broader issues and attitudes. What I find alarming about the reaction of so many right-thinking people to this decision is the affinity of their view with French “laicite,” the version of secularism that goes out of its way to stigmatize religion in the name of universalist patriotism (a la Robespierre and Napoleon). American liberals don’t seem to have learned anything from the French struggles of the last two decades. The French advocates of laicite have a visceral, unreasoning, occasionally frankly insane hatred of Islam, which masquerades as “secularism,” and finds legal expression in zealous over-regulation/criminalization of “Islam” in public space. Too many American liberals have the same attitude toward Christianity. I find that cringe.

      I’m the last person to let either political Islam or political Christianity (or Judaism or Hinduism) off the hook when they deserve criticism. But apart from the silliness of praying over a football game (which, let’s be honest, derives from the silliness of football), I don’t understand what people think they’re criticizing here. Legalities aside, this is a case where educated people are taking pride in how much animosity they can express for what strikes me as totally harmless behavior simply because it’s Christian, and in certain circles anti-Christian postures are regarded as fashionable. I’m not Christian, but I have no respect or patience for that. Christianity has a great deal to answer for, but a lot less to answer for than unreasoning, dogmatic, free-floating hostility, whether religious or secular. There is more to Christianity than these anti-Christian critics have dreamt of in their criticisms.

      What’s also gone missing in discussions of this case is the extraordinary cowardice and dishonesty of the school district. Kennedy’s early behavior (outside the scope of this case) was indeed problematic. The school learned of it, and demanded some justifiable changes. But Kennedy made those changes. As he made them, the school administrators moved the goalposts (so to speak). Despite his adherence to what they demanded, they fired him anyway. Why? Because the possibility of litigation outweighed his actual right to free expression. “What if you say something that makes someone uncomfortable enough to file suit?” Discomfort: the horror. The question for these people is always: do we throw you under the bus now, or later?

      I spent a dozen years at Felician University dealing with this mentality of administrator (and eventually lost both my job and my career to them). They have only one talent: they’re good at cooking up reasons for ruining people’s careers. The one trick they have is to invoke the specter of litigation. Since anyone can sue anyone over anything, administrators like this have unlimited power. They need only invoke ghosts to wreck the lives of anyone in their power. And they do. So I see this case differently than most people, whether Left or Right. I’m glad that Kennedy’s rights were vindicated, but I’m more happy about the black eye the school district has sustained. The lesson here is that calculating cowards sometimes miscalculate, as they have here. They’re the ones who should be out on the street, not the Joseph Kennedys of the world.


      • A mere historical note: “laicite” is anti-Christian, too. In fact it was anti-Christian originally – it goes back to the French Revolution. The irrational hatred of religious worship and religious people is aimed at Islam now in France because Islam is now more present, and more insistent, in France than Christianity is.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed. Anti-Jewish as well. The basic premise behind laicite seems to be that in any case where religious people gather and express themselves in specifically religious fashion for religious ends “in public,” they’re engaged in a conspiracy against the State, and can legitimately be suppressed by law. Since the State more or less monopolizes the public sphere, there’s guaranteed to be a conflict between any religion that happens to assert itself “publicly” and the State. Any such religion will be regarded as a collection of fifth columnists plotting an insurrection against a State that ends up characterizing itself in quasi-religious terms. And in some cases, this dynamic will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: accusations of treason and suppression of would-be treason will become treason. One irrationalism will give rise to another.

          I keep seeing critics of Kennedy vs. Bremerton asserting that Kennedy “led” students in prayer. As far as the case itself is concerned, he did nothing of the sort. Indeed, he went out of his way to avoid doing so. Evidently, on this interpretation, praying in public just means leading other people in public prayer. I wonder how many of these people would accept the principle that, for any action, performing action X in public just means leading other people to perform X, or better yet, pressuring or coercing them to perform X. A woman is breastfeeding in a public park? Well, then: she’s forcing all women to breastfeed in the park. My neighbor is out jogging at 5 am? I guess she’s pressuring me to jog at 5 am. I encounter someone in public wearing a Tupac T shirt? I guess they’re forcing me to listen to Tupac. Dumb, but that’s where we’re headed.

          It doesn’t really change the underlying principle if you change the examples to involve public employees. If a public employee is wearing a visible tattoo, are they inviting others to get visible tattoos? If a police officer in uniform buys Krispy Kreme doughnuts while on duty, is this “government sponsorship of Krispy Kreme doughnuts”? If a firefighter ends her shift by going to Chick fil A, has the entire fire department been rendered homophobic by her off-duty-while-in-uniform patronage of a corporation with a history of homophobic actions? I probably shouldn’t be giving anyone any ideas; one person’s reductio is another person’s bright idea. How it’s possible to have a coherent ethics of privacy or personal autonomy on these assumptions is a mystery to me, but evidently not to their proponents.


  2. Good morning,
    Like everything lately, it does not make sense. I enjoy most of your writings. This one is dear to my heart. I don’t know why people are against prayer but allow injustice. There are people that vote for people that are self-serving into an office and seem to take joy in watching honorable public servants be pushed out of office because the elected boss has an ego. tony/toney is the sheriff of Broward County, Florida, home of the MSD shooting. he currently has about 13 public servants, out of work for doing their job. Cleared by internal investigators and independent boards. As an appointed elected official he has chosen the bully and intimidated method of abusing his staff. Under his watch, he has put good staff on unpaid leave and fired others and the community has the stand down approach to protect their public servants. While he has been proven to be a perjured, a killer, and an LSD user, and lied on applications to the Florida DMV, the commission that certifies LE officers, FDLE, and the FBI. Other than a few retired LEOs and Victims that feel for the staff under him, no one cares. He is seen as a guy you “can’t get in his way” because he will come after you.
    While the coach has been selected as weak and standing on his own to make his team and community better, offends shitbags, they stand for “do nothing”, as our world becomes more and more self-serving. I commend the coach for standing up for his belief that he has the right to make a positive example for all to see. God bless him and you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kevin,

      It’s good to hear from you, as always. There are good and bad reasons to be against public prayer. When people are forced into a faith they don’t share, prayer becomes an offense. But when they’re not forced, it’s a different matter. I think we agree that there was no real coercion by the coach in this case.

      Personally, I don’t think there would have been coercion or anything improper if he had gone further than he did. Personally, I have no objection to letting students voluntarily join in with the prayers, as long as it’s clear that it is voluntary. And in general, I think people should have a more laid-back attitude about what can legitimately be discussed in public settings, including one’s personal faith or lack of it.

      People are against uncoerced prayer for a very paradoxical reason. They’re against prayer because they’re against religion. They’re against religion because they regard it as unreasoning. Yet they have an unreasoning animosity for religion itself. In some cases, this may be excusable. In many cases, it isn’t.

      Anyway, I commend Kennedy for standing up as well. He had a hard fight to fight. He fought it with grace, and prevailed. I don’t share his particular brand of faith, but I count his win in this court case as a victory for all of us.


  3. When I entered college, it was at a State University. In this enormous cafeteria, before taking first bite, at each meal, I bowed my head and silently prayed. It was custom in our family. I never saw any other students doing that. Years later I figured out they were all Kantians and thought the praying attitude was plain wrong.

    Seriously, that probably was not the reason.

    There is today a sick Christian chauvinism among some Americans. I get to learn about it by communications from my childhood classmates on Facebook. Some judge had ruled in a case that the marching band at a high school ball game could be denied the choice to perform “How Great Thou Art”. The Thou in that song is God, by the way, not the quarterback. If you look through the stanzas of that hymn, you find that in one place it affirms that Jesus is God. I tried to explain how religiously intolerant that would be to a family of the Jewish faith. But he wasn’t having it. The ruling was by an Obama appointee, the reasoning I and the judge offered was ultra-leftist . . . as if he had not retained a gull-durn thing we ever learned back when we were in school together, and he has now gotten himself an advanced (-age) education from some circuit bolstering ways of sneaking in wherever possible that America is for law under Christ (devoid of the doctrine “love your neighbor as yourself” to be sure).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I take your point. “How Great Thou Art” does not pass constitutional muster, and should not be played at public schools, except, perhaps, in a class on cultural anthropology. Playing it obviously implies endorsement of a certain brand of Christianity. Aesthetically, it is absolutely not my taste, so it would be hard to conjure up an ounce of sympathy for it under any circumstances. I would like to think that if the government tried to ban it, I would stand up and fight for Carrie Underwood’s First Amendment right to belt it out. But I’m afraid I can’t say that with any great confidence. God give me consistency, but not here.

      So as a purely legal matter, I wouldn’t play it or (if I were a public school superintendent) allow it to be played. Speaking as an educator, however, I find the strictures of American constitutionalism overly constraining. Granted, I have almost zero experience teaching at the K-12 level, so I’m extrapolating from my own high school experiences as well as my experiences teaching seniors from local high schools who took my college classes, and college freshmen who were just out of high school.

      But still, I would say this. Many of the best students one encounters in the classroom are either actively religious, or interested in religious issues. They are often eager to engage on those topics. From an educator’s perspective, any situation where students are sincerely eager to engage is a golden opportunity, and should be taken.

      The problem with First Amendment jurisrprudence is that it introduces an artificial barrier to good teaching. It’s hard enough to teach a complex subject like religion. It becomes impossible if you have to juggle two things at once–teaching the subject matter, and avoiding legal liability from a frivolous First Amendment-inspired lawsuit. In practice, every legal rule, however, well-justified in the courtroom or legislature, has to be operationalized in dumbed-down form for enforcement by the administrative officers of the institution. And let’s face it: these people are not exactly trained to be alive to the nuances of what goes in a vibrant classroom. They are, often enough, dumb, cowardly, risk-averse drones who panic at the sight or hearing of anything that might lead to litigation. And anything might.

      What this means is that if the least attentive, least engaged, most easily irascible student misunderstands a stray word, phrase, clause, or sentence you utter (about religion), he has the ammunition to destroy your career. All he has to do is say that you were proselytizing in the classroom, and produce a stray bit of cell phone video to back him up. If so, your goose is cooked. Out you go. No matter how innocuous the claim, it will be made to sound like something uttered by Savanarola.

      It doesn’t matter what you were actually trying to accomplish. What matters is what the highest-ranking administrator thinks, no matter how dumb, unscrupulous, and risk-averse drone they are. If you were trying to explain the Lord’s Prayer, you will be accused of trying to proselytize for Christianity. If you try to take up the perspective of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will be accused of making Catholics out of the students. And so on. But taking on the perspective of a religious believer is the only way to understand what a given religious says or believes, and in general, what religion is. If you can’t try a religion on for size, you can’t know what it’s all about. But encouraging students to try religion on for size is the most dangerous thing you can do in the current climate of opinion. To ask students what it’s like to be a believing Catholic or believing Jew (etc.) is considered sufficient evidence that you were trying to turn them into believing Catholics or Jews or whatever.

      Notice that secular ideologies get a free pass here, or at least a freer one. You would, to be sure, probably get in trouble for trying to get students to try Marxism, Islamism, or white nationalism on for size. But there would be less trouble about garden-variety conservatism or liberalism. You’re allowed to ask students to imagine what it’s like to believe in gun control, or believe in a right to bear arms, etc. Doing that is a staple of many AP History courses. But while you can do that for secular topics, the minute religion comes up, all bets are off. It’s one thing to imagine exercising your right to bear an AR-15. It’s another to thing to imagine exercising your right to pray to your savior (or someone else’s). The first thing is allowable. The second is not.

      I’m not voicing an objection to First Amendment jurisprudence. I’m simply identifying a cost. Public school students in this country get a distorted picture of the nature of religion. Religion is treated, by its very nature, as something on par with pornography: it’s fine, but it’s a purely private thing that should be consumed on private time. Well, maybe–but that is not a neutral characterization of the nature of religion as such. It’s an ideological interpretation, from within the assumptions of American constitutional law, of what religion is required to be, in America, if it is to be tamed so as to accommodate itself to public life. This axiom is part of the educational system, and treated as a neutral, uncontroversial rule, which the students then unreflectively apply to their understanding of religion as such, wherever they encounter it. Americans take this picture of religion for granted, but it is not self-evident. No matter how Jeffersonian liberals describe it, this privatization of religion plays in public education involves a subtle form of indoctrination. Like all successful forms of indoctrination, those indoctrinated by it fail to see it for what it is. But it’s there.

      Put differently: students walk away from public school education taking for granted hat religion is by nature a private thing that one does in one’s spare time. That may be true of a certain brand of liberal American Protestantism and liberal American Judaism. But it’s not true of religion as such. Yet they are encouraged to believe that it is.

      In this respect, educators at private schools, even sectarian ones, have an advantage over public school educators. They are not hemmed in by some arbitrary dogma about how a given subject matter must be addressed. They have the academic freedom to teach about religion in whatever pedagogically effective way they see fit. Granted, even here, I think it’s wrong to indoctrinate, i.e., disrespect the students’ autonomy. But students’ autonomy can be respected without having the instructor make a false pretense at neutrality. An instructor has the responsibility to be fair to contested points of view. But fairness doesn’t require neutrality. Students need to learn how to deal with explicit avowals of faith, conviction, belief, etc. They also have to learn how to process expressions of those things, like prayer, or forms of dress, or ritual, or whatever.

      I’m the first person to admit that sectarian schools often go too far in the direction of indoctrination. I’ve taught at both Catholic and Islamic universities that did indoctrinate. And I resented them both for it. But I don’t think that undermines the principle. As long as someone else’s faith is not literally crammed down your throat (as to some extent it was), there is a great deal to be learned from teaching or being a student at a sectarian institution, even if you’re outside of the faith community of that institution. I’m grateful for having been immersed in the life of a Dominican, a Franciscan, and an Islamic university, and a synagogue. I got an education there that would not have been possible at a public university. And others could, too.

      The underlying problem with American discourse about religion, in my view, is that it equates religion with dogmatism, then fails to acknowledge the existence of non-religious forms of dogmatism (or at least to take them as seriously). The result is an exaggerated condemnation of religion as such, and a blank check for secular forms of dogmatism. Each element of that conjunction is wrong, as is the double standard that arises from combining them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Seems like all that is reversed from when I was first in college. Our first course in philosophy was taught by a Thomist. He would give out an elaborate proof for the existence of God, and one for the immortality of the soul as well. This was at the State university, the University of Oklahoma. Everyone took down notes as detailed as possible, because we knew that in the exams, you would need to write out the teachings of this professor verbatim. That was what the tests were about. It was an honors section of the Introduction courses, and the students traded and cross-checked their notes back at the Honors dorms. There was time for class discussion within the period, after the lecture. He was educated at Cologne, before the Second World War. So far as I know, he never got any flake from University officials or from State officials, even though Catholics had no power, only Protestants, which was overwhelming in the population. (I always suspect our Thomist professor had his chair funded by the RC church, but I never found out if that was true.) There was a young professor came into the department, to be the Hegel man who would be replacement for our very aged Hegel man. He was from Iran, or Persia as he preferred to call it. He was a Marxist. THAT is what was a no-go, the Marxism. He was gone after a year. Not everyone was so intolerant. Our pastor invited him over to speak to the college students of that church, and for us to ask him questions. And that pastor was a very anti-Marxist Republican, but very educated. This was in the late ’60’s. (The son of my Thomist professor was a boy, maybe 5, in those days, and I see from this link that the son also became a philosopher.


        • Times have certainly changed. Your Thomist professor’s approach to teaching was obviously defective, and constitutional issues aside, I’d like to think that he’d be stopped from teaching like that today simply on grounds of pedagogical incompetence. I find it hard to imagine such a thing happening today, certainly in a public university, but even in a Catholic one. I’ve known my share of ardent Catholic professors, but none of them took that approach to teaching. Alasdair MacIntyre and Ernan McMullin, both orthodox Catholics, were among the best teachers I’ve ever had.

          That said, a colleague of mine at Felician was fired for failing to indoctrinate students in Catholicism in the classroom. He wasn’t quite a Marxist, but a kind of left-wing Occupy Wall Street type, a liberal Catholic and an admirer of Daniel Berrigan et al. He taught religious studies. The chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, who fancied herself quite a “liberal,” had it in for him, and decided to scrutinize his teaching with a view to creating a paper trail on his supposed offenses so as to fire him. And so she did. Since I was chair just after her in the rotation, I became privy to the paper trail immediately after she vacated the position. (Indeed, I still have the relevant documents, and some day intend to make use of them.)

          Virtually everything in her “report”–an extended, highly tendentious, highly personal jeremiad–was bullshit, but one thing that stood out was her taking this professor to task for a “failed opportunity” at indoctrinating the students in Catholic Social Teaching. The “Occupy Wall Street” professor had been leading a discussion on some controversial social issue, when he called on a non-Catholic student who offered a view from some non-Catholic faith tradition. The instructor let the student speak without specifically taking the opportunity to push the Catholic line on that issue she had raised. Observing this, the chair remarked in her written observation report that she regarded his failure to parrot CST in this context as an instance of pedagogical delinquency. She eventually used this “evidence”–and a long string of other nonsensical charges–to fire the individual in question. No one ever claimed that he had used the classroom to indoctrinate anyone in his left-wing views, only that he hadn’t used the classroom to indoctrinate students in CST.

          The chair made her case to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, who refused to fire the instructor. She then bypassed the Dean, bypassed all written procedures, and made her complaint directly to the Provost. Well, that did it: the Occupy Wall Street instructor was fired. He was, incidentally, suffering at the time from cancer. No matter. He lost his health insurance, and was thrown out into the world to fend for himself. Amazingly, both the chair and the Provost regarded themselves as exemplars of the “Franciscan spirit” of the university–a claim that might have made sense in a case where St Francis had been possessed by Satan. But really, it was the administration of Felician University that was possessed by Satan. And still is.

          I’m happy to report that the professor eventually recovered from cancer, moved to another state, and went on to teach religious studies at yet another problematic Catholic institution.

          All this said, I loved studying philosophy at Notre Dame, and feel an enormous sense of gratitude to the place. It was precisely because Notre Dame was so inspiring a place that Felician was such a disappointment–the one an example of what Catholic education could and should be, the other an example of what should never be.

          Liked by 1 person

          • We learned a Thomist worldview from him. And that was fine, in fact good. It was new to me. Such an extension for use of reason was new to me. Really, all I knew of the power of reason before that was what is implicitly in mathematics and the hard sciences. We were so young and just beginning. There was another section of Introduction to Philosophy being taught by another professor. It had large attendance because it was known as simply a bull session and an easy good grade. That professor was a logical positivist, but I think also some sort of Existentialist. He had gone through four marriages. One student I knew from one of his classes told me that one day he said, if I recall correctly, simply “It is all meaningless.” Then lay his head on his desk and wept. After retirement, upon his fifth wife leaving him, he committed suicide.

            My Prof. Francis J. Kovach was a very unforgettable person. As he would lecture, he would pace back and forth across the room, in front where was the black board. He had a very thick accent. Sometimes none of us could understand a certain word he said. We would keep asking him to repeat it, and eventually it would become hopeless, and he would go to the board and write the word. His handwriting was a scrawl though we were lucky sometimes to decipher the word. There was some class participation right there.

            Your man McMullin was someone I admired and had affection for. I’ve appreciated his works I’ve read. The day he stole my heart was at a session in a Philosophy of Science biennial meeting. A distinguished Professor from Pitt was speaking, and at some point (I forget the context), he said ‘frog’ when he was alluding to some French thinker. McMullin was seated behind me and one chair over, and I heard the instantaneous pained opposition-groan he gave, probably heard no farther than me. That was it.

            There used to be a web page that told the story of Francis Kovach’s life, but it seems to have disappeared. He and family had lived under the Nazi’s and under the Communists. I remember him saying once that he could tell you what was wrong with either, both in theory and in practice. One smiling memory I have of him was when he was seated behind me attending a debate between two outsiders, the Christian Atheist Thomas Altizer and the liberal Bishop James Pike. At one point, the Bishop had prefaced something by saying “I’m no expert on Aquinas”, and Kovach muttered “That’s pretty obvious.” The writings of Kovach continue to be studied and referenced, as a google search shows. Have you ever written something that was in a way a thank-you and tribute to a teacher of yours? I had occasion to do that with Kovach, in my paper linked below. One of my other unforgettable philosophy professors from that undergraduate period, to ’66–’71 (Physics major, Philosophy minor) was Jitendra Mohanty, who led a seminar for grad students and me (Senior) on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. He was educated in Calcutta and Göttingen. He left OU for Temple after my lucky time to catch him for that course. Lucky for me too, some of his students have gathered up his subsequent lectures on KrV into a book. He wrote an autobiography, and therein is a chapter “From the Ganges to the Red River.” He mentions a remark from the OU President: “Now we should build a University of which the football team could be proud!”

            I mentioned that in Kovach’s Introduction course, we had class discussion in the later part of the hour. Students challenged Kovach on many points that would he had argued and relied on in his lectures, and he would argue back. I don’t think any of us bought his entire argument for the existence of God or for the immortality of the soul, and we had our steps that we questioned, pretty much converged on by all of us. All students may have been religious, but Protestant. From my Lutheran background, the whole idea of proving the existence of God was out of bounds. You could quote the psalmist, but really it was a matter of faith. THAT disposed of the issue.

            When you see this much reminiscing, you know you’re hearing from an old man. The good news is that my studies of and writing on Kant resume each morning before sunrise, and the new layers of learning lain upon the old is exciting as ever.


  4. Anne Lamott has a guest essay today in NYT titled “I Don’t Want to See a High School Football Coach Praying at the 50-Yard Line.

    “Many of us who believe in a reality beyond the visible realms, who believe in a soul that survives death, and who are hoping for seats in heaven near the dessert table, also recoil from the image of a high school football coach praying at the 50-yard line.

    “It offends me to see sanctimonious public prayer in any circumstance — but a coach holding his players hostage while an audience watches his piety makes my skin crawl.

    “We are fighting furiously for women’s rights and the planet, and we mean business. We believers march, rally and agitate, putting feet to our prayers. And in our private lives, we pray.

    “Isn’t praying a bit Teletubbies as we face off with the urgent darkness?


    “Prayer means talking to God, or to the great universal spirit, a.k.a. Gus, or to Not Me. Prayer connects us umbilically to a spirit both outside and within us, who hears and answers. Is it like the comedian Flip Wilson saying, “I’m gonna pray now; anyone want anything?”

    “Kind of.

    “I do not understand much about string theory, but I do know we are vibrations, all the time. Between the tiny strings is space in which change can happen. The strings are infinitesimal; the space between nearly limitless. Prayer says to that space, I am tiny, helpless, needy, worried, but there’s nothing I can do except send my love into that which is so much bigger than me.

    “How do people like me who believe entirely in science and reason also believe that prayer can heal and restore? Well, I’ve seen it happen a thousand times in my own inconsequential life. God seems like a total showoff to me, if perhaps unnecessarily cryptic.

    “When I pray for all the places where we see Christ crucified — Ukraine, India, the refugee camps — I see in my heart and in the newspaper that goodness draws near, through UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, volunteers, through motley old us.

    “I wake up praying. I say a prayer some sober people told me to pray 36 years ago, because when all else fails, follow instructions. It helps me to not fixate on who I am, but on whose. I am God’s adorable, aging, self-centered, spaced-out beloved. One man in early sobriety told me that he had come into recovery as a hotshot but that other sober men helped him work his way up to servant. I pray to be a good servant because I’ve learned that this is the path of happiness. I pray for my family and all my sick friends that they have days of grace and healing, and I end my prayers, “Make me ever mindful of the needs of the poor.”

    “Then I put on my glasses, let the dog out to pee and start my day. I will have horrible thoughts about others, typically the Christian right or the Supreme Court, or someone who has seriously crossed me, whose hair I pray falls out or whose book fails. I say to God, as I do every Sunday in confession: “Look — I think we can both see what we have on our hands here. Help me not be such a pill.”

    “It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Greene exactly the same as God loves my grandson, because God loves, period. God does not have an app for Not Love. God sees beyond each person’s awfulness to each person’s needs. God loves them, as is. God is better at this than I am.

    “I lift up one of my grown Sunday school kids who is in the I.C.U. with anorexia. I beseech God to intervene, and she does, through finding my girl a great nurse later that day. (Nurses are God’s answer 35 percent of the time). My prayer says to whoever might be listening, “I care about her and have no idea what to do, but to hold her in my heart and turn her over to something that might do better than me.” And I hear what to do next — make her one of my world-famous care packages — overpriced socks, a journal, and needless to say, communion elements tailored to her: almonds and sugar-free gum. It’s love inside wrapping paper.

    “Especially when I travel, I talk to so many people who are absolutely undone by all the miseries of the world, and I can’t do anything for them but listen, commiserate and offer to pray. I can’t turn politics around, or war, or the climate, but in listening, by opening my heart to someone in trouble, I create with them more love, less of a grippy clench in our little corner of the universe.

    “When I get onstage for a talk or an interview, I pray to say words that will help the people in the audience who feel most defeated. When I got to interview Hillary Clinton in Seattle a few years ago, we prayed this prayer huddled in a corner backstage — to bring hope to the hopeless.

    “Do I honestly think these kinds of prayers were heard, and helpful?


    “On good days, I feel (slightly) more neutral toward Ginni Thomas and the high school coach praying after games. I pray the great prayer of “Thanks” all day, for my glorious messy family, husband and life; for my faith, my sobriety; for nature; for all that is still here and still works after so much has been taken from us.

    “When I am at my most rattled or in victimized self-righteousness, I go for walks, another way to put my feet to prayer. I pray for help, and in some dimension outside of my mind or language, I relax. I can breathe again. I say, “Thank you.” I say, “Thank you for the same flowers and trees and ferns and cactuses I pass every day.” I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

    “A walk is a great prayer. To make eye contact and smile is a kind of prayer, and it changes you. Fields and woods are the kingdom. You don’t say, “Oh, there’s a dark-eyed junco flitting around that same old pine tree; whatever,” or: “Look at those purple wildflowers. I’ve seen those a dozen times.” You are silent. There may be no one around you and the forest will speak to you in the way it will speak to an animal. And that changes you.

    “At bedtime I pray again for my sick friends, and the refugees. I beg for sleep. I give thanks for the blessings of the day. I rest into the vision of the pearly moon outside my window that looks like a porthole to a bigger reality, sigh and close my tired eyes.

    “I have the theological understanding of a bright 8-year-old, but Jesus says we need to approach life like children, not like cranky know-it-alls, crazily busy, clutching our to-do lists. One of my daily prayers is, “Slow me down, Girlfriend.” The prayer changes me. It breaks the toxic trance. God says to Moses the first time they meet, “Take off your shoes.” Be on the earth. Breathe with me a moment.”


    • I read that essay this morning on the way to work. It struck me as both self-indulgent and factually challenged. Factually challenged: as far as the facts of the case were concerned, the coach was not holding anyone “hostage” by praying on the 50 yard line, whether literally or metaphorically. He was just praying on his own, not even asking others to join in, much less demanding it. Anyone can have joined him or declined to do so without loss of anything significant.

      Self-indulgent: a person’s emotional-aesthetic response to the sight of someone praying is not a legitimate reason for demanding that it stop. There are many, many secular activities that elicit the same response in me, but I wouldn’t presume that because I have an aversive reaction to them, I’m entitled to make them or have them stop. The attitudes expressed in that essay are what right-wingers mean when they use the term “virtue signaling” in a pejorative way, and in cases like this, they happen to be right.


      • I did not see her trying to get that sort of public praying stopped as a legal matter. I just see one sort of Christian taking issue with another sort—the parading pharisee sort—she finds reprehensible and showing a different sort of Christian and proper Christian prayer to the wide world. Why should she let the other sort of Christian, the Christian Chauvinism sort, capture the public image of a modern Christian. It would be rather like Democrats letting their opposition get away with having the flag psychologically owned exclusively by themselves.


        • She doesn’t explicitly demand that prayer should be stopped as a matter of law, but she clearly does want it to stop. I don’t see any reason why it should. Again, this form of prayer is no more offensive or problematic than a Jewish student wearing a kippa, or a Muslim wearing hijab. If anything, religious garb is more conspicuous than an occasional act of public prayer. The coach prayed a few times after games, but one wears religious garb all the time, during school hours, inside the school itself. If the one thing is so offensive, why not all the rest?

          Going beyond this particular writer: It just seems fashionable on the Left to attack Christianity, as if Christianity were somehow a sui generis evil in the world, different in kind from every other. It isn’t. The whole attitude strikes me as self-indulgent, ahistorical, and even delusional. Christianity at its worst is no worse than Judaism, Islam, or secularism at their worst. And Christianity at its best is as good as any of the best human endeavors at their best.

          Without American Protestant Christianity, we would not have had an abolitionist movement, a civil rights movement, or a good swatch of the anti-war movement. Setting aside organizations specifically dedicated to the cause, mainline Protestant churches have been more zealous and reliable defenders of Palestinian rights than any part of the Left, much less the Democrats. It was American Christians, not secularists, who built the health care infrastructure of this country, starting most obviously with its hospitals. And no part of the Left has created the kind of community that has been created by the Church or the churches. I’ve given up entirely on the Right, but I can’t say I identify wholeheartedly with the Left. They have a lot to learn. They might begin by dialing back their scorn they have for things outside of their ambit, and taking their own “multicultural” rhetoric more seriously than they have, starting with the churches that exist in their own neighborhoods.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s