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….