Oh, where would we be without entertaining stories of faux-persecution from American Christians? Today I noticed this story about a football player whining about having to miss religious services at his church (H/t: Friendly Atheist) because of scheduling conflicts with football practice, and I marveled anew at how absolutely incoherent Christianity can be.
The young man, Vincent Johnson, belongs to a Christian church called the World Mission Society Church of God. This group is very gung-ho about attendance. Their website is absolutely huge, but like most church websites doesn’t tell you a damned thing that is useful about their group–like when exactly their services are scheduled in Mr. Johnson’s own church. But Wikipedia helpfully informs us that the group is a Saturday Sabbath church, similar to Seventh-Day Adventists, and additionally it believes that Saturday must be kept entirely free for religious observances and sometimes requiring members to attend three services on that day. So it’s not a case of him just picking a different church service that day; it’s not the time, it’s the whole day that is the issue here.
The original Fox News link somehow didn’t mention the Saturday Sabbath thing, which isn’t surprising given its right-wing evangelical Christian leanings, but when you deal with a church that goes in for this bit of weirdness, you can rest assured there’s some even weirder stuff going on under the surface. Churches that get caught up on Saturday Sabbath seem like the most legalistic and abuse-prone groups out there. Not that Fox News cares; a Christian isn’t being allowed to do whatever he wants, so that’s the story they’re going with. What they’ve left out should raise more eyebrows than what was left in, but their audience won’t even wonder.
Regardless, despite this requirement that he knew he had, Mr. Johnson decided to pursue membership in a football team at his university while attending there on a scholarship. I find it absolutely impossible to believe that he had no idea in the world that football teams frequently practice on the weekends or that he had no idea when those practices might occur.
At risk of stating the obvious, a football player often has to attend practices with his team, and this young man is no exception at all. When he missed too many practices due to his religious observances, his coach began to skip putting him into games. Mr. Johnson has decided that enduring the consequences of his actions means that he is being persecuted for being a Christian and moreover that he is being forced to make a dreadful choice:
“He asked me to choose between church and football. I said, ‘Coach, you can’t ask me to do that. It’s like asking me to choose between God and football.'”
If it seems hugely weird to you that a young person might feel this strongly about his religion yet select an extracurricular activity that directly conflicts with his religion’s requirements, you’re not alone. And if you’re making a shocked face right now at the idea of a Christian conflating church and deity like that, then you’re definitely not alone. And if you’re suspecting that the coach maybe didn’t actually “ask” such a question at all but rather made clear what was at stake, you’re thrice-times not alone.
Mr. Johnson has left absolutely nothing to chance here. Oh, sometimes a Christian might possibly leave a little wiggle room here or there. But not this Christian. He’s chosen to belong to a religious group that absolutely requires that he leave certain days wide open for them. Despite knowing this requirement, he’s also chosen to pursue a sport that requires intense dedication and frequent weekend participation. And when reminded of this incompatibility, he’s choosing to whine about how mean and hard and unfair it is that he can’t have both of these totally incompatible hobbies.
As one FA commenter has nonchalantly observed, “Surely choosing between God and football should be the easiest decision in the world for a Christian.” I agree wholeheartedly. Life’s full of tough choices, idnit? It’s a mark of the sheerest juvenile immaturity for someone to think that there is a way to reconcile any number of utterly disparate, utterly incompatible life choices.
I’ve got plenty of personal experiences to back up that assertion. When I was growing up, women framed their life choices in terms of “having it all.” As I’ve observed before (and feminists before me have written), having it all meant doing it all, because there really wasn’t any other way to have it all–not for women. Men could have successful, rewarding jobs, clean homes, and a rich family life without wearing themselves down to a frazzle–and nobody even raised an eyebrow at the idea of a man combining work and family, but for women, life was about making trade-offs: being less successful at work or sacrificing the family life we always wanted, or having a home that was a disaster area. We talked a big game about work-life balance, but we knew better than to even cry about how beyond-unattainable that ideal was. Things are a little better now, it seems; I see men taking a much more active role in their families than they ever have, and I see more women stepping into leadership roles in government and business. But back in my day, it wasn’t like that at all. Most of the women I knew might halfheartedly object to how impossible a dream it was, but we all still framed the problem as a question: how could it be done? Was it even possible?
I knew even as a child that if I got married, I would be doing a lot of extra work because my husband would find some way to get out of his share–which is what happened with Biff (and for that matter most of my live-in relationships afterward with only one glorious exception). I knew even as a child that if I had children, this disparity in labor would get even worse–so I never had children. I knew that if I got a high-paying job in certain fields, it’d destroy my free time and my ability to enjoy activities I liked–so I never went that route. Life’s full of opportunity costs. Do the one, and you can’t do the other. I might not have liked the equation, but I knew that this was the reality of it. The questions we framed thirty years ago are questions I still see women framing today.
Religion just added to those costs and made that balance even more impossible. There were jobs I could not take because I knew they’d demand I work on weekends. There were activities I couldn’t enjoy because my religion had decided they were sinful, like going to movies or playing certain games. Nowadays, many flavors of Christianity demand that their adherents sign off on Creationism and Biblical literalism, telling these Christians that if they figure out that Creationism is bullshit and that the Bible is filled with errors and problems, they can’t stay Christian. Such denominations are quite deliberately setting up a cruel and unnecessary showdown between faith and reality, and though it is backfiring by causing more and more people to reject the religion entirely rather than swallow lies, the strategy is working on enough people that they won’t let go of the idea any time soon.
Vincent Johnson’s church clearly puts a high value on church participation. He’s bought into the idea that he must participate in the way his church demands, or else he is rejecting his entire faith. And for what it’s worth, I sympathize that he’s in this dilemma. I believe him when he says that his faith is very important to him and that he doesn’t want to reject its demands.
But he expects the whole world to drop everything and find a way for him to enjoy both the sport he likes and the church participation he values, both on his terms.
It’s not anyone else’s job to find some way for him to work out this incompatibility between his voluntary activities. It’s his job. His coach is not required to let him play if he won’t practice as often as that coach thinks players should practice. I’m sure this coach–if he is anything like the ones I’ve known–gave practice schedules to all of the players at the beginning of the year, so none of these dates should have been a big shock to Mr. Johnson. It was his job to evaluate how capable he would be of meeting the requirements the coach outlined at the start of the year. His inability to evaluate his capabilities is not now his coach’s problem. His lack of planning does not equal a crisis on his coach’s part.
None of this is religious persecution. The college is investigating, but I rather suspect they will find that he’s not being singled out in any way. It’s not anybody’s fault but his own that he chose to participate in a sport that conflicts with an activity he idolizes to such an extent he compares disobeying its demands to rejecting his god entirely. (Indeed, one thing that I noticed quickly while researching his church was that it often comes up in discussions of cults–yikes! The real surprise is that he got into football at all, considering.) It is hardly persecution or discrimination to hold him to the exact same rules everybody else is held to–and considering how Jesus-centric football is anyway, I find it unlikely that his coach just hates Christians and wants to make their lives hard.
I noticed commenters trying to find ways for him to reconcile his two idols, but I don’t suggest people waste time doing so. I worked at call centers for many years and can tell you that sometimes people just don’t leave anything to chance, and they do that for a reason. No matter what workaround someone comes up with, this young man has in mind already what solution he will accept: He wants to attend church as often as he pleases, but still play in football games alongside the players who do attend practice regularly and who do put in the work the coach is asking of the team, the players who probably also have shit they would like to do on a pretty Saturday but who show up to practice anyway because football is their priority. Nothing but his chosen solution is likely going to sound doable to him. I’ve talked to way too many people like this to be under any illusions about how such conversations are likely to go; he’ll find some big problem with every single suggestion offered.
So I’ll let him work it out for himself. I’m sure he’ll find some way to manage it. And if he can’t, well, his religion is replete with stories of people who made huge, terrible sacrifices to follow what they believed was that god’s will. Most testimonies include similar tales. Sacrifice is part of Christianity. It’s curious that he’s not celebrating that he has before him the opportunity to make one of those big personal sacrifices. I mean, come on, he considers church attendance just like his god! Surely this one is a no-brainer? Surely he wouldn’t hesitate even an instant if it came down to his god or some dumb sport? Why is he so singularly angry about and even incapable of making the choice before him?
Could it be that he realizes deep down that the religion is really bullshit, but football is real and it is what is really important to him?