As Joseph Kennedy's case heads to Supreme Court oral arguments, it's important to see the real agenda behind his supposedly humble prayers.
I affirm the right of my religious fellow citizens to pray. I can even see the good in it. But as the consumer of too many tales of aggressive assertions of Christianity in sports, I could not help but be cynical when I heard about the unassuming public-school football coach who had to lawyer up after school-district meanies fired him for praying after games.
For praying on the 50-yard line, as it turns out. In full view of the people in the stands. With student-athletes encouraged to join in. Despite the school’s attempts to find more constitutionally appropriate ways to accommodate coach Joseph Kennedy’s conviction to pray after games.
Kennedy’s prayers will be center stage again April 25—this time in the legal sense—as his case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments. It seems only fitting that the case should end up in the brightest of spotlights. Because right from the start, it’s seemed as much about grabbing attention and advancing an agenda as a humble coach and his need to commune with his creator.
‘It’s a free country’
Kennedy, an 18-year veteran of the Marine Corps, was an assistant coach at Bremerton High School outside of Seattle from 2008 to 2015, when he was put on administrative leave (and eventually fired). Beginning at his first game, he took to the field after the final whistle to give prayers of thanks for his players and the opportunity to be part of their lives.
After a while, some players asked if they could join him. In an answer that typifies a culture that throws around the idea of “freedom” with only the vaguest notion of its meaning and without regard for the attendant responsibilities, the coach replied, “It’s a free country. Do what you want.”
As the prayer huddles grew, so did the raised eyebrows. Weren’t the coach’s post-game prayers a violation of the constitutionally forbidden “establishment” of religion in a government setting?
The school district investigated to determine whether Kennedy was violating school board policy on religious activities and practice. The district concluded he was. It issued restrictions on his prayers going forward, including a requirement that he do his demonstrative praying separate from the students.
According to an account of the case published by the First Liberty Institute, the conservative Christian legal defense outfit representing Kennedy, the coach abided by the restrictions at the next game. He bent the knee on the fifty only after the field and stadium had emptied.
Praying without an audience apparently failed to satisfy. Kennedy retained counsel and informed the district that his sincerely-held religious belief compelled him to pray immediately after the game.
So began the legal case and Kennedy’s metamorphosis into a hero of the Christian right.
Promotion of religion
The way this and similar stories are framed in conservative religious circles, wicked liberals are hostile to good, wholesome religion and trying to silence anyone who dares challenge their staunch secularism. It’s part of the larger, ongoing persecution of Christians, as the story goes—a crusade by the radical left to tear down the American way of life.
The framing ignores several crucial factors, first among them the fact that no one tried to stop Kennedy from praying, nor any of the kids for that matter. Rather, the school blew the whistle on an attempt to make a showing for evangelical Christianity at a public school gathering whose purpose was football, not faith.
Might not Kennedy and his supporters object if a Muslim coach prostrated himself at the fifty? If an atheist took to the field after the whistle to wave around a sign bearing a Darwin fish?
To a conservative Christian mind, Kennedy’s public prayers are harmless. They’re not. Typical of the Pacific Northwest, Bremerton is a community teeming with nonreligious people. The secularity of many of Kennedy’s players and their families is tacitly indicted by an evangelical belief structure that has at its heart a mission to convert those of differing religious persuasions. It is legitimate to expect the community’s taxpayers to fund the school, stadium, and operation of a football program. A platform for evangelism? Not what they signed up for.
When it comes to the players, Kennedy and his supporters can deny favoritism. But imagine a nonevangelical team member, with all the churning emotions of the teenage years and strong psychological yearning to belong, having to navigate the awkward situation. Does he kneel with the coach and teammates to stay in their good graces and not jeopardize his standing on the team? What will happen to his playing time if he declines?
‘Exploiting the platform’
Praying at the 50: It brought me back to the copious research I did in the 2000s for my book on religion in sports, the 2009 release Onward Christian Athletes. In my multiple conversations with the then-chaplain of the Philadelphia 76ers NBA team, he told me that when the Sixers started gathering at center court to pray after his games, it was he who had put them up to it.
The chaplain was unaware or unconcerned about possible objections. To him, the players’ being seen was the main point. To be fair, he did work with players behind the scenes and encourage them to live out their faith whether they were in the spotlight or not. But this chaplain, like most of the other chaplains whose practices and philosophies I got to know, was very much on board with “exploiting the platform,” as some in sports ministry term the practice.
Think “celebrity endorsement” with religion as the product. The idea behind it, as taught to high-profile Christian athletes, is this: God gave you your athletic gifts and placed you on a pedestal. It is your obligation to use that platform to glorify God and share (i.e., promote) your faith to the multitudes who watch sports and look up to you.
From that standpoint, it is easy to understand why Coach Kennedy of Bremerton High was not content to pray out of sight following games. It’s not the right to pray that he and his supporters assert. It is the right to display and promote their faith in government settings, Establishment Clause be damned.
An anti-social strain of religious freedom
The harm in Bremerton will strike some as subtle. It is anything but subtle if you’re LGBTQ or pregnant in one of many states pursuing backlash legislation that does things like deny the rights of gay people, criminalize sex-correction surgery for trans people under 18, and outlaw abortion.
Through all of them runs a conservative theological and moral objection to homosexuality, transgenderism, and the ability of a pregnant person to exercise authority over their body. In a novel assertion of the religious freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution, politicized evangelicalism today waves religious liberty and “sincerely-held belief” like an all-powerful trump card. Its practitioners proclaim, in essence: “I sincerely believe your actions and beliefs are wrong. I want to be free to enjoy a school, community, and country that have been cleansed of your behaviors. And, if necessary, of you.”
Although the stakes are less existential, the case of the praying coach is best seen as part of this crusade in American culture and politics—what religious studies scholar Charles McCrary calls the “anti-social” push for religious freedom. McCrary describes it as “a distinctly American way of being free and being religious: as an individual, unsystematically, and without regard for others.”
I don’t think Coach Kennedy necessarily wants to hurt anyone. But by disregarding the effect of his conduct on his fellow citizens—the whole religiously diverse lot of them, including nonbelievers and Christians of a less evangelical bent—the coach and those pressing his case exemplify a mentality that shouts, “Rights for me but not for thee!” At the same time, it presents a poor picture of the Christianity that Kennedy aims to advance, a faith that in its best moments revolves around humility, sacrifice, and philanthropic love for all.
No, I don’t buy the portrayal of Kennedy as a humble servant with only the most wholesome of intentions. A powerful legal, political, and media apparatus has made him a cause célèbre, with his full participation.
Nor am I falling for the line that God-hating school administrators tried to steal Kennedy’s religious freedom and stop him from praying. As for the time and place for those prayers, Kennedy’s own scripture ought to warn him away from the fifty. Matthew 6:5-8: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others” (emphasis mine).
We can see the real game behind Kennedy v. Bremerton School District: the ongoing push by conservative Christians to hold center stage, to carve out a larger, privileged sphere for enacting a worldview and way of life in conflict with the increasingly secular and pluralistic shape of the culture—to expand their own religious freedom without regard for their encroachments on the freedoms of their fellow citizens.
This approach to public life—they’ll do what they want and to hell with the rest of us—is, regrettably, unremarkable from a legal and political standpoint. But it blows their cover as a community of persecuted innocents with only the noblest of intentions.