You could see this coming. Every fall when schools start back, all the national groups with an agenda come out of the closet and stir the pot.
Kids — and the emotions they engender — are always good fodder to create controversy.
And so it’s no surprise that an atheist group has accused a nearby Hall County high school of violating the First Amendment by allowing its coaches to infuse its football program with Christian religious overtones.
The matter made national news last week. Congressmen and national pundits weighed in. The community gave the atheist group a collective middle-finger response.
Which, of course, is exactly what the group wanted in the first place — create controversy, get all of us in the media to comment and bring attention to their cause.
But I’m not sure that this issue really ranks very high right now on the bigger anti-religion agenda. In Iraq, a bunch of Islamist zealots are cutting the heads off of Christians who refuse to embrace Allah; Hamas zealots in Gaza are shooting missiles into Israel to try and kill Jews and Israel is shooting back trying to kill the zealots; in Europe, the ugly spectator of anti-Semitism appears to be a rising tide as synagogues have been attacked; nations in Africa are rife with various kinds of religious killings and the violent closing of churches.
So in the larger picture of religious persecutions, a group of school kids here in Georgia holding hands and saying a prayer before a football game isn’t very high on the international scale of religious intolerance.
Call me when they start cutting off each other’s heads.
The reality is, here in the South religion and football have always been intertwined, if not overtly then indirectly.
Some of that comes from the nature of high school sports in general where the mission isn’t just about the game, but is also considered a means through which schools and communities try to teach teenagers about building character, courage, perseverance, self-control and other common values.
That many of those things overlap the basic Christian message is obvious. So, too, is the parallel between how athletes are coached and how Christianity is taught. For example, suffering and sacrifice as a means of getting stronger physically or spiritually is a very common thread between those two worlds.
And Christian ministers often use sports analogies in sermons as a way to connect the “real world” with a biblical message to their audiences. That goes back 2000 years when those who wrote the Bible used sports analogies to make a point.
That some coaches who have strong personal religious beliefs might blend those into how they coach a sport isn’t much of a stretch. It happens.
Making these ties even stronger is that they play out in an echo chamber in the South. Christianity is by far the dominant religion here in the Bible Belt, especially evangelical protestant beliefs. People of other faiths do live here, but their numbers are a fraction of the total.
Of those who practice any kind of religious belief here in Georgia, I’d guess less than five percent are Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or are of some other non-Christian faith.
So when a football team says a prayer before a game, 95 percent of the players and 95 percent of those sitting in the stands really don’t think anything’s wrong with that. It’s the world they exist in, the culture that they know.
There is no other reference point because there’s no other large traditions of faith that even come close to the dominance of Christianity in most Southern communities.
And atheists, like the group protesting about the Hall County high school, are considered especially repugnant to many Christians. If you’re an atheist in the South, it’s better to be a silent one. Nobody’s going to listen anyway.
Still, the reality is that public schools can’t get into the business of religion. Schools don’t exist as extensions of churches or of any particular belief, even in communities where one faith dominates. For those who want their children to have some kind of religious instruction along with academics and sports in a school setting, there are many private alternatives available. Public schools, however, can’t cross that line.
The question is, where is that line? At what point are the actions of students considered voluntary and at what point are they being led directly by a teacher or a coach?
This is quicksand for public school employees. Teachers and coaches are in positions of influence over impressionable young teens and the messages they convey have to be carefully construed. They should not abuse the power they have over kids to push personal agendas, religious or otherwise.
For coaches or teachers to use their position in a public school to openly proselytize for any particular religion or political agenda would be wrong. We don’t want a Christian coach telling a Muslim kid he’s going to hell any more than we would want a Muslim coach telling a Christian kid Allah hates him. Public schools are not the forum for such discussions and those employed by public schools shouldn’t venture into those kinds of things no matter how strong their personal beliefs may be. (Ditto for political proselytizing.)
On the other hand, we don’t want to crucify a coach who might obliquely use a biblical reference to make a point about teamwork or sacrifice when giving his team a needed butt-chewing. Some of these things aren’t black-and-white.
I make no judgment about the Hall County controversy, other than to say that in the larger picture, it seems like a tempest in a teapot.
Anyway, from what I’ve seen having grown up in the South, football here is larger than any traditional religious faith. High school and college football is for many people here a religion unto itself, a faith that has its own attire, chants, prayers, traditions, icons and convictions.
In the South, we’d rather be in a football stadium on a Friday or Saturday to worship our teams than in a church on a Sunday.
Even atheists here believe in the religion of football.
At least that’s some common ground.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.