Friday, October 16, 2009

Team Jesus thrown for a loss (Sunday Reflections for October 18, 2009)

The cheerleading squad at Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School in north Georgia got an unexpected civics lesson this semester. A couple weeks ago, the cheerleaders were informed by the district superintendent that a practice they had begun six years ago violated the US Constitution. Oops.

As happens at many high schools, the LFO cheerleaders hold a banner that football team members crash through when they come onto the field before the game. Sometime around 2003, however, they added an original twist and began painting inspirational Bible verses on the poster, such as: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14”.

The school is in the smallest county in the state (just south of Chattanooga, TN) yet has 66 Baptist churches, as well as dozens of others of other stripes. Church life is very important for the area’s approximatley 10,000 small town and rural residents. Still, the principle of church-state separation is hardly a secret and you might have expected someone to point out problems with the cheerleaders’ banners before this.

The whistleblower was not who you might expect. The mother of a LFO student recently took a law course at Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Though a committed Christian herself, she alerted the school district that, based on what she had learned, the cheerleaders’ banner probably violated the law. She was afraid the school was setting itself up for legal trouble and a few days later the district agreed. The banners had to go.

Residents don’t seem surprised by the decision but they’re also not very happy with it. Prayer meetings and rallies have been held in support of the banners but a challenge to the decision seems unlikely. As one resident said, the signs were “probably” unconstitutional yet he also believed in what he called “heart laws.” He said the Bible tells Christians to be bold witnesses and the signs were “a way of being bold.”

The incident raises questions on several levels. You have to wonder what is being taught in LFO’s social studies classes that such a basic constitutional principle is being missed. On the other hand, recent surveys have shown that in some states less than 5% of high school students can pass the constitution test required for naturalized citizenship.

This would seem to be a teachable moment. Several banners in the stands at the game following the banner-ban read, “You can’t silence us.” You? You who? Students and parents imagine some oppressive dark-force-out-there has taken away their banners. “They did it.” That force is the force of law and the United States Constitution, presumably our country’s most cherished legal possession.

Unfortunately both the district superintendent and the school principle have taken similar “we’re sorry but we’re being forced to do this” stances. Both professed personal support for the banners. The principal acknowledged he wished everyone were Christian “because I believe that's what's best” but admitted vaguely “you can't force anyone to believe what you believe." The superintendent who issued the ruling said she regretted doing so but she had “the responsibility of protecting the school district from legal action by groups who do not support their beliefs.” Yes, the constitution can be a nuisance sometimes.

Interestingly people in the community seem aware of First Amendment, freedom-of-religion issues that are at stake here. They just don’t like them. More than one said that verses from other religions would not have been welcome. The principal (!) even admitted that "As a Christian I would not have liked it if they had used verses from the Quran, and if I had known about it, I probably would not have approved of them doing so.” It seems even the adults could use a refresher course in the Bill of Rights.

The banners and the supportive attitudes expressed also raise questions about the nature of the Christianity being practiced here. A local youth minister defended the cheerleaders saying they were not trying “to shove religion down someone’s throat” but were only using the verses “to show motivation and inspiration to the players and the fans.” Cars, t-shirts and local businesses sport slogans like “LFO FOR CHRIST,” and “WARRIORS (the school mascot) STAND FOR JESUS.”

It’s hard not to conclude that at LFO Jesus has really become the school mascot and evangelical fervor is providing the inspirational energy to win football games. (I’ll let you interpret the game following the banner ban, a 34-0 shutout and first loss of the season.) It now seems nearly blasphemous for medieval Crusaders to have assumed God was on their side (with crosses painted on their shields). It’s hard not to see using Bible verses to fire up the team and the crowd before a game as a nearly blasphemous trivialization of the Christian tradition and the gospel.

One of the concerns of American evangelicals is that the country is losing its Christian heritage. What they don’t realize is that their response of trying to “Christianize” culture usually serves only to accelerate that process. Using verses like the sayings on those colorful “inspirational” posters hanging in office hallways doesn’t lead anyone to spiritual insight (let alone an encounter with God). Instead, they become as quickly forgotten and ignored as the slogans of last season’s marketing campaign.

The early Christians were firm in their beliefs but still went out of their way to avoid being offensive to their non-Christian neighbors. Today it can be nothing but offensive to refuse to recognize that we live in a multi-cultural and multi-religious country and world. Every community, no matter how small or insular, will have non-Christian members. They have the legal right to feel welcome and safe in public places and Christians have the responsibility born in Christian charity to support that right.

Our non-Christian neighbors are not the opposing team, let alone the enemy. We have not been called to “win one for Jesus.” Rather, the Bible speaks of our calling in language that is remarkably simple and universal. In Micah it says we are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. According to Jesus we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

I doubt such verses ever appeared on the cheerleaders’ banners. They probably wouldn’t do much to fire up the players or the crowd. Ironically, however, they probably would pass legal muster because these words or words like them appear in nearly every religious tradition and secular philosophy. They are words that bring people together and create community, rather than words that define a community by telling people who’s in and who’s out.


Anonymous said...

"Do onto others" just wouldn't be as effective. A call to be compasionate to the losing team might be appropriate. The red cheerleading (and team?) costumes probably help more than anything.
David Mc

Natalie Boyett said...

Wow, Doug. Very well said.