I’m With the Atheists — And Against the Lord’s Prayer

My goal is to stop the blasphemous use of the Prayer our Lord gave his people to pray

So I hope the atheists win. We are allies in the effort to stop practices we, for different reasons, believe are wrong. Their goal is to suppress what they see as a violation of the establishment clause. My goal is to stop the blasphemous use of the Prayer our Lord gave us to pray.

 

Netflix has a big hit with its six-part documentary Last Chance U. The series follows Coach Buddy Stephens and his East Mississippi Community College (sometimes called “Scooba Tech”) football team through the 2015 season. The 2015 season has proved so popular that Netflix is back in Scooba, MS, and will follow the team through the 2016 season. The Lions begin the new season ranked #1 in the nation. They won national championships in 2011, 2013, and 2014.

Last season was a rough one for Coach Stephens. During the

season he was suspended for 2 games because he went after an official. Then in the last game of the season, the benches of both teams emptied and a brawl ensued. Eventually Coach Stephens got involved and ended up using a lot of his big boy words and threatening the officials. At first he was angry at his team and accused them of acting like rednecks and thugs. Later he thought the better of it and told them they had shown great restraint before leaving the bench and that he was proud of them. That brawl cost Stephens and EMCC participation in the playoffs and a chance to return to the national championship game.

If you care about football, the documentary series is a must-watch. If you care about football and Mississippi, it has the qualities of a can’t-put-down book. I watched all 6 episodes over just two nights. It is riveting.

But is is also very depressing. This is not Michael Oher in the Blind Side. Many of the players at EMCC come from very troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds. The school system failed them long ago. You wonder about many of the players how they ever graduated high school. They are ill-prepared to do college work, and their interest in school work is limited to being eligible to play. The heroine of the story, if there is one, is their advisor who does her best to motivate and help them, even to the point of asking if they have pencils before they go to class. She coddles, cajoles, gets angry, helps them to do their work, and even arranges for them to be able to do work that they have failed to turn in on time. For most of the young men featured in Last Chance U their time playing football at EMCC only postpones their return to the life from which they came.

I wonder why Coach Stephens has a job. If he were to behave in that fashion at any other level of college football, he would be fired. I wonder why the authorities who govern community colleges are not embarrassed by the revelations about academics at EMCC. But, football is god, and, EMCC takes great pride in Last Chance U as can be seen on both their website and Facebook page. Last Chance U is great publicity for the school.

Coach Stephens is not only a great football coach and a world class cusser, but also a praying man. The team says the Lord’s Prayer together both before and after games (practices too), often as the climax to the coach’s “Let’s go kick their asses” speech. But it seems Coach Stephen’s piety has attracted attention from the impious. He may soon also be another Christian martyr for practicing his faith in public.

The President of EMCC has received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation informing him the school is in violation of the first amendment and calling upon the school to desist from the practice. Among the things said by the FFRF are:

Religious endorsement is endemic within the football program. Head Coach Buddy Stephens regularly leads his players in the Lord’s Prayer. He prefaces the prayer with “everybody touch somebody,” and then the whole team and coaching staff recites the prayer. This occurs in several episodes during the series. Stephens has said of faith: “It is the foundation of our program. We start our practices with prayer [and] end our practices with prayer.”

In one episode, Assistant Coach Marcus Wood leads a prayer before a game that says, “Dear God, Thank you for these guys, the way they’ve worked. Thank you for all of our blessings. Help us to play this game in a violent and vicious manner and play it the way it’s supposed to be played.” He also apparently leads a weekly bible study for the players. An episode of “Last Chance U” begins with him holding what seems to be a bible while discussing a verse from the Book of Job. In another episode, he says, “Maybe my job is to talk to you a little bit every week about the bible.”

When I watched the series the one word that came to mind, as I watched the speeches before and after games followed by the Lord’s Prayer, was “blasphemy.” Let me explain. I am not here objecting to the profane and scatological language used by the coaching staff. All the bad words you hear in a PG-13 movie are heard in this documentary, including frequent use of the f-bomb, the language did not give me a case of the vapors.

I object to these things: (1) The context. “Let’s get out there and kick their asses. Now everybody touch someone. “Our Father….” (2) The mindless repetition of the Prayer. This is not a group of believers saying the Lord’s Prayer together. This is a football team practicing their tradition of repeating the words of a prayer without the slightest thought given to what the words mean. (3) The superstitious use of the Prayer. This is not true prayer in which the players acknowledge God’s glory, ask for the coming of the kingdom, submit to God’s will, depend on God for his provision, ask for forgiveness of their sins, and ask to be protected from temptations to sin and from the traps of the evil one. This use of the prayer is the equivalent of Clemson Tigers rubbing the Howard Stone before they take the field.

So I hope the atheists win. We are allies in the effort to stop practices we, for different reasons, believe are wrong. Their goal is to suppress what they see as a violation of the establishment clause. My goal is to stop the blasphemous use of the Prayer our Lord gave us to pray. If the EMCC Lions are prevented from praying the Lord’s Prayer and if Assistant Coach Wood is prevented from using the Bible as a collection of motivational stories and sayings, then practices that offend the Lord will be stopped and the interests of true religion served. If this is accomplished through the efforts of an atheist organization, let it be.

Bill Smith is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Roanoke, Va. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.