It’s fall and it’s football season. Once again we are confronted with the problem of what to do about religious football fans who want to pray at the stadium right before the game begins. I believe that prayer at a football game does not elevate the sport. It causes cultural and spiritual confusion. And it cheapens the religion.
So no, prayer at a football game is not kosher. Here is why.
Some well-meaning people think that religion is much like a team sport. They come out in public events to root for their team and to sing a loud cheer – and their prayers. They believe that makes them true fans, and good religious people. They have faith that rooting loudly in prayer at a real sporting event unites them with other true fans, gives them more of a common bond, a greater sense of community, religious and sporting.
These good-intentioned fans also believe that both their team, and their religious group, are the best, that they both are number one. These true supporters cheer for their guys to beat, even trounce and demolish the other team, the opponent of the day, and that includes people who do not believe what they believe. They get energy from the hope that at the end of the season their club will be the champions and that their religion will reign over the Earth. The other teams will lose, the non-believers will not go to heaven.
Most of the time the legitimate rooting and cheering activities within religion, those modes of belief and faith, are mixed together with others forms of religious action and acted out in special sacred places like churches, synagogues and mosques. Celebrating the imagined victory of your religion is a valid motif in faith and worship, it is a suitable visualization that motivates and satisfies the worshipper. This activity often intermixes in substantial prayer services with scribal elements, like the reading of scriptures, with priestly components, like the performance of symbolic rituals, with mystical practices, like imagined visions of heaven, angels and God, and with meditative moments of quiet, mindful contemplation.
The prayers of great religions, done right, can be complex, varied and satisfying to many adherents in multiple, deep ways.
But when people insist on wrenching out a single layer of prayer to create a one-dimensional event without any nuance or depth, and when they go on to mix that together with an athletic competitive sporting event, they are doing themselves a disservice and they are creating religious confusion, not fulfillment, and not satisfaction.
I oppose the recitation of Christian prayers at football games on the grounds that it is a distortion of the beauty and sacredness of religious performance. Prayer at a football game is religion at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in a superficial single celebrity mode and in a confused jumble with a sporting event. It detracts from the game, and it diminishes the religion.
Tzvee Zahavy is a rabbi and writer who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. His new book, God’s Favorite Prayers, describes the six archetypes of prayer, the performer, the mystic, the scribe, the priest, the meditator and the celebrity.