Special to Page 2
When a high-school football story from East Brunswick, N.J., becomes a front-page headline on ESPN.com, the hook clearly goes beyond football.
In this case, the story is tied to the tension that can arise when football, faith and a valued American principle share the same locker room.
Here's what happened (per the Associated Press): Coach Marcus Borden resigned after 20-plus years at the helm of East Brunswick High football because school officials told him he could no longer lead the team in prayer before games and at team meals. Some parents reportedly had complained about Borden's prayers, which school officials say breached the constitutional separation of church and state in a public school.
In the context of the church-state issue, an East Brunswick school spokesperson noted a lesser-known fact: Public-school students have the right, by law, to pray on school property -- but students must organize the prayer.
"A representative of the school district cannot constitutionally initiate prayer, encourage it or lead it," the spokesperson said.
That's the story from the AP. The backstory is as fascinating and as multifaceted as the combined playbooks of offense gurus Charlie Weis and Mike Martz.
Let's start with the religious references that are intertwined with football lore and history: The Hail Mary pass. Touchdown Jesus in South Bend. The Immaculate Reception. Tom Landry and his distinguished belief. Football and faith are virtually inseparable in this regard.
Next, let's proceed to a short history of the U.S. separation of church and state. A key reason for this 18th-century constitutional safeguard was the vivid lesson of European history ... especially the tragic consequences of consolidating the power of the state and religious belief (such as the Inquisition).
Further back, in the Fourth Century, Roman emperor Constantine permitted the practice of the Christian faith -- previously, Christians had been persecuted by Rome, so Constantine essentially gave each religion a level playing field (similar, in a way, to America's church-state model). But later in the century emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the state. Some on the extreme religious right might see such a development as a blessing, but a thought-out faith realizes it isn't. By establishing a state religion, Theodosius set up a system in which friends, Romans and countrymen had political incentive to pose as believers merely to impress the emperor. This runs counter to genuine faith like a slippery kick returner eluding would-be tacklers.
So declaring any one faith as the official state religion -- whether it's Christianity or Islam or Buddhism -- is more Pandora's box than answer to prayer.
At its core, the Christian faith is not coercive. In fact, one of the bedrock premises of biblical faith is that God gives everyone a choice. Keep in mind the greatest commandment identified by Jesus, that First-Century Jewish rabbi from Nazareth (who, his followers say, defeated death in sudden-death overtime): "Love the Lord your God." And we know intuitively that choice is necessary for love to be real. Puppets and robots are not capable of love.