American sports are often caught in a tug of war between the left-wing values of celebrity culture and the traditionalist values of their fan base, which is how we get drag queen shows at major league baseball games, kneeling during the national anthem, and rainbow patches on jerseys. Reporters covering sports are especially susceptible to lean left because they are in a left-dominated journalism industry based in New York or Los Angeles rather than Milwaukee or Tampa Bay. Which leads to Greg Bishop’s hyperbolic cover story for Sports Illustrated about how a high school football coach praying in public portends the end of American democracy, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the coach’s favor. Bishop tells the story of Joe Kennedy, an assistant coach at a public school in Washington state who was pushed out by his school district for taking a knee after games for a brief moment of silent prayer.
Early on in his article, Bishop gets right to it, quoting the lead counsel for the school district, who also happens to be the president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. She is “‘terrified” to find herself in “an alternate universe of disinformation and propaganda—and, in that world, even democracy is in danger.” She blames “white Christian nationalists” who are uncomfortable with the election of a black man as president and the election of a record number of women to Congress. This rapidly changing world prompts the phenomenon of “white Christian fragility,” a lashing out that culminates in the “inciting rhetoric” of former President Donald Trump.
In all of this, Coach Kennedy is simply a “pawn” for a “billion-dollar industry” of “Christian nationalists” who misleadingly adopt the “more palatable” label of “religious freedom.” These master messaging manipulators are cynically using Kennedy’s desire to keep both his job and his faith as “part of the story they want to tell and sell.” Their goal is “stoking both anger and donations” whenever they put him on Fox News.
After presenting this bogeyman story of right-wing racists clinging to their guns and religion, Bishop finally gets to the nub of the legal case: “whether church and state should be separated—and where that line of separation should be drawn. Or redrawn. Or removed.” The article’s subhead suggests SI’s answer: Kennedy’s expected Supreme Court win will result in “the further erosion of the separation of church and state” under the headline “When Faith and Football Teamed Up Against American Democracy.”
In the course of its reporting, SI interviewed five legal experts. Two of them who agree with Americans United are unnamed, “fearing retribution from Kennedy’s supporters.” Apparently, fragile white Christian nationalists have the power to cancel tenured professors at major law schools. Two more generally agree with the district.
Laurence Tribe, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, for instance, says “the legal history” shows “our system works best, and people are (most free), when church and state are kept as far apart as possible.” He credits Kennedy’s predicted victory to “a long-running campaign by Christian fundamentalists who are imposing their view of human life on the rest of society.” He adds, “That’s dangerous,” noting that President Trump’s three Supreme Court appointees are “committed to tearing down that wall” of separation between church and state.
Of course, my reading of our nation’s history shows tremendous support for the role of faith in public life, from the founding era to the present. And I find it curious to say that Christians are imposing their view of human life on others when this case arises because a coach was forced from his job for praying—the facts suggest the imposition runs in the opposite direction.
Tribe also invokes the separation of church and state in line with the article’s overall framing. The first thing to remember is that this phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution. The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This was originally a Federalism provision. Several states had established religions at the founding. The First Amendment guaranteed Congress would not override Anglican Virginia, Catholic Maryland, and Quaker Pennsylvania with a single national religion. Second, “establishment” has a particular meaning—an established church like the Church of England, where the monarch was also head of the church, the prime minister appointed the bishops, and the bishops had seats in parliament. That is a far cry from a public high school football coach praying on the field after a game.
The one exception to SI’s august body of legal eagles is Michael Klarman of Harvard, an atheist who sees a “very real” threat to American democracy from “the conservative movement” but does not believe Coach Kennedy is coercing his players into prayer. In other words, SI interviewed not one actual conservative law professor. Every single scholar who belongs to the Federalist Society must have been unavailable for comment.
The SI article is not a profile of Coach Kennedy or a report on his case—it is a left-wing hatchet job. It belongs in a category of so-called journalism that insults people of faith along with The Washington Post’s report labeling conservative Christians as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” Stick to sports, SI.
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