Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.

God and the
Supreme Court
by Bob Ferguson, Jr.
Pastor, Emerywood Baptist Church,
High Point, North Carolina

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Matthew 6: 5-8

A few years ago the Supreme Court went over the top!  They started messing with that most sacred of Southern idols – high school football.  They decreed that we cannot have public prayer prior to football games.  What do these legal types think they are doing? Why, we’ve been praying before football games for God only knows how long! If we eliminate prayer before football games then half the people in the USA will lose their devotional time for the week.  If we cannot pray before football games then how will we be sure our team is going to win? If we cannot pray for our team to win, then what good is prayer, anyway? 

Good question – what good is prayer?  Better question – what is prayer and when should we pray and how should we pray?  Burning question – what should be the relationship between the church and state, between religious activities and public institutions?  To answer these questions we have to look at the nature of religion, of prayer, and of our constitutional perspective on religion.

The Nature of Religion

The nature of religion comprises the ways in which a person or persons relate to their understanding of God.  As such religion is an intensely personal matter.  Yes, our religion is normally lived out within the bounds of a community of faith such as our local church.  However, that community, as important as it is, is secondarily important.  E.Y. Mullins, one of the greatest theologians Baptists have ever produced, gave as his first axiom of religion what he called the religious axiom:  All have an equal right to access to God.”  He later adds that “it is spiritual tyranny for man to interpose the church itself, its ordinances, or ceremonies, or formal creeds, between the human soul and Christ.”  He goes on to call this the principle of “individualism” in religion.

Baptists have held this principle near and dear to our hearts.  We have been hung, burned at the stake, exiled and imprisoned for daring to assert that the individual was primary over the corporate in religion.  State church after state church found Baptists dangerous as we unflinchingly maintained that one was saved by grace through faith and not through the creeds and dogmas of any church.  We stood up to emperors, popes, presbyters and councils in our assertion that individuals had an inalienable right to practice their faith as they deemed appropriate without interference from church or government as long as they did not endanger their lives or the lives of others. 

Indeed, Dr. Mullins affirmed that the distinctive Baptist contribution to Christian history in particular and to religion in general is “the competency of the soul in religion.”  Soul-competency, that each person is free and able to stand before Yahweh God and to relate to Yahweh God as they determine best and appropriate, is the cornerstone of Baptist life.  This is why we have so many Baptist churches—for we were free to start another one if we so desired.  If we look around we will find high church Baptists and low-church Baptists, conservative Baptists and liberal Baptists, educated Baptists and uneducated Baptists.  We have started churches for each and every imaginable strata of human existence.  Why?  Because we were free—both individually and as churches to determine how we would relate to Yahweh God.

Religion which is not free, which is coerced or commanded is not true religion.  The very word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio” which means awe or fear.  To be a person of religion is to stand before Yahweh God having experienced the awesomeness of God’s love and power. To be a religious person involves more than just having an intellectual understanding of God.  To be a religious person is to have experienced in the core of one’s being the very Being of God.  This we cannot transfer to another or experience for another.  This we can only experience for ourselves and pray that another experience Yahweh God at the same depth as we. 

The Nature of Prayer

Prayer, by its very nature, is intensely personal and private.  Someone once said that there are three things each person must do by himself or herself: make their own love, pray their own prayers, and die their own death.  No one can do these for us.  Prayer is personal because prayer is at the heart of religion.  It is through prayer that we commune with Yahweh God.  It is through prayer that we share the burdens of our soul and the yearnings of our heart.  It is in prayer that we hear the Spirit speak or feel the gentle nudge of the Spirit. It is in prayer that we bare our soul to our Saviour and in so doing receive mercy and forgiveness.  It is in prayer that our hearts are renewed and our souls transformed.  It is in prayer that the indwelling presence of Yahweh God comes upon us.  Prayer is intensely private.

All prayer is not private—there is also public prayer.  If we look closer at the Holy Scriptures we will see that public prayer mostly occurs within the confines of a believing community of faith.  In the Hebrew Scriptures we have public prayer that was spoken at royal functions or national gatherings.  What we must remember is that Israel was a theocracy, not a democracy.  Israel was ruled by a king who was representative of their true ruler, Yahweh God.  When public prayers and calls for repentance, etc., were offered they were within the bounds of a people who, ethnically and spiritually, worshipped Yahweh God.  Their sacred acts and public acts were commingled because all of life was commingled to them.  There was no separation between the sacred and the secular, between church and state, for Israel.  All was sacred.

Public prayer, to be genuine prayer to Yahweh God, must occur within the bounds of a believing community of faith.  When we arise in the public square and give generic prayers to a generic god those are but sham prayers—plastic pithy imitations of the genuine article.  For Christians and Jews public prayer must take place within the family of believers. 

The Nature of the Constitution on Religion

We, in the United States, are not Israel.  We are not the chosen people of God though God has blessed us.  We are a country of diverse peoples, races, and religions.  We have distinct differences between the sacred and the secular in our country and in our constitution.  We are not a theocracy and do not strive to be one.

Thomas Jefferson included the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in exchange for the Virginia Baptist clergy backing the adoption of the Constitution.  It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” There are two clauses to this Amendment.  The first is the “Establishment Clause” and prohibits the Congress from setting up a state church or favoring one religious group over another.  The second, the “Free Exercise Clause” tells government that they must keep their hands off religious practices.  The government cannot interfere in what transpires within a particular denomination or religion so long as it is not harmful to those involved. 

Our Baptist forefathers and mothers had lived under religious tyranny both in England and Europe as well as in the colonies to a certain extent.  They deeply desired to ensure that not only would there be no state church, but that the government would be separate from religious affairs.  Religion would not interfere with government and government would not interfere with religion.

Anytime government and religion get in bed together the results are disastrous.  Public institutions, by their very nature, tend to become more and more controlling and power hungry as time passes.  If they are given the blessing of religion then they will, in time, take over religion as well.  Or else, religion will take over them.  See Iran and other Islamic countries for examples of what happens when religion rules. 

Fortunately our Supreme Court has recognized this for the most part.  Though there have been some questions about the wall of separation that has existed between church and government the Supreme Court has continued to maintain that wall.  I would remind us that this court is not comprised of “pointy-headed” liberals as some have stated in the past, but is dominated by appointments from conservative presidents and is considered to be a conservative court.  Yet, these justices recognize the danger of mixing government and religion.

What can we conclude about public prayer in general and prayer at football games in particular?

Prayer at athletic contests is unnecessary because it is poor prayer and poor government.  Though I have prayed at football games—and often during the games for miracles to happen—for years I have always felt somewhat of a false prophet or “preacher of the night” when I have done this.  Public prayer of this nature allows people to feel “religious” who never darken the door of a church or otherwise pray to Yahweh God.  It promotes what the Paul calls “a form of religion but denying the power therein.” 

Jesus spoke against the public prayer of the sort that precedes sporting events.  Did we hear these words of Jesus?  Prayer is to be private – not out on the street corner.  Genuine prayer involves both speaking and listening to Yahweh God—not a few token words followed by “play ball.”  Public prayer of this sort promotes a sham religion that obscures genuine Christianity.  Jesus said for us to go into our closet when we pray—not out on the street corner. 

When homes are filled with praying believers, when churches are filled with praying believers, then I will take another look at praying in public forums and at public events.  Those who want public prayer do so because it maintains a veneer of Christianity for a society that is anything but Christian.  Let’s do our praying in church, at home, and in our private groups.  If we will do that then we will be praying enough and will see the work of Yahweh God in our world. 

Further, just because we cannot have official public prayer does not mean we cannot pray.  I am tired of hearing people say that the “Supreme Court took prayer out of schools.”  No, what the Supreme Court did was take mandated, public prayer out of school.  Anyone can still pray at any time one desires.  Whether at a football game or before a math test anyone can bow their head and offer a prayer to Yahweh God.  I do not want someone else teaching my children to pray or mandating a prayer for them.  That was and is my responsibility and that of my church—not the school or government.

Public prayer like this is also poor government.  We live in a pluralistic society whether we like it or not or will admit it or not.  As Christians, much less as Baptists, we are not the only ones at the table.  Our country now has so many religions that it is mindboggling.  Whatever one may think of that the truth is that if we believe in the religious principle as espoused by our forefather E.Y. Mullins then each person has the right to respect for their faith.  If we adopt public prayer then we are going to have to allow Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, Moonies, and even pagan cults such as “Gaia” to have their time of prayer.  I believe in the right of each person to practice their faith as they desire, but I also do not wish to have the faith of others pushed upon me.  I can imagine that they feel the same way.  My God is not Allah, Buddha, an ancestor, or whoever.  My God is the God of the Holy Scriptures—Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and, yes, Jesus.  I do not wish to pray to a generic god for I do not believe in a generic god.

The last thing we need in our country is for our government to take sides in religion or to promote religious activity.  You would think that with the track record of control that our government possesses that we would be trying to stay as far away as possible from them instead of cosying up to them. 

Further, what happens when and if Christianity is not the majority religion?  Do we really want prayers offered to Allah in places where Islam is a majority?  Or what if Buddhism grows and becomes dominant in an area?  Do we really want our children to be led in prayers to Buddha?  I think not.


It is my deep belief that if we as the churches would do what we should in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed then we would not have to be concerned with these trivial issues such as prayer before football games.  We cannot get the government to do our job for us.  It does not work – government does a poor job of teaching or promoting religion.  What we need to do is regain our understanding as the people of Yahweh God on mission for God.  Often issues such as this are used as the background issue a call for revival in our country. Yes, we need a revival in our country—but it will not begin with public prayer.  It will begin when men and women, boys and girls reenter their prayer closets and seek the presence of Almighty Yahweh God.  It will begin when we rediscover that the gods of materialism, power, and prestige are sham gods that cannot satisfy no matter good they may look.  It will begin when we rediscover the true purpose of our country, as that place of haven and hope for all who need us—as the refuge of the last, the least and the lost.

Listen to the words imprinted upon the bronze plaque in the interior wall of the Statue of Liberty.  From a poem, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, these words speak the truth of which we need both to hear and to be:


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Robert U. Ferguson, Jr.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Road
High Point, North Carolina 27262
July 4th, 2004



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