Matthew 5 (NRSV). 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[a]
Anne Lamott’s always been one of my favorite writers. She’s outspoken; her spiritual journey resembles my own; she’s a writer’s writer; she’s aware of her own quirks and foibles; and she has a sly sense of humor. When I taught journalism at Benedictine, my students loved her how-to essay on “Shitty First Drafts” (widely available online, HERE at the University of Kentucky, for example, and HERE at the University of Minnesota), and it’s helped me deal with a self-defeating, perfectionist streak in my own writing.
So she pulled me right with her take on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court case that ruled a public school coach has the right to proselytize students by praying in public.
It was headlined “I Don’t Want to See a High School Football Coach Praying at the 50-Yard Line,” and it ran in the op ed section of the New York Times website. Lamott wrote:
Many of us who believe in a reality beyond the visible realms, who believe in a soul that survives death, and who are hoping for seats in heaven near the dessert table, also recoil from the image of a high school football coach praying at the 50-yard line.
It offends me to see sanctimonious public prayer in any circumstance — but a coach holding his players hostage while an audience watches his piety makes my skin crawl.
Exactly! Lamott has earned the right to talk about prayer, as far as I’m concerned, because her own faith was hard-won.
As her bio in Wikipedia notes, quite accurately, Lamott’s “nonfiction works are largely autobiographical.” They’re marked by her trademark “self-deprecating humor and openness,” and they “cover such subjects as alcoholism, single-motherhood, depression, and Christianity.” In addition to seven novels and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (the how-to-write-a-book-book where the essay on, uh, very preliminary first drafts originally appeared), she has written movingly about her spiritual journey through the 12-step recovery movement.
Which means she can talk the talk, at least as far as I’m concerned, because she’s walked the walk. And her op ed piece (snarky headline aside) is almost a how-to She’s speaking my language when she says in the New York Times:
I do not understand much about string theory, but I do know we are vibrations, all the time. Between the tiny strings is space in which change can happen. The strings are infinitesimal; the space between nearly limitless. Prayer says to that space, I am tiny, helpless, needy, worried, but there’s nothing I can do except send my love into that which is so much bigger than me.
How do people like me who believe entirely in science and reason also believe that prayer can heal and restore? Well, I’ve seen it happen a thousand times in my own inconsequential life. God seems like a total showoff to me, if perhaps unnecessarily cryptic.
There’s so much here I relate to. I grew up in a time and place where teaching evolution was against the law — if the letter of the law were applied in Tennessee, it could get you a $50 fine and 11 months and 29 days in the county workhouse — and science and religion were seen as adversarial, at least in the popular culture.
I’ve had a lifelong struggle reconciling science and religion, at least as religion played out in the popular culture; in my case I tuned out on religion in high school and didn’t come back for years. When I did, I came back through the spirituality of 12-step recovery. So I can sense exactly what Lamott is talking about when she says:
I wake up praying. I say a prayer some sober people told me to pray 36 years ago, because when all else fails, follow instructions. It helps me to not fixate on who I am, but on whose. I am God’s adorable, aging, self-centered, spaced-out beloved. One man in early sobriety told me that he had come into recovery as a hotshot but that other sober men helped him work his way up to servant. I pray to be a good servant because I’ve learned that this is the path of happiness. I pray for my family and all my sick friends that they have days of grace and healing, and I end my prayers, “Make me ever mindful of the needs of the poor.”
Only one very small difference: I often end my prayers with a similar tag line from an Episcopal table blessing I learned as a kid: “Make us ever mindful of the needs of others” — there are very, very few times when it doesn’t fit. The rest of it, the part about service, is central to 12-step recovery and to most faith traditions as well. I’ve heard it described as emptying ashtrays and cleaning the coffeepot in an old-fashioned AA hall. I’ve heard it described as Catholic social teaching; as the 613 mitzvot of the Jewish Torah centering on “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18); and Luther’s aphorism, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”
I think that foundational mitzvah, or commandment, from Leviticus is important here. Quoted in full, it reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” It, or something like it, is what leads Lamott to “pray for all the places where we see Christ crucified — Ukraine, India, the refugee camps” — and to rejoice when “goodness draws near, through UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, volunteers, through motley old us.”
It also leads her to a more nuanced assessment of people like the proselytizing football coach and the right-wing culture warriors on the Supreme Court (or in Congress). After praying for the poor, she continues:
Then I put on my glasses, let the dog out to pee and start my day. I will have horrible thoughts about others, typically the Christian right or the Supreme Court, or someone who has seriously crossed me, whose hair I pray falls out or whose book fails. I say to God, as I do every Sunday in confession: “Look — I think we can both see what we have on our hands here. Help me not be such a pill.”
It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Greene exactly the same as God loves my grandson, because God loves, period. God does not have an app for Not Love. God sees beyond each person’s awfulness to each person’s needs. God loves them, as is. God is better at this than I am.
And that, too, is exactly what I need to hear. Lamott goes on:
On good days, I feel (slightly) more neutral toward Ginni Thomas and the high school coach praying after games. I pray the great prayer of “Thanks” all day, for my glorious messy family, husband and life; for my faith, my sobriety; for nature; for all that is still here and still works after so much has been taken from us.
When I am at my most rattled or in victimized self-righteousness, I go for walks, another way to put my feet to prayer. I pray for help, and in some dimension outside of my mind or language, I relax. I can breathe again. I say, “Thank you.”
I haven’t been having very many good days lately, and I’m not just rattled by Justice Thomas and his openly seditious wife. Bremerton case was one of several decisions in this term of court that enshrine a brand of religion that runs counter to mine and may, in fact, threaten it.
Supreme Court watchers Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern had this conversation, on Lithwick’s podcast Amicus, about Justice Gorsich’s opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District:
Lithwick: […] Gorsuch goes so far as to tell the students who are not religious, who felt coerced into joining this prayer circle, that they should just be more tolerant.
Stern: Right. Gorsuch says: Students, you don’t like getting coerced into Christian prayer? Too bad. Toughen up. You’re going to have to deal with proselytization in school because that’s what the Framers would’ve wanted. And by complaining to your mommy about this little Christian prayer circle, you’re showing me that you’re not ready to participate in a pluralistic society. You’re not capable of showing the requisite respect for Christianity and Jesus that our Constitution demands of you. There is a total refusal to empathize with religious minorities.
Lithwick: Right. And of course, the counterfactual here is the Muslim coach bringing his prayer rug to the 50-yard line. It’s hard to imagine the courts, or the fans, would have the same solicitude. [Italics in the original.]
One thing that made it so egregious was that Gorsuch bought into the coach’s assertion that his prayer — at the 50-yard line after a high school football game! — was private when the appellate record made it clear that it was not. “This was not quiet, silent prayer,” said Stern. “This was coercive, loud prayer during the course of school duties by a school official who was hired in part to serve as a leader and role model for students.” Lithwick, for her part, observed that “there were TV cameras and elected officials and people storming the field and knocking over the tuba players to join” the prayer circle.
But what most worried Lithwick (a graduate of Stanford Law School) and Stern (BA, Harvard, JD Georgetown Law Center) is the way the court gutted the previous standard for upholding the separation of church and state.
White Christian nationalism
Even before Kennedy v. Bremerton, Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor in the University of Miami law school, wrote in the Alabama Law Review, in 2020, that the Supreme Court is “eviscerating the separation of church and state.” In the process, she said, it facilitates white Christian nationalism and potentially the exclusion of religious minorities:
Growing Christian nationalism is a problem because recent social science has found that Christian nationalism is strongly linked to hostility towards out-groups, and this hostility paves the way for hostile public policy. Consequently, Christian nationalism does not simply symbolically exclude some from their community and country; it may lead to actual exclusion.
Robert P. Jones, founder of a Washington think tank called the Public Religion Research Institute and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, warns of an orchestrated effort by white Christian nationalists.
Shortly after Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked, he told the Baptist News Global news agency its overthrow of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade “represents just one, albeit powerful, part of a multi-pronged, desperate effort by a shrinking and aging group, while they still wield power, to impose their vision of a 1950s white Christian America on an increasingly diverse nation.” He added:
It should be no surprise that we see these attacks on abortion — settled law for half a century — ramping up in the same year we are seeing attacks on teaching kids about systemic racism or LGBTQ identity and families, and renewed challenges to church-state separation, such as the current case before the Supreme Court about whether a football coach at a public high school should be allowed to lead Protestant Christian prayers on the 50-yard line after games. These are all of a piece — a concerted attempt by conservative white Christians to reassert their dominance in a rapidly diversifying America.
Crunching the numbers for the Baptist news service, Jones cited PRRI data showing that of the religious demographic groups surveyed, only white evangelical Protestants favor banning abortion in all or most instances. The percentages saying it should be legal, again in all or most instances, are:
- White evangelical Protestants, 30 percent;
- Latino Protestants, 52 percent;
- Latino Catholics, 57 percent;
- White Catholics, 59 percent;
- African American Protestants, 73 percent;
While Jones didn’t cite the numbers for white mainline Protestants in his Baptist Global News piece, a PRRI analysis of survey data by Diana Orcés in April found they were split, too, with 52 percent of “those who strongly identify with religious identity” saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 55 percent saying Roe v. Wade “was the right decision and should be upheld. (By way of comparison, 83 percent of Democrats “who strongly identify with political identify” said abortion should be legal, and only 25 percent of strong Republicans did.) Ample evidence that abortion plays out as a political wedge issue.
Jones said “there is a strong correlation between opposition to the legality of abortion and nostalgia for a 1950s America,” and to white Christian nationalism, which he sees as an essentially political movement:
So where does all this leave us? It’s kind of a muddle, but I think it’s clear enough the white Christian nationalists are moving us into dangerous territory. I’ve blogged about it, HERE and HERE for example, since they were so prominent in the January 6 insurrection, and it’s clear they have been emboldened by the Supreme Court.
As the court’s latest term ended July 1, Odette Yousef of NPR interviewed Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma, who has studied the movement in detail. Perry said:
You don’t have to be a Christian nationalist to want to outlaw abortion, but the vast majority of Americans who want to outlaw abortion fall on that scale of Christian nationalism. They believe that bringing about the kingdom of God requires institutionalizing biblical principles as the law. They want to declare the United States a Christian nation. They want to institute Christian values as a part of our national policy.
Perry also told Yousef (as she paraphrased him) that “this segment of the population was also celebrating the recent ruling on behalf of a public school football coach who was leading students in Christian prayer and another Supreme Court decision to allow public funding for private religious schools.”
Yousef, who is NPR’s domestic extremism correspondent, said white Christians see themselves as “the victims of increased secularization” and therefore “often rally under a call for religious freedom or religious liberty.” But, she added:
[…] Perry’s research finds that they’re actually not supportive of increased expression of other faiths in American life. They’re only interested in privileging Western white Christianity and a very conservative understanding of Christianity at that. It’s true that fewer and fewer Americans support Christian nationalism, but Perry says this has made Christian nationalists more militant. And we saw that on January 6.
Which brings me back around to Anne Lamott.
What can people of faith do when the whole world seems to be collapsing and even NPR has a domestic extremism correspondent? (A domestic extremism correspondent!) Well, Lamott says we can “march, rally and agitate, putting feet to our prayers. And in our private lives, we pray.” In fact, her column for the Times is almost a how-to primer on prayer. She explains:
Especially when I travel, I talk to so many people who are absolutely undone by all the miseries of the world, and I can’t do anything for them but listen, commiserate and offer to pray. I can’t turn politics around, or war, or the climate, but in listening, by opening my heart to someone in trouble, I create with them more love, less of a grippy clench in our little corner of the universe.
Just not at the 50-yard line after a high school football game.
A sort of footnote. In my, um, preliminary first draft of this post, I quoted a how-to article by marketing and writing coach Henneke Duistermaat that quoted Anne Lamott on the subject of first drafts. As I revised the post, it went off in another direction. But Duistermaat quotes another writing instructor whose work I taught, Donald Murray at the Providence (R.I.) Journal and the University of New Hampshire. She knows her audience. “Even experienced writers may need to trick themselves,” she says, “so they stop despairing and get on with their writing tasks.” And she has good advice I intend to follow. So I’m leaving her in my list of references below.
Links and Citations
Daniel Arkin, “Unitarian and Buddhist ministers are joining a rabbi’s legal fight against Florida’s new abortion law,” NBC News, July 13, 2022 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/unitarian-buddhist-ministers-are-joining-rabbis-legal-fight-floridas-n-rcna37354.
Joan Biskupic, “Latest Ginni Thomas controversy means the Supreme Court can’t escape the 2020 election,” CNN, June 17, 2022 https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/17/politics/ginni-thomas-supreme-court/index.html.
Caroline Mala Corbin, The Supreme Court’s Facilitation of White Christian Nationalism, 71 Alabama Law Review 833 (2020), excerpted in Race, Racism and the Law, ed. Vernellia R. Randall https://racism.org/articles/intersectionality/religion/8756-the-supreme-court-s.
Henneke Duistermaat, “How to Cherish Your Shitty First Drafts (And Get More Writing Done),” Enchanting Marketing https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/writing-shitty-first-drafts/.
Robert P. Jones, “Alito and public opinion reveal the link between Roe and a broader white Christian nationalist agenda,” Baptist News Global, May 3, 2022 https://www.prri.org/spotlight/most-oppose-overturning-roe-v-wade-widespread-confusion-over-a-post-roe-world/.
Anne Lemott, “I Don’t Want to See a High School Football Coach Praying at the 50-Yard Line,” New York Times, July 8, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/08/opinion/prayer-supreme-court-football.html.
Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern, “Neil Gorsuch to Non-Christian Kids Who Don’t Want Prayer in Public School: Get Over It,” Slate, June 28, 2022 https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/06/coach-kennedy-gorsuch-prayer-public-schools.html.
Diana Orcés, “Political and Religious Identities and Views on Abortion,” Public Religion Research Institute, April 8, 2022 https://www.prri.org/spotlight/political-and-religious-identities-and-views-on-abortion/.
Odette Yousef, “Some fear Christian nationalism is getting legal legitimacy through the Supreme Court,” NPR, July 1, 2022 https://www.npr.org/2022/07/01/1109470737/some-fear-christian-nationalism-is-getting-legal-legitimacy-through-the-supreme-.
Wikipedia articles on Catholic social teaching; Anne Lamott; and mitzvah; and Goodreads, “Quotes from Luther” at https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/29874.Martin_Luther?page=4.
[Revised and published July 21, 2022]