Every Friday night, from Texas to North Carolina, high school footballfans are standing to say the Lord's Prayer. I won't be standing withthem. But I know where they're coming from. My fellow Southerners have found yet another way to honor God, defy theUnited States Supreme Court, and thumb their noses at the ACLU. Thoseprayers mark a few fine moments of civil disobedience for a culturethat's been mocked in every way and still--pig-headed and wrong-mindedas it may be--feels pretty good about itself.People outside and some people inside the South think this is justanother example of white, bigoted, Jesus-crazed Southerners runningroughshod over the rights of minorities. That's understandable becauseChristian preachers and church folk are leading the effort, and theyaren't real concerned about other religions.But many of the folks standing to pray, and ready to get into a fistfight over their right to do so, don't go to church much and think aboutGod just about as often as the rest of the country does, which is tosay, mainly when they're in some bad trouble. They don't have anythingagainst any other religion.They're standing to pray because it's proper. It is proper toacknowledge God in a traditional way when a crowd gets together. It isnot proper, it is unseemly even, to raise a ruckus about that. They'renot worried about affronting Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. Most of themprobably don't even know any Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. They're worriedabout affronting God, whom they do know--or oughta.
At least that's how many people in the South feel about it. From theirseat in the bleachers, it looks as if people who remember what's properand what's not are the minority, and somebody needs to stand up fortheir rights.It's hard for anybody outside the South to understand how "beingproper" is tied to Southern identity. It's such a quaint idea. ButSoutherners are generally conservative people. They like to keep to theold ways.The men in my family, most of whom wouldn't begin to know how to thumpa Bible, don't drink in front of their children because their daddiesand granddaddies didn't. They don't curse in front of women and willfall all over themselves opening doors for women for the same reason.They'll fight you for their right to do that, too. Those things definewho they are in the face of a society that's changing too fast andchampioning a lot of ideas that look dangerous to them.An Alabama judge has become a folk hero for posting the TenCommandments in his courtroom. I trust nobody thinks that's becausepeople in Alabama obey the Ten Commandments any more faithfully than therest of the country. Even Alabamans don't claim that.The judge is a hero because he's speaking out for people who feelvoiceless.Images of Southern racism and riots and policeman beating up civilright marchers are branded into the national brain. They define Southernculture and damn it as far as the rest of the country is concerned. Like any other despised minority, Southerners kick against being stereotyped and demeaned.
The kind of faith on display in the football prayer movement is their most well-publicized brand of religion--loud, often combative, and sometimes fiercely simple-minded. It is one of the fewways they can still be heard. I'm not saying the football prayer movement will be contained in theSouth. I bet it's going to spread at least to the Midwest and maybe the West. But the people who stand up and pray are going to be a lot likethe Southerners. They're folks who feel as though they have a pretty good handle on what's moral and right, and they're pretty darn tired ofhaving a culture they don't approve of dictate what they can do. The football prayer movement is about religion in much the same way that the conflict in Northern Ireland is about whether you're Protestant or Catholic. In the South and in Northern Ireland, religion runs deep. But the conflict is about something even deeper. It's about identity. Any time one culture tells another that it must give up the rituals and customs that define it, there's going to be a fight.In the streets. Or in the courts. Or in the bleachers.