by Jim Longworth

Misplaced invocations mock God

’Tis the holiday season, when many of us celebrate and reflect upon our spirituality and religious beliefs. Some folks believe that God is responsible for everything man does, and for every event that occurs. I do not. Instead I believe, as did Thomas Jefferson with his Deist bent, that God gives man the capacity to make his own successes and messes. But regardless of your interpretation, most of us agree that prayer to God is being cheapened these days due to frequently misplaced invocations of His name. As a nation we ask God to protect our currency, while Congress calls on Him to guide them through each legislative session. But does that mean God is responsible for our bad economy, or for the corruption and stupidity running rampant in politics? Our government asks God to be on our side when we go to war, and our athletes ask him to favor them when they suit up for important games. But does this mean God planned to invade the wrong country, and murder over a half-million people in the process? Does it mean that He wants half of the sports teams in the country to lose each week? And some of our preachers ask God to punish folks who are different from the majority of us whitebread, straight Americans. Does this mean He condoned slavery, and that He hates gays? Clearly, politicians, athletes and preachers all, at times, seem to invoke God’s name inappropriately, and they do so unashamedly. Let’s start with sports. The concept of mixing religion and athletics has always seemed to be the purview of Christians, even as those of other faiths rejected the practice. According to www.religionlink. org, ancient Jews, for example, shied away from making sports a faith-based activity because they wanted to separate themselves from the polytheistic cultures of the Greeks and Romans who invoked the support of a bevy of Gods to guide their athletic endeavors. By the 1800s, the marriage between sports and religion became more organized during the so called “muscular Christianity” movement, and it grew more popular throughout the next century, especially in America. Today, it is commonplace for a college football team to pray to God for a victory.

Notre Dame even has a monument named “Touchdown Jesus.” But holy invocations are not limited to students who attend religious institutions. Last year’s Heisman winner, Tim Tebow of the University of Florida, begins each post-game interview by attributing his accomplishments to “My Lord Jesus Christ.” Football isn’t the only sport where God is called on to save the day. Baseball players routinely genuflect before stepping into the batter’s box, and point to Heaven following home-run blasts. NASCAR events begin with a prayer, asking God to grant the drivers a safe race. The irony there is that many NASCAR fans show up just to see if any of those drivers will crash. And then there are the comments made by golfer Zach Johnson following his 2007 victory at the Masters. Johnson gave God the credit for his win, and added, “Regardless of what happened today, my responsibility was to glorify God.” Come on Zach, you were hitting a little white ball around, not doing missionary work in Darfur. These athletes seem to think that God has willed them to victory, and that He is responsible for their success. Such invocations cheapen the Almighty, and make it difficult to understand why He can’t deliver every time. For example, where was God when Dale Earnhardt crashed into a wall, or when Roberto Clemente died while delivering relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua? Where was God when Pete Rose gambled on his team, or when Roger Clemens injected illegal steroids? And is God also responsible for a record number of sports-related injuries and deaths this year? Athletes who use prayer for their own personal gain, therefore, put God in an untenable position. So, too, do Christian politicians and world leaders, who have justified their actions by hiding behind the Almighty. The great Crusades, for example, were nothing more than booty-plundering of Islamic nations by Christians, all in the name of God. Similarly, over 700 years later, following the World Trade Center attack, President Bush invoked God’s name repeatedly in an effort to gain support to invade an Islamic nation which had nothing to do with those attacks. On Sept. 20, 2001, Bush told a joint session of Congress, “God is not neutral.” His position was buoyed by pals like John Ashcroft and Pat Robertson, the latter saying that “Islam is not a peaceful religion.” Yet, ironically, it is so-called Christian leaders who have been responsible for escalating violence by carrying Bibles in one hand, and guns in the other. Andwhile invoking God’s name to win a football game or a war is wrong onso many levels, I am almost equally offended by those who pretend tospeak for God in matters of social conscious. The website www.OsDir.comquotes Rev. Robertson as having said that the “widespread practice ofhomosexuality will bring about terrorists bombs, earthquakes, tornados,and, possibly, a meteor.” It is that kind of sick rhetoric thatcontinues to divide our nation and fuel prejudice. It’s no wonder thatperpetrators of hate crimes often believe they are doing God’s workagainst people who don’t look or act like “the rest of us.” For a whileit looked like American Christians were making progress in thetolerance department. Early colonists had routinely burned witches, butfollowing our victory in the war against Great Britain, theirdescendants affected a decline in prosecutions of citizens forviolations of purely moral character (www. Butthanks to men like Pat Robertson, our country is moving backwards on anumber of cultural issues, and veers dangerously close to a return towitch burnings of a different kind.

ForChristians, this is a time to celebrate the birth of a peaceful,compassionate and tolerant man. A man who never invoked his spiritualFather’s name for trivial pursuits, or to justify violence, or tocondone prejudice. And just for the record, Jesus also neverprofited from invoking God’s name. That practice was started in earnestby the Roman Catholic Church, which frightened their followers intotithing or else facing the prospect of not entering Heaven. And thatpay-for-pray practice continues today with televangelists andmotivational religious speakers who collect millions of dollars bypromising their donors better lives, and even increased wealth. Prayercan be a wonderful thing, especially selfless prayers of intercessionfor others. In fact, nothing could be more privately noble than callingupon God to help those less fortunate. But misplaced prayer andinappropriate use of God’s name is far from noble. So perhaps,then, an appropriate News Year’s resolution would be for all of us tobe more judicious with our divine invocations, and to reject theinfluences of those who aren’t. It is a bold wish to be sure, but onewhich I hope is not made in vain.

JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).