COMMENTARY: Robertson's Texas Invocation Begs Long-Overdue Religeous Debate

Make no mistake about it, Phil Robertson is a controversy magnet. 

Family patriarch, self-made millionaire and star of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” reality TV program, Robertson is known for his outspoken religious and political views; views he is happy to share, regardless of venue. Saturday night, his venue was Texas Motor Speedway; site of the “Duck Commander 500” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, where Robertson – founder of the race sponsor – was called upon to deliver the pre-race invocation. 

With head bowed, Robertson began his pre-race prayer by declaring, “We got here via bibles and guns. I’m fixin’ to pray to the one who made that possible.” 

Que the nervous squirming on pit road. 

After briefly praising the United States military, he transitioned to the political arena, saying, “I pray, Father, that we put a Jesus-man in the White House. Help us do that and help us all to repent, to do what is right, to love you more and to love each other. In the name of Jesus I pray, amen.” 

The Robertson family has traditionally been outspoken in its support of Republican candidates. This election season, Phil Robertson has endorsed Texas senator Ted Cruz. Son Willie, the CEO of Duck Commander, is backing Donald Trump. Just weeks after NASCAR Chairman Brian France, Hall Of Fame driver Bill Elliott and current stars Ryan Newman, David Ragan and Chase Elliott publically endorsed Trump, Robertson’s comments served to rekindle the still-smoldering debate over whether NASCAR – or any other professional sport – should espouse specific political and religious views. 

The breathless headlines quickly followed: 

“Bizarre Video: `Bibles & Guns!’ Phil Robertson Delivers Controversial Prayer at NASCAR Race.” 

“NASCAR Invocation Features Prayer To Elect Republican President.” 

“’Duck Dynasty’ Star May Ruffle More Than A Few Feathers This Time.” 

This, despite the fact that nowhere in his invocation did Robertson use the words Republican, Democrat or Independent. 

Whether or not you agree with Robertson’s political and religious views, his comments Saturday reinforced long-held stereotypes of NASCAR as a staunchly conservative southern sport. They also raised important questions about the atmosphere of inclusion our sport endeavors to espouse. For in an era when NASCAR advocates inclusion, the sanctioning body continues to play favorites on the religious front. 

Before we go any further, a brief disclaimer is in order. 

I am not a deeply religious person. Much to the chagrin of my dearly departed grandmother – a devout, God-fearing woman who would have climbed from her death bed to attend Sunday morning services – my church attendance is strictly limited to weddings and funerals. My biblical knowledge begins and ends with generic, “do unto others” platitudes, and while I absolutely believe in a higher power, I’m not sure I can identify him (or her) by name. 

While admittedly not a “religion guy,” I do have some specific thoughts on the role of religion in our sport; thoughts that will almost certainly damn me to hell in the minds of some. I’m OK with that, since the decision on how and where I spend eternity is in hands of that aforementioned higher power, and not the readers of GodfatherMotorsports.com.  

NASCAR is one of the few major professional sports that allows pre-race prayers at events. That is an admirable stance, in my view; one that would be even more laudable if the “singing and praying” were inclusive, rather than exclusive. Currently, the sport’s weekly, pre-race invocations are conducted almost exclusively by Christian clergy, with a heavy emphasis on resurrection, the cross and – in Robertson’s words – “the name of Jesus.” Try to recall the last time a pre-race prayer was delivered by a rabbi, rather than a pastor. Try to recall the last time the prayer was non-denominational, instead of ecumenical. 

Odds are, you’ll be thinking for a while. 

One wonders how Jewish, Hindu, Islamic or Buddist fans feel in the midst of NASCAR’s weekly, Christian-based pre-race prayer, not to mention those who happen to be agnostic or atheist. How must they feel when their favorite sport hands the microphone – week after week – to a series of “Jesus-men,” at the exclusion of all others? 

Lots of words come to mind. “Welcome,” however, is not one of them. 

Prayer has a long history in NASCAR, pre-dating the foundation of the sanctioning body in 1949. In an era when religion has been banished from our schools and public forums, NASCAR stands with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder as the only major sporting franchises willing to give thanks to a higher power before putting the ball in play.  

As a privately owned business, NASCAR is entitled to address its pre-race prayers to whatever deity it chooses. What’s legal, however, is not necessarily what’s right. Our nation’s courts ruled decades ago that prayer is only permissible at publically funded universities if it does not endorse a specific religion.  

Perhaps it is time for NASCAR to begin walking a similar path, taking a page from the Panthers, who require their pre-race invocationsto be “ecumenical in nature,” embracing all beliefs while favoring none. By praying to a higher power without defining that deity by name, we enable fans to celebrate their religious beliefs together, without sending the message that one religion is better than others.  

Recently, in an attempt to become more welcoming to people of color, NASCAR parted with longstanding tradition by discouraging the use of Confederate flags on speedway property. That decision was justified on racial grounds, just as the elimination of specific, denominational prayers is justified on religious grounds. 

Tradition does not justify exclusion, and NASCAR can do better in this regard. In fact, it is high time for us to do so.  

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage defended Robertson’s comments Saturday, saying the Duck Dynasty star “said what he felt and believed. There are a lot of people that agree with him and a lot that disagree with him. Nowadays, you cannot say what you think because of political correctness. So, I guess everyone has a right to free speech. Or nobody does. 

“What do you do?” asked Gossage. “We’re supposed to be tolerant of all.” 

Tolerance is indeed a worthy goal. It is achievable, however, only through the willingness to honor all points of view, not just those with which we agree.  

Robertson is absolutely entitled to his personal beliefs. One wonders why the former Louisiana Tech football star eschewed a heartfelt statement of thanks to a higher power in favor of a recruitment speech for Team Jesus, but that’s Robertson’s call, not mine.
 
Texas Motor Speedway officials stretched the boundaries of believability, however, by claiming to be surprised by Robertson’s words. When you book Phil Robertson to deliver a pre-race prayer, you know what you’re in for. 

Hellfire, brimstone, guns and bibles… with a side order of alienation. 

Urging people to “do what is right… and love each other” is admirable on all fronts. The balance of Robertson’s “bibles and guns” rhetoric, however, was clearly (and perhaps intentionally) alienating to those of conflicting faiths. To non-Christians, Saturday night’s invocation was akin to saying, “My God is the only acceptable God, and if you don’t believe as I do, you are not welcome here.” Those words are perfectly acceptable for a Sunday morning church service filled with like-minded believers. They were ill-suited, however, for a speedway filled with wildly diverse race fans, not to mention a worldwide television audience. 

It’s not about whether or not you agree with Phil Robertson. Plenty of people do, and plenty do not. It’s also not about whether you think we need a Jesus-man in the White House. It’s about welcoming everyone — people of all races, genders, religions and political beliefs – to our sport. Disenfranchising large numbers of current and potential fans by praying publically to one (and only one) God makes as little sense as alienating others by flying the Confederate flag.  

It is short-sighted in the extreme, and its time is long passed. 

NASCAR has made important, meaningful strides toward inclusiveness in recent years. Robertson’s comments Saturday night did the sport a favor, by stimulating discussion on yet another critical issue. 

Let’s make the most of the opportunity.

 

 

 
 
 
 

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