Videos of Tennessee Baptist pastor Joe Nelm's pre NASCAR race prayer, laced with product promotions and references to his "smoking hot wife" have spread like wildfire, not only on YouTube, but on local TV stations and major cable shows across the country.
Drivers with their heads bowed, presumably to ask for divine protection before they jump into their cars to risk their necks on the track, were shown giggling as Nelms thanked God for the "Dodges and Toyotas," for " Sunoco Racing Fuel and Goodyear Tires that bring performance and power to the track." Snickering turned to outright laughter when he ended his prayer with a "In Jesus name, boogity boogity boogity, Amen."
Not since United Church of Christ minister Richard Bailar's prayer, delivered on a national telecast of a Cincinnati Bengals-Miami Dolphins Monday night football game in 1974, has a prayer stirred such a public reaction. Over the Dolphins stadium's public address system, Bailar asked God, "Father and Mother of us all," to protect his "gentle dophins" from the "voracious beasts of prey" and to "limit ... the obfuscations of [sportscaster Howard} Cosell acidulous tongue, so that he may describe this night truly and grammatically as it is..."
Bailar's attempt at humor brought scathing criticism from evangelicals across the country, many of whom described it as unadulterated blasphemy. But those with a different theological bend thought it was funny. The prayer was interrupted by a total of 26 seconds of applause by those attending the game; Bailar photo was pasted to the walls of bars; he was showered with phone calls and letters and asked for autographs. Many asked for copies of his prayer.
Nelms seems destined for the same fame. Bloggers have rushed to congratulate him, one commenting that "it is the best prayer he has ever heard." But those who view prayer as sacred business, an intimate conversation between sinners and their redemptive source, are unlikely to jump on the bandwagon. One needn't have a particular theological bend to see that using prayer as a bit of shtick or hijacking a public-prayer opportunity to deliver a bit of stand-up is crass and insensitive, if not profane. And some would remind the good pastor that the scripture around which he no doubt crafts his Sunday sermons, warns mightily against calling attention to yourself when you pray.
Bailar was philosophic about the apparent support he received after offering the prayer. He told reporters: "It says something about the sterility of religion and the idolatry of sports in America." In a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald, a writer called Balair's prayer "a mockery of prayer" and he wagered that "the invocation didn't make as dent in the mind of God." There was a time when I would have agreed with the writer but, after witnessing unrelenting "religion creep" in big time sports -- the infusion of a Wal-Mart theology shaped largely by the dictates of a money-grubbing sports establishment -- I've come round to thinking that such prayers seem to be perfect for the occasion.
Prayers inserted into a culture where the reigning ethos so often mocks the faith than gives them life have always been difficult to take seriously. "What," one is aching to ask Nelms, "was the purpose of the prayer?" Silly, irreverent and banal, it seemed a perfect accompaniment to the raucous, spiritually vacuous events transpiring at the race track that afternoon.
Watch Nelms' prayer: