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How Damar Hamlin Drove a Nation to Pray

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June of 2022, that a Bremerton, Wash., high-school football coach was improperly fired for praying with his players after games. That was only the most recent of high court cases involving the question of when prayer on public grounds is and isn’t permissible. Americans, especially American liberals, have been obsessed with the question for more than 60 years.

The idea that prayer is improper at big-time sporting events was forgotten one Monday night, (January 2, 2023). It happened nine minutes into the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. Bills safety Damar Hamlin, after a routine tackle, stood up and then collapsed. Minutes later, emergency medical staff delivered cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The game was suspended, and suddenly prayer was back on the list of things anybody could talk about or do on camera.

Paycor Stadium, where the Bengals play, is owned by Hamilton County; it’s public property. But no one, so far as I am aware, raised any objection to the midfield prayers offered up that Monday night. That is because the fall of Damar Hamlin demanded a religious response. The ominous way in which the lithe 24-year-old dropped to the turf—not slumping down but falling backward—visibly shocked nearby players and appalled viewers.

Any legal or cultural prohibitions attaching to sporting-event prayers were rescinded. Players knelt, many plainly in prayer. Commentators, rightly sensing the need to go beyond conventional references to “thoughts,” spoke repeatedly of “prayers.” A Bengals fan held up a hastily made placard bearing the words “Pray for Buffalo #3 Hamlin.” Fans from both teams gathered outside the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, to which Mr. Hamlin had been taken, and collectively prayed for the young man.

Suddenly prayer—the ancient activity of speaking to God in the belief that he can hear and respond—was everywhere. Top-level coaches and players, former and present, posted appeals to “Pray for Damar.” Former quarterback Dan Orlovsky, discussing the game with two panelists on ESPN, did the until-now unthinkable: He bowed his head and actually prayed—with two other commentators. The prayer concluded, each said “Amen,” and you felt they meant it.

There is something natural and beautiful in the desire to entreat God to aid a gravely injured man. News reports on Thursday (January 5, 2023) indicate that Mr. Hamlin, against every expectation, is cognizant and able to communicate. Not everyone is surprised.

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