In a recent editorial at Religion News Service, Michael Medved argues for religious acceptance of the public prayer-gestures offered by religious athletes such as Tim Tebow [See Medved's article here]. With standard over-hyped rhetorical flourish, Medved calls current religious attitudes a "war" on Christian athletes. He cites a rabbi who rejects the public religious displays as evidence of a larger cultural rejection (when I imagine that if we ran the numbers, most Americans actually applaud such behavior). Then Medved talks about how Johann Sebastian Bach wrote "SDG" on all his compositions (short for Soli Dei Gloria, or "Glory to God alone"). And if Bach wrote SDG privately on his compositions, so the logic goes, it certainly must be laudable for Tebow to kneel in prayer in front of millions.
I think the profound discomfort with Tebowish "PDRAs" (Public Displays of Religious Affection) is that they are somehow manipulative and dangerously close to rejecting Jesus' own teachings. First, regarding manipulation: It is easy to cast PDRAs, done before millions of spectators, as an effort to manipulate God into giving one favor or success. It can appear as if the athlete is trying to strike a deal with God: "Look, I will make you famous if you make me famous". This may be unfair, or it may be right in the money, or somewhere in between. But it certainly looks like PDRAs are done to get God on one's side in a public way.
And, in a culture that politicizes God constantly, and invokes God's name to sanctify public policy, cultural privilege, and personal prejudice, it is easy to lump PDRAs in with such manipulative God talk.
I hope all of this is a wrong read of the PDRA phenomenon, but I fear it is at least partially right. And I do think the mass spectacle of the modern PDRA is qualitatively different from Bach quietly initialing SDG on his compositions. This brings me to my second point: The PDRA seems to reject Jesus' own advice from the Sermon on the Mount (and other places):
Matt. 6:5-6 And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Granted, Jesus prayed publicly, as did Paul and the Apostles. And there are places in the Christian liturgical life for corporate prayer, from the celebration of sacraments to mealtime prayer. So, Jesus' instructions on private prayer must be balanced with our communal need for corporate prayer. The question is, does the PDRA serve a communally felt liturgical need, or is it merely a public expression of private feelings? If it is the former, we need to find a way to sanctify and solemnize it so it is not treated with disdain. If it is the latter, perhaps the PDRA is simply TMI.