For many of the 100,000-plus in attendance at Penn State's spacious Beaver Stadium that crisp November day, it was one of the most enduring images of the 2011 college football season: a pre-game gathering of uniformed players and coaches from both the Penn State and Nebraska teams in the center of the football field, kneeling and holding hands in prayer.
The storied Penn State football program was awash in a firestorm of scandalous news reports involving long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and allegations of child abuse. Legendary coach Joe Paterno had been fired just a few days before the game, and it seemed that the place known as Happy Valley was reeling with an emotional mix of anguish, angst and righteous indignation.
The unusual pre-game gathering of players and coaches, then, was simultaneously a demonstration of unified support for the victims of abuse and for the entire Penn State community, as well as a public display of faith in God during a time of trauma and distress.
"We knew we were going to go into a battle against each other because it was a big game for both teams," said Nebraska's running back coach Ron Brown, who led the two teams in that mid-field prayer. "But there was something bigger … There was a humility and a sincerity and a vulnerability as all the players took their hats off and knelt before God."
Such public displays of faith (or PDFs as they are referred to in the acronymic online world) are viewed with growing appreciation by some and growing skepticism by others in a world that seems to be constantly wrestling with the proper role of faith in the contemporary public square.
Public displays of faith can take many forms: from Los Angeles Ram quarterback Kurt Warner thanking Jesus for a Super Bowl victory during a post-game interview, to Pastor Joe Nelms thanking God for his "smokin' hot wife" while offering the pre-race prayer at a NASCAR event last year; from the crosses often worn by Christina Aquilera, Rihanna and Madonna, to Justin Bieber displaying a tattoo of Jesus on his left calf; from an evangelical Christian's WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet, to the CTR (Choose The Right) ring worn by many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; from the tallit (prayer shawl) and kippah (skull cap) worn by many Jews, to the hijab (headscarf) traditionally worn by Muslim women.
According to Rabbi Lazer Gurkow of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, Jews believe that the purpose of public displays of faith is not merely to draw attention, but to "affirm our faith in our own minds."
"To display your faith in public requires absolute belief and commitment," Rabbi Gurkow said. "Pushing back against intimidation and standing tall for Jewish pride (is the) antidote to the malaise that is eroding the integrity, observance and faith of American Jewry."
Rabbi Gurkow referred to the Jewish festival of Sukkot, during which "Jews walk the street with 'lulav' (palm fronds) in hand" which "we carry with pride."
"Sukkot is an outdoor holiday," the Rabbi said, "a time to affirm our belief in God and declare that we are not ashamed, that we are comfortable with our faith indoors and out."
Similarly, Christians often cite the New Testament Apostle Paul's proclamation that "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ" (Romans 1:16) as an explanation for their public displays of faith. In fact, New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow — considered by many to be the PDF poster boy — had the scripture reference "Romans 1:16" inscribed in his eye black during a game against Florida International University while he was still playing at the University of Florida.
Tebow's unashamed Christianity is well-documented, and includes his own verb: Tebowing, which means to bend to one knee and assume the attitude of prayer, a PDF Tebow regularly employs during the course of a football game.