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Below-average Joe: A journey from mediocre coach to exceptional Christian grifter

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The promotional image from the movie average joe. It features a man kneeling on a football field with the supreme court behind him

The teaser trailer for “Average Joe,” a Christian propaganda film about “Coach” Joe Kennedy, dropped recently. Not only does the documentary look as unwatchable as the “God’s Not Dead” movies (from the same producers), it dramatizes the deceptive narrative that Kennedy and his lawyers were able to launder to the Supreme Court, causing untold damage to the separation between state and church.

“Average Joe” presents itself as a heartwarming tribute to Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach whose journey supposedly encapsulates the struggle for religious freedom in contemporary America. Yet, beneath its glossy “God’s Not Dead”-style manipulative production lies a web of deceit, carefully woven to advance a specific Christian ideological agenda. The trailer opens with a montage of Joe doing push-ups and a voiceover explaining he’s been “fighting [his] whole life.” Apparently, the largest battle that Kennedy has fought has been pushing his religion onto public school students, even though he served in the Marines overseas and reportedly saw some active combat: “If you told me saying a prayer on the 50-yard line was the thing was going to get me in the biggest fight of my life, you cannot tell me that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.” Hysterical.

The real story isn’t nearly as exciting as it is portrayed in the trailer. Kennedy worked as a part-time assistant football coach in Bremerton, Wash. During his seven years there, the team only had one winning season. He often prayed before and after football games, at first silently by himself and then with students. After the school district learned he was leading students in prayer, officials conducted an inquiry and, fearing litigation, asked him to hold private prayers instead.

Instead of respecting the rights of his players, Kennedy openly admitted on local and national media that he intended to defy the district’s instructions not to publicly pray with his players while still on duty. He prayed out loud in the middle of the football field immediately after the conclusion of the first game after his lawyer sent a letter to the district. He was surrounded by players, members of the opposing team, parents, a local politician and members of the news media. Kennedy built up so much hype for his defiant prayer that his supporters even recklessly rushed the field as soon as the game ended, knocking over students along the way.

After this escalation, the district put Kennedy on paid administrative leave, and the head coach recommended that he not be rehired next season because of the disruptions he had caused. Kennedy chose not to reapply for his job, instead opting to sue the school district — framing his case as one of a humble football coach whose quiet prayers were silenced by a hostile school district. Kennedy’s version of events was a powerful and irresistible narrative for legal conservatives. Secular school administrators punishing a pious high school football coach for quietly praying after a game is powerful imagery.

But the actual case was built on a shaky foundation: Kennedy and his lawyers, led by the Christian nationalist First Liberty Institute, alleged that the school district instructed him to stop praying on the field after football games, and fired him when he refused. These prayers, they said, were hushed, personal expressions of faith that players were free to join or ignore. In truth, the prayers were a spectacle. Kennedy would gather students around him in a large circle, lift a helmet, and lead them in overtly sectarian prayer; non-Christian players felt coerced into joining, assuming (quite reasonably) that their coach would show favoritism toward those who participated.

A majority of justices on the court unfortunately bought the story spun by Kennedy, who falsely claimed that his prayers on the 50-yard line after high school football games were “personal” and “private” despite his clear intent to involve students and other game attendees in the prayers. In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court found that Kennedy’s prayers were protected by the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and free exercise. To reach this conclusion, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion rewrote the facts, depicting Kennedy’s prayers as fleeting, muted and unobtrusive. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent repudiated this lie with pictures of the sprawling prayer circles, which Gorsuch disregarded. He instead embraced what one lower court judge decried as “the siren song of a deceitful narrative of this case spun by counsel.” Gorsuch described the saga in the opening paragraph of his majority opinion in almost unrecognizable terms — unrecognizable unless your understanding of the case’s facts comes entirely from Kennedy’s own briefs. Hopefully, Gorsuch receives a writing credit in the film, as he has certainly earned one.

It seems that the film, like the conservatives on the Supreme Court, will paint Kennedy as a victim of religious intolerance. It will manipulate viewers into sympathizing with his cause, blurring the lines between genuine religious expression and the imposition of beliefs on others. This distortion not only misrepresents the facts but also undermines the delicate balance between religious freedom and the separation of state and church — a cornerstone of American democracy. The film portrays those advocating for the religious liberty of students as villains, demonizing their efforts to uphold constitutional principles as an attack on faith itself. In doing so, the film stokes fear and resentment, further polarizing our already fractured nation.

Ultimately, “Average Joe” is not merely a pro-Christian film like “God’s Not Dead” and its ilk; it is a propaganda tool masquerading as entertainment. By distorting the facts and peddling a one-sided narrative, it seeks to advance a specific ideological agenda at the expense of truth and integrity.

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