Interview with Tom Krattenmaker, Author of Onward Christian Athletes

Tom Krattenmaker has been following the trend of religion in sports for a long while now, and he’s written a book about the subject: Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers.

(To my surprise, it’s not just a biography of Tim Tebow.)

A lot of you had questions for Krattenmaker — I had several myself — and he kindly answered them all in this interview:

The obvious question: Why do athletes thank god when they win but never seem to mention god when they lose? (Is there any instance that comes to mind of an athlete mentioning god in a loss?)

Well, you’re right, Hemant. Rarely does a Christian athlete make a religious gesture or talk about God after a loss or a bad play. I spend a whole chapter discussing this in Onward Christian Athletes — this tricky relationship between on-field success and expressions of faith. As I’ve been saying in interviews with Christian media outlets, the faith expression would have a lot more credibility, and be a lot more in sync with the Bible, if athletes did it in moments of failure and defeat, too. Now, I understand that many secularists are not looking to see even more faith in the game, but you have to admit that this kind of consistency would decrease the silliness quotient when it comes to Christianity in sports. Quit acting like religious faith is primarily about winning games and getting ahead in life!

You ask “why?” Part of it has to do with gratitude. It’s natural for an Evangelical athlete to give credit to God for everything, so when something good happens in their athletic career, they’re bound to praise God. It also has to do with evangelism, which is a big part of why religion has become such a conspicuous part of the game. The idea is that God put these athletes in positions of success and influence so that they could share the gospel with the masses. Usually it’s the winning player who gets the post-game spotlight, so the stage is set for the faith testimonial.

I have seen a few exceptions to the rule in recent months, such as Colt McCoy of the University of Texas invoking God following his team’s loss in the college football national championship game back in January.

(Hemant adds: McCoy said the following after an early injury kept him out of most of the BCS Championship game:)

“I’ve given college football the best I’ve had for the last four years,” McCoy said. “Every player’s dream is to play on a stage like that and have an opportunity like that. I could have never imagined this would happen. I’ll never question God. I’m a man of faith. I’ve never questioned why. But, yes, I’m truly disappointed because I would have made a huge difference.”

Working off that same question, let’s say a Christian athlete loses a game… why don’t reporters ever ask him why God wasn’t on his side that time? Why don’t they call Christian athletes out on it when they lose? When is a reporter going to ask, “Why do you deserve to win more than the Christian on the other team?” (In case you can’t tell, this one really frustrates me…)

Wouldn’t it be awesome if a reporter asked something like that? The fact is, the interviewers normally ignore the God comments and rarely if ever ask follow-up questions probing the athletes’ beliefs. One reason I felt compelled to write the book is that these questions have been hanging out there unanswered for many, many years. There has been way too little critical thinking and analysis about what’s happening where religion and sports intersect. I think your frustration is shared by lots and lots of people — even some deep-thinking Christians, as I discovered in my journeys for the book. But for the most part, sports-loving Evangelicals are proud of these athletes for representing the faith and they seem disinclined to question the theological validity of their statements.

Do certain sports have a higher percentage of openly Christian athletes?

My book focuses on the big-three pro sports of baseball, basketball, and football, and those three are pretty similar in terms of ministry operations, athletes’ conceptions of their faith and careers, and so forth. There’s less pointing to God in basketball, but that’s because the rhythm and flow of the game don’t provide those same sky-pointing moments. You’ve probably noticed that hockey has a lot less religious expression and, from what I know, a much smaller Christian presence in locker rooms. I think that has a lot to do with how few Americans play in the NHL. As you know, popular evangelicalism flourishes in the U.S. like in few other countries, and pro hockey is dominated by Canadians and Europeans.

Do secular countries tend to do any better or worse than very-religious ones in international events (like the World Cup)?

I don’t think there’s any evidence of a correlation between religiosity and success, despite the hype you hear from Christian media outlets from time to time when a team with a lot of conspicuous Christianity is on a roll. Case in point: The 2007 Detroit Lions, who started out 6-2 amid a slew of stories about the mass Christian conversions, robust Bible-study participation, and so forth. Well, you know what happened next. The Lions went 1-7 over the second half of that season, and that was just a prelude to the horrible 0-16 season that followed. What an embarrassment for those who would use sports victories as proof of religion’s validity!

Do these athletes really believe God cares more about their performances in the games than, say, *real* problems in the world?

Yes, some do, and that tells you something about the serious lack of perspective that we often see on display in popular expressions of Christianity in our culture. To be fair, I think you’ll find that evangelical Christians see God’s hand in everything, big and small, so this is bound to carry over into sports. But it fails to grasp the obvious truth that sports should not have the cosmic significance we sometimes give them. After all, these are just games!

I have to say, Hemant, that Christians aren’t the only ones who have lost perspective on sports. It seems to me that society in general has gotten carried away. Here we have all these beautiful new stadiums and arenas opening up across the country — often on the taxpayer dime — and all this attention on sports, while infrastructure deteriorates and huge social problems go neglected. What is up with that?

Are their any current Muslim or atheist athletes who make their beliefs known in the context of their sport?

No one with a high profile who immediately comes to mind for me. Hakeem Olajuwon from pro basketball was known for his Muslim faith and practices, not to mention his extraordinary basketball ability, and he was a very positive face of Islam in pro sports. Now that he’s retired, there really aren’t any super-star Muslim players in basketball, football, or baseball.

Same story when it comes to atheists. I think you’ll find that they generally keep quiet and try to avoid rocking the boat. Robert Smith — a great running back with the Vikings back in the ‘90s — made his atheism known, but you’ll find few examples of this.

Why don’t Christian football players follow the 4th Commandment and “Keep the Sabbath Day Holy”?

Well, you’re clearly onto something with that question, Hemant. The fact is that popular Christianity has latched onto sports with great enthusiasm, and in so doing, it has been strongly influenced by sports thinking. If anything, sports has influenced popular Christianity more than vice-versa, and that’s why no one worries too much about keeping the Sabbath. Or, for that matter, about the violence we see in sports, and other deeply irreligious aspects of big-time sports.

Do professional coaches ever lead prayers before games? If so, is that legal?

Sure. I have a video clip I use in my presentations of none other than Phil Jackson of the Lakers having his team say the Lord’s Prayer after a game. This is fairly common in pro and big-time college sports. I doubt it’s legal if we’re talking about a public university. When it comes to a pro sports team –- essentially a private enterprise using a public facility -– the question is more complicated. What I do know is that it’s high time we start asking these questions and holding sports accountable to the public when it comes to religious practices. Nothing against the religious athletes and their faith — I affirm the right of anyone to practice and express their faith — but pro teams have a responsibility to the religiously diverse communities that support these franchises.

Many sports teams have their own chaplains. Are these privately funded?

As far as I’m aware, every team in pro basketball, football, and baseball has a Christian chaplain embedded with it. They’re generally there to provide religious counseling and support, but also to evangelize and, in many cases, to enlist convert players in the cause of evangelism. The chaplains I’m aware of are volunteers or staff members from groups like Athletes in Action. So, no, there’s no public money involved, and the team generally does not pay them.

We often hear about athletes who commit felonies and use steroids… are these athletes any more or less religious than their secular counterparts?

I do believe that the Christian presence in sports helps provide a positive moral influence, at least at the level of individual morality, and many of the Christian athletes are good men and good citizens. That said, some of the notorious performance-enhancing-drug cheaters are Christians. One would be Andy Pettitte of the Yankees, whose public profile is very positive and who seems to be an upstanding guy in most ways. Yet he was busted for using a banned substance, and he was less than contrite and forthcoming when he tried to explain it publicly. I guess the most notorious example of this kind of thing was Eugene Robinson, who played for the Falcons a decade ago. Right after winning an award from the Christian group Athletes in Action for his high moral character, he was busted for soliciting a prostitute — on the eve of playing in the Super Bowl, no less!

How do you think atheists should react to these outward displays of religion in sports? Should we be angry? Should we just get over it?

My suggestion would be to understand that these outward displays are the tip of the iceberg — and to examine what’s happening beneath the surface of the water. Why, for example, is the public resource known as “our team” — playing in a publicly financed stadium — being used as a vehicle for the promotion of an exclusive form of Christianity that is not in sync with the religious diversity we have in our communities, and not in sync with the pluralism that we value in America?

Are athletes becoming more open about their faith outside the sport? (I’m thinking of things like Tim Tebow and his mom doing a Super Bowl ad for Focus on the Family)

I’m not sure this is more frequent now. Since the start of this faith-in-sports movement post World War II, we’ve always had Evangelical athletes venturing into political waters. When they do take on public issues, they typically line up with the positions and views of the Christian right. This is no great surprise, given what we know about the strong alignment between evangelicalism and conservative politics in our time. I’m not saying Christians should always be liberals. But I would say something is amiss — that an incomplete Christianity is on display — when it always veers right on political matters. The landscape is changing in this regard as more young evangelicals break out of the old formation and take on so-called liberal issues like climate change and immigration reform. Will sport-world Christianity reflect this change? I hope so. We shall see.

Why does God hate every team I seem to bet on?

Because you’re an atheist, Hemant! Your teams are never going to do well until you finally accept the Lord. So get on that, OK?

Remind me to find religion before I go to Vegas next month.

If you have any follow-up questions, please leave them in the comments!

Tom Krattenmaker goes into much more depth about these questions and others in his book Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers. Go get it!

  • littlejohn

    Why does god love the Yankees and Red Sox so much? Does god bet on them? Who’s his bookie?

  • AJPIII

    Insightful interview, thank you! The psychology of faith based thinking in sports extends to the guts of how pervasive religion is in general. Consider the effort in many “xtian” denominations to be evangelical and ecclesiastic, knocking on doors, spreading or witnessing the gospel, sending missionaries to far off lands usurping the way of living for many indigenous peoples with “technologies” of their socialization technique. Ultimately giving praise to the inedible spaghetti monster, “sky daddy” is not a very effective way to inspire conversion. I have never met anyone who says they found religion, faith or jesus after an outstanding catch, tackle, or hit! If anything the tendency to do so is a tell of the mechanism of faith based thinking in that it reveals the technique of self reinforcement of ones faith; as in here is a reason to believe, I praise god for my win and so should you and this is how I know he exists; don’t you? It is a very susceptible moment for faith based thinking in excepting accolades since ones self identity is trapped in a mass hallucination, it becomes necessary to cast “success” away from oneself just as it is necessary to embrace failure; solely for oneself, in a classic faith based masochistic measure. This is the mindset of religion in general to accept ones suffering as ones lot in life with no complaint. This is how one rules whole populations without a standing army, with the manipulation of guilt, will, pleasure and power translating law into “sin” are earmarks in the same processes as religion seeks to find a place in the modern world. Evangelical sporting is religion once again seeking and obtaining a venue to hawk its wares but this time we can haggle openly. Perhaps an equal response from a coalition of non-theistic sports enthusiasts praising the “spaghetti monster” for the event as mockery may be an effective tool for initiating self examination. In my humble but clearly irreverent opinion.

  • Trace

    Candid answers. Enjoyed the honesty.

    “I think you’ll find that they generally keep quiet and try to avoid rocking the boat”

    Why would you say that is? How can Christian athletes help change this situation? Oh, wait….

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com Veritas

    I knew I was right to be a hockey fan.

  • lurker111

    I remember a baseball story about a hitter who would cross himself right after entering the batter’s box. The catcher, tired of this bit of sanctimony, reportedly said, “Why don’t you just let God enjoy the game?”

    This sounds like a Berraism, but I haven’t been able to find it in Google. It might also be a Garagiola story. Can’t think of who else it might be.

  • Neon Genesis

    I’d love for the interviewers to ask these athletes if it counts as cheating to have God intervene in the game to make them win instead of winning with their own abilities. And must there be chaplains for everything? If there’s chaplains for sports, are there chaplains for chaplains?

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    That last question was hilarious.

  • Shannon

    Very interesting! I might check that out. Thanks for the interview :-)

  • Sobex

    I didn’t realize Robert Smith was an atheist. Of course, being an atheist does not necessarily correlate with being rational or skeptical, but perhaps it sheds light on why he left football at a rather young age and still in his prime.

    Here’s his Wikipedia link:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Smith_%28American_football%29

    He left to pursue a career in medicine and is an amateur astronomer. Very cool!

  • Alex

    Does Tom get into the issues of religion in youth sports? I don’t really care that much about the rich pros except for the examples they giving our kids, but what are these religious organizations teaching our kids? Instead of taking a lap for a missed block you need to pray harder too? High school football is like the crusades in the south.

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  • Sev

    Thanks for posting the interview. It’s good to see someone finally addressing this kind of thing in sports.

    In general, this kind of religious behavior seems symptomatic of a wider trend in our society. Almost everywhere I look, I see religious people expecting God to intervene to micromanage the minutiae of their lives, seemingly oblivious to the suffering and predicaments of other people. Jesus wants you to be rich, material success is a sign of God’s endorsement, etc.

    A relative of mine in a 12-step program often relates stories told by group members. Common themes are that surviving a horrific accident means “God has a special plan” for you. Meeting someone new means “God put that person into your life to teach you” some virtue or other. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness of the selfish and disgusting nature of these statements.

    I find religion in general to be distasteful, but I reserve a special level of disdain for this particularly shallow, self-centered, and vicious form of it.

  • http://www.cstdbill.com/ Bill

    Yadier Molina kisses his magic necklace when he steps up to bat. If that helps him clear his mind, I’m all for it. 8-)

    –Bill in St. Louis

  • flawedprefect

    LOL! It seems another part of evangelizing is to mention that book you just wrote answering that very question.

    Good line of questioning. You actually got him to admit that there is no evidence between religiosity and success.

  • jose

    I was hoping God would really help certain athletes while leaving others on their own, so we could put him in the list of performance-enhancing drugs and thus ban him from sports.

  • Hughes

    The Pakistan cricket team, one of the world’s best, has become increasingly religious (Islamic) in the past decade. Their star player, Mohammed Yousuf, converted from Christianity around this time. This would be an interesting foreign example for the author to look into.

  • Aj

    I do believe that the Christian presence in sports helps provide a positive moral influence, at least at the level of individual morality…

    I guess that has to be taken on faith.

  • Dan W

    So football players tend to be more religions, and hockey players aren’t often so religious. Now I’m wondering: are soccer players more likely to be religious or non-religious?

  • http://capiteterram.blogspot.com/ Martin The Mess

    Heh. Robert Smith of the Vikings was also the first-ever Guest Star on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

  • ManaCostly

    “Here we have all these beautiful new stadiums and arenas opening up across the country — often on the taxpayer dime — and all this attention on sports, while infrastructure deteriorates and huge social problems go neglected. What is up with that?”

    Reminds me of ancient Rome, keep the common people disctracted with big buildings and games.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    Great interview, but a more important question, I think, is whether religious athletes who publicly thank God for their win should be disqualified on the same basis we disqualify athletes who try to gain an unfair advantage over others through the use of performance enhancement drugs. Isn’t a sports competition supposed to be about people, and not about whose god can provide a more spectacular power-up?


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