The separation of church and sports

bible and baseballTo the sophisticated readers of the New York Times, this article acts as a warning: your Major League Baseball games could soon be infiltrated by religion! To others it raises the often-asked question of whether Christians in America will succumb to the “fine and potentially dangerous line” of mixing Jesus and marketing, as a friend said to me recently.

The NYT is more concerned with the former and fails to leave room for the latter. But that’s OK. The separation of church and sports is what immediately jumps out and most appropriately fits into this news story. The article is reasonably fair and sticks largely to reporting the facts, rather than interpreting and predicting. A more thorough and nuanced story is due at some point comparing this trend with the one brewing in Hollywood.

Here is how the story kicks off, at a minor-league indoor football game:

Before kickoff, a Christian band called Audio Adrenaline entertained the crowd. Promoters gave away thousands of Bibles and bobblehead dolls depicting biblical characters like Daniel, Noah and Moses. And when the home team, the Birmingham Steeldogs, took the field, they wore specially made jerseys with the book and number of [B]ible verses printed on the back.

Donnie Rhodes, a children’s minister at Gardendale’s First Baptist Church near Birmingham, took 47 sixth graders to the game by bus and said it was the perfect outing. “It was affordable, safe and spiritual,” he said. “And the kids just thought it was the coolest thing.”

Mr. Rhodes and his students were at the latest in ballpark promotions: Faith Nights, a spiritual twist on Frisbee Nights and Bat Days. While religious-themed sports promotions were once largely a Bible Belt phenomenon that entailed little more than ticket discounts for church and synagogue groups, Faith Nights feature bands, giveaways and revival-style testimonials from players. They have migrated from the Deep South to northern stadiums from Spokane, Wash., to Bridgewater, N.J.

This story is definitely worth telling, particularly the major-league angle. The smaller leagues are significant, but less so from a news perspective. Those organizations will do anything to sell tickets. Fireworks have long drawn a crowd at a baseball game, and if partnering with the local megachurch sells a thousand extra tickets, it wasn’t too hard for team executives to put the two together.

I doubt this will spread to the NFL — it has little trouble selling tickets — but NBA ticket sales have been struggling for years and everyone knows Major League Hockey could use a boost. I’ll be watching for local newspaper coverage or lack thereof.

The best part of the article came at the end, when writer Warren St. John showed a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the trend and quoted event promoter Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports:

While Faith Nights may be good for the box office and perhaps even the soul, there is one area where all that spirituality does not seem to have much effect: the scoreboard. On Faith Nights over the past two years, the Nashville Sounds have compiled a record of 15-17.

“On Faith Night, God cares a lot more about what’s happening in the stands than about what happens on the field,” Mr. High said.

With that, major-league teams should take note: bringing Christians to the stands does not put God on your side, at least according to the Times’ analysis.

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  • Rathje

    The NY Times reflects a common liberal framing of the issue of religion in the public sphere:

    Religion is taking over government – our freedom is in jeopardy!

    Sports are being infiltrated by Christians who seek to subvert it to their own diabolical ends!

    Nobody ever stops to consider that maybe it’s the other way around. Perhaps government poses a greater risk to religious integrity than religion poses toward government. Perhaps mixing sports and Christianity is more likely to damage Christianity than baseball.

    It always disgusts me when a football receiver runs in a touchdown and, with an ugly little smirk, points up “toward Heaven” as if God was a UCLA fan (or even just a fan of that particular receiver). So much for “blessed are the humble.”

    Sports is already practically the one true American religion. More people attend or watch Sunday sporting events than Sunday church services. More people memorize RBIs than catechisms.

    As heated as theological debates, abortion arguments, political discussions, and criticisms of society can become, those who participate in such debates are actually a minority in any representative cross-section of America (I should specify that the cross-section is predominantly male). A large portion of the population is actually rather apathetic on these topics. But you don’t hear from them in most debate forums, so they remain an unseen majority on the public stage.

    But start discussing the merits of the NCAA selection process for Bowl game teams ….

    Well, not only do five times more people in that cross-section have an opinion on it, but the debates are actually more heated, more personal, and more passionately felt than even the most controversial societal, political, and religious arguments.

    People actually riot over winning a sporting event. Nobody rioted in the USA over “The Da Vinci Code.”

    People spend more time on ESPN than they do with the Bible. People spend more money on season tickets than they put in the collection dish each year.

    The conclusion is hard to escape:

    Americans generally care more about professional and college sports than they do about God, Democracy, or just about anything else.

    The one true faith! And I think a lot of American men know it.

    The danger of mixing Christianity with sporting events, whether it be prayer before a football game, end-zone antics, or religious themed public relations campaigns – is that it will paint a false veneer of piety over what is essentially American idol-worshipping. It placates those who worry that they aren’t putting God first.

    A few religious-themed lapel buttons, an opening prayer, a few rah-rahs for Jesus, and you don’t have to feel bad about missing Sunday services anymore. Who knew being “a believer” could be so easy?

    Old Testament idolatry was always combined with a few select ceremonies handed down from Moses to give the proceedings a little more legitimacy with participants who still had some semblance of religious piety.

    No. Christianizing sports is merely one more aspect of the modern assault on religious belief by the forces of materialism and selfishness.

    Lighting a menorah under the Golden Calf doesn’t make you a monotheist.

    Saying a prayer before a sporting event doesn’t make you a Christian.

    The real threat isn’t that basketball teams will become a “fundamentalist fourth column.” It’s that religion will become just another fan accessory that plays second-fiddle to what the fan REALLY cares about.

  • bob koch

    I want a John the Baptist bobblehead….Or, does that come *with* a head…Maybe separate, with a platter?