God is Amazing: Revisiting Religion and the NFL

God is Amazing: Revisiting Religion and the NFL February 3, 2013

As a group, we at NonProphet Status aren’t the most engaged in football. But even though I’m more excited for Beyonce’s half-time show than the actual game (I’m expecting something like this), the Super Bowl, and football more generally, has huge cultural currency in the United States. Unsurprisingly, there are some really interesting ways that religion is involved. Marcus Mann was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with us for this special occasion:

In the spirit of the Super Bowl—America’s annual holiday of television, violence and cheese—I’d like to take a moment to resurrect a topic that has been dormant lately except for a few hesitant whispers.

It wasn’t long ago that every angle of the religion-sports dyad was torn open, discussed, debated, and reported ad nauseum as the born-again, media savvy phenom Tim Tebow rushed and passed his way into the NFL playoffs and Americans’ hearts. His star has faded, though, and so has that hope of many an American that maybe, just maybe, there was actually some transcendent power guiding Tim Tebow and his oft-critiqued throwing motion toward greatness.

The topic of God and sports has died down since 2011. But after the Baltimore Ravens dispatched my beloved New England Patriots in this year’s AFC Championship game, I found myself wondering again about the various intersections of our country’s two favorite modes of collective worship.

After the final whistle had blown in that fateful game, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who will be retiring after seventeen years in the NFL and is a sure first ballot hall of famer, put on one of the most elaborate displays of triumphal piety I have ever seen in professional sports. Tearful and jubilant praise to God was interrupted intermittently for a series of scripturally infused post-game interviews and a few moments of prostration on the grass of the football field under the flashing lights of encircled photographers.

This kind of religious effervescence was also on display during Lewis’s post-game ritual dance in the middle of the field after winning his last home game in Baltimore; a dance that he performed before games throughout his career. Fans of French sociologist Emile Durkheim might imagine him, if he were alive today, blogging the GIF of that last dance, the Raven streaking along Ray Lewis’s helmet in all its totemic glory as the crowd cheered him on, with the heading, “OMFG, is everyone getting this?!” Or perhaps he could just embed another GIF under it of someone dropping a mic.

Before defeating the Patriots, Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens had to take care of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos first at Mile High Stadium in Colorado; a game in which, like with the Patriots, the Ravens were unanimous underdogs. In what was either a moment of serendipity or a stroke of cinematic artistry, CBS panned their camera to the image of a vanquished Peyton Manning trotting off the field, accompanied by the sound of Ray Lewis attributing his team’s victory to the will of God in a post-game interview.

As Peyton Manning jogged into his offseason, it was hard not to conclude, by Lewis’s logic, that God had evidently not chosen him.

My point though isn’t to note the logical inconsistencies when Lewis shouts, “God is amazing,” after winning football games, or to otherwise critique Lewis’s religious enthusiasm. Many have already pointed to the innumerable members of the human race who have never won their own personal equivalent to an AFC Championship game, let alone had access to enough food to have a chance at any kind of personal success at all.

Instead, I wonder what it is about Lewis that has largely excused his piety from the scrutiny of the American culture wars while Tim Tebow’s faith engendered immediate controversy.

Of course, one can immediately consider the issue of race and by extension how white Evangelicalism and black conservative Protestantism are treated differently by religious pundits and the mainstream media. A good example might be the issue of how Barack Obama took the risk of alienating black Protestants by including gay marriage in his platform – a tension that was noted but often unexplored (except by a few) as it inevitably leads to a confrontation with homophobia in black Protestant communities.  It is an issue that would be awkward, to say the least, for a largely white institution to explore in depth.

There might be a simpler and more direct possibility, though, that relates theology and language to explain the difference in how Ray Lewis’s and Tim Tebow’s brands of jock Christianity were received. Tim Tebow, for example, began all of his post-game interviews with the words, “First of all I would like to thanks my lord and savior Jesus Christ.” Ray Lewis, however, often ends his accounts of collective victory with the words, “God is amazing.”

We should appreciate the exclusivity of the former and the inherent ecumenism of the latter. While Tim Tebow was sounding a dog-whistle to all his fellow born-agains, attributing his success to a personal relationship with his specific deity, Ray Lewis’s was an exclamation of awe that even the most secular of us can recognize and translate: life can be amazing and even transcendent.  To put it another way, if we are to take Ray Lewis’s rhetoric at face value, no one is necessarily going to hell. I’m not sure we can say the same thing about Tim Tebow.

The philosophical hypocrisies of sports theology will always be with us and will not be going away anytime soon. Ray Lewis’s still vague role in a double-homicide in 2000, an incident where he subsequently pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and settled out of court with the victim’s families for an unspecified amount of money, obviously has implications in a discussion of his faith. Not to mention the more recent accusations that Ray Lewis used banned substances like, of all things, antler spray to help recover from a torn tricep faster than any athlete ever.

Whatever the specific issue or athlete, these asymmetries of religion and action will inform conversations indefinitely. Perhaps, though, we can begin to differentiate between strains of exclusivity and ecumenism, however sincere or unintended, in our sports figures’ rhetoric. Although Ray Lewis’s public piety has ruffled a few feathers, there does seem to be some consensus:

While the unfaithful might find Ray Lewis’s religious effusions annoying, Tim Tebow’s evangelical specificity bordered on the offensive.

Tribal loyalty still works on the football field and even in the stands where fans sport their teams’ colors and revel in the unity of their imagined community. After that final whistle blows, though, most athletes, including Ray Lewis, seem to remember that football is for everybody. The language we use to describe our collective experience with the game should reflect that.

Marcus Snow

Marcus Mann lives with his wife in Carrboro, NC and is a Masters student in Religion at Duke University. When he’s not studying contemporary American atheist and humanist social movements, he enjoys sipping IPA’s while watching his kittens destroy his apartment. You can follow him on Twitter.

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