‘And I’d like to thank God …’

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA Today, October 12, 2009

October is the sports fan’s Promised Land.

America’s pastime (baseball) enters its sprint toward the World Series, and the sport that is America’s pastime in more than just name (football) has fans transfixed from coast to coast.

Anyone who watches pro and college football or follows the drama of the baseball playoffs can’t help but notice something else that often competes for our attention amid the passes, pitches and home runs: religion.

Audio clips: Krattenmaker on his book and his research.

Players point skyward to the Almighty after reaching the end zone or home plate, star athletes voice thanks and praise to their savior after a big win, and sports heroes use their media spotlight to promote the Christian message. (See University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and his eye-black, touting Scripture.) These are the outward signs of a faith surge that has made big-time sports one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.

Far less visible, but worth knowing about, are the infrastructure and strategy of the sports-world evangelicalism that powers these pious displays. Athletes’ expressions of Christian faith reflect decades of hard work by evangelical ministries to convert players and “coach” them to use their stature to promote a particular version of conservative Christianity.

Christian chaplains are embedded with all the teams in professional baseball, basketball and football — and many college teams as well — to provide religious counseling, Bible studies and chapel services. Given the misbehavior and self-seeking that plague sports, who could doubt the benefit of bringing moral guidance and a broader perspective to locker rooms and clubhouses?

The good with the bad

But Jesus’ representatives in sports aren’t just practicing faith. They are also leveraging sports’ popularity to promote a message and doctrine that are out of sync with the diverse communities that support franchises, and with the unifying civic role that we expect of our teams. Typifying the exclusive creed taught by many sports-world Christians is the belief statement published by Baseball Chapel, which provides chaplains for all major- and minor-league baseball teams. Non-believers in Jesus, the ministry declares, can look forward to “everlasting punishment separated from God.”

Urban Meyer, Tebow’s coach at Florida, has praised his quarterback’s faith-promoting ways as “good for college football … good for young people … good for everything.” Such is the rhetoric usually heard from those who defend sports-world Christianity as wholesome and harmless.

But should we be pleased that the civic resource known as “our team” — a resource supported by the diverse whole through our ticket-buying, game-watching and tax-paying — is being leveraged by a one-truth evangelical campaign that has little appreciation for the beliefs of the rest of us?

Having researched and thought about Christianity in sports for the better part of a decade, I am impressed by the good that’s done by sports-world Christians. Jesus-professing athletes are among the best citizens in their sector, and they commit good deeds daily in communities across this country.

These sports stars, like all Americans, have a right to express their faith.

Evangelical players and ministry representatives in sports aren’t out to harm anyone, of course. On the contrary, they see themselves as fulfilling the Bible’s Great Commission (”Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19). In this sense, their mission is pure altruism: They seek to share the gift of eternal life.

But there’s a shadow side to this. If their take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which their creed boldly states — everyone else is wrong.

Not a mere abstraction, this exclusiveness sometimes morphs into a form of chauvinism and mistreatment of non-Christians. Witness the incident with the Washington Nationals baseball team in 2005, when the Christian chaplain was exposed as teaching that Jews go to hell. Then there was the New Mexico state football team, which was the target of a religious discrimination lawsuit in 2006 after two Muslim players reported being labeled “troublemakers” and were kicked off the team by their devoutly Christian coach. The case was settled out of court and the students transferred.

It’s not just non-Christians who might have a thing or two to say about this exclusive theology. According to a December 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, 65% of American Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. Our pluralism is a defining and positive reality of American life — but not one that is much valued by those who define the faith coursing through the veins of sports culture.

One size doesn’t fit all

As anyone who has seen Tebow on television would know, broadcasters cannot find enough superlatives to describe him. What’s not to admire? He plays with a rugged, infectious enthusiasm. He’s a born leader. He’s a Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time national champion. He spends his off time speaking at prisons and doing missionary work in Asia. It’s good to see he has mended from his concussion and returned to action.

But there’s more to his story. Tebow does his missionary trips to the Philippines under the auspices of his father’s Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association, which espouses young-earth creationism and boldly declares, “We reject the modern ecumenical movement.” The Tebow organization’s literature estimates that 75% of the Philippines’ inhabitants “have never once heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ” — despite the fact more than 80% identify themselves as Roman Catholic.

In making and acting on rigid claims about who is or isn’t in good standing with God, the Bob Tebow organization is working at cross purposes with the majority of Americans — indeed, the majority of American Christians — and their more generous conception of salvation.

Certainly, Tim Tebow must be applauded for the good he does working on his father’s missions, but he should be seen, too, as one who promotes a form of belief that makes unwelcome judgments about everyone else’s religion. Let’s not forget the twinge that is felt by sports-loving Jewish kids and parents, for example, or by champions for interfaith cooperation, when adored sports figures like Tebow use their fame to push a Jesus-or-else message.

Is sports-world evangelicalism really “good for everything”? Certainly a lot, but not everything. Not if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, non-evangelical Protestant, agnostic or anything else outside the conservative evangelical camp.

Tom Krattenmaker, a writer based in Portland, Ore., specializing in religion in public life, is a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors. He is the author of the new book Onward Christian Athletes.

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