When Edgardo Alfonzo, the Mets second baseman and one of the rising stars in baseball, delivers a timely hit, he lightly thumps his fist on his chest and points his index finger to the sky while lifting his eyes toward heaven. After Isaac Bruce, All-Pro wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, enjoyed a good game against the Minnesota Vikings a couple of years ago, he knew who deserved the credit. "I had a pretty good first half," he noted, "but God really manifested in the third quarter—I had 89 yards!"
For evangelical Christians, Super Bowl XXXIV on January 30, 2000, was the, well, Super Bowl of witnessing. The media simply couldn't resist the story line of Kurt Warner, quarterback of the St. Louis Rams. A benchwarmer at the University of Northern Iowa for four years, Warner had been trying for the better part of a decade to break onto an NFL roster, but he was always deemed inadequate. He worked the graveyard shift as a stockboy for the Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for $5.50 an hour. He was turned down by the Canadian Football League before catching on with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. Finally, after years of perseverance, he made the Rams roster in the fall of 1999, where he was penciled in as the backup quarterback.
Injuries to the starter, however, gave Warner his long-awaited opportunity. He took control of the offense, guided the hitherto hapless Rams to the Super Bowl and, in the process, was named the league's most valuable player.
The human-interest side of Warner's quest made his story even more appealing, especially for a league whose players routinely face drug, assault, and even murder charges. He had married an older, divorced woman on food stamps with two children, one of them legally blind. Warner was a born-again Christian, and he wanted everyone to know it. "I know I do a lot of preaching," he conceded, "but I live my life for Jesus, and my goal is to share him with as many people as possible. I want to spread the peace and joy I've achieved with as many people as I can." At the beginning of the 2000-01 season, Warner told a reporter for The Des Moines Register, "What I love to do is share my faith and play football."
When the Rams beat the Tennessee Titans 23-16 in the Super Bowl, Warner gave God at least half the credit. "With the Lord," Warner said after the game, "all things are possible. I believe in him. I believe in myself. With the two of us together, there's nothing I feel we can't accomplish."
The Almighty gets a lot of credit for athletic prowess these days. Olympic champions praise Jesus for their victories, and even many NBA stars (not generally noted for their piety) attribute their success to a higher being. NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham is certain that God keeps some of his errant passes from being intercepted, although he doesn't explain what happens to the others. (Indeed, the deity seems to be in a no-lose situation; God often receives credit for success but rarely gets blamed for a loss.)
The high priests of the athletic arena feed off of the cult of celebrity that infects all of American society. True, it seems that the Lord has to settle for reflected glory. It is also true that the Lord works in strange and mysterious ways—as when God told Sean Gilbert to hold out for $4.5 million from the Washington Redskins—but surely attributions to the divine are no more repugnant than shameless pandering for sneaker companies.
But what about the parishioners? It would not be difficult to argue that the sports stadium has replaced the church sanctuary as the dominant arena of piety at the turn of the 21st century, especially for American men. At least as far back as the late 17th century, women have far outnumbered men in the churches. Religious leaders have periodically sought to redress this imbalance, to lure men back to the faith through all sorts of schemes, most of which can be grouped beneath the rubric "muscular Christianity." The Businessman's Awakening of 1857-58 in New York and other North American cities was one such effort, as was the Men and Religion Forward Movement of the 1910s.
The appeals to men have generally drawn on one of two metaphors, both of them dating back to the New Testament: militarism and athleticism. St. Paul admonished the early Christians to run the race and to take on the full armor of God. Christian leaders have employed these images throughout church history, from the disciplined regimen of monks and nuns, the "spiritual athletes" of Christianity, to the Crusades, with their unalloyed militarism. In the modern era, Protestants picked up the metaphors. The Salvation Army, the Moral Rearmament movement, Boys Brigade, and Campus Crusade for Christ on the military side, with the complement of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and (my current favorite) Power Team for Christ, a weightlifting troupe that intersperses Christian testimonies with spectacular feats of strength.
The tragedy of the Vietnam War dimmed somewhat our enthusiasm for the language of militarism in the latter decades of the 20th century, so evangelicalism in America has gravitated more and more toward athleticism in its effort to lure men to the faith. It should come as no surprise, then, that a football coach devised the muscular Christianity movement of the 1990s, Promise Keepers.
In 1990 Bill McCartney, who had guided the University of Colorado Buffaloes from obscurity to a national championship, came up with the idea of filling Colorado's Folsom Stadium with men dedicated to the notion of Christian discipleship. Promise Keepers evolved quickly from an initial gathering of 4,000 to a national movement that attracted more than 1 million men to 22 stadium rallies across North America in 1995. Two years later, on October 4, 1997, Promise Keepers staged its massive "Stand in the Gap" rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
Although Promise Keepers did not dispense entirely with military trappings—McCartney had coached football, after all, a quintessentially military game concerned with the conquest and the defense of territory, and he often spoke about spiritual warfare—athleticism predominated. McCartney invited sports stars to tell the assembled masses about their faith, and the gatherings took place in sports arenas.
The venue is significant. Despite its overwhelmingly male clientele, an athletic stadium is, paradoxically, female space. The contours are rounded, womb-like, rather than angular, and even the runways giving way to the stands can be interpreted as envaginated space. More important, however, stadiums provide an alternative universe, a kind of safe haven or subculture, a place of refuge from the outside world.
For the white American, middle-class male (the primary patron of sporting events), the contest itself offers a welcome contrast to the larger world because here, inside the arena, the rules are clear and impartially enforced. Everyone also knows his or her place, so (at the risk of pushing this interpretation too far) the unsavory corollary is that women are relegated to the sidelines and the only acceptable place of self-expression for men of color is within the well-regulated universe of the playing field.
If the stadium is female space, however, the contest itself is male, with straight lines and precise angles. Something is either fair or foul, in bounds or out of bounds. The rules of the game are intricate and precise, offering little room for appeal or discretionary interpretation. A wide receiver cannot appeal to the referee that his failure to touch both feet in bounds after catching the pass was just a harmless oversight on his part and that the pass should therefore be ruled complete. A batter thrown out by a step at first base cannot argue that, well, if he hadn't sprained his ankle in spring training he surely would have beat the throw and so the umpire's call betrayed a bias against the handicapped. Such appeals are impossible (or, at least foolish) in the carefully regulated and demarcated world of athletics, and nothing, nothing enrages a sports fan more than a blown call by an official: It represents a violation of his orderly universe.
Perhaps it is little wonder that American males have been so drawn to sports over the last several decades. The traffic in baseball cards and sports memorabilia accounts for millions of dollars annually. Devotées evoke a kind of reverence for feats of athletic prowess. Sports bars and sports-talk radio stations now blanket the nation. Numerous cable networks compulsively cover the universe of sports to the exclusion of any other universe, including news, weather, politics, foreign affairs, and crime (with the possible exception of the O. J. Simpson case, the tragic saga of a misogynistic sports hero).
Why the obsession? For more than a decade now cultural observers have tracked the so-called "white rage" that lurks beneath everything from anti-immigration initiatives and attacks on political correctness to the attempts to repeal affirmative action. It is the sentiment that fuels Patrick Buchanan's endless quest for the presidency. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times summarized the thinking of Buchanan's followers during the course of the 1996 presidential campaign. "If the economy is going so well," Friedman asked rhetorically, "why have I just been downsized out of a job and why do I feel like my community is eroding?" Friedman calls this the politics of resentment, and its symptoms include the fact that "our schools no longer teach right from wrong, that our nation can't control its borders, and that patriotism is giving way to multiculturalism."
The world, in short, is unfair and out of control. Everyone bends the rules or manipulates them to their advantage, while those of us who play by the rules (read middle-class white males) are penalized.
This is the rhetoric of victimization, to be sure, but its explanatory power is enormous. The adversaries out there are legion, and they include immigrants, people of color, homosexuals, and, though it can rarely be articulated in polite company, feminists. Everyone else receives preferential treatment, the thinking goes, which of course conveniently ignores the fact that white, middle-class men have enjoyed a favored status for at least a couple of centuries. "White rage" and the politics of resentment go a long way toward explaining the appeal of sports, for in the alternative universe of the stadium, unlike the larger world, the rules are unambiguous and everyone plays by the same rules. No exceptions. No special pleading.
Is it any surprise, then, that we have elevated sports heroes to the status of demigods? Athletic events have been transformed into morality plays, where the gladiators engage in a kind of vicarious combat and where victory goes not to those who make the case for preferential treatment, but to the strongest, the swiftest, and the most skilled. For a huge and growing number of American men, the athletic arena is the culture's closest approximation to a meritocracy.
For some American men, the fixation with sports and with sports heroes may also represent an attempt—albeit a clumsy attempt—to reclaim the powerful and triumphant God of an earlier era. The God from before changes to the immigration laws recast the complexion of American society, before cultural relativism and multiculturalism, before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique brought on the latest chapter of the feminist movement. Theirs is not the effeminate, sappy Jesus, the man of sorrows. They prefer God Almighty, victorious, who has no trouble distinguishing right from wrong, good from evil. God the avenger. The Almighty as Arnold Swarzenegger or Reggie White.
Does God care who wins on the athletic field? Probably not. Distinguished theologians from Bill Russell, Hall of Fame center for the Boston Celtics, to NBC sportscaster Bob Costas have suggested that the Almighty surely has better things to do with his time than worry about who wins between the Dodgers and the Braves. But Kurt Warner thinks that there is a larger theological drama at play on the athletic field. "It's not about winning or losing," he says, "the issue is a lot bigger than that. It has to do with what God wants to accomplish on this earth and how he can best achieve that goal."
If Warner is correct, then maybe, just maybe, God studies the sports pages and fidgets with the remote control on Sunday afternoons like millions of American men. If the Almighty is going to speak the idiom of the American male, after all, it helps to know the players.
Randall Balmer is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. The third edition of his book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America was released in November 2000.