Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard: Sports vs. religion

02/02/2014 12:00 AM

01/31/2014 7:10 PM

While teams and fans are building powerful, cohesive communities – think Red Sox Nation or the legions of Alabamans who greet one another with “Roll Tide” – churches are losing followers.

According to a 2012 survey by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Duke University, 20 percent of Americans “claimed they had no religious preference,” compared with an unaffiliated population of 8 percent in 1990. Roughly 2 of 3 Americans, a 2012 Pew report noted, are under the impression that religion is losing influence in the country.

Sports are on the opposite trajectory. Fifty years ago, just 3 in 10 Americans considered themselves sports fans. By 2012, that proportion exceeded 6 in 10. Tens of millions of U.S. viewers tuned in to regular-season National Football League games last fall, with the most popular matchups attracting upwards of 30 million viewers.

This raises the question: Are Americans shifting their spiritual allegiances away from praying places and toward playing places?

Of course, there’s no shortage of religion in American sports. Witness Tim Tebow’s famous genuflections, David Ortiz’s raised index fingers to heaven, Phil Jackson’s invocations of Zen Buddhism, and Muslim high school football players choosing to maintain their Ramadan fast in the midst of a playoff run. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans is convinced that God influences game outcomes.

But high-profile displays of piety belie a deeper reordering of spiritual priorities. Modern sports stadiums function much like great cathedrals once did, bringing communities together and focusing their collective energy. This summer the Archdiocese of New York is expected to outline plans to close or merge some of its parishes; 26 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have ceased operation. By contrast, the city and the state of New Jersey spent hundreds of millions to build new baseball and football stadiums.

Spiritual leaders have long feared that religion and sports would vie for loyalty – and that sports would win. Before the Civil War, clergymen and devoted laypeople regarded sports as needless distractions and gateways to moral dissipation – clear competitors for sacred time and attention. A 17th-century English Puritan named Thomas Hall expressed a common view when he suggested that “gaming” was among the surest means to “debauch a people, and draw them from God and his worship to superstition and idolatry.”

As the 20th century approached, however, attitudes toward sports pivoted. Baseball, tennis, golf and football gained respectability among the aspiring middle classes. Meanwhile, a new breed of Protestant ministers extolled their virtues. Many echoed the Rev. Washington Gladden, who in 1898 called sports “a means of grace” and a training ground for “a godly life.” James Naismith, a Presbyterian minister, invented a game he called “basket ball” in 1891. And across the nation, the Young Men’s Christian Association added gyms to its facilities, with countless houses of worship following suit.

Still, in a 2013 survey of shrinking congregations, 8 of 14 pastors “identified sports as the main culprit for low Sunday service attendance.”

Americans remain believers of one sort or another. Less than 10 percent say they are atheists, and even the unaffiliated tend to profess spiritual inclinations. Moreover, the missions of American faith institutions transcend mere competition – they are charged with fostering goodwill between people, nudging individuals toward salvation and spiritual fulfillment, and bringing about the kingdom of God on Earth.

But when it comes to the passionate attachments that sustain interest and devotion, it’s time to acknowledge that sports have gained the edge. And they show no sign of relinquishing the lead.

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