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Understanding the role of religion in sports

Many Americans are wrong about the relationship between religion and sports, according to historian Paul Putz

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

I recently switched jobs within the Deseret News and started editing and writing stories about trending sports news. I’ll still be producing this weekly newsletter and leading Deseret’s national religion coverage, but I’ll no longer play much of a role in the broader national team, which does great work on politics and family life.

As a huge sports fan, I am thrilled with this change. But I realize the move might leave some of you scratching your heads, especially if you haven’t seen much work at the intersection of religion and sports.

In hopes of clearing up at least some of the confusion, I interviewed Paul Putz, the assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University’s theological seminary, for this week’s newsletter about the history of sports ministry and the overall relationship between religion and sports. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey Dallas: How did you end up working at the intersection of religion and sports?

Paul Putz: My main desire was to understand my own story. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska. I was a preacher’s kid who loved sports and played basketball through high school and for a small Christian college. I was part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I did pretty well in school, but even back then I knew the space I invested most of my time and effort, and the place that formed me the most was sports.

I didn’t reflect a ton on how or why groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes existed until after I started grad school in American religious history. Once I was in a PhD history program, I started to question and wanted to know more about the origins of my own story.

I wanted to know how groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes got started and what theology or cultural ideas they encouraged and promoted. I wanted to know about other groups promoting other ways to be a Christian athlete. And I also wanted to know if there were other ways of being religious in sports. Those questions formed the foundation of my historical research and dissertation and, today, of my writing, including my Twitter threads.

KD: Did you sort of create this academic concentration of religion and sports, or have people been working in this area for a while?

PP: There were people before me. Since about the 1970s, there’s been a group of scholars in the religious studies field who have looked at the question of is sports a religion. They were looking at the experience of sports and thinking about how it helped people reach out to the transcendent and make ultimate meaning out of their existence.

Also, within evangelical Christian and other theological circles, there’s been interest in thinking about the theology of sports. There have been a number of books on that topic in the past 10 or 15 years.

And there’s also growing interest in the history piece, which is my focus. Historians have been trying to connect the history of Christian engagement with sports with broader conversations about the history of American religion and culture. We’ve been exploring how expressions of Christianity have been shaped by the way Christians engage with sports.

KD: What are some common misperceptions about the relationship between religion and sports?

PP: Two things come to my mind, but I’ll start with the one that makes me seem a little hypocritical, since my own work might lead to this conclusion: There’s a perception that evangelical Christians model the only way to be religious in sports.

There’s so much attention given to evangelical athletes like Tim Tebow, but other people of faith are active in sports, too. There are historians and scholars who have written about Latter-day Saint, Jewish, Muslim and other religious athletes.

Another surprising thing is that what we consider to be evangelical sports ministry today began as a mainline Protestant project. Back in the 1950s and into the 1960s, Christian leaders’ engagement with sports was intentionally ecumenical. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes actually went to the National Council of Churches to ask to collaborate, but they were turned away.

Mainline Protestant leaders and institutions didn’t see sports as a serious endeavor. They wanted to focus on activism and political engagement, to be a prophetic voice. And so it was left to evangelicals to invest time and resources into sports.

Evangelical leaders recruited, trained and placed people with sports teams to walk alongside and serve coaches and athletes. They catered to the needs of athletes in high-pressure sports. That practical, everyday work has enabled evangelical sports ministries to build space for themselves within the sports industry that is still there, decades later.

KD: How would you describe the end goal of sports ministries? Are they focused on the spiritual lives of individual athletes, or are they using athletes as a means to convert the whole country?

PP: The original end goal was very much to change American culture. Faith leaders and ministry organizations wanted to use athletes and coaches with big platforms. The thinking was that if athletes could endorse razor blades and cigarettes and shaving cream, they could surely endorse the Lord.

But shortly after sports ministries began, it became apparent that it was at least as important to minister to athletes instead of just trying to have them talk about their faith in interviews. Faith leaders adopted a discipleship focus and tried to meet practical needs. For example, they tried to be present at the hospital if an athlete got hurt. So there’s less of a focus on active evangelization and more on having a ministry of presence.

KD: Did evangelical groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes invent the idea of a team chaplain?

PP: The New York Giants had a Catholic chaplain from the 1930s on. The Maras, the family who own the Giants, are deeply religious Catholics and wanted a priest they knew and trusted to minister to their team. In general, there was a presence of Catholic priests in the NFL, in particular, in the mid-20th century.

Starting in the 1970s or so, evangelical entrepreneurs really embraced the sports chaplain concept and started working closely with the MLB, NFL and other leagues. They built relationships with players and coaches that enabled relationships with other players and coaches.

One downside to this approach is that, if your focus is on maintaining a presence in various leagues, it tends to mean that you won’t speak out if there’s a moral issue. You don’t want to rock the boat because you don’t want to lose access.

KD: Shifting gears a little bit now, I wanted to ask about a recent tweet in which you tried to explain why players might be more likely to acknowledge God in happy sports moments than sad ones. Can you say more about that?

PP: I was tweeting in response to Stan Van Gundy, who was asking — in my sense, in sort of a gotcha way — about why athletes point to God when good things happen, but not when bad things happen. He wanted to know whether that means God causes the good thing but not the bad thing.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I think it overlooks the human experience of athletes and the uniqueness of the sports context.

When an athlete who is bound up in a contest and locked in the zone experiences a moment of success, it makes perfect sense that someone who believes in a higher power would acknowledge and recognize God’s presence as they celebrate. They may not be saying, “Hey! God did this!” It might just be about acknowledging the reality of God and recognizing God as the creator of talents.

But in moments of failure or frustration, that same athlete is probably not going to try to have a demonstration or acknowledgement of God. They’ll be disappointed and their outward expression will show that, but the moment will be more fleeting as they try to re-focus, get back on track and be ready for the next play.

Even as I say this, I can’t deny that there are other things going on, too. There’s a cultural script to this, and some athletes have a desire to use their platform to sort of advertise for Jesus.

When I looked into when athletes started being religiously demonstrative, I found that it happened around the same time sports started being broadcast on television. Some of the first athletes to point to the sky after hitting a home run or kneel in the end zone after a touchdown likely did it at least in part because they knew a lot of people were watching.

Today, it’s become such a common ritual that some athletes probably do these things now without even thinking of God. I don’t want to ignore that aspect of it.

KD: This spring, far more people than usual were talking about the relationship between religion and sports as the country debated the Supreme Court’s school prayer case. What was it like having so many new folks in your territory?

PP: When you’re an academic, you get a little sensitive and protective whenever something happens that you feel like you know more about than the average person. Your instinct is to fire off a Twitter thread about it.

But, as the case was unfolding, I tried to see it as an opportunity to listen and learn how really insightful people were reacting to it in different ways. I wanted to see their impression of what was at stake and what religious angles they were bringing to it.

As someone who is part of evangelical Christianity and works for a broadly evangelical seminary, I wanted to learn from people who saw the case differently than evangelicals, who saw it as a sign of religion encroaching on secular spaces. I read about, for example, what it’s like for a Jewish football player in the South to have evangelical coaches who are praying. For many of us, prayer feels like a normal and good part of sports culture, but that’s obviously not the way everyone in the U.S. sees what is happening.

KD: The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the coach won’t be the final word on school prayer. What do you hope will happen in the months and years to come?

PP: One thing I hope for is that this decision leads to a recognition and awareness of religious pluralism. Sports can be a place where people of different religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds come together around a shared goal and get to know each other. I hope this case provides space where those conversations about identity are more open, and people think more about what boundaries we need in a pluralistic society in order to respect everyone. Maybe we can talk more about religious pluralism and even train and equip coaches to learn from and value players from all sorts of religious backgrounds.

I also hope the ruling leads to more reflection by Christians on our public prayers and how we pray when we’re in positions of influence. There’s a passage in the Bible that says don’t make a display of your prayer. If we’re taking the Bible seriously, what are the implications of that? What does it mean to have a meaningful prayer life as a Christian coach and bring your full self into public but do it in a way that’s faithful to scripture and respects the religious viewpoints of everyone on your team? People can and will land in different places on that, but I hope there’s more reflection and humility about the life that Christians lead and how we can work together for the common good.

Fresh off the press

Is religion dying in the Democratic Party?

The Bible verse that helped Sydney McLaughlin break her own world record

BYU, Packers alum Brady Poppinga on how serving a mission prepared him for the NFL

Term of the week: Georgia Guidestones

The Georgia Guidestones, also known as America’s Stonehenge, are a set of granite stones that stood in Elberton, Georgia, from March 1980 until early last month. Funded by a group of people who feared that some sort of catastrophe was imminent, they were engraved with various bits of guidance and wisdom in multiple languages and meant to help future civilizations navigate difficult situations. The Georgia Guidestones had to be taken down in July after a vandal set off a bomb at the foot of one of the slabs.

In the aftermath of the incident, community members spoke with NPR about the stones’ unusual history and why they caught the attention of the bomber. They blamed the attack on conspiracy theorists who have claimed a link between the Georgia Guidestones and Satanism. A failed fringe candidate for Georgia governor, “as well as others who believe conspiracies about the Guidestones, have falsely claimed that God struck the monument down with righteous lightning — despite surveillance video showing a person planting a device and running away,” NPR reported.

What I’m reading...

Pope Francis visited Canada last week and worked to make amends for the Catholic Church’s role in the mistreatment of the country’s Indigenous communities. “Francis’ words went beyond his earlier apology for the ‘deplorable’ abuses committed by missionaries and instead took institutional responsibility for the church’s cooperation with Canada’s ‘catastrophic’ assimilation policy," The Associated Press reported.

Simran Jeet Singh, whom I praised last month in my newsletter on heartbreak, wrote for Religion News Service on how to find common ground with the people responsible for the recent rise in hate crimes.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has endorsed its first female chaplain, who will serve in the Air Force. The Church News explained the context behind the unprecedented move last week.

Odds and ends

I moderated a panel on the Supreme Court and religious freedom for the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program in mid-July. The recording of the discussion, which featured so many thoughtful insights from the three panelists, is now available online.

Thursday at 10 a.m. Utah time, I’m speaking on a virtual panel about the state of American religion. Registration is free!

Here’s the funniest thing I saw on Reddit last week.