Do Religion And Pro Sports Mix?

Making the sign of the cross before swinging at a baseball pitch, kneeling in prayer after making it to the end zone and thanking God in post-game press conferences are among frequent practices observed by professional athletes. Tom Krattenmaker, author of "Onward Christian Athletes," says many ballparks have been turned into pulpits and players into preachers. It is a reality that some say has become all too common.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Well, you just heard the guys offer their Super Bowl picks and last night, the college football season came to an end when the Crimson Tide washed away the Texas Longhorns. The University of Alabama won the Bowl Championship Series by defeating the University of Texas 37-21. Of course, this is prime time for football fans. With the bowl games behind us, the playoffs are just ahead. You can be sure that just as you'll see ads selling beer, you'll see a player or coach on some winning team in a post-game interview thank the Lord for the victory.

Mr. SANTONIO HOLMES (Professional Football Player, Pittsburgh Steelers): It was all God's will. You know, he placed the ball where it needed to be, and the play came through for us.

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Mr. JON KITNA (Professional Football Player, Dallas Cowboys): It's about Jesus Christ, baby. It ain't about me.

Mr. PAUL SPICER (Professional Football Player, New Orleans Saints): 'Cause the Lord says so, baby. The Lord says so.

Mr. TIM TEBOW (College Football Player, Florida Gators): Yeah. God is great. And he's really is, and this is just truly a blessing and very exciting.

Mr. KURT WARNER (Professional Football Player, Arizona Cardinals): We've got a lot faith. I praise God for this victory, but still got a little more work to do.

MARTIN: That was Santonio Holmes, Jon Kitna, Paul Spicer, Tim Tebow and Kurt Warner. Now, these expressions of faith are not a coincidence. Tom Krattenmaker details the recent history of a different kind of gridiron glory in his new book, "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers. And although Krattenmaker makes a provocative and critical argument about these expressions, as the title of the book implies, he makes what I think many will find an equally provocative argument about how nonbelievers should respond. So for our weekly Faith Matters, Tom Krattenmaker joins us now from Portland, Oregon. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. TOM KRATTENMAKER (Author, "Onward Christian Athletes"): Hi, Michel, thank you very much for having me on the program.

MARTIN: Now, in the first chapter of your book you write, quote: The steady infusing of evangelical Christianity into the fiber of sports culture has had happened so gradually that many of us barely noticed. Indeed, its deep resources and purposes have escaped attention almost entirely. It is time we understand it for what it is.

So tell us: What is it?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Well, most people today, when they watch sports, they notice that there's a lot of religious expression. They see guys pointing up to the heavens after a touchdown or homerun. They hear guys talking about God and Jesus in the post-game interviews. I think what surprises people, when they read my book, is that this is a lot more organized and intentional than a lot of us realized.

Since the World War II era, there's been a lot of evangelical ministries that have formed with the express purpose of, sort of leveraging the visibility and influence of big-time sports to get out their message about Jesus, and so...

MARTIN: And what's wrong with that?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Really, there's nothing wrong with it when you look at it. Let's face it. This is a country that really values religious freedom, and that freedom of religious expression applies to sports and athletes. These guys have a right to practice their faith.

My purpose in the book is that we could all have more information and form a well-informed opinion about it, and have a more enlightened conversation.

One reason I wanted to write this is that the people I watch sports with, there's a lot of eye-rolling and people complaining like, come on, don't bring religion into it. And so I think that these ultra-secular sports fans need to think about it in another way, too, and acknowledge the good things about religion in sports, like the positive moral influence that these ministries bring and that these Christian athletes often model.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this topic? I noticed you said that you had a lot of friends watch the sports and hear people praising God and thanking God for their victories, and you said that there's a lot of eye-rolling going on, but I think you also write that a lot of people barely notice it or tune it out. So how did you notice? How did you tune into it, as it were?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Well, people should realize I'm someone who is very interested in religion, and I've been watching sports since I was a kid. There's a huge difference between the kind of religious expression we saw back in the '60s and '70s, and what we see today. It's been gradually building up.

So as someone who's very interested in religion, I realized that there hadn't really been any journalistic examination or critique of this, and that it was something that the public could probably benefit from.

MARTIN: It's important to note that you, from the very beginning of the book, say that you're not opposed to religion in sports. In fact, you think that there ought to be - or that there can be a very important positive influence of religious belief or commitment in sports. Talk about that for a minute.

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Yeah, and this builds on the point that I was making a minute ago. My critique of the way Christianity plays out, it's not that it's wrong, it's that it's incomplete. The way that it plays out politically and in sports is an incomplete Christianity. It's only a relatively small set of pieces of the Gospel.

People ask me if there should be a separation of church and sport, and I say no. This is a country that values religious freedom. Athletes have a right to express their faith. And I think that there is a positive moral influence that Christianity is bringing to athletes today.

My hope is that it would bring more of the Gospel to bear. By that, I mean these athletes and these organizations have been quiet on some of these big issues that we have in sports today, really moral issues, and aspects of sports that are deeply irreligious.

I mean, think about the problem we have today with head injuries in football, and there's new evidence about rates of dementia among retired players. That's a moral issue and a moral problem. I would like to see Christianity in sports begin to address some of these things with more of a prophetic voice and not just sort of exploit the platform, as they say.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Tom Krattenmaker. We're talking about his book, "Onward Christian Athletes." He's talking about the influence of evangelical Christianity in the lives of many professional athletes.

What has been the reaction to your book?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Well, it's really interesting. I've been chided by some progressive and secular organizations for being too pro-religion. Then there are conservative Christian organizations that have said I'm too anti-Christian.

What interests me the most is that there are a number of sort of emergent, open-minded Christian ministries that are seeing this book as a constructive dialogue beginning. And they say hey, Tom does not share all of our theological ideas, but he's got some good points, and we should be open-minded. Maybe we can learn something. And I think they agree with me, that they want to see sports ministry develop more of a prophetic voice.

MARTIN: So Tom, finally, tell the truth. Have you ever prayed for your team to win?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: No, but Michel, I do remember a situation after my Twins had got the final out in a very tense game to clinch a playoff series a few years ago. And I remember going oh, thank God. You know, it's the natural form of expression that comes out of us when we're grateful.

And you know, I say that in my talks and my book, too. Gratitude is a very common, natural and understandable form of religious expression. So I totally understand it if a Kurt Warner stands up there at the end of the football game and thanks God. This is just something that comes out of us when we're grateful. And so I don't have any problem with that, really - although I don't like it when athletes seem to be suggesting that God gave them the victory.

MARTIN: Why not, if they believe that?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Well, if they believe it, they have a right to say it. But I don't think there are many serious theologians or deep religious thinkers who really believe that God has an abiding interest in the outcome of a football game.

And let's face it, on the losing team these days, there's going to be a lot of Christians on that team, too. So sports are a zero-sum game. For every winner, there is a loser, and that does not mesh well with some of the crucial teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

MARTIN: Well - but could it be, that if you believe, indeed, your steps are ordered and that there is a divine purpose in anything - I mean, it is true we don't often hear people thanking God for a loss because there might be some spiritual purpose in their losing - you know, that can also be part of faith, is to believe that even a setback has a spiritual purpose. If you think that, why shouldn't you be able to say it?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Well, of course you should be able to say it. I don't contest, for a minute, the right of these guys to say what they wish to say about their belief.

I'm glad you brought up the issue of losing, though. I've been saying this a lot lately. I think the religious expression in sports would have more credibility if athletes would bring their faith into it when they lost.

Kurt Warner is a good example. Everybody knows that he talks about God after victories. He tends not to - at least not in the big, public way - after losses. The Super Bowl last year would be a good example. When Kurt's team won the conference championship, he was very exuberant and outspoken about his faith.

Then when they lost the Super Bowl, he made very gracious comments, but he didn't say a thing about God. And I frankly wish that he would have because there is a lot that religion has to say about losing and about the consolation that God can bring to those who are on the losing side of a game or the losing side of life.

MARTIN: So why do you think he didn't - or doesn't?

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: I suspect it has something to do with the idea that we're going to use the sports platform to evangelize and in the moment of winning, that's when you have the most credibility, the most attention. And so it kind of goes to the product-endorsement idea.

I don't mean to say that in a demeaning way, but America really loves winners and in the moment of winning, that's when you have the greatest chance to sort of capitalize.

Also, some of the guys will say that they want to deflect the glory and that it's not about them, that it's about God - and winning is the moment when that makes more sense.

MARTIN: Tom Krattenmaker is the author of "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers," and he joined us from Portland, Oregon. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KRATTENMAKER: Thank you for having me on, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, it's been a little over a year since President Obama made history as the nation's first African-American president. We're going to take the opportunity to look at how race is playing out in several upcoming political contests this year. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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