On football fields across America, faith and football have been butting heads a lot lately.
Cheerleaders at a Texas public high school wrote bible verses on the giant banner that players burst through before the start of football games. An attendee, troubled by the seeming breech of the church-state barrier, complained to an activist group, which complained to the school, which told the cheerleaders to stop. Soon, everyone lawyered up, the cheerleaders sued, a local court delayed the school’s order, and a brief pregame ceremony was on course to become, literally, a federal case.
Members of a Christian student group at Louisiana State University attended a Tigers game shirtless, their faces and chests painted with letters and designs -- including tiny crosses near the shoulder. The university used a photo of the group in an email newsletter, but only after a bit of airbrushing to remove the crosses. The students complained, and television networks and blogs turned the doctored photo into a salvo in a cultural war.
Tim Tebow remains the most scrutinized, fascinating, polarizing backup quarterback in the history of organized sports, even when his team is losing and his impact on games is minimal. Tebow’s disproportional fame and influence is almost exclusively the result of his status as the most vociferous, committed evangelical Christian in the sports world. Tebow can be seen as the new paradigm of the 21st century Christian athlete or an exemplar of how the misplaced zealotry of pious fans can cloud and poison something as prosaic as a quarterback controversy. But his “Tebowing” gesture cannot be put on a t-shirt without his permission: the genuflecting posture has been copyrighted.
The football field has become a battlefield for issues ranging from separation of church and state to the appropriateness of specific, sometimes divisive or exclusionary religious messages in the wider culture. It’s a phenomenon that runs deeper than a Vikings punter becoming a major voice in the gay marriage debate or a quarterback thanking God for the strength to throw touchdowns.
Football and faith seem such odd bedfellows. When did this happen? How long have football and Christianity been rubbing elbows and, occasionally, crashing swords?
For about 150 years, it turns out. Football and faith have been intertwined from the start, and larger issues, like public education and national identity, have always been tangled in the scrum.
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Football owes its existence to American piety. Everything that makes football unique -- its inestimable popularity, its privileged status in higher education, the deep-rooted feeling that the game teaches something deeper and more powerful than X’s and Os -- dates back to a 19th century social movement with the very Tebow-sounding name of “Muscular Christianity.”
“Muscular Christianity was a huge force in American culture,” according to John J. Miller, historian and author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. A major component of the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, Muscular Christianity gave birth to social institutions like the YMCA and provided the philosophical underpinning that made organized sports like football a major part of the standard American university curriculum.
The middle of the 19th century brought major changes to everyday American life, including a trend toward urbanization that spurred strapping farm boys into the cities to take monotonous industrial jobs. Among the upper classes, sons of privilege lived an increasingly soft lifestyle. There was a growing sense among intellectuals and clergy that young American men were growing weak and unhealthy. “They felt they weren’t vigorous enough anymore,” Miller explained.
At the same time, the growing Progressive movement -- which was then endorsed by many mainstream American religions -- needed young people with both the moral and physical strength to improve living and working conditions in inner cities. “If you are going to go out and clean up the slums and help immigrants, you have to be in shape,” said Dr. Cliff Putney, professor and author of Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. “You cannot be a shrinking weakling, hiding in the church.”
Under the influence of these societal trends, George Williams founded the YMCA, with its familiar triangular emphasis on mind, body, and spirit. The focus on physical strength as a component of godliness also influenced Charles Eliot to stress the importance of physical education when he became president of then-foundering Harvard College in 1869. “We are fighting a wilderness, physical and moral," Eliot wrote in his influential essay "The New Education." "For this fight we must be trained and armed."
Eliot himself detested football and was a driving force in the secularization of education. But his emphasis on the relationship between physical and moral education inspired other university leaders to invest money and resources in sports. Football became the most popular sport on many campuses from the start.
While there were many true believers in the Progressives' brand of muscular Christianity, there were also some opportunists who noticed that a successful football team promoted their school to promising applicants, and engendered the financial enthusiasm of alumni donors. “Colleges found sports to be a great marketing tool,” Putnam said, adding that Muscular Christianity “was a very attractive ideology for college administrators.”
But Muscular Christianity’s most important true believer was Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a football fan, but when the public took notice of the sport’s violence at the turn of the 20th century (players sometimes died as the direct result of injuries in that era of helmetless “flying wedge” tactics), the president ordered the coaches of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Washington and announced that he would abolish the game by executive order if the sports’ leaders did not make sweeping changes.
The men who saved football -- led by Roosevelt and Yale coach Walter Camp -- made changes that had seismic ramifications for the growth of the game both on the field (the committee legalized the forward pass and created the modern seven-man offensive line of scrimmage) and off (two years later, the committee became the National Collegiate Athletic Association).
That the president of the United States and leaders of three historically religious institutions did not simply ban a pastime that was killing undergraduates speaks to the allure of Muscular Christianity. “It was still in the cultural background noise. They weren’t saving football because it was entertaining,” Miller said. “They were doing it because it was a positive social good.”
“If they weren’t explicit” about the role of faith in football, Miller said, “it’s because they were like the fish that doesn’t know that it’s in water.”
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The bible passages are familiar -- and seem innocuous -- to millions of people who were raised in small towns where church steeples constituted the skyline, Christmas trees lit the courthouse steps each December, and “welcoming diversity” meant letting both the Baptist and Methodist pastor speak at civic functions.
If God is for us, who can be against us? -- Romans 8:31
I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens -- Philippians 4:13
The verses are a message of faith, a faith shared by most if not all of the cheerleaders at Kountze High School in East Texas. It’s a message they proclaim to the crowd before each football game, painting it on a prominent banner that the Kountze football team crashes through before kickoff.
The cheerleaders are on publicly funded grounds, during a publicly funded event, wearing the publicly funded uniforms that represent a publicly-funded educational institution, expressing a religious belief in a way that appears almost calculated to imply government approval. The Kountze cheerleaders aren’t just positioned in a strategic spot on the field, but in a strategic spot where the first three clauses of the First Amendment -- the ones that ban the establishment of state religion, guarantee freedom of worship, and defend freedom of speech -- collide.
If they didn’t realize they were doing something controversial, it is only because they are like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water.
“This is religious speech that is inflicted upon a captive audience,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the advocacy group Freedom From Religion Foundation, which brought the original complaint upon Kountze high school on behalf of an anonymous attendee of a game.
There is nothing unusual about high school athletes expressing their religious (usually Christian) views. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is active in thousands of schools and colleges around the United States and the world; the organization’s mission statement cites its goal to “use the powerful medium of athletics to impact the world for Jesus Christ.” Smaller, more sport-specific groups have similar missions. The Christian Cheerleaders of America was “established to use the vehicle of cheerleading to evangelize and disciple young people for Jesus Christ,” according to CCA president Rose Clevenger.
The ghostly voices of George Williams and Charles Eliot can be heard in the FCA’s charter. It can also be heard in Clevenger’s description of the roles of Christianity in athletics and vice versa. “Many great life lessons are learned through participation in athletics,” she wrote in an email interview. “Many Christian principles can be put into practice in athletics.”
Such groups typically serve their memberships without controversy. The FCA and other religious clubs operate freely within public schools, their rights guaranteed by Supreme Court rulings (like Rosenberger v University of Virginia, 1995) that classify school-sanctioned clubs as operating within a “limited public forum.” These groups are often large, vocal forces in school communities, their messages of personal responsibility and social accountability unlikely to ruffle anyone’s feathers. After all, schools have endorsed football as a way to teach “values” since the 19th century. It’s the borderline between “values” and “religious values” that becomes ill-defined, socially and constitutionally, when a Christian message among Christian families becomes a Christian message at a public function.
The CCA is not affiliated with the Kountze cheerleaders in any way. Not surprisingly, though, Clevenger defends their decision to display Christian messages. “Besides being a ‘religious document’ the Bible is also a beautiful and famous piece of literature,” she wrote.
The law which makes the Bible different from other famous literature is the First Amendment. While the Rosenberger decision defended some forms of religious expression on public school grounds, another decision specifically addressed the football field and pregame activities. Santa Fe Independent School District v Jane Doe 2002 ruled that a student-elected chaplain could not deliver convocation prayers before games. Pregame ceremonies do not constitute a limited public forum, the Supreme Court ruled, for a variety of reasons, including in this case an election which “does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking for a plaintiff to bring the Kountze cheerleading case to the Supreme Court. For now, the case has been heard by Texas state courts, which are notoriously sympathetic to free speech cases involving pro-Christian messages. Texas governor Rick Perry supported the cheerleaders, and State Attorney General Greg Abbott declared, “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state, to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”
The FFRF is indeed based in Wisconsin, though it has hundreds of members in Texas. The Sante Fe ruling involved a Texas high school, and the initial complaints in that case were not launched by atheists, but by a Catholic and a Mormon family who became uncomfortable with the strict evangelical invocations chosen by the student chaplain.
That those at “the mercy of majority” can easily be branded as outsiders or troublemakers is essentially the point of the Sante Fe ruling and the FFRF’s objection. The Kountze cheerleaders stand with a governor, attorney general, and a powerful activist group (the Liberty Institute, which has been providing legal support for the cheerleaders, did not respond to an interview request). Their opposition -- non-Christians, non-believers, Christians who feel football games are an inappropriate cultural battleground -- is scattered and mostly silent. After all, if God is for us, who can be against us?
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When reading about the Muscular Christianity movement or the Santa Fe case on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, it is easy to get the characters mixed up. “Progressives” were mainstream Christians in the late 19th Century, unlike their secularized modern descendants, whose views are usually at odds with those of the “religious right.” Eastern universities like Harvard were Christian institutions (though adhering to an increasingly liberalized strand of Christianity) and athletic powerhouses. Intellectual elitism was more of a goal than an insult. There has been a lot of philosophical drift over the past century or so.
Even as Teddy Roosevelt ordered Walter Camp and the proto-NCAA to reform football, the Muscular Christianity movement was falling out of favor among educators. One of the primary reasons was the battle that is still being waged in Kountze High School: the separation of church and state as it pertains to public education. “As you get to the 20th century, it gets harder to preach religion in the public schools,” Putney explained.
The Progressive movement also gradually lost steam, finally collapsing after Prohibition. Football’s usefulness for building strong citizens and soldiers trumped its importance for building pious reformers. Physical education became a standard part of public education. College football attained its own gravity.
Historians have recognized for years that American religious fervor cycles up and down like the tide. Muscular Christianity became popular during what is called the Third Great Awakening. Institutions like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes became current during the Fourth Great Awakening, a movement which started in the early 1960s and continues to this day (though it is not universally recognized among scholars). This Fourth Awakening gave the nation mega-churches, a mobilized and politicized religious right wing, and their natural byproducts -- including Tim Tebow, a player so popular for his piety that his performance is irrelevant.
Like tides, these awakenings sweep along other cultural driftwood. The Third Awakening carried with it the hopes and fears of Industrialization, bringing with it a focus on society building. The current movement is more personal. “We have more of a therapeutic sensibility now than we did at the start of the 20th century,” Putney said. “The athletes seem to think that Jesus wants they, themselves, to be physically fit.” That’s an oversimplification -- pious athletes are often immensely charitable with their money and time -- but the shift in tone from “I will help you up” to “I encourage you to help yourself up” is audible in everything from post-game interviews to presidential debates.
Step back far enough from the Jets sideline or the Texas pregame ceremony, and the questions of football and faith become a microcosm of society’s Big Questions about the role of religion -- or non-religion -- in daily life. These issues are decided in voting booths, in courtrooms, and on pulpits. But they are also continuously tested on the football field, in the stands, and even in the sports blogosphere.
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The crosses were easy to ignore. They were painted on the left shoulders of four LSU students who were also wearing face paint and the large letters C-A-T-S on their chests, gesturing boldly toward the camera in support of their team. No doubt the photographer who snapped the picture overlooked the crosses, or thought nothing of them.
But when the photo of The Painted Posse, a group of devoutly religious Tigers fans, appeared in university promotional materials after an LSU-South Carolina game, the crosses were airbrushed away. "We don't want to imply we are making any religious or political statements, so we air-brushed it out," the school said in a statement.
This minor disagreement went straight to Fox News, and from there to the blogosphere and the world. The university apologized for airbrushing the photo. Meanwhile, Christian student groups mobilized. "I'm on a mission and need everyone's help," wrote fan Paula Jones Bergeron on the Painted Posse’s Facebook page, in a quote that went straight to the FOX feed. "The Alabama game is Nov. 3 and everyone needs to wear a purple or black shirt and wear a large cross, a shirt with a cross on it or face paint a cross on your face. The media will be everywhere and my goal is to have a campus of crosses."
A campus of crosses may not be the best thing for a public institution. “A public university cannot afford to send a message that could come across as exclusion,” Gaylor said, noting that the school made a mistake by using the photos in the first place. It’s not hard to imagine some fans feeling “at the mercy of the majority,” in a very tangible way, if Saturday’s game looks more like a holy war than a battle for the BCS.
When matters of faith spill onto the football field, it’s easy to hear the voices of the fish who do not know they are in water. High school and college students raised in overwhelmingly Christian communities may not recognize that a “campus of crosses” can be intimidating, or that Bible verses can be exclusionary. Small-town chapters of organizations like the FCA, busily carrying on the traditions of Muscular Christianity, manage to touch the lives of tens of thousands of young people while staying out of the Constitution’s way, making it easy for believers to be lulled into a sense that church, school, and state are three faces of one structure. In a nation where lawmakers casually invoke the Ten Commandments (or, in a notorious recent example, “God’s will”), the line between church and state becomes muddy, and it’s easy to jump offsides.
But the lessons of Muscular Christianity, football history, and the evolving roles of both the sport and faith in the American education system are clear: we have known that we are in water for over a century. The Establishment Clause exists to prevent religious plurality from becoming religious tyranny. Public schools have been favorite battlegrounds for church-state battles since their inception. As court rulings have slowly taken the classroom out of play, the football field -- a place that owes its existence to a tradition that saw it as a proving ground for developing strapping young parishioners -- has proven a worthy surrogate, a place where the community’s attention is always focused and the Constitutional loose ends are still frayed.
Some of the issues are easily resolved. Tebow can always be Tebow, and you are free to love, hate, or ignore him, as long as you don’t sell his image on a t-shirt. Fans can paint themselves with crosses to their heart’s content, and their schools have the right to exclude their photos from the program. Quarterbacks can still throw Hail Marys. The controversy comes when the message gets mixed, when the public school game starts to look and feel like a tent revival, when those who are not “with” start to fear there may be consequences for being “against.”
Those issues, as current as Saturday’s LSU game, are well over 120 years old. In 1890, at about the same time football was being touted as a wholesome activity for Christian youth, the Wisconsin state Supreme Court condemned religion in government matters as a source of “strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war.” “Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed," the court wrote.
Religion still knocks on the doors of the common schools at times. But for now, it seems content to hang around the football field.