Proselytizing the Pros: Christianity in Big-Time Sports

10 questions for Tom Krattenmaker on Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers 

Authors Intro:

I never have to wait long these days for the headlines to remind me why I thought I needed to write this book examining religion in pro sports.

Through December, we had nonstop coverage of the Tiger Woods scandal constantly reminding us of the temptations that always lie in wait for famous, super-wealthy athletes. Indeed, one of the purposes of the Christianity movement in sports is to exert a positive moral influence on athletes, who always seem to be getting caught up in various forms of misbehavior off the field, court, and (in Tiger’s case) course.

To get us started on the new decade, we had Fox News commentator Brit Hume reminding us of the other primarily objective of the faith-in-sports movement: to use athletes as poster men for the virtues of faith and as carriers of the evangelistic message. Recall what Hume said in his now-famous (infamous?) over-the-air faith pitch to Tiger. Not only would a full Christian conversion bring the fallen golf hero forgiveness and redemption, Hume said. It would make him “a great example” to the world.

And then there was Mark McGwire reminding us of some of the self-serving ways in which athletes are known to invoke faith. While finally fessing up this week to the steroids use of which he’s been long suspected, McGwire vehemently insisted that the drug only helped him stay healthy, and did not help him hit the ball out of the park with his legendary proficiency. The latter, he said, had nothing to do with steroids. It was a “gift” from “the man upstairs.”

Far be it from us to question what God has given Mark McGwire.

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What inspired you to write Onward Christian Athletes? What sparked your interest?

The book has its genesis in the master’s degree program in religion in public life that I did at the University of Pennsylvania, which I completed about five years ago. I was reading a lot about the evangelical movement in America, learning a lot about it in my classes, and I started to realize that the conspicuous religious expression I was seeing in pro sports was an important piece of this larger evangelical engagement with American culture and politics. It struck me as a subject that hadn’t received the thorough journalistic examination that it deserved. It seemed to me there were dozens and dozens of books about religion in politics, but no recent and thorough journalistic analyses of religion in sports. I was basically trying to figure out why religion has become such a big part of the game and what it meant.

Of course, the seed was planted long before. I attended an evangelism event in the Minnesota Twins stadium, featuring a star pitcher for the Twins, when I was about nine years old. I think that stuck with me in some fashion.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Pro sports fans see a lot of religious expression in pro sports—players pointing up to God after a touchdown or home run, for example, or thanking and praising Jesus in post-game interviews—and that was my starting point for the research. As I began to dig into it I was struck by how much organization and strategy exists behind and under all of this. Not to say it’s secret or sinister or anything, because it’s not, but fans don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes by the Christian organizations that minister to athletes and leverage sports to reach the public with their evangelistic message.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Writing newspaper and magazine articles, as I’ve always done, is often a struggle against space limitations. As a rookie author beginning this project, I figured the book would be my chance to finally be free of these space limits and to say pretty much everything on the subject. Well, I learned otherwise. There’s so much more I could have said in the book—and maybe should have said—that just didn’t “fit” for various reasons. One area of discussion that probably deserves more space is the growing interest on the part of Catholics to get a piece of the action, so to speak, in pro sports ministry, which is now largely dominated by evangelicals. Catholic social teaching and ethics, and Catholicism’s historic affinity for sports, make this an interesting possibility for the future. What would it look like if Catholics had a bigger influence on sports-world Christianity?

What’s also missing from my book is acknowledgment of Tony Dungy’s involvement in addressing the appallingly small number of African American coaches in major college football. Dungy is one of the most-admired Christian athletic figures in America and, as the first black coach to ever win the Super Bowl, someone with special credibility when it comes to talking about persistent race issues in America. In my book, I express my disappointment in him and certain other black Christian sports figures for not continuing the tradition of black churches in challenging social and racial injustice. After my book went to press, however, I learned that Tony Dungy has begun working with—and evidently pressing—the NCAA to address this problem. I applaud him for that and hope he can help achieve some progress.

I could go on about what’s left out of the book. There’s also the fact that I focus on the “big three” men’s pro sports—the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball—and say very little about women’s sports. No disrespect intended. I needed a manageable size and scope for the project, and the issues that interest me most are especially poignant around the big-three men’s leagues.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Maybe “misconception” isn’t the right word. But in talking with people about my book, I find they’re generally surprised to learn how organized Christianity in pro sports actually is. For example, most are unaware that all the teams in pro football, basketball, and baseball have Christian chaplains on hand, counseling and supporting players, leading Bible studies and chapel services, and enlisting players to join them in fulfilling the Great Commission, and so forth. One journalist has called pro sports perhaps the most heavily proselytized segment in our country, and that could very well be true.

Did you have a specific audience in mind?

I thought the book would interest the more intellectually inclined and progressive- and secular-leaning sports fans, those who typically voice objections and ask questions about outspoken Christian athletes. I thought it would also attract people who are interested in the role of religion in American culture, folks who are curious about the Christian Right and its influence on American life. Finally, I very much hoped I would reach some of the evangelical community, especially the more open-minded and nonpartisan evangelicals who are part of the project of reforming their movement and adapting it to our changing culture. I’m gratified to see that at least some of that third potential audience is supporting the book. Of course, it seems there are plenty who are ready to dismiss it or ignore, write it off as just one more attack on their faith by the liberal elite media. That’s a shame, because if they read my book they’d see that I have a lot of respect for Christianity and its potential to change the world for the better.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Well, certainly not the latter. One of my weaknesses as a writer is my overgrown tendency to be polite, and to go overboard in trying to be fair. (Not that I always live up to it.) That said, I know from the reaction in the blogosphere and my e-mail inbox that there are some conservative Christians who are very pissed off about my book. You can’t really write about religion and culture without pissing off someone.

My real motivation was to help sports fans understand why they’re seeing so much Christianity in the game, whether it’s something they like or dislike. I wanted to frame the issue and make some sense of it. I observe a lot of visceral, knee-jerk reaction to religion in the game—vigorous defenses of it and attacks against it—but not a lot of thoughtful or nuanced thinking about what’s good and legitimate about it, and what’s objectionable about it in view of the unifying civic role played by our sports teams. I also wanted to help readers understand why this is a public issue and why the public has a right to care and comment.

What alternative title would you give to this book?

“The Salvation of Sports.” It’s the title of my book’s closing chapter, and it highlights the largely unrealized potential of sports-world Christianity to serve as a real moral voice against the abuses and excesses of big-time sports in America today. Since coming on the scene a half-century ago, sports ministry has mainly concerned itself with evangelism and issues around players’ individual morality, but it has been largely silent on what you might call the systemic “sins” of big-time sports.

How do you feel about the cover?

I feel that my publisher, Rowman and Littlefield, did a great job with the cover. It captures the spirit and essence of the book. They gave the cover an eye-grabbing design and muscular, athletic kind of feel. There’s a certain ambiguity with the title and subtitle that I like. (The former was my idea and the latter was theirs.) We’ve all been taught that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but if people did that with mine, I think we’d be all right.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

In a way, you’re asking me to name the book or books that I admire most and that represent the best example of the kind of writing I do. Malcolm Gladwell’s books immediately come to mind. His books shed fresh light on longstanding situations and phenomena and help us find new ways of thinking about things—and in a very accessible, engaging style. That’s what I try to do in my newspaper columns and in my book.

What’s your next book?

This is just tentative, but my agent and I are considering a book exploring the amazing religious innovation happening here in my home base of Portland, Oregon. Some are calling it “Jesus’ Favorite City,” and with their tongues only 90-something percent in cheek. This is fun to think about because of Portland’s ultra-secular reputation and demographics. I’m super intrigued by this idea that Christianity’s best face would emerge in such a secular, liberal environment.

Is there anything you’d like readers to know about your book?

Yes, thank you for asking. My book is not a sports book per se, so potential readers who think, “Well, I’m not really a sports fan,” need not worry. The book is very much for them! I’d like to think that anyone who reads it will come away with a better understanding of the issues and challenges around religion—evangelical Christianity in particular—in American public life in this age.

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