LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Super Bowl XLVIII may have been a bust as a football game, but it was a blockbuster as a cultural event. The telecast attracted a record 111.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched television event of all time.
That record will most likely be eclipsed by the next Super Bowl, and the trajectory shows no signs of dissipating. America takes its sports seriously, and Americans take football with the most seriousness of them all.
In a real sense, big-time sports represent America’s new civic religion, and football is its central sacrament.
The relationship between sports and religion in America has always been close, and it has often been awkward. The “muscular Christianity” of a century ago has given way to a more recent phenomenon: the massive growth of involvement in sports at the expense of church activities and involvements.
About 15 years ago, the late John Cardinal O’Connor, then the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, lamented the fact that Little League baseball was taking his altar boys away on Sundays.
“Why is it religion that must always accommodate?” the archbishop asked. “Why must Little League and soccer league games be scheduled on Sunday mornings? Why create that conflict for kids or for their parents? Sports are generally considered good for kids. Church is good for kids.”
The archbishop blamed secularization for this invasion of Sunday: “This is the constant erosion, the constant secularization of our culture, that I strongly believe to be a serious mistake.”
So the cardinal took on Little League and the youth soccer league in New York City. And he lost. Nevertheless, he was right about the problem. The massive rise of sports within the culture is a sign and symptom of the secularization of the larger society.
New evidence for this pattern comes from academics Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard in an essay recently published in The Washington Post. Writing with Super Bowl XLVIII in view, Beneke and Remillard noted: “American sports fans have forged imperishable bonds with the people, places and moments that define their teams. You might even call this attachment religious. But that would be unfair – to sports.”
In other words, the attachment many Americans now have to sports teams exceeds attachment to religious faith – any religious faith.
The two academics then make their central case: “While teams and fans are building powerful, cohesive communities – think Red Sox Nation or the legions of University of Alabama faithful 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 two out of three Americans, a 2012 Pew report noted, are under the impression that religion is losing influence in the country.”
That impression is growing because it is true to the facts. Religion is losing ground and losing influence in American society. The fastest-growing segment of the American public in terms of religious identification is the “nones,” those who identify with no religious tradition at all. At the same time, a religious dedication to sports has been growing. While correlation does not prove causation, the links between these two developments are haunting.
Interestingly, Beneke, who teaches history at Bentley University, and Remillard, who teaches religious studies at St. Francis University, document the dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves to be sports fans. Just a half-century ago, only three in 10 Americans identified themselves as sports fans. Fast forward to 2012 and the percentage is greater than 60 percent. At the same time, church attendance and other marks of religious activity (especially the number of hours each week devoted to church activities) have fallen sharply.
Beneke and Remillard describe the current picture in vivid terms: “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 368 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.”
Cardinal O’Connor would no doubt see the pattern and lament it, but a good many evangelical Christians seem both unmoved and unconcerned. The problem is quite ecumenical in this respect; the youth minister or pastor at your local evangelical church is almost sure to tell you the same story.
Team sports activities or other forms of organized athletics have taken many evangelical families away from church activities. Many children and adolescents know very little of church involvements, but they and their parents (and often their grandparents as well) would not miss a scheduled practice, much less a game or competitive event. The same is increasingly true of spectator sports.
Beneke and Remillard conclude by asserting that “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.”
This dramatic shift could only come to pass if the larger culture has been largely secularized. In this case, secularization does not necessarily mean the disappearance of religious faith but merely the demotion of religious involvement and identification to a level lower than those granted to sports.
Americans may not know who their god is, but you can be sure most know who their team is.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column first appeared at his website, www.AlbertMohler.com.)