What I did: Civil religion. I just can't escape it
Grade for the day: C+
Is there such a thing as too much self-promotion? Yes. Yes there is. Now sit back and watch me test those limits.
A while back, my friend Paul Putz asked if I would help him to write a "listicle" on Christian athletes from the past. I have long admired Paul's work, so I knew this would be a great experience. It certainly was.
Earlier today, Christianity Today posted our final product. Here's the intro:
Clergymen hovering along the sidelines; athletes proselytizing like revival preachers; and “Jocks for Jesus” steadily colonizing locker rooms nationwide.
This was the brave new sports world that journalist Frank Deford described in a 1976 three-part series for Sports Illustrated on religion and sports. “It is almost as if a new denomination had been created,” Deford posited. “Sportianity.”
Deford was writing at a unique historical moment. Newsweek had proclaimed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” as presidential candidate Jimmy Carter identified as a “born again” Christian. Evangelicals, it seemed, were everywhere—even in the games that people played and loved.
More than simply documenting this trend, though, Deford channeled his inner-most H. L. Mencken and produced a whimsical and astute lament of the burgeoning Sportian movement. “They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver,” he quipped.
In the 40 years since Deford’s profile, Sportians have become increasingly ubiquitous. Indeed, the mere fact of their presence is no longer noteworthy. It takes a more conspicuous act or angle to get attention: think of A. C. Green’s celibacy, Orel Hershiser’s singing of the doxology, or Tim Tebow’s sideline gesticulations.
But while the “Christian athlete” phenomenon may have intensified in recent decades, a look back at our past reveals a lengthy history of evangelical Protestant involvement in sports. Long before Deford deployed his now-infamous neologism, Christian athletes made playing and praying part of their athletic identity.Click here to see our list of ten noteworthy "proto-Sportians."
I made a few interesting discoveries while putting this together, not the least of which was Wilma Rudolph. That's a story that I plan to develop more in the book.
Meanwhile, take a look at our list. And if you have other names to add, fire away!