Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Stadiums in Churches and Players into Preachers

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Pulpits take on all forms and shapes. Jesus preached from a boat, standing in a field, sitting on a hill, and hanging from a cross. Tom Krattenmaker wasn’t around then to critique his message, method, or delivery, but would have taken exception to all three. Krattenmaker’s book, Onward Christian Athletes, is an indictment of the current role that Christianity, (and by that he means Evangelical Christianity, one-truth gospel Christianity) plays in modern day professional athletics. It is not a positive review.

The genesis of the debate, as he tells it, goes back to a fateful day in Philadelphia in the late-70’s when a touchdown scamper by Herbert Lusk was followed by him taking a knee in prayer in the endzone. Since then sports, especially professional sports where the cameras are bigger, the attention garnered, and the talk radio waves need to be filled, have taken a larger and more central role in the club house. The problem this book addresses specifically is found on page 16 where he writes:

“The Christian vanguard in sports isn’t bringing religion to clubhouses so much as a potentially divisive brand of evangelical Christianity…and often attached to it…a conservative worldview that is frequently indifferent if not outright hostile to the plights of racial, religious, and sexual minorities and committed to a high debatable vision for America.” (16, emphasis his)

His thesis and beef is essentially that Evangelical Christianity makes those around it uncomfortable because of its exclusive claims, the popularity of it (more on this later), and why it doesn’t change things.

The first few chapters of the book set the stage for the point that he really wants to get across in the final 2. The first part of the book is a prosecuting attorney setting the failures of the defendant before the jury. The first case is the FCA (the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) where the aforementioned Lusk was a main guest speaker. His problem with FCA stems not from a sports issue, but an issue he has with their politics. Krattenmaker has a problem with the right leaning network of Christianity of which FCA is a part. So his issue is not, “why are sports stars leaning conservative?” but instead “why is Christianity leaning conservative?” He transitions into the athletes who make up the organization. Profiling the likes of Dwight Howard, Curt Schilling, and others, he continues to build a case for the divisive nature of Christianity as it divides locker-rooms and fan bases. And chapter 3 returns to the FCA which: “…like the other athletic ministries, unabashedly aligns itself with the nation’s pro-business, pro-Republican, pro-Christian Right power establishment.”(57)

In Chapter 4 his attention turns to Athletes in Action, a daughter ministry for Campus Crusade for Christ, which kept track of their ministry “key measurements like the back of a baseball card: “evangelism” (10.468,760); “disciples” (3,111); and “recruiting challenged” (8,829). Their main method of ministry was barnstorming/globetrotting teams that challenged minor league/college teams to exhibition games and would share the gospel afterward. But as Krattenmaker pointed out, winners messages carry more weight than losing. His study of Jon Kitna and the God-blessed red-hot Detroit Lions of 2007 paired with his no-longer-blessed Detroit Lions of the second half of 2007, raise the question of the role of faith in winning, losing, and how we respond.

The next target of his cross-hairs is the Baseball Chapel, which like AIA and FCA, provide chaplains to MLB teams across the league.

“Nondenomenationl but distinctly evangelical in tone and philosophy, Baseball Chapel has a credo that succinctly captures the essence of today’s sports flavored Christianity—and that exposes the incompleteness of its claim (one similar to other pro sports ministries’) that it exists merely to provide religious service to pro players…” (91)

Krattenmaker’s issue with BC is the hard-line statement of belief that Jesus is the only way to God. When asked about Jewish teammates going to hell, a chaplain’s response found them in hot water with the media. By 2008, according to his words, 15% of America was unreligious. When Tony Dungy, on the Super bowl podium, gives God glory, Krattenmaker takes offense the same way he does with an athlete attaching his name to a religious movement.

He doesn’t limit his critiques to organizations. Chapter 6 is an essay against Faith & Family Days. He takes issue with those that speak and perform at them: “why is center stage of sports world religion never occupied by a liberal?” (110) He takes issue with those affiliated with the days: Focus on the Family and Chick-fil-a, both conservative Christian organizations. He takes issue with what’s being preached: a lack of pluralism. He’s not high on Moses’ Bobbleheads.

The next two chapters are less arguments against organizations or methodology, but complaints about results and outcomes. He observes that most professional athletes and by proxy the fans tend to be conservatives so he vehemently bemoans political endorsing, promoting life, or denouncing of homosexuality by athletes. “Why does stepping up for Jesus in the world of pro sports so often mean taking a stand for the Republican party and/or conservative politics?” (139) Chapter 8 runs along the same lines, but under the auspice of race in America. The charge he brings is that Christianity has been used to quell the African American community from speaking up and out on social justice issues. It is a plight that was not helped by Tony Dungy and his Right Wing Christian ideals.

The final two chapters were seen coming from miles away. “A match made in hell” shows how diametrically opposed the values of sport and Christianity are. Paul would probably argue otherwise based on his use of the athletics metaphor throughout his writings but I digress. Sport is violence; Christianity, peace/forgiveness. Sport is cheating; Christianity, integrity. Sport is full of beer ads and boobs; Christianity is morality. He tells the story of Bill McCartney, founder of Promise Keepers and his 5th down victory over Mizzou. They scored after being given an extra down but refused to forfeit the win. So to recap, he is upset that Christians aren’t controlling the Ad money that comes into billion dollar businesses, the steroid epidemics, or sports gambling, or the fact that players are in prison.
I saved the third part for the final chapter review.

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