Evangelical Patriarchy and the World of Sports

As those of you, gentle readers, who follow me on Twitter will have already become aware, I’ve been reading Randall Balmer’s book on Evangelicalism in America.

I first became aware of Balmer when he published an essay on how the rise of the Religious Right wasn’t really about abortion so much as it was about defending racially segregated private “Christian” schools from IRS revocation of tax exempt status.

Yeah, I know.

That essay is in this book, or at least a version of it. It’s good. You should read it. But that isn’t what this post is about. This post is about evangelicals and sports—and more specifically, how sports create alternative worlds in which to live and how those worlds mesh with evangelicalism. And in general, I think, it explains the appeal that many folks find in spending a great deal of time, energy, mind-space, and money on being a sports fan in the contemporary United States. Spoiler alert: it comes from a deep sense of insecurity and a longing for an orderly world that makes sense.

I’m going to give you a long quote from Balmer in a minute. Honestly, this stuff just jumped out at me as especially interesting and I wanted to share it. But the framing is also part of what makes it interesting to me. Balmer is reflecting on Promise Keepers.

What’s that? You don’t know what Promise Keepers was? I’m happy for you. I got a view of it from the inside. It was an evangelical movement that promoted what we might call “benevolent patriarchy” (I am well aware that this is a particularly egregious oxymoron…). It used athletic imagery to this end, even holding massive rallies at sports stadiums. That’s how I ended up in the Pontiac Silverdome sometime in the summer of something like 1998.

So, as I’m sure you gathered, part of what made this chapter from Balmer especially interesting to me was that it helped me better understand—and contextualize—a piece of my evangelical youth.

Enough about why I found this interesting. Here’s Balmer himself (as usual, bold is mine), p. 138–40.

The venue for Promise Keepers rallies underscores the sympathies between sports and spirituality. The world of athletics offers an alternative universe, a subculture that provides a refuge from the larger world. In contrast to that larger world, the world of sports is an orderly universe. This, of course, is not a new observation. In every major sport, the ball represents the world; when the ball stops, play itself stops. In football, which is essentially a military game concerned with the capture and defense of territory, the movement of the ball signals the beginning of play. Basketball, an urban game invented by a YMCA secretary in Springfield, Massachusetts, mimics the urban landscape in that it demands that players maneuver within very narrow confines, similar to the urban world itself. Baseball, the only game in which the defense controls the ball, is a game developed and played by immigrants, and it perfectly mirrored their own world. In baseball the batter is outnumbered nine to one in his attempt to disrupt the defense’s control of the world. The defense is malevolently effective most of the time, and anyone who is successful three times out of ten will probably find a place someday in the Hall of Fame. For the batter, as for the immigrant, the greatest—and most elusive—triumph is to return to home, but it is a journey fraught with perils and very few islands of safety along the way.

What all major sports have in common since the age of industrialism are clear boundaries and precise delineations. The rules may be complex but they too are precise, with every situation and contingency provided for. Something is either in bounds or out of bounds, safe or out, fair or foul. The only thing that can disrupt this orderly universe is a misjudgment. Nothing enrages a sport devotee more than a bad call from an official, whose job is to act as an impartial judge and a benign authority figure. The official has no prerogative to be a judicial activist. He cannot hear mitigating arguments before rendering his judgment. A batter thrown out by a step at first base, for example, cannot argue that he should be called safe because, had he not injured his ankle back in spring training, he would almost certainly have beaten the throw from shortstop and that to call him out on that play betrayed the umpire’s bias against players who are in some way disabled. The wide receiver who failed to plant both feet in bounds before falling out of the end zone cannot argue that he simply forgot to do so and that such negligence should not be held against him and that, furthermore, any adverse ruling would unfairly punish the entire team for the inadvertent lapse of one of its players. No, the officials must render simply, impartial judgments lest they violate the orderly universe that is the world of sports.

If the domain of sports provides an alternative, male-dominated universe where the voices of women rarely intrude, the same can be said of Promise Keepers.

And also, by and large, of contemporary American evangelicalism.


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