It wasn't so long ago that sports fields were the devil's playground. Babe Ruth could commit five of the seven deadly sins before noon and hit three home runs by dinner. In Damn Yankees, it was Satan, not God, who offered the Washington Senators a pennant in exchange for a player's soul. (Lesson: Offense wins games. Demons win championships.)
But today there are Angels in the Outfield, and God seems to be following pro sports more intently than any Vegas bookie. Several months before the Super Bowl, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, a devout Christian, declared, "The Lord has something special in mind for this team." The Rams won the Super Bowl last week because of a Warner touchdown pass. As the clock ticked to zero, the quarterback yelled, "Thank you, Jesus!" In post-game interviews, Rams receiver Isaac Bruce—who claims that uttering the word "Jesus" saved him from injury in a car crash and healed a pulled groin—described catching the winning pass: "That wasn't me. That was all God. … I had to make an adjustment on the ball, and God did the rest." (Thanks to God's invisibility, the Rams were not penalized for having 12 men on the field.)
Why is God so busy on the gridiron?
Though sports heroes boosted attendance at 19th-century tent revivals, the modern era of "Muscular Christianity" began in the late '40s, when Billy Graham began recruiting born-again athletes to profess their faith publicly. Sports stars have espoused all kinds of religion—Notre Dame built a Catholic football dynasty; Muhammad Ali invoked Elijah Muhammad at the beginning of every interview (much to Howard Cosell's annoyance)—but evangelical Christianity has been by far the most successful in recruitment. Emotional, highly personal, nondenominational Protestantism has supplanted Catholicism as America's dominant sports religion.
Graham and other pastors have pursued a trickle-down theory of religion. It relies on holy jock-sniffing: Fans who see their heroes following Christ are more receptive to Jesus. "We develop athletic influencers into Christ-centered leaders," says Athletes in Action, a sports evangelizing group. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has been organizing at schools and colleges since 1954. (Bill Bradley was briefly an evangelical FCA member.) Today Athletes in Action, Pro Athletes Outreach, Champions for Christ, and Christian Athletes United for Spiritual Empowerment target pro athletes for spiritual help, making them perhaps the most heavily proselytized group in the world.
The evangelizing has especially borne fruit in the NFL. There have been publicly religious players in the NFL since the '60s, but their numbers have surged since the '80s. The increasing number of African-American players has added to their ranks, as has the proselytizing of stars such as Mike Singletary, Reggie White, and Deion Sanders. Post-game prayer circles include players from both teams. Every NFL team has a chaplain—invariably an evangelical—who holds Bible studies and weekend chapels. (One anachronism in Any Given Sunday, the Oliver Stone pro football movie, is that a Catholic priest leads the team prayers.) According to Athletes in Action, which provides half the NFL's chaplains, 35 percent to 40 percent of pro football players are evangelical Christians, compared to about 25 percent of the rest of America.
Coaches like religion in the locker room because it can straighten out otherwise wild or reprobate players. And evangelicals are thrilled about it. "They believe that God has raised up big-time sport as a means to evangelism," says Wheaton College Professor James Mathisen, co-author of Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport. The faithful are theologically obliged to share their "testimony" with others, and Christian athletes use their encounters with large crowds and the media to spread the gospel. Warner's endlessly repeated story—from stock boy to MVP, backed by Jesus—will draw folks to church. Testimonies are usually simple, reflexive professions of faith. Announcer: "Tell me about that catch you made on third-and-10." Player: "Well, first I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …" Journalists often treat this testimony like a fart. They wince and pretend nothing happened.
"Athletes are very pragmatic and outcome-oriented," says Mathisen. It is no accident that many athletes believe in God's involvement in all aspects of life, including football. Athletes want results, and they want to see them when they pray. Former Green Bay Packer White, the most outspoken of Christian athletes, says he knows God acts on football games because God intervened in David's battle with Goliath. The Atlanta Falcons chaplain recently declared that God cares about field goals. When quarterback Randall Cunningham had a great season in 1998, he said that God was showing his appreciation by letting Cunningham win 16 games. Athletes are also superstitious, searching for ways to control games that are inherently chaotic. Some view faith as magic, a "genie in a bottle," as Cleveland Browns chaplain Tom Petersburg puts it. Pray, and good fortune will follow. According to GQ, the Rams' Bruce recently credited God for answering his prayers after a poor first half: "God really manifested in the third quarter. I had 89 yards."
It goes without saying that non-evangelicals reject the idea that Jesus is throwing passes and making tackles. But it is also the case that, except for athletes such as Bruce who make claims about God's on-the-field heroics, few evangelicals accept the "Jesus in the Backfield" theology either. Team chaplains, theologians, pastors, and most Christian players are skeptical, calling it "facile," "immature," and even "heresy." Some argue that football is too trivial for God's concern. "God does not give a rip about who wins or loses. God is engaged in the world, but not in things like athletic contests. That is too frivolous," says Emory University theologian James Freeman, an expert on sports and religion. "I think God could care less who wins or loses," says James Mitchell, former Tennessee Titans chaplain and national director of outreach for Pro Athletes Outreach. God may intervene at times when it truly matters—when Hitler threatens to conquer the world—but He doesn't concern Himself with boys' games.
O ther evangelicals, including the FCA and AIA, hold that God may care who wins the game and may even intervene, but that it's foolish of players to presume to read His mind. "Does God care? I would say yes, but we don't know who He wants to win. God has plans for you however the game comes out," says Petersburg. AIA spokesman Greg Stoughton says that while God may answer a player's prayer for a win, "victory to God may look a whole lot different than it does to the player. … Even if you lose, God is about building character."
The "genie in a bottle" theory, they note, is incoherent about defeat. If God wants you to win because you are faithful, does that mean He wants your opponents—who profess equal devotion—to lose? If your opponents lose, does that mean they didn't have enough faith? If you lose, does that mean you don't have enough faith? The genie has no answer.
Most evangelicals turn the "genie in a bottle" theology on its head. That theology views God as the instrument. God proves Himself to you by making the catch or causing the fumble. But most evangelicals see the player as the instrument: The player glorifies God by playing his best. Petersburg says that his Browns players never pray for victory. They pray "that they play with honor, that that they play to their best ability, that they honor God in the way they play, that they play injury-free." It's not about who wins and who loses. It's about how they play the game.