“Jerry Falwell’s dream of athletic domination is in peril” as Black athletes leave Liberty University

Liberty_University_Flames_stadium,_Lynchburg,_VA_IMG_4118

I was happy to help Joel Anderson with this piece at Slate.

Here is a taste:

Liberty’s football team has indeed come a long way since its inaugural season in 1973, when the Flames lost their first game to Massanutten Military Academy by 10 points. Liberty now plays in the top division of college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, and earned its first bowl victory in December. But to get to where Falwell Jr. wants to be, the university needs the caliber of athletes—many of them Black, like Land and Clark—that he has increasingly alienated with his far-right activism. (Nearly half of Division I football players are Black, according to the NCAA’s demographics database.)

“In order for them to attract the kind of players they need to become a top Division I school, they need to go recruiting people, Black and white, who aren’t necessarily perfect fits for a place like Liberty,” said John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “They’ve gotta go beyond the megachurch youth group.”

In our conversation just before his announcement, Land made it clear that football was never a problem for him at Liberty. The training facilities at the school were top notch. He’d acquitted himself well as a freshman defensive back, playing in 11 of 13 games, including five starts, and finishing with 23 tackles. He was projected to start as a sophomore. It was everything he dealt with off the field, Land said, that made it hard for him to recommend the experience to anyone else.

Read the rest entire piece here.

ADDENDUM (August 2, 2020). After rereading this piece, I also realize Anderson quoted me on race:

This school was borne out of a culture that was systemically racist,” said Fea, the Messiah University professor who has written extensively about Liberty on his website. “And they won’t address that because they don’t even believe in it.

Episode 69: Be Like Mike?

Podcast

Did you watch “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls? In this episode of the podcast, Baylor University sports historian Paul Putz helps us make sense of it. Join us for a conversation about Jordan’s place in NBA history, the role of the black athlete in American culture, and some thoughts on how the stories of athletes like Jordan provide a window into our own identities as human beings. (NOTE: This episode was recorded BEFORE the anti-racism protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death).

What is Going on in the World of (Evangelical) College Wrestling?

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Liberty University wrestling coach Jesse Castro

Dozens of matches took place between the three daily mat cleanings. No social distancing among participants and spectators. No communication with the Center for Disease Control. A Liberty University coach claiming the coronavirus is “overhyped.”

Bill Trollinger, a historian at the University of Dayton, is on the case at his blog, Righting America:

Unsurprisingly, Giunta and other tournament officials maintained no communication with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But it is not difficult to imagine what the CDC would have had to say to them.

While the Dallas Morning News reporter failed to point this out, the NCWA is an organization with a strong evangelical flavor. One of its programs is the 6:12 Project, the name coming from Ephesians 6:12:  

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 

Not only does the 6:12 Project encourage wrestling teams to come up with community service projects, but it also, through a link on its website, provides member teams with BeliefMap, described as an “advanced debate simulator” that prepares Christians to successfully convince unbelievers not only that God exists, but that 

We are all guilty of sin (lying, stealing, lusting etc.) and, in virtue of His holiness, God’s wrathful final destruction of evil and evildoers is coming soon. There is only one way to be saved from it: you must throw yourself at the mercy of God, and freely accept Jesus’s cleansing of you and transformation of you into a sinless person for heavenly living.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, executive director Giunta explained that he chose not to cancel the NCWA tournament because he thinks a lot of the response to the escalating pandemic “is driven by fear,” and “we’re going to operate on faith rather than fear.” 

Then there is coach Jesse Castro, whose Liberty University wrestling team came away with top honors at the tournament. Echoing his boss (Jerry Falwell Jr.), Castro said that he thinks the coronavirus is being “overhyped” by Democrats as a way to impeach Donald Trump:

Call me a conspiratorist [sic] or whatever. Is that to minimize what’s going on? Absolutely not. But you cannot view this from a prism without being political to some degree. It’s too obvious.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is Another Piece on Today’s BYU-Liberty Football Game

Liberty Trump

Earlier this morning I wrote about the matchup between these two faith-based football programs.  Here is a much better piece than the one to which I linked.  Deseret News writer Ethan Bauer talked to Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., controversial Liberty University athletic director Ian McGaw, Bentley University historian Clifford Putney, and Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz, among others.

Here is a taste:

…since Falwell Jr. became Liberty’s president in 2007 following his father’s death, he’s labored to elevate the program. Thanks to an influx of money from online adult education, he’s invested $1.6 billion in infrastructure projects, many related to athletics. They include a $32 million athletic administration building, new swimming and indoor track and field complexes, and a $29 million indoor football practice facility. Critics say Liberty is tilting too much toward athletics, but Falwell dismisses those comments.

It’s kind of comical to me when people say Liberty has left its original mission to go big-time in sports, because that was the original mission,” he said.

In 2017, when Liberty finally started moving to the FBS level, the top tier of college football, BYU was among the first calls athletic director Ian McCaw made.

Texas Christian, Southern Methodist and Baylor are all religious schools that have thrived on the gridiron, but BYU — along with Notre Dame — was Liberty’s role model. In fact, Falwell Jr. said the “LU” that decorates Liberty Mountain in Lynchburg was inspired by a trip to Utah some 15 years ago, when he saw the Y.

“BYU is very much a program that we aspire towards as a faith-based school that’s had tremendous success,” McCaw said, “including winning the national championship.”

Saturday the Flames arrive with firepower. Liberty (6-3) ranks 19th in the nation in passing offense. Senior quarterback Stephen Calvert’s 293 yards passing per game rank 13th, and senior wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden ranks third among receivers in yards per game.

Nevertheless, Liberty’s weak schedule means it hasn’t been tested much, and BYU (4-4) is favored by 17 points. The significance of conquering those long odds can’t be overstated, and Falwell decided to attend the game this week on the off chance it happens (which would also make Liberty bowl eligible for the first time).

“It’d be more than just an upset,” he said. “It’d be the culmination of 48 years of planning and a 48-year vision for Liberty.”

Either way, Falwell has several things in common with the Cougar faithful, notably their belief in God and shared enthusiasm for what some may see as an unholy act: Men battering each other in secular cathedrals in pursuit of victory, trophies and SportsCenter highlights.

Read the entire piece here.

ADDENDUM: BYU 31 Liberty 24

Yet Another Piece About Liberty University’s Quest to Become the “Evangelical Notre Dame”

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These articles show-up every now and then.  I’ve written about them here and here and here.

Here is a taste of J. Brady McCollough’s long-form piece at the Los Angeles Times:

Signs offering football ticket discounts cover the campus, and posters of the team’s new coach, Hugh Freeze, encourage the effort to “Rise With Us.” Clearly, there is room at Liberty for the country’s Saturday religion.

Falwell Sr. had a vision of Liberty being for Evangelical Christians what Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons, and the newest team in major college football is not subtle with its imagery. The Flames wear red, white and blue. Their mascot is a bald eagle.

Read the entire piece here.

Some thoughts:

  1. This article is mostly about football.  Liberty’s quest to become an evangelical Notre Dame is never framed in terms of academics, intellectual life, or research.  At one point in the article, McCollough says, “To be a worthwhile university, Jerry Falwell Jr. thought, you needed to have two elements at the front: music and athletics.”  Really?
  2. Liberty University, with its vast resources, could be evangelicalism’s best chance at developing a serious research university.  But it won’t happen until the university offers tenure for faculty, invests money in faculty research, and broadens the doctrinal requirements placed upon faculty.  Falwell Jr.’s is not committed to these things.  In fact, the president’s rabid support for Donald Trump has seriously damaged any such advance and has probably set it back a few decades.
  3. Will Liberty University ever become the “evangelical Notre Dame” in football?  I doubt it.  I don’t think there are enough evangelicals who play football.  I could be wrong about this, but Liberty will never be anything more than a mid-major football program. Sure, they will occasionally pull-off an upset victory (remember Appalachian State and, more recently, Georgia State), but this will not make them a perennial power.  (Update: Syracuse shut-out Liberty on Saturday).

Is the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s Fight for Equality Rooted in Christian Faith?

Soccer

I don’t know the answer to this question.  But it is an interesting one.

Megan Rapinoe is getting a lot of attention today, as she should. I don’t know if she is a religious person, but if she is a person of deep religious faith she is not alone on the women’s national team that just won the World Cup.

Religious belief has been an under-explored dimension of this team’s incredible run on the World Cup pitch.  I also wonder if it has anything to do with their activism off the pitch.

Several members of the team appear to be very serious Christians.

Alyssa Naeher, the goalie who made the game-winning save in the semifinals against England, attended Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, Connecticut.  Her twin sister, Amanda, is a pretty good soccer player in her own right.  During her stellar career at Messiah College, Amanda was a two-time NCAA Division III National Player of the Year. She was part of two NCAA national championship teams.  I not only looked this up, but I also spent many hours with my young daughters watching her play.  Amanda is currently the head soccer coach at Charlotte Christian, the school that has brought us NBA stars Stephen and Seth Curry.

From what I have been able to gather through interviews and social media, Alyssa does not seem to flaunt her Christianity.  But every now and then she posts a tweet like this:

Over at Faithwire, Lindsay Elizabeth writes about the Christian faith of Tobin Heath and Julie Ertz.

At Catholic Vote, Katie Yoder covers the Christian commitments of Heath, Ertz, (and her husband, Philadelphia Eagles player Zach Ertz), Crystal Dunn, Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh, Jessica McDonald, Emily Sonnett, and Morgan Brian.

I think we need to get Baylor University sports historian Paul Putz to break this all down for us.

Tony Bennett, Evangelicalism, and University of Virginia Basketball

Bennett

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, was no evangelical.  But he was a champion of religious liberty and had a lot of support among Virginia evangelicals when he ran for president in 1800. So it is unclear what he would have thought about an evangelical running his school’s national championship basketball program.

UVA coach Tony Bennett has been outspoken about his evangelical faith.  His faith has been covered by the Billy Graham Evangelistic AssociationThe Daily Progress,  the Baptist Press, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Heavy.  (The Washington Post discussed how he handled racism during 2017 white nationalist invasion of Charlottesville, but says nothing about his Christian faith).

Following his team’s national championship victory on Monday night, Bennett told Jim Nantz that he had played a Christian song titled “Hills and Valleys” to get his team ready for the game.  This song must have had special meaning for Bennett.  Last March, Bennett’s UVA program was definitely in the “valley” after it became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed (UMBC). (It should be no surprise that Bennett received a text from former NFL coach and motivational speaker Tony Dungy after the loss to UMBC).

The lyrics of “Hills and Valleys” focus on God’s faithfulness during the joy and pain of life:

I’ve walked among the shadows
You wiped my tears away
And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak
And I’ve seen the brighter days
And I’ve prayed prayers to heaven from my lowestplace
And I have held the blessings
God, you give and take away

No matter what I have, Your grace is enough
No matter where I am, I’m standing in Your love

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

I’ve watched my dreams get broken

In you I hope again!
No matter what I know
Know I’m safe inside Your hand

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

Father, you give and take away
Every joy and every pain
Through it all you will remain
Over it all!

Father, you give and take away
Every joy and every pain
Through it all you will remain
Over it all!

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there (to the one who set me there)
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

Frankly, it’s refreshing to see Bennett invoke a song that celebrates God’s faithfulness in the wins AND the losses.

The role that Bennett’s faith plays in his coaching is covered well in Jonathan Adams’s piece at Heavy. Here is a taste:

Virginia coach Tony Bennett is outspoken about his Christian faith and how it shapes his work with players. During the 2019 NCAA tournament, Bennett noted his faith helps him through stressful situations in games.

“You certainly feel things – things bother you, but where does peace and perspective come from? And I always tell our guys: It’s got to be something that is unconditional,” Bennett said, per Christian Headlines. “And I know I have that in the love of my family – unconditional acceptance and love. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith in Christ. That’s, for me, where I draw my strength from – my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things.”

Bennett committed to being a Christian while he was attending a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp when he was 14, per Decision magazine. The Virginia coach emphasizes five pillars to his players, and the tenets have become a staple of the Virginia program. Bennett drew upon Biblical principals to create the five pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Former Virginia player Joe Harris spoke with Decision magazine about the impact these pillars have had on his life beyond basketball.

“You can apply those pillars to the rest of your life, not just basketball,” Harris noted to Decision. “I always tell people that being at Virginia with coach Bennett helped me in a huge developmental standpoint as a basketball player, but that I developed even more as a person.”

Something tells me Jefferson would still be happy with the UVA win.

Episode 40: Sportianity

PodcastWhat do Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have in common? Besides being NFL quarterbacks, they’re both famous kneelers. Yet their actions have been interpreted by sports fans and American Christians in very different ways. In today’s episode, we explore the deep historical connections between sports and Christianity. Host John Fea looks into what colonial New England’s Puritans thought about sports. They are joined by Messiah College historian Paul Putz (@p_emory), who discusses his work on the unique melding of sports and religion, “sportianity.”

Colin Kaepernick’s Christian Faith?

God tattoos

Many on the Christian Right despise Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. His decision to kneel before the American flag was a form of protest against systemic racism in America.

Recently a reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog asked me check out the “Personal Life” section of Kaepernick’s Wikipedia page.  Here is what I found:

Kaepernick was baptized Methodistconfirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during his college years.[117] Kaepernick spoke about his faith saying, “My faith is the basis from where my game comes from. I’ve been very blessed to have the talent to play the game that I do and be successful at it. I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field. I think if you go out and try to do that, no matter what you do on the field, you can be happy about what you did.”[118]

Kaepernick has multiple tattoos. His right arm features a scroll with the Bible verse Psalm 18:39 written on it. Tattooed under the scroll are praying hands with the phrase “To God The Glory” written on them. To the left of both the scroll and praying hands is the word “Faith” written vertically. His left arm features a Christian cross with the words “Heaven Sent” on it referring to Jesus. Written above and below the cross is the phrase “God Will Guide Me”. Written to the left and right of the cross is the Bible verse Psalm 27:3. His chest features the phrase “Against All Odds” and artwork around it that represents “inner strength, spiritual growth, and humility”. His back features a mural of angels against demons.[119][120][121] Near the end of the 2012 NFL season, Kaepernick’s signature touchdown celebration involved flexing and kissing the bicep of his right arm. Kaepernick says he kisses his “Faith”, “To God The Glory”, and Psalm 18:39 tattoos and the reason he does the celebration is because “God has brought me this far. He has laid out a phenomenal path for me. And I can’t do anything but thank Him.”[119]

I don’t know the current state of Kaepernick’s spiritual life or how he currently understands his religious identity (he girlfriend, Nessa Diab, is Muslim), but all of this sounds pretty evangelical to me.  This sounds like a job for my Messiah College colleague Paul Putz, an expert on the history of sports and Christianity.

If the Wikipedia page (you can follow the footnotes through the links) is correct, would this change the minds of Kaepernick’s Christian Right critics?  Would School of the Ozarks consider renegotiating their contract with Nike?  Would this guy put his scissors away?  Probably not, but if Kaepernick is a “brother in Christ” it would make it a bit more difficult to ostracize him.

Are the Philadelphia Eagles Part of the 19%?

Baptism

Philadelphia sports fan are brutal.  They once booed Santa Claus.  As a Mets fan who has sat numerous times in the old Veterans Stadium to watch a Mets-Phillies game, I can testify to the ugliness.

But during the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl season, a narrative emerged that was strikingly different from the crudeness of the typical Philadelphia sports fan.  The Eagles were a team loaded with evangelical Christians.

Head coach Doug Pederson was the head football coach at Calvary Baptist Academy in Louisiana.  Quarterback Carson Wentz owns a Bible app and runs an evangelical foundation that serves the poor around the world.  Nick Foles, the hero of the Super Bowl, has appeared in Wentz’s devotional videos and is training to become a pastor.  So has Trey Burton, Zach Ertz, and Chris Maragos.  In October 2017, Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Paul Turner, and David Watford were baptized in a recovery pool in the Eagles practice facility.  Tight end Trey Burton performed the baptism.  Wide receiver Marcus Johnson was baptized in a hotel pool.  Third string quarterback Chase Daniels leads a couples’ Bible study that draws 20-25 people.  According to this piece at ESPN, during the season there is “Thursday night Bible study at the facility, scripture text chains, and late-night prayer sessions at the team hotel the night before each game.”  Some members of the team–including Wentz and Foles–call themselves the “Philadelphia Gospel Group.”

So it is certainly interesting that only ten of the Eagles, and perhaps less, were going to show-up today at the White House, leading Trump to cancel the event.  (Wentz and Foles said they would attend, but only if the Eagles voted to go as a team).  Are the Eagles part of the 19%?

Football and God

Stagg

The NFL season began last night.  That means it’s time for Christianity Today and other religious publications to start publishing pieces on Christianity and football.  This year is no exception.  Check out this piece by Paul Putz and Hunter Hampton, two emerging scholars of religion and sport.

Here is a taste of “God and the Gridiron Game“:

Some Protestants, especially “muscular Christians” like Yale graduate and University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, saw nothing wrong with the physicality of the sport. Indeed, football’s defenders often cited the prevalence of pious “praying” players as evidence of the game’s compatibility with Christian morality. But many Protestant leaders denounced football’s brutality. Charles Blanchard, president of Wheaton College from 1882 until 1925, took this view. He placed football in the same category as gambling and hard liquor, and viewed the sport not as a heroic, manly game, but a savage sport inhibiting students’ development into productive and civilized men.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, football’s leaders responded to critics like Blanchard by instituting a series of reforms (such as the legalization of the forward pass and the elimination of mass plays) to open up the game. Over time the rule changes helped to protect football from charges of brutality.

The passion that the game inspired in participants and spectators protected football as well. Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen was one of many to fall under its spell. “When I see a vacant field on one of these autumn days,” Machen wrote to a friend while in Europe in 1905, “my mind is filled with wonder at this benighted people which does not seem to hear the voice of nature when she commands every human being to play football or watch it being played.”

Read the entire piece here.  In their next piece, I would like to see Hampton and Putz historicize this story.  How much longer can Christian colleges continue to field football teams and keep their moral integrity?

Sportianity on Ralph Drollinger’s Bible Study With Trump’s Cabinet

Drollinger

Drollinger was #35 on the 1975 UCLA team (via thetallestman.com)

On Monday we called your attention to the Bible study taking place among members of Donald Trump’s cabinet.  The study is led by former UCLA basketball player Ralph Drollinger.  Read our take here.

Over at Sportianity, Paul Putz tells us a bit more about Drollinger and his ministry.

Here is a taste:

Drollinger has applied this sports ministry approach to politicians and government leaders since 1996, when he created Capitol Ministries. That said, it should be noted that sports ministry organizations did not create the methods of ministry that Drollinger uses. In my dissertation I discuss some of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century sources that inspired and shaped the FCA’s approach to sports-specific ministry. And historians such as Kevin Kruse have written about the ways in which ministers beginning in the 1930s targeted their efforts towards reaching and influencing businessmen and politicians. But in Drollinger’s mind and experience, at least, his ministry among government leaders is simply an extension of his work among athletes and coaches, a chance to apply those methods to a new field ripe for harvest.

“Whereas a sports ministry movement is certain to have a positive impact on many,” Drollinger writes in Rebuilding America, “helping to generate a movement for Christ amongst governing authorities holds promise to change the direction of a whole country!”

As for the direction in which Drollinger believes the country should change, one can get a good idea by reading the endorsements for his book, which include statements from Christian Right luminaries like David Barton and conservative politicians like Michelle Bachmann. I hope to say more about the connections between sports ministry organizations and the Christian Right in a future post, but a word of caution before one assumes that Drollinger speaks for all involved in Sportianity: according to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s latest book, Drollinger’s old UCLA coach, John Wooden—prominently involved in evangelical sports ministries and prominently featured in Drollinger’s Rebuilding America book—voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Read the entire post here.

Sportianity: A New Blog

Frank_Deford

Frank Deford coined the term “Sportianity”

Baylor University graduate student Paul Putz has started a blog on sports and American Christianity.

Here is how he describes “Sportianity“:

Let’s start with the name. “Sportianity” is a term coined by legendary sportswriter Frank Deford. He used it in a 1976 Sports Illustrated series on religion in sport (read more about that series here). Deford used it in a mostly negative sense, implying that Sportianity was a corruption of true Christianity; it was a religion “more devoted to exploiting sport than to serving it.”

I do not use it in the negative sense implied by Deford. Rather “Sportianity” is meant as a descriptive term for the unique cultural world that stands at the intersection of sports and (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christianity. It is inhabited by institutions like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and others. It is championed by media/publications like Sports Spectrum. And it is represented by celebrity athletes like Tim Tebow, Stephen Curry, and Maya Moore. 

Over the coming months I will focus on two types of content. First, book reviews/summaries. There are hundreds of books that take up the topic of sports and Christianity. Some are written from a critical perspective, others are intended to inspire true believers. Still others are biographies or autobiographies that focus on the faith of famous athlete and coaches. I will use this space to discuss some of those books, both new and old. 

Second, biographical vignettes. I’m currently finishing up a dissertation on the history of Sportianity. In my research I often come across the names of famous athletes from the past who were public about their faith. Many of those athletes will not make it into my dissertation, so I will post brief historical snippets about some of them here. 

Good luck with the new blog, Paul!  We will be reading.

Liberty University in the #AgeofTrump

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During the GOP presidential primary and caucus season Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump.  There were plenty of candidates running for the GOP nomination who fit much better with the conservative evangelical identity of a place like Liberty University.  I am thinking here of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and perhaps even John Kasich.

Yet Falwell Jr. supported Trump.

What is perhaps most interesting about Falwell Jr.’s support of Trump was that it did not seem to be rooted in any kind of Christian political philosophy.  It seems that the main reason he supported Trump was because he was a good businessman and wanted to make America great again.

Unlike James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and other evangelicals who endorsed Trump because he would appoint the kind of Supreme Court justices that would deliver on longstanding Christian Right social issues, Falwell Jr. rarely framed his support around abortion or marriage. When Robert Jeffress was making a tortured biblical argument about the proper role of government, Falwell Jr. was talking about Trump’s leadership skills.

Granted, Falwell Jr. is not a theologian.  But he is the president of the largest Christian university in the world.  He could at least articulate a basic theological argument for why he thinks voting for Trump is the evangelical thing to do.  I am not asking that it be a good theological argument, but at least show his followers that he is making some effort to think Christianly about the election.

And now we come to Falwell’s recent decision to appoint disgraced former Baylor University athletic director Ian McCaw as the new Liberty University athletic director.  (We wrote about this earlier in the week, so I will not go into details.  Read more about it here). The New York Times has taken note of all of this in a story titled “At Liberty University, All Sins Are Forgiven on the Altar of Greed.”

Here is a taste:

The hiring of McCaw has also proved contentious. As the university’s Facebook page filled up with angry comments, Falwell felt compelled to offer explanations on the university’s website. He said Liberty had conducted an “investigation.” It found that McCaw was a fine man. Far from being pushed out of Baylor, Falwell said, McCaw’s “decision to resign was his own choice.”

“If he made any mistakes at Baylor,” Falwell said — let us pause here to appreciate his use of the conditional — “they appear to be technical and unintentional.” There is not an athletic director in America, Falwell added, who better understands the importance of complying with federal guidelines on reporting any sexual assault on a campus.

And thus tin is transmuted into gold.

Read the entire piece here.  The title of the Times piece really says it all.

Make Liberty University Football (and all other sports) Great Again in the #ageoftrump

mccaw

Decency, morality, truth, and ethics no longer matter in what I have been describing on Twitter as the #ageoftrump.  Perhaps the most conspicuous representatives of this new political and cultural era are American evangelicals.

It has now been well documented that many white evangelical Christians supported Donald Trump despite the deficiencies in his moral character.  (And this has nothing to do with the fact that he is unqualified to hold this office).  Christian political witness has now come down to whether or not a candidate will promise to support a certain kind of Supreme Court justice or whether or not a candidate is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

#theageoftrump also seems to be having an effect on Christian institutions of higher learning who want to have nationally-ranked sports programs.

As you may have seen in the news, Liberty University just hired former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw. I don’t know much about McCaw’s politics or Christian commitments. I assume that he is conservative and he is an evangelical.

I do know that he strengthened Baylor’s athletic program during his tenure in Waco. I also know that he knew about a gang-rape by Baylor football players and did not report it to school officials.  (We in central Pennsylvania know a thing or two about football coaches sitting on this kind of information).

It does not surprise me in the #ageoftrump that Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a strong Trump supporter who dismissed the POTUS-elect’s moral indiscretions, would hire McCaw as the university’s athletic director.  I am sure Falwell Jr. was grinning ear-to-ear when McCaw  announced that:

My vision for Liberty is to position it as a pre-eminent Christian athletic program in America and garner the same type of appeal among the Christian community as Notre Dame achieves among the Catholic community and BYU garners from the Mormons.

In fact, Falwell was so excited about McCaw that he turned to twitter:

Character and ethics no longer matter in the #ageoftrump.  What matters is making things great again.

Karl Barth on the Olympic Games

karl-barth-shooting-rifle

I don’t think the Swiss theologian was a fan. But he does mention Pele:

Today what is called sport seems to have become the playground of a particular earth-spirit. In most cases the old and honest saying, “a healthy mind in a healthy body” can no longer be invoked today as a rational explanation of what motivates active sporting figures….What is behind the enthusiasm of millions of sporting fans who watch the players with such passionate and often frenzied excitement? … Why is the Sunday evening paper so infinitely more important to countless numbers of people because of the late news it gives about football scores rather than accounts of the most astounding and momentous things that might have happened in the arena of world politics? After the soccer championship game in Sweden in 1958, what led Brazil, the home of the victorious team, to establish a national holiday, and what was it that brought the prodigy, Pele, then seventeen years old, not only a good deal of money …but also no fewer than five hundred offers of marriage, while on the same occasion Germany, for the opposite reason, threatened to plunge into a kind of irritated national mourning with all kinds of accompanying phenomena? Why all this fuss and fury? What is the real glory (doxa) of the winner of the Tour or France or Switzerland? … What is the majesty that has brought to the Olympic games the regular cultic form of worship, praise, laud and thanksgiving? So many facts, questions, and riddles! It should be obvious that we have here a special form of derangement. Man has lost and continually loses his true majesty. It is thus inevitable that, in this matter too, sense should change into nonsense.”

Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 230–1 (CD IV.4 fragments)

HT: Ian Clary via Facebook

The Religious Power of Baseball

Obama Cuba

Sean O’Neil starts his piece on the sacredness of baseball with Barack Obama’s comments in Cuba about the so-called national pastime.

I did not play a lot of baseball as a kid; I was more of a basketball player, but there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally woven into our culture. And in some ways, at a time in our lives where everything is a mile a minute and kids are on their phone all the time and there’s just this constant stream of information, there is nothing like going to a ball park and just everything slowing down a little bit, and the rhythm of the game gives you a sense of appreciation about all the blessings we have. It’s still a family game in a way that is really hard to match.

O’Neil ends his piece by bringing attention to ESPN radio personality  Dan Lebotard’s take on the recent game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cuban National Team.  Here is a taste:

When Le Batard watched the video of a Cuban dissident momentarily seize ESPN’s broadcasting platform in Havana to yell against the human-rights abuses of the Castro regime, before being swiftly and forcefully apprehended and pushed into a car, Le Batard felt no ambiguity. Nor could he muster words. He choked on tears and motioned for a commercial break to his radio broadcast.

Sporting events, like civil religion, can provide pluralistic spaces of resiliency in the face of terror. Many claim baseball did that after 9/11. Obama is a believer in that legacy. But the power of sports to produce heightened emotional states of unity, which scholars call “collective effervescence,” can also give it a shared power with religion to occlude injustice in this world, to bury it in cheap, playful sentiment. Sports, like religion, and like the American Dream, will thus continue to be contested symbolic terrain, where the stakes can prove much more complicated than zero-sum games, and the vexed emotional legacies much longer-lasting than nine innings.

Is There An Anabaptist Vision of Sport?

Does look like an Anabaptist celebration?

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz gives us a preview of his forthcoming presentation for the 2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: “Anabaptist Visions of Sport: Separation, Accommodation, and Transformation.”

Gehrz sings the praises of Messiah College athletics:

…But no Goshen program has achieved anything approaching the competitive results of the two soccer teams at Messiah: the Falcon men have won ten national championships since 2000 and the women five. (The softball, track and field, and wrestling teams have also won national championships.) Earlier this year Messiah was named the 8th best college for female athletes, higher than any other Division III school (Wheaton came in at #18) and edging out D-I powerhouses like Alabama, Florida, Michigan, and Oklahoma.

In 2009 USA Today ran a feature story on Messiah athleticsin which student-athletes, coaches, and administrators made clear that personal development and fellowship were more important than winning. (“I don’t really think God concerns Himself — or Herself, however you want to say that — with who wins or loses,” said then-campus pastor Eldon Fry.) But reporter Erik Brady did pick up on the seeming tension between Messiah’s Anabaptist roots and its latter-day embrace of sport:
Given the school’s pacifist roots, what’s with the fierce falcon mascot? “This is not a dove,” [president Kim] Phipps says. “We’re talking here about competition.”

Brady identified Messiah more in terms of evangelicalism, as did Messiah professor John Fea, in a blog post commenting on the article: “Most of our students come from evangelical backgrounds. Many of them are very pious and this often translates into their performance on the athletic fields.” So perhaps all this tells us is that the school has moved further away from its Anabaptist heritage.

Since Chris quotes me here, allow me to make a very quick observation about our athletic program.  I hope the folks in the athletic department will take this as the musings of a fan and outsider observer rather than as an expert who knows how to run an athletic program.

Does Messiah College promote a distinctly “Christian” view of intercollegiate athletic competition? Yes–absolutely.  Most of the coaches that I know are evangelical Christians.  Most of the players are also evangelical and those who are not quickly adjust and adapt to the evangelical culture of the team and the college.  Messiah College athletes pray together, they have Bible studies, they do team-bonding activities that are both fun and spiritual.  They go on mission-oriented trips around the world.

But is there some way in which Messiah College athletics is distinctly “Anabaptist” in nature?  I don’t think so.  The Messiah athletic facilities fly an American flag and the National Anthem is played before games.  (The only places on campus where the flag can be found).  The college now plays NCAA tournament games on Sundays.  I also wonder if they wear uniforms or use equipment made by poor, underpaid laborers in countries around the world. (I would be happy to be corrected on this). They promote themselves in a way that is no different than any other sports program.  And they have a pretty slick (definitely not “plain”) website.

I am not sure if all of this is good or bad, but I do think that one would be hard pressed today to call the Messiah College athletic program “Anabaptist” in nature.

Of course historians study change over time.  And Gehrz’s piece is interesting in the way it compares an older vision of Messiah athletics with its current manifestation as an NCAA Division III powerhouse and one of the best places in the country to be a student-athlete.