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God In The Stadium

God In The Stadium: Sports and Religion in America

Robert J. Higgs
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 400
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    God In The Stadium
    Book Description:

    From the worship of Michael Jordan to the downfall of O.J. Simpson, it has become clear that sports and sports heroes have assumed a role in American society far out of proportion to their traditional value. In this powerful critique of present-day American popular culture, Robert J. Higgs examines the complex and increasingly pervasive control that sports wield in shaping the national self-image. He provides a thoughtful history and analysis of how sports and religion have become intertwined and offers a stinging indictment of the sports-religion-media-education complex.

    Beginning with the place of sports in Puritan life, Higgs traces the contributions of various individuals and institutions to the present circumstances in which sports and religion are joined. He discusses the transfer of the Puritan ideal to the New World and then moves to the revolutionary period of the national hero and manifest destiny, through the classic period of education for a sound mind in a sound body, to the imperial phase of American supremacy.

    In the process of tracing this history Higgs makes clear the growing influence of "muscular" Christianity, from circuit-riding evangelists to pulpit-pounding televangelists, from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham, from the YMCA to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Finally he arrives at our present Low Roman or "bread and circuses" period in which sports simultaneously serve the purposes of entertainment, religious proselytism, distraction of the masses, and political propaganda, all under the colorful banner of Christian knighthood as seen in the stadium revivals of Billy Graham and the sporting enthusiasm of Jerry Falwell.

    In brief, sports and Christianity have followed similar paths. In the beginning they were nationalized, then Hellenized, then Romanized, and, in our own time, televised. The result is that spectator sports have become the reigning American religion, one sharply at odds with a traditional shepherd ethos.

    This well-written and innovative book makes clear the dangerous power wielded by the sports-religion-media-education complex over the minds and energies of the American people. It is a call for recognition and reevaluation of our present situation that will concern anyone interested in the future of American culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5806-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. 1 From Sabbath Bans to Super Sunday
    (pp. 1-21)

    Wherever we look in American society we see links between sports and religion and even the confusion of one with the other. These activities, which are at once social and individual and may be universal to all cultures, share a history in our own heritage. But they are not the same activities; they have different purposes and are carried out in different ways and usually at different times. At some points in our past they have seemed at odds, but recently, and increasingly, they have served one another and have become almost inseparable. This alliance has in the view of...

  5. 2 The Old Knight in the New World
    (pp. 22-35)

    The simplistic idea of the Puritans as humorless detesters of idleness is no longer acceptable to historians, especially sports historians. Several recent studies have shown the complexity and diversification of Puritan attitudes toward sports, exercise, and games. An analysis of the diaries, letters, and sermons of three Puritan leaders–Michael Wigglesworth (1653–57), Cotton Mather (1681–1724), and Samuel Sewell (1674–1729)–has disclosed that “there was no one prevailing attitude toward physical recreation. It could be accepted as a means of staying healthy, it could be allowed only under certain conditions; or it could be fully welcomed as not...

  6. 3 Revolutionary Heroes and Fighting Parsons
    (pp. 36-52)

    The connections in American history between sports, religion, war, and exclusive education were evident from the moment of the nation’s birth. Knighthood was brought to our shores by John Smith and Miles Standish and by the Puritan fathers, by adventure and by religion. During the Revolution, the fighting spirit of patriots and the fighting spirit of those who were in theory less worldly were hardly distinguishable. Behind the merger of interests lay an almost absolute and unquestioned acceptance of the values of the old martial sports: wrestling, horsemanship, and swordsmanship.

    It is hard to overemphasize the role of colleges in...

  7. 4 The Acrobatic Christianity of the Early Frontier
    (pp. 53-72)

    While sports were Christianized in the nineteenth century, under the influence initially of the eastern schools and colleges and later the YMCA, on the southern frontier Christianity was muscularized by sport. “Sporting,” says Thomas D. Clark, “was the lifeblood of the frontier” (30). The people who settled there were not always the most gentle or sophisticated or successful. Into this wilderness Protestantism would push with all the forces at its command to do battle against sports in the effort to win souls. The result of the conflict was a truce of sorts, an alliance between sports and religion, that still...

  8. 5 The Soul of American Knighthood
    (pp. 73-99)

    In the first half of the nineteenth century two familiar figures led a battle against ignorance and the wilderness: the teacher-preacher from the eastern college or seminary and the army engineer, more than likely a graduate of West Point. Both believed in discipline and manliness. The Corps of Engineers, dominated by West Pointers, “legitimately traces its beginning back to the days of exploring, mapping, and conquering Indians in the West, and it takes full credit for the opening of the new empire” (Galloway and Johnson 221). In 1850 Wayland Brown, president of Brown University, summed up the engineering achievements of...

  9. 6 The Consecration of College Sports
    (pp. 100-119)

    While West Point became the soul and symbol of knighthood in the United States, the eastern colleges were also affected by the spirit of reform in physical education sweeping the Western world in the early nineteenth century. The response to the Napoleonic Wars in both Europe and the United States, as well as responses to the revolutions of 1848, rekindled reactionary thought that promoted militarism under the guise of educational progress. By the end of the Civil War the colleges, even traditionally liberal Harvard, had themselves become bastions of conservatism, championing the interlocking virtues of religion, sports, and military heroism....

  10. 7 Manliness Moves West
    (pp. 120-144)

    In 1606 King James I of England granted a charter for two companies of “Knights, Gentlemen, Merchants, and Other adventurers” to plant colonies in parts of North America claimed by England, and the following year Jamestown was founded in Virginia. King James’s classification of types is intriguing and prophetic, for after three hundred years the types were still flourishing, moving west as the country expanded.

    Perhaps chief among all American knights was Theodore Roosevelt. Athletic, learned, brave, and adventurous, he was one of America’s most vocal advocates of manliness, devoting one of his essays to the topic: “The Manly Virtues...

  11. 8 Playful Alternatives
    (pp. 145-166)

    In both popular culture with its fascination for reform and practicality and in more elite intellectual establishments, the idea of the hero captured the imagination of an age. The hero became the ideal of the individual in triumph by the turn of the century. As Emerson said in “Education,” “Victory over things is the office of man” (Complete Works10:127). But in a democracy elitism is always a problem. Parallel to the cult of the heroic elite were the growing legends of the more ordinary hero, the common person, whether outlaw or simple citizen, who demonstrated a more democratic embodiment...

  12. 9 Sportianity versus Mountainity
    (pp. 167-188)

    In the attitude toward the world that Thoreau and other “shepherds” personify, both play and worship, if not always carefully distinguished from each other, are certainly different from sport or business and labor. Starting with the industrial revolution, however, business and industry encroached boldly upon the domain of both recreation and worship, as Arnold Toynbee observed inA Study of History.The Sabbath, once a time for rest and religious reflection, became the day ordained for “organized games” of all sorts as people sought respite from the numbing repetition of factory labor. The quasi-religion sportianity found its followers. Professional athletics...

  13. 10 Builders of Character and the YMCA
    (pp. 189-207)

    Because of the YMCA connection, Springfield, Massachusetts, is our American Jerusalem, the site common and sacred to three of our major “religions,” football, basketball, and baseball. At one time or another their three founding fathers, Amos Alonzo Stagg, James Naismith, and A.G. Spalding, either taught there or held workshops there or used the town as a base from which to civilize and/or convert, or at least to impress, the wild Celts in the hinterland and the hordes of poor Catholics and Jews with strange-sounding names streaming into the cities through Ellis Island.

    The YMCA made its most significant inroads on...

  14. 11 Cloning West Point on the American Campus
    (pp. 208-228)

    As the YMCA spread in the last decades of the nineteenth century from its urban hearth into every part of the country, it brought with it a new consciousness of sports and of a new muscularized Jesus as well. Wherever the YMCA appeared, there was almost at the same time the rapid development of organized sports, a shift from “turbulence to rules” or from unorganized play into structured competition.

    The Y made its first appearance at the University of Tennessee, for example, on 2 February 1877, according to one history of that college, to assist the university—then called East...

  15. 12 Symbols of the Union of Caesar and Christ
    (pp. 229-245)

    The relationship between sports, war, and Christianity in our society is a troubling one since the central figure in Christianity was, as far as we know, neither athlete nor warrior in the literal sense but was instead a figurative shepherd, again as far as we know. How this figure gets transformed into a knight militant is one of the mysteries of history and is apt to remain so. Why, for instance, are there “things of Caesar” to start with? Why are not the “things of God” everywhere and for all time so evident that other kinds of things would be...

  16. 13 Power in the Sweat
    (pp. 246-261)

    The YMCA, like Protestant denominations, West Point, and the colleges, was split wide open by the Civil War. The more militant associations turned a deaf ear to those few associations that pleaded for Christian love and brotherhood. “Many of the country’s Associations,” said one observer, “were entirely broken up, almost every member responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln to go forth and stand by the government” (Hopkins 85). Some associations produced entire companies from their membership and fanned the political flames with theological self-righteousness. During the fighting the Richmond Association featured a speaker who gave an address titled “The...

  17. 14 Field Generals of the Crusade
    (pp. 262-285)

    The alliance of religion and sports in America presented new problems with which we still struggle. They are well illustrated in the careers of some of America’s greatest coaches, field generals of the crusade, who transformed the mission inaugurated by the founding fathers such as Stagg and Naismith from building character to building winning dynasties. The problems inherent in this transformation appear in almost every dimension of our public and private lives, from gender issues to politics, from education to morality, from ecology to economics.

    Fielding H. “Hurry-Up” Yost (1871–1946) was born in Fairview, West Virginia, where he attended...

  18. 15 Power in the Tube
    (pp. 286-308)

    Though differences exist between the attitudes of our contemporary heroes and those of earlier times, similarities are obvious. One could choose among many candidates, but a few will serve to make the point that not much has changed in our knightly ideals over the course of the twentieth century. Sportianity embraces the gospel of wealth and internationalism, exemplified by Ted Turner (the knight as media mogul); muscular Christianity and evangelism, typified by Jerry Falwell (the knight as priest); and chivalry and nationalism, illustrated by Oliver North (the knight as soldier-patriot). Mountainity, on the other hand, addresses stewardship, embodied in Loren...

  19. 16 The Knight and the Shepherd
    (pp. 309-333)

    The institutionalization of American sports has comprised five discernible phases: colonization, nationalization, consecration, imperialization, and commercialization, all overlapping and connected. Essentially the rise of sports in America recapitulated the rise of both sports and Christianity in Europe. At the beginning both were strongly Hebraic. Then they were Hellenized, Romanized, nationalized, and finally in America televised. Our colonial period begins with Jamestown and Plymouth, with prayers offered up repeatedly to the stern God of the Old Testament, especially before battle. Indeed, he is even called “the God of Battle” by Samuel Doak in his prayer for the Overmountain Men. The Hellenistic...

  20. Works Cited
    (pp. 334-358)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 359-384)