Time to Separate Church and Sports? A New Agenda Takes Shape

Time to Separate Church and Sports? A New Agenda Takes Shape

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
October 16, 2009

Sam Cook has had enough. A sports columnist for the Fort Myers [FL] News-Press, Cook recently referred to quarterback Tim Tebow of the University of Florida Gators and told his readers: “I don’t know how many more ‘God bless’ comments I can stand from the 2007 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.” Tebow, Cook argued, should play football and forget about his religious beliefs while he is wearing the Gator uniform.

“Somehow, we’ll survive without him displaying a ‘John 3:16’ Bible verse under his eyes,” Cook wrote. “We separate church and state. Why not church and sports?”

Sam Cook’s column was prompted by a far more prominent essay published in Monday’s edition of USA Today. In “And I’d Like to Thank God Almighty,” Tom Krattenmaker leveled a comprehensive critique of the evangelical Christian message that, as he laments, permeates so much of the sporting world at both the college and professional levels.

The Bible verses painted in eye-black, fingers pointed heavenward, and expressions of thankfulness to God at the conclusion of a big game amount, Krattenmaker argues, to “a faith surge that has made big-time sports one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.”

Krattenmaker’s concern is that this “faith surge” is overwhelmingly evangelical in its substance and message. He addressed this issue in a recently-released book, Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers. In both the column and his book, Krattenmaker seeks to describe “the infrastructure and strategy of the sports-world evangelicalism” that is the source of his concern.

In his book, Krattenmaker offers a more nuanced and developed argument than what is found in his recent column. Nevertheless, in both contexts his main concern is what he sees as a near monopoly of evangelical influence and expression in the sporting world.

He writes:

How did this come to be? Suffice it to say that Christianity is a strong presence in sports is no accident. It happened because a movement of athletic-minded evangelical Christians have been making it happen since setting out more than a half-century ago to reach and convert athletes and leverage their influence to spread the gospel to the wider sports-loving public.

Krattenmaker correctly traces evangelical influence in sports to the “muscular Christianity” movement so popular in America between the Civil War and World War II. He expresses appreciation for the moral influence of evangelical Christians and Christian conviction within the lives of athletes. Nevertheless, he is clearly alarmed by evangelical displays of the Gospel.

Looking beyond Tim Tebow, Krattenmaker points to Baseball Chapel, a Christian ministry that offers chaplains and worship services for professional baseball players on the road or at the ballpark. He is specifically offended by the fact that the ministry believes that those who do not come to faith in Jesus will face “everlasting punishment separated from God.”

He pointedly addresses the same concern to Tim Tebow. After praising his athletic ability and charitable works, he criticizes Tebow for his belief that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. Specifically, Krattenmaker cites the stated beliefs of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association. As he asserts, the ministry affirms the exclusivity of the Gospel and rejects “the modern ecumenical movement.”

In his USA Today column, Krattenmaker describes Tebow’s beliefs as “a far-right theology.” Yet, in his book Krattenmaker describes the same beliefs as “hardly fringe or half-baked.” As he explains, “On the contrary, they are quite consistent with the long tradition of conservative evangelicalism in America and the beliefs that more or less define the religious lives of millions of churchgoing Americans.”

In his column, Krattenmaker goes even further in denouncing Tebow’s beliefs:

Certainly, Tim Tebow must be applauded for the good he does working on his father’s missions, but he should be seen, too, as one who promotes a form of belief that makes unwelcome judgments about everyone else’s religion. Let’s not forget the twinge that is felt by sports-loving Jewish kids and parents, for example, or by champions for interfaith cooperation, when adored sports figures like Tebow use their fame to push a Jesus-or-else message.

Both Sam Cook and Tom Krattenmaker identify the exclusivity of the Gospel as the key issue of their concern when it comes to Tim Tebow and any number of other prominent sports figures. Krattenmaker repeatedly stresses that he believes athletes should be free to express their faith. Nevertheless, he argues that belief in the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ is out of bounds for such expression.

What we face here is undoubtedly a sign of things to come. The belief that Jesus is the only Savior and that salvation comes only to those who come to Christ by faith is essential to Biblical Christianity. As Krattenmaker rightly observes in his book, when it comes to historic Christianity this belief is “hardly fringe or half-baked.” Yet, it is precisely this doctrine that is so odious and inconceivable to the postmodern mind.

Krattenmaker argues that evangelical Christians are unfairly using what he describes as “the civic resource known as ‘our team.'”  He demands that the management of professional sports open the door to other religious organizations and make room for expressions of other religious beliefs. He also calls for Christians to use “discernment” in seeking to evangelize their teammates.

Cook, on the other hand, calls for an outright separation of “church and sports.” The sporting world is hardly the only arena where the same arguments are made.  You can count on seeing these same arguments appear anywhere evangelical Christians express their faith in public or within ear-shot of those who may be offended. The belief that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation is now at the very center of secular outrage.

Consider this: Tom Krattenmaker ransacked the website of the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association in order to find the statement that caused him to criticize Tim Tebow as espousing “a far-right theology.” The outrage directed at Tim Tebow is not just about a Bible reference written in eye-black. The outrage is directed at the sincerely-held beliefs of a young man and an evangelistic association.

Tom Krattenmaker suggests that Tim Tebow should adopt a “more generous conception of salvation.” And now we all know the price of being seen as “more generous.”  Just abandon the Gospel.

I am confident that Tim Tebow will withstand this pressure. He has shown enough theological maturity and strength of conviction to earn that confidence. But, we have to wonder, how many others will fold under the intimidation?


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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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