The separation of church and sports

bible and baseballTo the sophisticated readers of the New York Times, this article acts as a warning: your Major League Baseball games could soon be infiltrated by religion! To others it raises the often-asked question of whether Christians in America will succumb to the "fine and potentially dangerous line" of mixing Jesus and marketing, as a friend said to me recently. The NYT is more concerned with the former and fails to leave room for the latter. But that's OK. The separation of church and sports is what immediately jumps out and most appropriately fits into this news story. The article is reasonably fair and sticks largely to reporting the facts, rather than interpreting and predicting. A more thorough and nuanced story is due at some point comparing this trend with the one brewing in Hollywood.

Here is how the story kicks off, at a minor-league indoor football game:

Before kickoff, a Christian band called Audio Adrenaline entertained the crowd. Promoters gave away thousands of Bibles and bobblehead dolls depicting biblical characters like Daniel, Noah and Moses. And when the home team, the Birmingham Steeldogs, took the field, they wore specially made jerseys with the book and number of [B]ible verses printed on the back.

Donnie Rhodes, a children's minister at Gardendale's First Baptist Church near Birmingham, took 47 sixth graders to the game by bus and said it was the perfect outing. "It was affordable, safe and spiritual," he said. "And the kids just thought it was the coolest thing."

Mr. Rhodes and his students were at the latest in ballpark promotions: Faith Nights, a spiritual twist on Frisbee Nights and Bat Days. While religious-themed sports promotions were once largely a Bible Belt phenomenon that entailed little more than ticket discounts for church and synagogue groups, Faith Nights feature bands, giveaways and revival-style testimonials from players. They have migrated from the Deep South to northern stadiums from Spokane, Wash., to Bridgewater, N.J.

This story is definitely worth telling, particularly the major-league angle. The smaller leagues are significant, but less so from a news perspective. Those organizations will do anything to sell tickets. Fireworks have long drawn a crowd at a baseball game, and if partnering with the local megachurch sells a thousand extra tickets, it wasn't too hard for team executives to put the two together.

I doubt this will spread to the NFL -- it has little trouble selling tickets -- but NBA ticket sales have been struggling for years and everyone knows Major League Hockey could use a boost. I'll be watching for local newspaper coverage or lack thereof.

The best part of the article came at the end, when writer Warren St. John showed a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the trend and quoted event promoter Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports:

While Faith Nights may be good for the box office and perhaps even the soul, there is one area where all that spirituality does not seem to have much effect: the scoreboard. On Faith Nights over the past two years, the Nashville Sounds have compiled a record of 15-17.

"On Faith Night, God cares a lot more about what's happening in the stands than about what happens on the field," Mr. High said.

With that, major-league teams should take note: bringing Christians to the stands does not put God on your side, at least according to the Times' analysis.

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