by Randall Balmer
Hardback: University of North Carolina Press, 2022
The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley
In Passion Plays Randall Balmer explores how religion connects with the origins and evolution of team sports in North America and why– especially among white males– the passionate devotion to sports has surpassed allegiance to traditional religious practice.
Balmer is the author of 17 other books, including last year’s Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, in which he debunks what he calls the abortion myth, arguing that race– not abortion– fueled the growth of the religious right. A historian of American religion, he is the John Phillips Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College and a frequent commentator on religion, politics, and culture in an array of U.S. publications. Passion Plays is a departure from his other work, which is primarily about the history and politicalization of evangelicalism in America.
In the introduction, Balmer makes the point that “competitive team sports in North America developed at a time of rapid social, economic, political, demographic—and religious—change” (3) during which the Industrial Revolution altered patterns of work and male association. As workers transitioned from farming to factory and office jobs, they socialized around sports, both as players and as spectators. Telegraph and trains made intercollegiate and professional leagues possible. The Canadian confederation and the Civil War in the U.S. also influenced the development of team sports. Balmer’s analysis includes examples of how various team sports addressed issues of ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality.
Balmer devotes a chapter to each of four team sports—baseball, football, hockey, and basketball—chosen because of their popularity at both the collegiate and professional levels. He links baseball with the industrial revolution, football with the Civil War, hockey with the formation of the Canadian confederation, and basketball with urbanization. In each chapter he explores “the beginnings, evolution, and symbolism” of these sports in ways that “suggest that the increased passion for sport in recent decades has, for many, displaced traditional expressions of religion” (6).
The book is jam-packed with stories from Balmer’s extensive research, evidenced in a 24-page section of endnotes and 17-page index. Readers will find a wealth of quotes enriching the book. My favorite excerpt, from the discussion of moral debates about football during its collegiate beginnings, was from Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell, who in 1894 received a request from student players for his permission to go to Cleveland to play football against the University of Michigan. He answered, “I will not permit thirty men to travel four hundred miles merely to agitate a bag of wind” (36).
When Balmer links religion and sports, he writes primarily in terms of the affinities, resemblances, parallels, and commonalities but also in terms of influence. For example, he notes the parallels between religion and team sports: both provide a strong sense of community and both incorporate processions, sacred space, pilgrimages, narratives of redemption, ritual and liturgy.
Balmer talks about Muscular Christianity, a movement that started in Britain in the midst of the Industrial Revolution at a time when men were beginning to work beyond the farm, in factories and sedentary office jobs. There was a concern, particularly among Protestant leaders, that men were not getting enough fresh air and exercise and were becoming soft and lazy. These leaders were also worried that men were staying away from church, where moral and spiritual development was increasingly under the auspices of women. In other words, they feared the “feminization” of the church. Their solution to the problem was to connect faith with athletics, resulting in the development of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which provided a home away from home and recreation for young men coming into cities. This Muscular Christianity also promoted the expansion of church league sports. Balmer shows its influence is particularly evidenced in football with its affinity with war and its military nomenclature. Basketball also is directly linked to the movement through James Naismith, who invented it at the YMCA School for Christian Workers.
Balmer’s history of hockey presents another example of religion’s shaping of sports. In early childhood, George Beers watched the First Nations game of “baggataway” among the Algonquin and the Iroquois Nation game of tewaarathon, called “lacrosse” by the French. As he played and studied the game, he decided that it needed more regulations because its field had no boundaries and the number of players was not limited. Because Beers was Presbyterian, a denomination known for doing everything “decently and in order,” Balmer credits Beer’s religious affiliation as a reason for creating and publishing a rulebook for lacrosse, which evolved into hockey, becoming the team sport that best defines the character of Canada.
As I read Passion Plays, the only feature that bothered me was the subtitle— “How Religion Shaped Sports in North America”—which I found somewhat misleading insofar as Passion Plays has few examples of religion shaping sports. Still, the concluding chapter shows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here Balmer addresses the divisions of modern culture and the decline of religious affiliation, and I find it refreshing that he doesn’t bemoan that decline. One might expect an Episcopal priest to do so. Instead, he says, “In such a wildly, gorgeously multicultural society such as that in North America (both the United States and Canada), perhaps it’s not surprising that sports has emerged as a meeting ground” (119).
He celebrates the fact that “sports provides a common vocabulary, especially at a time when the centrifugal forces of race, ethnicity, religion, economics, media, and politics are tearing us apart” (120). Then he presents a wonderful quote that undoubtedly will shock some readers: “ ‘Because no single formal religion can embrace a people who hold so many faiths, including no particular formal faith at all,’ A. Bartlett Giamatti observed in 1984, ‘sports and politics are the civil surrogates for a people ever in quest for a covenant’ ” (120). Acknowledging that politics isn’t doing too well in that role right now, he reiterates the commonalities between the two: a necessary agreement on principles, sacred space, processions, ritual, fans, authorities, and relics. And he even contends that “sports has eclipsed traditional expressions of religion in the realm of moral clarity and leadership” (123) and points out that sports has advocated for social justice in ways that the religious right has failed to do.
Perhaps Balmer’s most striking observation is that in times of social change and uncertainty, sports, like religion, offers “a respite, an alternative universe to a world that seems unfair and out of balance” and “something very close to fixed moral standards”(131). In closing, he writes, “Amid a world perceived as disordered and unfair, this universe—this religion—provides shelter, a common vocabulary, shared assumptions, and the assurance of camaraderie” (132). As a person of faith, I find this conclusion both hopeful and unsettling, and I suspect that Balmer would be pleased with that response, for only with hope and dissatisfaction with the status quo will any of us act to make the world more caring and just.