A Review of Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America

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.

Passion Plays : How Religion Shaped Sports in North America

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.

Bad Faith: A Review

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

Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right
Randall Balmer
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2021

Randall Balmer’s Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right disabuses the commonly held notion that the Religious Right originally coalesced around what he calls “the abortion myth.” Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, knows the evangelical subculture as the son of an evangelical pastor, a graduate of an evangelical college and seminary, and the author of numerous books on the history of evangelicalism in the United States.

In 1990 Balmer was invited to a gathering in Washington, D.C. that celebrated the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election. It changed the course of his scholarship for the next three decades. There, Balmer found himself among major leaders of the Religious Right, including Paul Weyrich, who made the startling statement that abortion had nothing to do with his movement’s origins. Later Balmer questioned him to be sure he’d heard correctly. Weyrich said yes, that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to arouse evangelicals’ interest in politics and mobilize them as a political group. He’d tried all sorts of issues:  abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, pornography, but none had grabbed the attention of evangelicals.

Balmer’s research on the origins of the Religious Right concurred with Weyrich’s statement. The Religious Right was not formed in response to the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion rights, but in response to the 1971 Green V. Connally decision, which challenged the tax-exempt status of segregationist academies and universities, most notably Bob Jones University.

It will come as a surprise to many readers, including a large percentage of evangelicals, that there was a period in the 19th and early 20th centuries when “evangelicals were engaged in a broad spectrum of social reform efforts, many of them directed toward those on the margins of society” (3). They included public education, peace, the abolition of slavery, prison reform, and women’s rights. Theologically, these efforts were related to postmillennialism, the doctrine– according to an evangelical interpretation of the book of Revelation—that Jesus will return after the millennium, a thousand year period of righteousness and peace. This doctrine led them to work “to reform society and pave the way for the ‘second coming’ of Jesus” (9). Balmer points out that progressive evangelicalism then and now—it still exists—has more affinity with the political left than with the political right.

Progressive evangelicalism started to crumble in the U.S. under the influence of John Nelson Darby’s doctrine of premillennialism (the belief that Jesus would return before the millennium), “which meant that Christians could anticipate the second coming at any moment, at which time they would be ‘raptured’ into heaven and those ‘left behind’ would face divine judgment” (11). Darby, an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, popularized the doctrine in the 1830s in the U.K, but its influence in the U.S. was delayed until the 20th century when the Scofield Reference Bible became popular. This doctrine influenced its adherents to abandon responsibility for social reform. Why make the world a better place if Jesus might return at any moment?  Their only responsibility was to focus on individual salvation and win souls to Christ.

It may be difficult for non-evangelicals to imagine the influence that rapture theology had among evangelicals– especially among young people– in the 1970s and 80s. Balmer describes an extremely popular film among evangelical audiences. Produced in 1972,   A Thief in the Night  opens with a scene in which a woman awakens to the sound of “her husband’s shaver buzzing in the bathroom sink.” He has been raptured. The film preaches “the imminent return of Jesus, warning that anyone who is not saved will be damned” (13) and features composer Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”

Premillennialism, which Balmer calls “a theology of despair” (11), led to political apathy among evangelical voters. Another influence in that direction was the Scopes trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher was found guilty for teaching evolution, in defiance of Tennessee law. Evangelicals won the battle, but they “lost decisively in the larger courtroom of public opinion” (17). The event symbolically marked an evangelical retreat from politics and the larger culture that had been happening for years. During the 1920s and 30s evangelicals began to build a distinct subculture—”an interlocking network of congregations, denominations, Bible camps, Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, missionary societies, and publishing houses” that provided “a refuge from the dangers of an increasingly secular society” (18).

Many readers of Bad Faith will be surprised to learn that evangelical leaders in the 1970s had diverse opinions on abortion. Two successive editors of Christianity Today magazine voiced support for the legality of abortion. In 1971 delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that  called  Southern Baptists to support legislation allowing the possibility of abortion in some circumstances. There was room for nuanced conversations on the ethics of abortion. The change started to occur during the 1978 midterm elections in which Democrats were frontrunners for all four available Senate seats. On the weekend before the election pro-life Catholics leafleted church parking lots in those states and all four democratic candidates lost. That’s when Paul Weyrich realized that he had found the issue that would take his movement’s focus off of defending racial segregation.

The practical result of the Religious Right’s embrace of the abortion myth was seen in the 1980 election, when evangelicals rejected a “born again Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, and supported instead a Hollywood actor whose campaign rhetoric included “racially coded language and gestures would appeal to voters—including, perhaps, newly enfranchised Religious Right voters” (71).

Readers familiar with Balmer’s work know that he’s been writing about the abortion myth for a long time. Bad Faith is different in that it’s a short, focused primer on the subject.  Another difference is that it takes into account the 2016 and 2020 elections, which are a clear indication of why the abortion myth matters. It helped elect a president in 2016 and continues to encourage single-issue voting, thus preventing thoughtful discussion of other important issues.

Balmer’s argument is not that all evangelicals are racist, but rather that the leaders of the Religious Right have made the movement more appealing “by rallying behind such high-minded issues as opposition to abortion . . . but that does not change the inconvenient fact that the founders of the movement in the 1970s rallied to allow evangelical institutions to perpetuate their policy of racial exclusion.” He points out that a building can be made beautiful in all sorts of ways, but if the timbers that make up its foundation are rotten, the entire structure is compromised (80).

Balmer writes as a friend of evangelicalism, one who loves the tradition deeply enough to seek its redemption and to be one of its best critics. Bad Faith shows how important basic knowledge of church history and theology is to understanding aspects of politics and culture. Leaders of the Religious Right have managed to ignore– or never to learn about— their forebears who were social justice activists. The same can be said of the evangelicals influenced by these leaders and of people—religious or not—who are shocked  that in 2016 a large percentage of white evangelicals helped elect a president whose behavior and values stand in stark contradiction of the teachings and example of Jesus. History matters. Theology matters. Bad Faith is a good place to explore the reasons why.