TIME Religion

Football and Religion: The Odd Relationship Between God and the Gridiron

Notre Dame's 'Touchdown Jesus'
Joe Robbins—Getty Images Notre Dame's 'Touchdown Jesus'

Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.

The peace and forgiveness taught in church are not values reflected on the field—but football shows the division of our ethical consciousness

When I played high school football, we knelt down before every contest. The coach asked God and the Lord Jesus Christ to help us play a fair game, not do significant bodily harm to the opposition and not to sustain serious injury ourselves. The coach asked that we might win the game if we were deserving. Then we said a prayer: usually it was the “Our Father.” Football, it seemed, was a Christian game.

Things haven’t changed all that much, at least from what I can tell. Pro and college teams still pray before games; coaches still invoke Jesus and God. When certain players hit the end zone, they hold a finger up in the air: I owe it all to you, Lord. When a man goes down and stays down, players from both squads get on their knees and pray for him. When I visited the University of Virginia football team this fall, matters were little different than they were forty years ago in my high school locker-room: the head coach invoked God’s blessing and led the team in prayer.

We’ve come to take this fusion of football and religion pretty much for granted. So too do we take the fusion of military values and football values as a matter of course. We’re not surprised when representatives from all four service branches bring the colors out before the game or when Navy jets stream over at half time. Nor are we much surprised when coaches talk about God and the Savior and when we see footage of players praying before games. It’s no surprise that Notre Dame, a school dedicated to religion, is also dedicated to football. No one seems perplexed that a mural depicting the savior with his arms raised is visible behind the stadium: Touchdown Jesus, he’s called.

Football is a game beloved by conservatives. Conservatives love football; conservatives love faith. What more is there to say?

Well, maybe there’s something. You don’t have to read the Gospels with exquisite care to see that the values espoused there are not quite football values. Jesus is many things to many people. But it would take a great deal of ingenuity to deny that he is a prophet of forgiveness—forgiveness and non-violence. When someone strikes you, what are you to do? On this Jesus is unequivocal. You must turn the other cheek. When someone sins against you, do you take revenge? No, not at all. Jesus tells us to forgive trespassers time after time. On the cross he looks out at his tormentors and speaks a simple and memorable sentence: Father forgive them, they know not what they do.

Jesus can get angry at times. When he sees the money changers operating in the temple, he picks up a whip and brandishes it at them. He picks up the whip. But he doesn’t hit anyone with it. And when he sees a fig tree that will not bear fruit, he blasts it. Why does he blast it? No one really knows. He blasts it because he does. But the temple whip flourishing and the fig tree blast are about the most violent things we see Jesus do. Mostly he is the advocate or peace, love and forgiveness.

It’s odd then, isn’t it, that football and faith, and the Christian faith in particular, should be so resolutely aligned in American culture? It never occurred to me when I was a young Medford Mustang, on my knees asking Jesus for a clean game and a victory, that Jesus might not have fully approved of the violence that was about to unfold on the field. For football is not about forgiving someone seven times seven; football is not about turning the other cheek. Football is about deploying violence: in football you blast your adversary with all the might you can muster.

And it’s odd then, isn’t it, that in America devout believers go off to church on Sunday to hear the gospel of the mild and forgiving savior, and then go home, turn on their TVs and watch young men try to bust one another’s spleens? What kind of country are we—what kind of culture are we—that can put together the Savior and the bone-crushing power sweep and not notice that there may be some contradictions involved?

But if you think a little more about it, you begin to see that football isn’t just a touch contradictory in itself: it reveals a rift in American faith. Because the majority of Americans are not just Christians per se: they are Judeo-Christians. That is, they belief that the Gospels are the word of God, but they believe that the Hebrew Bible is God’s word as well. And the Hebrew God, God the Father, whatever else you may say about him, is not a pacifist. He does not tell his followers to turn the other cheek. When Sodom and Gomorrah displease him, he destroys the cities nearly to the last. When the Amalekites infuriate him, he demands that Saul destroy them: man, woman and child. (And when Saul doesn’t, the Lord is enraged with him.) When pharaoh won’t let the chosen people go, the Lord kills the first born of every house and then drowns pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

The Lord God of hosts can be a loving god as well. He creates man and installs him in paradise. He preserves his people in the desert. He guides them in their times of tribulations. But pacifist, mild, readily forgiving? Yahweh is none of those things.

What football shows us Americans is how dramatically our ethical consciousness is divided. We can go to church and listen to the gospel of peace and forgiveness and then go home and watch the carnage on the field for a simple reason: that’s a tension we live with all the time. The religion that most of us follow allows us to be forgiving (when we wish to be) and retributive (when we wish to be). It really is up to us which way to go at any given moment. For we have sacred sanction for both paths. The Buddhists for instance do not worship any god who deploys violence: they follow the example of Gautama, the Buddha, who claimed to be nothing more than a mortal man. (Or they try.) When a Buddhist behaves violently (and plenty have and will) he has no religious sanction for it. For the Christian—or rather the Judeo-Christian—this is not the case.

There is a great deal to say about the ramifications of living in a country and a culture that allows so much leeway for ethical behavior. But for now, one might simply say that the game of football—which has become our national game, the mirror of our national identities—matters for a lot of reasons. One of them is the way it reveals some of the unspoken and unacknowledged dimensions of our lives to us, in compressed form. Though when that happens, we may of course not much like what it is we see.

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