Playing with God:
Religion and Modern Sport
William J. Baker. Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007.
The praise on the dust jacket for William Baker’s Playing with God is impressive. The writers of his blurbs heap glorious adverb upon sublime adjective, noting his fascinating insights and keen sense of humor. To be sure, the old “passing preacher,” who quarterbacked at Furman University and now is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maine, is a witty writer who knows how to turn a phrase artfully and who has written a commendable history of the complex relationship between sport and religion in American history. But ultimately, for this reader, Baker’s synthesis does not live up to such lofty expectations, because it is more conventional than innovative. The author is at his best when discussing the advent of Muscular Christianity in the latter half of the nineteenth century as well as the intersection of religion, sport, and patriotism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also effectively demonstrates how over time American churches did not merely accept an incursion of sports on the Sabbath, but embraced it. Yet Baker’s book unravels along the way. His chapters on specific religious denominations rely more on the experiences of a few well-known exceptional athletes than on thorough research about the regular members of these denominations. Baker also inexplicably avoids directly engaging the ongoing debate about whether sport is a civic religion. Thus while Baker offers a clear vision for the role of sport and religion in the earlier half of American history, he does not provide as sharp a focus about the role of sport in contemporary society or indicate where sport is heading in the future.
Baker offers many wonderful insights about Muscular Christianity, the socio-religious movement that began to spread across Britain and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. With the advent of Muscular Christianity, religious Americans for the first time embraced the potential for good inherent in sport. In particular, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant college educated men from New England spearheaded the effort to establish a “sports creed” which reflected “a highly moralized concern for self-improvement and an optimistic commitment to…spiritual, moral, and physical health” (29–30). Clergy like Henry Ward Beecher and Thomas Wentworth Higginson led the shift from a fear of sport, because of its association with drinking and gambling, to a belief that vigorous sport could—and should—be embraced because together “physical vigor and spiritual sanctity” renewed mind, body, and ultimately soul (40). They wanted the two central buildings in the community to be the church and the gymnasium rather than the church and the tavern.
Elite clergymen started Muscular Christianity, but institutions like the YMCA “democratized” the idea and turned it into a movement (42). This democratization was primarily for men, since women held a marginal place in the movement. On the one hand, Muscular Christianity was in part a product of a fear of the “feminization” of the middle class; on the other hand, competitive sport remained outside women’s “proper sphere” (45). Though Baker is clearly a fan of Muscular Christianity, he is not wholly comfortable with the democratization of the movement. The earliest Muscular Christians were “health crusaders” who “considered the body a sacred temple of God” and stressed exercise—not competition, not enjoyment, not even character building (37). But the YMCA, especially with James Naismith’s invention of basketball, put an end to the argument that competition was suspect. Reverend John Scudder acknowledged a different sort of competition, as the movement sought new adherents: “If Satan provides billiards for forty cents an hour and we charge only twenty, we can undersell and capture much of his trade” (75). Baker remains skeptical of clergy like Scudder who adopted a “common-sense religion” to increase church membership in order to compete with saloons (76).
Baker’s discussion of the interconnection among sport, religion, and patriotism is insightful. He traces the foundation of this triumvirate to the “invented traditions” of the late nineteenth century such as nationalistic holidays, flags, anthems, and pledges of allegiance (108), as well as the ideas from leaders of the Social Gospel such as Walter Rauschenbusch who sought to provide help for “the entire community, not merely for the good of the church itself” (109). This trinity of sorts is perhaps best embodied by the Boy Scouts who embraced a “mixture of athleticism, piety, and patriotism” (113). Writing at his best, Baker presumes that at their meetings the Boy Scouts “sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ with one breath and ‘America the Beautiful’ with the next, just before breaking into a popular new refrain, ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’” (114). In comparison Baker’s analysis of the modern Olympics is a bit disappointing because it does not fully explore the importance of secular humanism, pagan tradition, and notions of civic religion that were at the heart of Pierre de Coubertin’s effort to revive the Olympic spirit. Baker’s examination of World War I, however, clearly explains the efforts to promote “sport on behalf of God and country” (128). During the war, the military employed a YMCA athletic director at every American base, and chaplains used extensive sports programs as an alternative to debauchery. Moreover, as soldiers and factory laborers worked seven days a week, the sanctity of the Sabbath came into question. Increasingly, clergy decided that sports were a good alternative to less wholesome activities. Or, as Baker puts it: “Better to have athletics on Sundays than to discover sexually transmitted disease on Monday” (161).
One of Baker’s greatest challenges is to account for diversity of region and religion. He is better with the former than the latter. In particular, Baker provides illuminating coverage of the South where the social gospel and organized sport were both scoffed at as “Yankee inventions” (87). Southern evangelicals believed fervently in their God, but they were ambivalent about baseball (fine for boys, not men) and disdained intercollegiate football (“a source of evil,” 101). Not until World War I, with “the one-two punch of patriotism and athleticism,” did Southern evangelicals begin to openly espouse the merits of sport.
In contrast, Baker’s effort to account for such different traditions as Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims is unsophisticated and smacks of tokenism. Baker focuses more on stars than on broader social and cultural patterns. Moreover, he makes no effort to connect these disparate chapters. Thus, his chapter on Catholics reads like a cliché as he rehearses stories about Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, and George Gipp. His coverage of Muslims includes accounts of such controversial legends as Ali and Jabbar, but even Baker acknowledges after twenty pages that these elite profiles “scarcely represent the whole of the Muslim experience in the United States” (237–8). He then adds one compelling two-page anecdote to show how since 9/11 sport has helped Muslim communities to break down barriers of fear and distrust, but the weight of this evidence pales in comparison to the parade of stars.
Baker’s take on religion and sport is partly nostalgic, but ultimately this belief gives way to bitterness. At his core Baker wants to believe in the original tenets of Muscular Christianity that called for sport to be a physical and moral good. Clearly, he grew up with these ideals and wishes to see society return to them. But, alas, Baker argues that Muscular Christianity’s ideals “have become muted, if not mangled beyond recognition” (253). “Religion and sport,” Baker argues, are “joined at the altar of commercial interest” (4). In particular, he chastises evangelicals for their entrepreneurial spirit, as they have been much more inclined to “sell Jesus” to boost conversions, than they have been willing to emphasize the moral lessons associated with Muscular Christianity (217). Baker decries the crass commercialism and the “pampered, decadent role models” that define modern-day professional sports (257). Tellingly, by the end of the book, the individual who represents moral athleticism for Baker is no longer the elite athlete who dominates Division I sports or the professional ranks but a high school coach who teaches discipline, humility, never explicitly mentions God, and thus “represents the healthiest, most wholesome features of a religious effort that began almost two centuries ago to bring God and sports together” (260).
While Baker’s discussion of sport and its failure to keep a moral compass is insightful, his work would have been much stronger if he more fully engaged the debate on whether sport in America is a civic religion. Baker does allude to the ways that the Olympics and Notre Dame football take on the shape of divine activities, but he does not sustain this analysis nor does he show how over time religion and sport complement one another and compete with one another for people’s time, interest, and attention. What then are we to make of scholars such as Joan Chandler who maintain that sport is not a religion because it does not deal directly with questions of origin and the purpose of the world, or Joseph Price whose term “American apotheosis” suggests how rabid fans have elevated sports to a sacred status? Are we to agree with the sports writer Frank Deford that sport is the opiate of the masses and that sport won the Sabbath as well as every other day? For that matter, I know a lot of baseball fans who worship in the same pew as Annie Savoy, who memorably said in Bull Durham: “I’ve tried ‘em all, I really have. And the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out is the Church of Baseball.” Savoy’s sentiment clearly is not Muscular Christianity, but is it part of America’s civic religion?
Alan Bloom is an Associate Professor of History at Valparaiso Unversity.