It's an old controversy - whether a sports event is an appropriate time for religious displays -- considering that the U.S. supposedly favors separation of church and state. The Memorial Day weekend is one of the year's biggest sports weekends -- wall-to-wall with goodies for TV sports fans and those who actually have the gas budget to travel to events. The weekend just past was also a good opportunity for religious-right watchers to look beyond the pomp of Memorial Day competition, and see the vivid evidence of how religion - especially the evangelical variety -- is taking over the sports world in a deliberate and steady manner. "Separation of church and state" is a principle unknown to some sports-event organizers.
Reflections on Memorial Day Sports Events, and the Church Hoop-la That Goes With Them
Prayer gets its foot in the stadium doors because each side wants their God to give them the win. But that motive typically comes out more privately -- in team prayers in the locker room, or in the athlete who falls on his knees in the end zone and thanks Jesus for his touchdown. The biggest excuse for having public prayers is not about winning. It's about danger. In some sports, that day of competition might be an athlete's last.
Since I'm a racing girl, I was glued to Sunday's day-long schedule of Memorial Day races. No matter how you do it, racing is dangerous.
Racing for Jesus
At Sunday's horse races across the country, the Race Track Chaplaincy of America held services for the jockeys just before they went out to their mounts. Statistics on deaths and career-ending injuries of riders are grim, so prayers for safety of rider and horse are definitely in order. Often, on TV, you can see the Catholic riders quietly cross themselves as they go to the post.
But generally, throughout the sports world, the religious establishment doesn't feel that athletes' private heartfelt prayers for safety are "enough." So the excuse is found for public prayers to God and Jesus for safety, which the spectators have to put up with, regardless of what their personal beliefs happen to be. Hence the invocations that you hear at the big tracks, just before the bugle guy plays "Boots and Saddles" for the first race.
The RTCA also keeps busy on the track's backside, looking to bring to Jesus the grooms, trainers, exercise riders, farriers, bookies, cooks in the track kitchen, or anybody else they can get their hands on.
Sunday was also five wide with motor sports. Motor sports go over the top on safety prayers - and with good reason. Though strides have been made on driver safety in the last five years, you can still get yourself killed or crippled by hitting the wall at 180 mph.
But in stock-car racing, for example, the hardshells who run the sport have opened the prayer-for-safety door still wider, into a full-throttle effort to bathe the crowd in Protestant evangelical religion. So late Sunday afternoon, at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC, as nearly 170,000 spectators waited impatiently for the start of NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, they were forcibly reminded that stock-car racing has its roots deep in Bible country. Rev. Dr. William K. Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., delivered the invocation, and said the Lord's Prayer. The hymn "Amazing Grace" was sung, with many in the stands joining in.
After what seemed like forever to me, commentator and former driver Darrell Waltrip was finally yelling his famous "Boogity, boogity, boogity, let's go racing, boys!" and the green flag waved.
Earlier that morning, Raceway Ministries had conducted a Sunday Bible service at the track. My informants in NASCAR tell me that these services are attended by anybody in the sport who wants to have the "right kind of image."
God and country at the racetrack
Meanwhile, at midday on Sunday, up in Midwest corn country at the Indianapolis 500, the religious tone was strong, but it was a bit more mainstream and ecumenical. The invocation was done by the Catholic archbishop of Indianapolis, the Rev. Daniel Buechlein. Indy officials did steer clear of hymn singing, but they had their traditional performance of "God Bless America."
Safety was indeed an issue - cars averaged 143 mph, with pole speed going to 226 mph. By the end of the day, the field was whittled by nearly half as a result of crashes and problems with cars. Two of the three women drivers, Danica Patrick and Milka Duno, were put out of the race by wrecks.
With its foot in the door because of safety, sport prayer goes on to insist that religion-flavored patriotism is also de riguer at major sports events. On Memorial Day weekend, it's customary to dedicate a few minutes of remembrance to American veterans who have fallen in defense of freedom through 400 years...and this is the way it should be. But as you listen to the prayers, you would never know that a single non-Christian, agnostic, atheist or pagan patriot ever died for freedom. The theme is all Christianity and Jesus.
Invariably the "veterans' byte" is tweaked in the direction of "supporting our troops in Iraq" and the alleged "just war" of U.S. presence there. So if you were one of the 300,000 spectators at the Indy, and you happened to oppose the war in Iraq, you had to stand patiently through the Indiana National Guard drills, the re-enlistment ceremony, a 21-gun salute, and a thunderous fly-by of four fighter jets over the massed carpet of humanity below. Any public display of your disagreement might lead to being hit with a beer bottle by some irate neo-con fan in the next row.
The Coca-Cola 600 staged an even bigger dog-and-pony show of patriotism. NASCAR organized a huge 2-day "Salute the Troops Memorial Day Tribute" at Lowe's Speedway that was intended to raise funds for helping military families. There was another reenlistment ceremony, a 21-gun salute...and bagpipes. Dr. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral church, led race fans in the Pledge of Allegiance. Not to mention that all branches of the U.S. military sponsor drivers in NASCAR, and all the military sponsors were there for the Tribute.
A Different Drum in Monaco
As a sharp contrast to all this American churchifying and drum-beating, there was the Grand Prix of Monaco. This most dangerous event in Formula One racing was aired in the U.S. very early on Sunday morning. The twisting narrow 2.075-mile circuit through the Monaco streets, with its hairpin turns, keeps drivers at what F1 people consider a "slow" speed - an average of 155 kph. But a driver who wrecks can wind up killing a lot of spectators or catapaulting over the wall into the harbor - especially when it's raining, as it was on Sunday.
Since I am a dyed-in-the-wool racing fan, I crawled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. PT to watch the Monaco GP live. Monaco was way more casual on the religious stuff, even though the royal family attended and Roman Catholicism is the official religion. Indeed, the glamorous festival atmosphere of the race reminded me that these European auto races on street circuits can trace their ancestry back to the palios, which are medieval-style horse races still run on city streets in some Italian cities. In turn, palios go back to pagan Rome, where any city that didn't have a circus, or oval track, had to do their horse or chariot racing on the cobbled squares or thoroughfares.
So Europeans have been there, done that, with state religion. Memories of World War II are still too horribly fresh in Europe for most of its citizens to indulge in the bloodthirsty war dances that many Americans like to do. So for many Europeans, their attitude at sporting events is, "We've been doing this for a long time...twenty centuries, give or take...so let's dispense with the sermons and speeches and other b.s., and get on with the game."
However, I do note that the influence of evangelical Protestantism is spreading in Europe. A growing number of organizations like the Corinthians RFC in rugby are out to nail sports in the EU, the way sports are being nailed in the U.S.
Here, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) has become a powerful force in many sports, notably football and basketball. The FCA is a Bible-based organization allied with ultra-right organizations like Focus on the Family and Exodus. Founded in 1954, the FCA now claims to be the "largest inter-denominational Christian sports organization in America." Among other things, the FCA aims to combat open homosexuality in both school and professional sports. Its hostility to gays is nakedly expressed on its application form, which requires an agreement that "the Bible is clear in teaching on sexual sin including ...homosexual sex."
Some Americans have a notion that the churchifying of American sport is confined to a few scenes like stock-car racing. They shrug at the fact that the FCA is already well-established in football and basketball. But the FCA has a growing list of sport-specific ministries. To date, they're out there getting their hooks into golf, lacrosse, baseball, fitness, motocross, endurance and skateboarding. They're supported by independent orgs like Raceway Ministries.
All the more reason why it's still hard - and maybe growing harder -- for any American who is nonconforming on sexual orientation or gender to come out in some areas of the sports world. On Memorial Day, especially, the folks who look to score points with the Bible do their best to make us feel unwelcome.