Review of Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century

Reviewed by Alex Parrish

Schultz, Brad, and Mary Lou Sheffer, eds. Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016. Pp. xi+260. Bibliography, index, and contributor biographies. $95 hardback.

Spend any time in the South during the fall, and you will likely hear the old cliché, “football is religion down here.” This is true of a number of sports and a number of regions. This has led some scholars to study sport and religion together. Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Brad Schultz and Mary Lou Sheffer, examines the complex relationship sports and religion share. The essays offer analysis into “macro” and “micro” perspectives on the sport-religion relationship, with the former focusing on the dynamics, definitions, and challenges in studying sport and religion, and the latter examining specific case studies in particular regions and individual sports.

In chapter one, “Who’s Got Game?: America’s New Religion,” Mary Lou Sheffer argues that sport “resembles” a civil religion “in the sense that both are organized institutions with disciplines and liturgies, stressing moral values of heart and soul” (p. 2). Sheffer articulates several theories of religion, concluding that no matter how one defines religion, whether substantively (i.e. concerned with beliefs or tenets) or functionally (i.e. concerned with how religion operates), sport qualifies as religion, albeit an unusual religion. Chapter two, “From Sunday Sermon to Monday Night Football: The Rise of the Use of Prayer in North American Sports,” examines the presence and growth of prayer during athletic participation. Alan Goldbach suggests mass media development in sports has caused athletes to pray more frequently, particular when cameras are filming. Chapter three, “Elegy for the McPheean Moment: False Idols and the Tyrannical Faith of Celebrity-Sports Culture,” is Jeffrey B. Kurtz’s lament over the loss of the discourse of virtue in athletics as modeled by John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton.

Chapter four, Chris B. Geyerman’s “Biblical Tales in the Sports News: Narrative and the Redemption of Michael Vick,” analyzes the media coverage of Michael Vick during and after his criminal dog fighting sentence and argues that it represents an example of the redemption narrative that is ingrained in the cultural identity of America. In chapter five, “An Olympic Religion: Does the IOC Still Have Faith in the Olympic Games?,” Anthony J. Moretti examines the sacred ideals of the Olympic Games, arguing that “Olympism” represents an ethical value system originally akin to religion which has lost its religiosity (pg. 68). Chapter six, “Be Not Conformed: The Relationship between Modern Sport and Religion,” is an examination of the ways sport has overtaken traditional religion, similar to, asserts Brad Schultz, “an invading virus [takes] over an unwilling host” (pg. 86).

In chapter seven, “A Useable Soccer Martyr: The Egyptian Ultras and Their Fight for Legitimacy,” Natalia Mielczarek examines Egyptian soccer ultras (i.e. devoted and fanatical supporters, similar to hooligans, though with important distinctions) and their use of religion and tragedy to struggle against the Egyptian government. Chapter eight, “Celebrating in a Cemetery: Sport, the Sacred, and a Search for Significance in Fan Communities,” is Bruce J. Evensen’s case study of the fan community of the Chicago White Sox, particularly during the team’s World Series title in 2005, and how such communities display baseball’s status as civil religion. In chapter nine, “Southern Reconstructing: Sport and the Future of Religion in the American South,” Eric Bain-Selbo and Terry Shoemaker analyze college football and stock car racing in the American South, arguing that these sports are avenues for religious expression and part of the larger civil religion of Southern identity.

In chapter ten, “Exercising the Spiritual Muscle: Holistic Care Service Provision in Intercollegiate Athletics,” Landon T. Huffman, Robin Hardin, and Steven N. Waller argue that intercollegiate athletic programs lack a comprehensive holistic care agenda for athletes since these programs largely lack resources for spiritual development in athletes. Chapter eleven, “Are Sports Programs at Small Church-Affiliated Colleges and Universities Really Different?,” argues that sport journalism and academia have ignored the educational and marketing techniques concerning athletic programs employed by small religious colleges and universities. Patrick J. Sutherland argues that overlooking these programs is disadvantageous, since these programs often model a holistic approach to education, athletics, and spirituality lacking in most non-religious schools. The final chapter, Steven N. Waller’s “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less: Why Religion/Spirituality Matters in the Lives of Black Male College Athletes,” argues that religion provides an important way for expressing black athletes’ experience as black in America.



Image courtesy of Lexington Books

While the essays have a variety of focuses, a common theme is that of civil religion. While scholars differ on exact terminology and definitions, civil religion can be understood as a faith organized around particular traditions and spaces that are considered sacred and evoke a sense of fellowship for those who participate. A classic example of civil religion is American civil religion, a term popularized by Robert Bellah and his influential article published in 1967, “Civil Religion in America.” American civil religion organizes around America’s supposed uniqueness in origin, government, and morality, which leads the community to argue for the nation’s Divine choosing and blessing, among other things. Correlation between American civil religion and sport can be found in examining the subcultures of fan bases, athletic departments, sports teams, and even regional identity. In her own analysis of Bellah’s arguments in chapter one, Mary Lou Sheffer asserts that sport is a civil religion that provides instruction and support for its adherents, presenting an alternative to traditional religions (pgs. 9-10). In chapter six, Brad Schultz argues that the civil religion of sport has overtaken traditional religion and the values promoted therein, replacing morals and virtues with economics, severely damaging both the impetus in athletics for ideals like fair play and honesty and also the uniqueness of religion, since religion is now “conforming to sport” (pg. 90). Another example of civil religion and sport is in chapter nine. Eric Bain-Selbo and Terry Shoemaker argue that while college football and stock car racing can function at times like religions, they are better understood as part of the civil religion of Southern Identity. Through these and other essays, Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century provides a thorough and nuanced examination of sport and civil religion.

Another key strength is in the detailed analysis of the role of media in contemporary sports. Alan Goldbach’s essay articulates how athletes are able to demonstrate religiosity through their on-the-field/court prayers and other religious rituals. Chris B. Geyerman’s essay shows the media’s role in crafting redemption narratives with athletes’ stories. Natalia Mielczarek’s essay illustrates how Egyptian soccer ultras used images of those killed during a fan riot in 2012 to promote them as martyrs and resist Egyptian police brutality. These in-depth essays on media and communication are excellent but unsurprising, as nine of the fourteen contributors are either journalists or scholars in university communication departments.

The book’s excellence is somewhat detracted through two key weaknesses. The first is the tendency to conflate religion with Judeo-Christianity. Of course, notions of “Muscular Christianity” have dominated the history of athletics in the United States, and certainly deserves discussion (excellently covered in chapter 11). However, the religious landscape in the twenty-first century demands detailed accounts outside of Judeo-Christianity. An example of this conflation is in chapter three. For his essay, Jeffrey B. Kurtz defines religion as “the way in which people or groups discern, maintain, and promote their core commitments and ultimate values through ritual, record (sacred texts), and polity (organizations, governance,” (pg. 35). As Kurtz mourns the loss of “the McPheean Moment,” the values he praises and the individual he recognizes represent clear Judeo-Christianity, leaving the reader to speculate if such values can be discerned in athletes of other religions (not to mention eras and dispositions). Another example of this conflation is in Shultz’s essay, titled “Be Not Conformed”, taken from Romans 12:2 in the New Testament. His example of the “few” openly “religious” individuals in the last few decades are evangelical Christians (pg. 91). His essay ends with a problematic and anachronistic appraisal of the medieval Christian Crusades as an illustration of the possible future of religion in sport (pg. 93). While some other essays were able to distinguish religion from Judeo-Christianity, these essays and others were not.

The second weakness flows from the first, and that is the lack of religion scholars who directly contribute to this volume. Of the fourteen contributors, only two hold or are pursuing advanced degrees in religious studies, and they contribute to the same essay (one other contributor has seminary degrees in pastoral care and counseling, and another is listed as a lay deacon in his church). While the overall use of religious studies sources was appropriate, the essay by the religion scholars demonstrated the potential such scholarship can contribute to a volume like this. Selbo and Shoemaker’s essay is a tour de force, succinctly articulating civil religion and a number of theories of religion, weaving significant sociological research on religion, anticipating and addressing critiques from alternative theories, all while retaining a strong analysis of college football and stock car racing. While this essay adds tremendous value to the book, it also unintentionally exhibits the lack of substantial interaction with sources on religious scholarship in some of the other essays.

Despite these weaknesses, Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century would be a welcomed volume to its intended audience of academics interested in religion, sports, culture, and ethics. However, the vagueness of the intended audiences displays the difficulty in identifying the field to which it best contributes. Given its common theme of civil religion, the field to which Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century most contributes is sociology. Courses especially on the sociology of religion will benefit from the case studies presented in the second half of the book.

Alex is a master’s candidate in theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His academic interests include American religious history, Alaskan religion and culture, hip-hop and religion, and sports and religion. You can contact him at:

One thought on “Review of Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century

  1. Pingback: The Redeem Team: Sport and Redemption Narratives | Sport in American History

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