Separation of Church and Sports

Tim Tebow has been a frequent subject of this site.  He is an outspoken Christian in a public position who has utilized his platform to further the cause of Christ.

He has been used as an example for those who feel they need to get out of the military and become preachers or missionaries in order to serve Christ.  Tebow, like R.G. LeTourneau, accurately points out that men and women should serve God where He has placed them, and they should use the talents that He has given them.

His life ministry–that is, his conscious desire to be known as someone who is genuine and cares–has been used as an example of the power of living evangelism, or Truth with Feet.

Now, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, highlights a “new agenda” demonstrated by sports articles and a recent book.

The authors take issue with the increasing presence of faith in athletics, calling them a product of “a faith surge that has made big-time sports one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.”

Importantly, they do not necessarily take issue with the public expression of religion; in fact, one author “repeatedly stresses that he believes athletes should be free to express their faith.”  On the other hand, they take serious issue with the content of the religion that is being represented.  Their concern is not that athletes are saying “Thank God,” but that those athletes are members of an exclusive faith that makes “unwelcome judgments about [other] religions.”  Their concern isn’t that religion is being expressed–just which religion.

The logic, while strained, is increasingly common in the American culture–and it has begun to impact the military as well.  Mohler accurately notes this trend:

You can count on seeing these same arguments appear anywhere evangelical Christians express their faith in public or within ear-shot of those who may be offended. The belief that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation is now at the very center of secular outrage.

Religions that ‘leave everyone else alone’ are fine, but religions that claim to be exclusive or the “right” belief are not.  Thus, public expression of religion is fine; just not public expression of Christianity, because Christianity is offensive.  (Ironically, Tebow’s critics appear to be more concerned by their emotional offense than, say, the positive measurable impact his faith has had.)

The responses by critics are almost amusing in their naievete.  One author

demands that the management of professional sports open the door to other religious organizations and make room for expressions of other religious beliefs.

Such a “demand” implies that the reason people like Tim Tebow have such high platforms is because they’re Christians.  To see that assumption in print makes it only more ludicrous; the reason for Tebow’s public platform is his talent in football.  If Tebow’s skills were in chess, no one would know his name–regardless of his religion.

Such “demands” also assume that officials are restricting other faiths while allowing–or pushing–Christianity, which is a fairly common misconception.  People assume that when they only see Christians, then only Christians are being allowed their faith.  (Rather than concluding that the evangelical nature of Christianity makes it more likely to be seen, and more likely to be considered offensive…)  But it is not the organization’s responsibility to parade other faiths out; if members of those groups want to publicly express their beliefs, they should do so.

The Florida football coach does not have to force a Jewish, Islamic, Wiccan, or atheist teammate of Tebow in front of a press microphone and tell him to talk about his beliefs in order to vindicate himself.  Nor does the government, when it allows a Christian Bible study, have to explain at what time the Sikh religious reflection is held.

Their only obligation is to ensure that all belief systems have the same opportunity.  Their obligation is not to ensure that they choose to use it.  It is free exercise, after all, not equal exercise.