There was a time when it was considered poor form to discuss religion, money and politics in social settings, in the workplace, at parties. That was then. This is now. We live in a world where no topic is off limits and every private thought or feeling is considered fair game to the media and to the world at large.
That’s why the question Sports Illustrated poses on its cover this week — “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” — might offend some, but should surprise no one. The cover features Baltimore’s Ray Lewis, hands clasped as if in prayer, in a body of water. Is he in a baptismal font or a whirlpool? Is there a difference these days?
Laugh if you will — but some of you won’t. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 27 percent of Americans believe that “God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event.” And more surprisingly, a majority of Americans — 53 percent — believe that God is more interested in protecting and helping those athletes who profusely thank their Maker after the game.
Let’s be clear: I’m a big believer in belief, and I’m a big believer in the right to talk about said belief, or to keep silent about said belief. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are among the great things in our lives not brought to us by the NFL. The Founding Fathers nailed it, and with nary a TV camera in sight. (Thomas Jefferson doing the Lewis dance — now that would be a YouTube video worth watching.)
But I’ll admit to some wary surprise at the notion that Americans really believe God cares about football games, or basketball games, or even Nordic combined. I love sports, and I think sports play an important role in our society — for good or ill. But I desperately hope that whatever deity in which you believe (if indeed you believe in one) doesn’t spend the morning working out a naughty-and-nice list to determine who will win tonight’s NHL games.
I’ve always believed the Lord helps those who help themselves. Whether helping yourself involves telling the truth when a lie would be easier or making wise draft choices is irrelevant. The point is: Make an effort to take care of yourself, and save the big requests for the important stuff.
What constitutes “important stuff” differs for everyone. For some, clearly, it’s the outcome of the Super Bowl. As much as I love my alma mater, I’ve never prayed for a win. It’s delusional to believe that my desires are more important than yours or any other person’s. So if I am praying for Kansas and my friend is praying for Kansas State, do we cancel each other out? Does the tie go to the most devout?
Lewis, in the final weeks of his career, has raised thanking God in front of the television cameras to an art form. (I’m not implying he doesn’t thank God when the cameras are nowhere to be found. That’s his business.) Lewis’s emotional outpourings are making fans either happy or angry, depending on their feelings about his involvement in two murders after the 2000 Super Bowl. (And yes, he was involved, at least to the extent that he testified against his two companions and reached settlements with the families of the two men who were killed. That’s involvement, like it or not. But forgiveness also is a part of most beliefs, even if it’s easier to preach it than to practice it.)
Athletes touting religion is nothing new. When I was in my first year as a reporter covering the Detroit Pistons in 1983, one player would, upon my approach, pull out a Bible and quote scripture indicating I had no business being in the locker room. (That was my first exposure to a professional locker room and to the concept of twisting scripture to fit your needs. Because let’s face it: No women were covering the big “Christians vs. Lions” game.)
One former Redskins wide receiver would often agree to be interviewed but ask that I wait till he was done with chapel. He’d then grab the Bible out of his locker and take off. He always came back and tracked me down to talk. He didn’t proselytize, and I didn’t play down the importance of his beliefs. How hard is that?
In 2013, in America, it’s apparently pretty darn hard. There are no secrets, no subjects that are taboo. In order to fill the chairs on all the talk shows, we’ve even taken to creating celebrities out of people with no discernible talent or interesting thought. We dissect, we judge, and often everyone but ourselves is found wanting.
Twenty-seven percent of Americans have every right to believe that God cares who wins the Super Bowl. I can’t speak for the beliefs of the remaining 73 percent, but this American will continue to opt for the old-fashioned concept of privacy.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/