by Bruce Dunlavy              (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The United States of America, it is said, does not have a national religion. Indeed, the First Amendment to the Constitution specifically forbids the establishment of a formal national religion (such as the Church of England was and is). The intent – as expressed by James Madison and others – was that while the culture of the United States might be largely Christian, the government itself was to be secular.

In Madison’s view, the tolerance and encouragement of a multiplicity of religious sects would prevent any one of them from becoming predominant and diminishing all others. Since consensus is always unattainable in a free society, pluralism was to be the key to equilibrium.

What Madison did not foresee was a secular manifestation of the primary aspects of religion.

Over the course of American history, religious concepts have spawned equivalent concepts in the secular world. For example, Christmas, originally a Christian holiday, has been reinvented as a massive secular observance. What was once a sacred celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ was transformed into a celebration of children, an economic necessity for retailers, and a glorification of shiny new toys.

The nature of God as expressed in the Christian Trinity has been made over in American culture into a Trinity of secular gods in the form of heroic and beloved presidents.

George Washington may be seen as the earthly counterpart of God the Father: the creator of the nation, “Father of his country.”  Abraham Lincoln is the equivalent of God the Son, sent to us to die for us, and whose martyrdom saved the nation from its Original Sin, slavery.  God the Holy Spirit is a bit more elusive.  Perhaps it is John F. Kennedy, who flashed across American history like a meteor, refreshing a tired nation and inspiring it to reclaim its mandate as redeemer of the world.

Now, in the late summer of this and every year, we are witnessing another secular manifestation of religion in the form of a national cultural phenomenon. Although it is not a state-sanctioned religion-equivalent, it predominates above all others. It is the secular equivalent of Christianity itself. I’m talking about the National Football League.

Church ServiceNFL Game Creative Commons photo courtesy of Dave Hoefler.
Image credit: pacificworlds.com                   Image credit: cyclingnomad.com

Over one-fourth of all Americans (not just football fans) say they believe God chooses the winner of the Super Bowl.  Many obituaries include, along with the church the deceased attended, his/her favorite football team.  In addition, the game of professional football is replete with religious touchstones:

They have worship services on Sunday.
The traditional Christian day of worship is the day of the NFL, when the congregations of the faithful gather for the equivalent of religious services. Originally, all games were played on this day, but, just as churches have Saturday Mass, Wednesday night Bible study, and other collateral meetings for the very committed, the NFL has expanded to add games on other days of the week, too.

There is a governing body and an executive central authority with ultimate power.
Although some churches are politically congregational, most belong to denominations with councils of laity, clergy, or both who decide the official beliefs and administer the codes of conduct. A denominational president, presiding bishop, pope, or other executive runs the day-to-day operations. The NFL is run by its team owners, and they appoint an executive who represents their prevailing opinions and remains in office as long as he administers his powers to their liking. Within the greater governing board there are committees (like the Roman Catholic Curia or standing committees of Protestant bodies) assigned to particular issues and tasks.

They have scriptures and clergy.
Just as clergy run religious services, the NFL has game officials with liturgical vestments and designated duties, with a hierarchy of authority, from referee down to side judge and head linesman. These clergy are charged with the interpretation and application of the contents of the Rule Book, an arcane scripture whose words must be interpreted for the congregation and other laity by those who have deeply studied its esoteric secrets. The clergy enforce adherence to rules and communicate with the congregation through mysterious phrases and gestures. Every so often the referee (the chief clergyman) delivers a brief homily to explain some confusing or difficult concept to the congregation of fans.

The liturgical practices are ordered and consistent.
Each weekly celebration of the service is accomplished according to an ordained ritual known to the participants and observers. The same actions are executed in a preordained format within given (though fluid) limitations of time. The same incantations are made to maintain the order of the service. In churches, these may be prayers, blessings, or consecrations. In football games, just as in church services, there also are transformative words and phrases of physical expression and metaphysical effect (“Hut! Hut!!”).  The end of the event is marked by a ritual Gatorade® “baptism” of the successful coach.

They have denominations with designated houses of worship.
The NFL has distinct teams, the equivalent of Christianity’s different denominations. Each has its own equivalent of a church or temple, where its adherents gather (usually on Sunday) to celebrate in their own fashion and congratulate themselves on being different from the others.  The rest of the time, though, the sanctuary and pews are empty.

There are hymns and choirs.
Some teams have their own songs and anthems, some have appropriated existing ones, and many have congregational or antiphonal chants, usually led by the choir of cheerleaders, along with some self-appointed charismatics dancing, falling, and speaking in unintelligible tongues. The chants may be simple (“J-E-T-S!!”) or mystifying (“Who Dat!!”).

Sacred food and drink are shared and consumed.
The holy meal of hot dogs, chicken wings, nachos, and chips is accompanied by the holy beverage, beer. Beer is so much a part of the service that not only is it consumed throughout the course of the event, but also glorified by hymns of praise to beer that are presented during breaks in the liturgy.

There are two main branches that have numerous divisions within them.
Just as American Christians are primarily divided into Catholics and Protestants, the NFL has two main branches, the NFC and the AFC. Each of these has 16 denominations within it. To the outsider, there seems to be little difference among them, but to the members of each the differences are vast – and vastly important. Just as in Christian denominations, the team allegiance one is born into usually remains for life. Sometimes marriage causes a conversion, but not always.
Adherence to another team is generally grudgingly tolerated, although – as among Christian denominations – when you get right down to it, “They” are not as good as “Us.” Weak or casual allegiance is also allowed. The only people who are objects of both contempt and a certain sense of fear are people who don’t follow football at all, the secular equivalent of atheists.

There is a pantheon of saints.
Within Christianity there is a group of people whose lives were so holy or so influential that they have been given the special status of “saint.” All agree on many of them, especially those from the earliest days – St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Matthew, etc. There is disagreement, however, about other – usually more recent – individuals.
The NFL confers its equivalent of sainthood by induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where we find enshrined St. Bronko Nagurski, St. Joe Montana, St. Jim Brown, and the rest of the heroic few. And in the case of the NFL, too, there are disagreements over inclusion that have led some teams to create their own “Ring of Honor” or team hall of fame.

So, whether you head for the stadium to participate in the service directly or stay home to watch the televised equivalent of “Mass for Shut-Ins,” remember that you are not just watching a game. You are involved in a worldly reflection of a religious experience. You are worshiping.

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