February 15, 2002

Religion on the Playing Field

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“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men. Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly…” Matthew 6:5-6.

Among their other brilliant accomplishments, America’s Founding Fathers wisely chose to separate the institutions of church and state. So while handfuls of governments have sowed the seeds of their own political destruction when religion tried to meddle in public affairs, the U.S. escaped any such fate. Though the U.S. is arguably one of the world’s most religious and least secular countries in the world, American politics has stayed relatively free of corruption by church, synagogue, or temple.

The same, however, cannot be said for sports in the U.S. Long a dormant issue, the notion of how religion has intertwined itself into athletics has become chic again.

Like it or not, God has always had an implicit place in sports. Pregame/postgame prayer sessions have been a common thing since the dawn of athletics. Divine protection and inspiration have been sought by athletes of all kinds. In Europe (especially in overwhelmingly Catholic Spain and Italy), soccer players routinely cross themselves before running onto the field. And just yesterday, Croatia’s Janica Kostelic crossed herself after winning the women’s combined skiing event at the very Mormon Salt Lake Olympics.

(Of course, sports doesn’t pick and choose from only the mainstream faiths —