Without fail, the Super Bowl inspires a round of sports-and-religion stories. Dubbed a “high h0liday” of American society by Joseph Price, its cultural significance has been plumbed by journalists and scholars alike. While sociologist James Mathisen argues that the Super Bowl is all about the “gathering of the clan and the making of meaning,” communications scholar Michael Butterworth calls it an “affirmation of American civil religion.”
This year there was even more grist for the sports-and-religion mill. Weeks before the big day, controversy was already brewing over an advertisement featuring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow. Though couched as an anti-abortion spot, the word “abortion” never appeared in the commercial.
Prior to the Super Bowl, various pro-choice groups urged CBS not to show it, while abortion foes eagerly awaited its appearance. Afterwards, both sides analyzed its message. While the Christian Broadcasting Network noted its “subtle approach,” New Yorker blogger Amy Davidson pronounced it “both better and worse than expected.” Over at Politics Daily, religion journalist David Gibson called it a “brilliant fake.” With over 4,400 Google News hits for “Tebow” and “abortion,” it would take an army of graduate assistants to wade through all of the coverage.
Back in 2004, the United Church of Christ tried unsuccessfully to air a network television ad celebrating the denomination’s openness to all people, including gays and lesbians. At the time, CBS and NBC deemed the spot too hot to handle. In January a UCC spokesperson criticized CBS for its inconsistency.
The Tebow debate afforded USA Today contributor Tom Krattenmaker an opportunity to discuss his newly-released book, Onward Christian Athletes, a work which provides a critical yet empathetic look at the dominance of evangelicalism in America’s locker rooms. As Krattenmaker writes in the book, “Even if we graciously concede a role for evangelical Christians and their beliefs in pro sports” (something he is happy to do), the “rest of us—we Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, progressive and moderate Catholics and Protestants—have a stake in this too.” As was mentioned here yesterday, discussing the Tebow commercial in USA Today, Krattenmaker argues that the young athlete has become the latest sports hero to join the culture wars.
Of course, this year’s Super Bowl coverage went far beyond the controversy over the Tim Tebow advertisement. While David Brooks reflected on the relationship between sports and morality, the Reverend Robert Thompson explored the Super Bowl as a “spiritual metaphor.”
Though not a participant in Sunday’s game, Rabbi Alan Shlomo Veingrad once played for the Green Bay Packers. Reporting on Veingrad’s blend of “pro football and Hasidic Judaism,” the New York Times compared him to Jewish sports hero Hank Greenberg, the focus of an award-winning documentary.
Elsewhere, the Times reported on the use of the martial arts at some evangelical churches, a development that Southern Baptist Albert Mohler used to reflect on the crisis of masculinity in America. Though very different from the mega-church Fight Clubs profiled in the Times, both represent a fresh infusion of muscular Christianity.
Many American churches used the Super Bowl as an opportunity for religious outreach, none more effectively than Southern California’s Mosaic. The focus of an ethnographic study by sociologist Gerardo Marti, the church produced an advertisement that aired during Sunday’s game. In sharp contrast to the controversial Tebow commercial, the Mosaic ad was for Doritos.
As with most religious festivals, non-believers found themselves in a difficult situation. Proclaiming “I am a Super Bowl refusnik,” Politics Daily columnist Walter Shapiro boasts of “never, ever having watched the Super Bowl.” In a country saturated with the religion of sports, this is truly “the ultimate American heresy.”