Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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dogemperor [userpic]
Rushing for Jesus


Reggie White comes clean about athletic evangelization in this Salon article. (Day Pass or registration required.)

In an interview aired on the NFL Network four days before his death -- part of an hour-long program on religion in pro football -- White talked about his new direction. The man who once claimed that God told him to leave Philadelphia and sign with Green Bay, stated, "Sometimes when I look back on my life, there are a lot of things I said God said. I realize he didn't say nothing. It was what Reggie wanted to do. I do feel the Father ... gave me some signals ... but you won't hear me anymore saying God spoke to me about something -- unless I read something in scripture and I know."

In the interview, White also rejected a practice at the very heart of the athletic Christian movement, one he did much to popularize: the perceived imperative for the star athlete to use his stature to spread the Christian message. That was one of the founding goals of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes when it formed a half century ago, and it remains a major thrust of athletic Christianity today, acted out every time a player points to the heavens after a touchdown or home run, credits Jesus in an interview, or puts his fame to work in front of church congregations and youth gatherings. "I was an entertainer," White said. "People seemed to want to be entertained rather than taught."

I don't doubt the sincerity of players who express their faith. But fans should not overlook the reality that a Christian network of considerable breadth, depth and influence operates behind the scenes to convert players and to enlist them in an effort to sway others who play and follow sports. Through the work of a variety of evangelical ministries, all on the conservative side of the social and religious spectrum, nearly every one of the teams in the three major professional sports leagues -- football, basketball, baseball -- has an officially designated chaplain. By some estimates as many as 40 percent of the players in the NFL participate in team chapels and Bible studies.

White's point about entertaining elucidates one of the problems with Christianity in professional sports: a tendency of the movement to place promotion over the full and accurate representation of scripture and to use athletes as high-profile pitchmen, as if religious faith were just another product to sell. White actually had a credential; he was an ordained minister, although admittedly not one who was well versed in scripture. But most sports stars who stand before congregations or the media's cameras and microphones are even less qualified than White, and they often do a poor job of representing Christianity, whether by word or deed.


In his time, White spoke regularly at churches and often used post-game interviews as opportunities to proclaim Jesus. He even proselytized to those he was beating on the field; he was known to warn opposing linemen, "Jesus coming, I hope you're ready," before proceeding to demolish them on his way to the quarterback.

But in the NFL Network interview, the retired, more contemplative White said he felt "prostituted" by those who encouraged him to capitalize on his football fame to promote religion. It is hard to imagine a more blunt and damning repudiation than what White issued.

"Really, in many respects I've been prostituted. Most people who wanted me to speak at their churches only asked me to speak because I played football, not because I was this great religious guy or this theologian ... I got caught up in some of that until I got older and I got sick of it.

"I've been a preacher for 21 years, preaching what somebody wrote or what I heard somebody else say. I was not a student of scripture. I came to the realization I'd become more of a motivational speaker than a teacher of the word."