As we gear up for the 2014 Super Bowl on Sunday February 2nd., a new survey reveals that 50% of American sports fans see supernatural forces at play in the games. According to the January 2014 Religion and Politics Tracking Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, contemporary Americans either pray for God to help their favorite team, believe their team has been cursed, or believe God plays a role in determining the outcome of major sporting events.
The Super Bowl has become an American civil religion ritual. According to sociologist Robert Bellah (who died last year), Americans embrace a common “civil religion” with certain fundamental values, holidays, and rituals, parallel to, but independent of, their chosen traditional religion. They believe the nation is under God’s benevolent protection; and the nation provides semi-religious honors to its martyrs and athletic and political heroes. We are a nation of Halls of Fame and Super Bowl football is the liturgy that captures it all.
Former President Richard Nixon (who was very fond of football as well as tape-recording Oval Office conversations) expressed it perfectly, when commenting about the Super Bowl: “What does this mean, this common interest in football of Presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means a competitive spirit. It means, also, to me, the ability and the determination to be able to lose and then come back and try again, to sit on the bench and then come back• It means basically the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself. All of these great factors are essential if a nation is to maintain character and greatness for that nation.”
Supernatural involvement in major sporting events, is an old tradition of course. In ancient Greece, for example, the Olympics were just one set of athletic contests which were performed in honor of the gods. Among the Mayans in Central America, the stadium was attached to an important temple; and the stands were adorned with images of the gods and sacred animals.
Contemporary Americans also believe that being-a-believer greatly enhances an athlete’s performance on the field. Close to 65% of U.S. Protestants believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and athletic success. Catholics are a bit less credulous. Only 50% believe that God rewards athletes who have faith. Perhaps they have forgotten the “Hail Mary Pass:” a very long forward pass in American football, made in desperation with only a small chance of success. The expression originated in the 1930s at Notre Dame; but its use became more widespread, after Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach (a Roman Catholic) said about his game-winning touchdown pass in a December 28, 1975 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”
That American sports is a religion and professional football its leading ritual expression is not a new notion, but one that has achieved growing currency among American scholars and cultural observers. Sports have become the sacramental expression for the American way of life at a time when “traditional” religion is waning.
Over the past ten years, research surveys show a gradual decline in traditional religious commitment in the U.S. public as a whole. The number of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion has also grown significantly. One-fifth of the overall public — and one third of adults under age 30 – are religiously unaffiliated. A third of U.S. adults say they do not consider themselves a “religious person.” Two-thirds of Americans – affiliated and unaffiliated alike – say organized religion is losing its influence in Americans’ lives. The Super Bowl Sunday observance, however, is more popular than ever.
While about 12% of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, more importantly on a personal level, more Americans admit that they are wrestling with how to navigate a culture increasingly comfortable with violence. Here of course one must see the Super Bowl as sacred violence in controlled and acceptable form: as heads clash, bodies collide, tendons rip, and bones break.
In any event, when the Denver Broncos meet the Seattle Seahawks on Super Bowl Sunday, we know God will smile on and reward the better team. After-all: In God We Trust.