04/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Praise the Lord and Pass the Football

Next Sunday, we rededicate ourselves to the proposition that football is America. The commercial enterprise, humbly termed by Pete Rozelle as "The Super Bowl," features orchestrated violence, women in short skirts and creative advertising designed to make us all eager consumers. Many prayers will be said between now and then in the hope and anticipation that divine intervention will steer the fates towards our favored team. This combination -- all scheduled for the Lord's Day -- is our contribution to modern culture.

The Super Bowl this year features two extraordinary quarterbacks and 52 other players on each squad prepared to do battle. Both teams count on God's support, and the victory will be His. That is somewhat confusing, however. I did not know God took sides in a football game.

We have all become accustomed to players acknowledging God's help after they arrive in the end zone. The customary pointing to the skies (even when playing in a dome) lets the Lord know what is happening and that it is appreciated. The post-game interviews often start with players thanking the Lord before they pay tribute to their blockers. Some players even wear their religion on their body. Tim Tebow, the Florida Gator quarterback, puts Bible verses on his eye black, using both John 16:33 and Hebrews 12:1-2. It is reminiscent of the Crusaders adorned with crosses.

Just in case the divisiveness of religion might have passed unnoticed, CBS, which will televise the contest, has agreed to air an advocacy advertisement by Focus on the Family -- a devotedly religious group that opposes women's rights and endangers women's health. The ad stars Tim Tebow and his mother. Previously, CBS had refused to broadcast any advocacy advertisements. The response of women's rights group has shown this is more than a game.

While evangelicals would like to make college and professional sports an effective means to proselytize, they run into an unexpected trap. It may be that sports themselves constitute the secular religion of the country. We attend to sports much as we do to church. It is an all-consuming passion. Religion centers us within the universe of unknown and unknowable forces that control our comings and goings from birth to death and beyond. It teaches us context: who we are and why we are here. It identifies those elements that are sacred and special. Might sport play this same role across an entire community?

Much like religion, sports are structured activities with ceremonies and heroic forms, carried out with intense concentration in spaces that inspire awe and reverence. Sports convey basic human feelings of danger, contingency, chance and fate. Religion and sports celebrate the ages of man with chants and songs sung by groups of people joined in common purpose.

Some may find the metaphor of sports as religious in nature to be blasphemous. Sports are accessible and commonplace; the world of true faith, by comparison, is celestial and transcendent. Divinity is debased by comparing it to a football match. Sports are, at their best, ersatz life performances; by comparison, religion, to many people, offers the genuine article. Aspects of sport may mirror religion, but not be religious.

If sports are religious in nature, then the effort to use these games as a setting for conversion to one religion or another may ultimately prove futile. Why become a Baptist when you are already devoted to the "Saints?" That will not take God out of the games, however. Individuals will draw strength and inspiration from a variety of sources, including their various faiths. The sense of community that flourishes within sports is a strong secular motivation, and religion may provide an added incentive. As my grandmother used to say about the medicinal values of chicken soup, "it can't hurt."