Is free speech really free in a publicly owned and paid-for venue? That seems to be the question driving Portland writer Tom Krattenmaker’s Onward Christian Athletes (Rowman & Littlefield, 212 pages, $23), a treatise on the role of Christian evangelizing in college and pro sports.
Krattenmaker’s argument essentially goes like this: Christian ministries have long had a near-monopoly on the use of sports as an evangelical outlet, benefiting from athletes’ “I gotta give it to the Big Guy” speeches and finger-pointing acknowledgements of God above. Yet most of this evangelizing takes place within the confines of massive sports stadiums often paid for, at least in part, by taxpayer dollars. If that’s true, then shouldn’t the public have a say in the types of evangelism standing on the soapbox taxes built?
Were it cooked up on a barstool and shopped around the pub, it’d be an admirable argument. But the idea of policing religious speech in a publicly owned space seems not only antithetical to a more perfect union but also impossible to implement (small hurdles such as the Bill of Rights make this goal ultimately unattainable), even by framing Christian sports evangelism as a bully that won’t let other religions get in on the action.
Using visible Christian figures in sports, such as football player Tim Tebow of the University of Florida and Pedro Martinez of pro baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies, Krattenmaker illustrates Christian sports evangelism’s evolution from a simple end-zone prayer to a colossus owning a greater presence in sports than all other major religions combined. Krattenmaker characterizes the members of the Christian evangelical movement as “far-right,” which comes off on his part as a sly attempt to align religious athletes with the extremist fringes of the political spectrum. And while Christians on the whole do trend conservative, the relationship seems almost stereotypical in an attempt to appeal to the political allegiances of his audience.
Still, the subject of religion in sports is both noteworthy and fascinating. Krattenmaker’s work is well-researched and does its best to remain objective on an extremely opinionated topic but ultimately struggles to extend itself into a book. Onward Christian Athletes might have fared better as a tightly packed magazine piece.
The book comes out at the right time and will find an audience and supporters. But if there’s a convincing argument to be made against the free rein given to Christianity’s sports evangelism, you won’t find it here. Krattenmaker claims he’s not interested in improving Christian evangelism, but there’s little substance to suggest he’s interested in anything other than weakening its sphere of influence. There’s a simple reason Christians are winning the religious battle for nonbelievers: They’re scoring all the hustle points.
READ: Onward Christian Athletes is available at local bookstores.