More Americans will watch the Super Bowl this Sunday than go to church, to judge from recent Nielsen ratings and studies of church attendance. In that respect, this weekend is like every other weekend during football season.
The NFL is more popular than organized religion by two measures: the number of us who make time for it in our lives, and the amount of time we make for it. Consider that 34 percent of men and 18 percent of women spend six or more hours a week watching professional football (to say nothing of college games), according to an Adweek/Harris poll in 2011. Six hours is a lot. The typical church service lasts only about one hour, and the best estimates based on headcounts — not, as in Gallup, on self-reporting — are that less than 20 percent of American adults put in any pew time at all on the Christian Sabbath.
Sunday ball games of any sort were once illegal in most parts of the country. The blue laws reflected a traditional cultural norm, but by the early 20th century it was clearly fading. In 1904 the Cincinnati Reds cut catcher Branch Rickey from their roster, for example, because, being an old-school Methodist, he wouldn’t suit up on the Sabbath, except to put on a coat and tie and go to church. On a Sunday in late August 1917, the managers of the Reds and the New York Giants were arrested after their teams played a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. The law they broke had come to be widely regarded as a formality and they were testing it. Two years later, New York State legalized Sunday baseball, as other states had done already. Pennsylvania, the last state to hold out, legalized it in 1933.
The rationale for the ban on Sunday sports was that they distracted from religious observance. Being public and noisy — “disorderly,” in the wording of an 18th-century Pennsylvania statute — they clashed with the tone of the Sabbath day as ordinary Christians were supposed to keep it. Imagine if in our time the pastor and elders of a local church commandeered a city park for a Sunday service. Somebody would complain that using public space for such a purpose was inappropriate. So it was in the early days of the republic, except that the values were flipped.
Religion and sports have had a long, complicated relationship, dating back at least to the ancient Olympics, which were bound up with Greek gods and religious mythology related to Mount Olympus. Of course, everything in antiquity was bound up with religion. The most common etymology of the word is “re-ligare,” Latin for “bind, and bind again.”
It’s a large, sprawling concept, “religion,” and has no airtight definition. Rather, we know it when we see it. Everyone has a blind spot, though, including even secular fundamentalists, to whom the religious nature of their own convictions is invisible. To the post-Christian mind, the primary heresy of biblical religion is its calm but stubborn insistence that the number of sexes is exactly two, that the difference between them is clear, and that the observance of that difference is essential to human flourishing.
In their ecumenical outreach to secularity, most churches in the West have either muted or refuted that now-offending feature of the Christian faith. The Episcopal Church ordained its first female priest in 1977, and last Monday the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop. In the Catholic Church, altar girls were introduced about 20 years ago, in the name of equality, which is now pitted against fraternity: For some Catholic men, the corps of altar boys who served at the altar with military precision, or aspired to, was the first and the most cohesive fraternity they ever belonged to. That’s gone now, at least in many parishes.
Boys’ clubs in general are now snickered at for being outmoded or castigated for being pernicious social constructs, serving only to perpetuate gender rigidity. Boys need to belong to them anyway, though, and hence much of the appeal of organized sports, the last institution where the need for men to be men among men is not only largely tolerated but also largely celebrated, by people of both sexes. For males who are not very athletic, spectatorship and fantasy league will do. We sometimes say that professional athletes are men who play boys’ games, but the reason boys play them is that in doing so they are, they feel, competing like men.
Note that the decline of organized religion in the West has coincided with the rise of modern organized sports, whose genesis was mainly in British and American schools in the 19th century. While Matthew Arnold wrote elegiacally of losing his faith (“The sea is calm tonight . . . ”), outside his window his students were practicing theirs on the playing fields of Rugby. More than a century later, religion and sports still occupy the same seesaw, tilting ever further in the same direction: religion down, sports up.
Traditional Christianity, before the Reformation, needed men, or manliness, in two ways that it has begun to think it no longer does. It needed priests to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, a continuation of Christ’s self-sacrifice on Calvary, the more perfect sacrifice of which the blood sacrifice performed by the Levitical priesthood in the Temple in Jerusalem was the type, or foreshadowing. It was gory and not very ladylike. Then traditional Christianity needed men to exorcise demons and do battle in what Evangelical Christians call “spiritual warfare.” Satan was not going down without a fight. Women, too, were expected to join in the struggle for the Church Militant, but not necessarily alongside men in front-line combat.
Protestants renounced the understanding of Mass as sacrifice half a millennium ago, and Catholics themselves half a century ago finally began to follow their lead somewhat, reconfiguring the altar to make it a table around which the faithful share a meal. Around the same time, the Church retired the expression “Church Militant” and, in the spirit of the age, elevated peace rhetoric over victory rhetoric.
The fit between men and the Church as currently constituted is awkward, and more men than women choose not to belong. The loss is not the men’s alone. It’s primarily that of the Church as a whole, insofar as any mixed-sex society needs “the spinal cord of male bonds” to structure it, to borrow a controversial phrase from the controversial anthropologist Lionel Tiger.
Unwittingly or deliberately, who knows, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics who advocate women’s ordination, which would dissolve the fraternal character of the priesthood and confirm the Church in its identity as an essentially feminine institution, or at any rate one in which traditional masculinity is discouraged. Those who support that development should be mindful that bishops continue to board up churches because people don’t go to Mass on Sunday in the numbers they used to. Super Bowl Sunday is the perfect occasion to ponder the question why.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.