Q&A with Tom Krattenmaker peers into his side life as a writer, examines new book on religion in pro sports
October 23, 2009
Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Tom Krattenmaker is giving a talk about his new book “Onward Christian Athletes” on Monday, October 26, at 7 p.m. in Council Chamber and on Thursday, October 29, at at 7p.m. at First Unitarian Church.
The Source caught up with Krattenmaker, who writes regularly for USA Today’s “On Religion” commentary page, to learn more about his writing career.
What were some of the most interesting things you encountered while doing research for “Onward Christian Athletes?”
Pro sports fans see a lot of religious expression in pro sports—players pointing up to God after a touchdown or home run, for example, or thanking and praising Jesus in post-game interviews—and that was my starting point for the research. As I began to dig into it I was struck by how much organization and strategy exists behind and under all this. Not to say it’s secret or sinister or anything, because it’s not, but fans don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes by these Christian organizations that minister to athletes and leverage sports to reach the public with their evangelistic message.
Why are pro athletes enlisted to promote Christianity?
Since World War II, a variety of ministry organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action have sprung up with the aim of using sports as a platform for promoting Christianity. You can see the logic of this. Spectator sports are hugely popular, with a lot of influence on our culture. It’s sort of a celebrity endorsement model, but the quote-unquote product is Christianity rather than something like beer or deodorant. This raises a host of issues and questions that are really interesting to grapple with, and that stir a lot of differing opinions and passions. One thing that interests me is the tension between sports values and Christian values. In what ways does this sports promotional model change or even distort religious teaching?
How is the conservative Christian movement responding to your book?
It’s definitely getting noticed. Dr. Albert Mohler, who’s head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading voice of conservative Christianity, has already offered his thoughts in several articles that have appeared in Christian media outlets. Google-News my name, and you’ll see them. Dr. Mohler doesn’t appreciate my questioning the appropriateness of using sports to promote exclusive Christian doctrine, which I can understand when I put myself in his shoes. He does seem to acknowledge that my critique is nuanced and well-informed and that I’m more than willing to give credit to what I see as the good things about Christianity in sports.
The reaction seems very favorable so far from progressive- and secular-leaning voices, and from mainstream press and radio. They seem to be saying, “It’s about time someone looked into this and sparked this kind of discussion!”
How did you become interested in the topic of religion in sports?
It started with the master’s degree program in religion in public life that I did at the University of Pennsylvania, which I completed about five years ago. I was reading a lot about the evangelical movement in America, learning a lot about it in my classes, and I started to realize that the conspicuous religiosity in sports was an important piece of this larger evangelical engagement with American culture and politics. It struck me as a subject that hadn’t received the thorough journalistic analysis that it deserved. It seemed to me there were dozens and dozens of books about religion in politics, but nothing recent or thorough about religion in sports.
Of course, the seed was planted long before. I attended an evangelism event in the Minnesota Twins stadium, featuring a star pitcher for the Twins, when I was about nine years old. I think that stuck with me in some fashion.
How do you balance doing your job at Lewis & Clark with being a writer on the side?
First of all, people need to be clear about the fact that my writing is completely separate from my work as a staff member at Lewis & Clark. None of what I write represents a position of the administration. To find time, I write on weekends and in the very early-morning hours before work. And I read a lot of books and articles at home in the evening. Publishers are sending me so many review copies of new religion titles that I’m not able to keep up at all!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I always try to make it clear that I’m not against religion in sports, and that I’m not against religion. Anyone can see this from browsing through my archive of columns on the web or from hearing my pro-Christian comments in the “Lord Save Us From Your Followers” movie that’s out now. I do have a passion for interfaith understanding and cooperation, so from that standpoint I question the use of sports to advance an exclusive and potentially divisive agenda that asserts the superiority of one particular religion. But my solution isn’t to throw out the baby with the bath water. Let’s see a more complete and more inclusive form of religion in sports, and one that’s able to put more of a check on the abuses and excesses of pro sports in America.