Book throws incomplete pass by linking religion to sport

This is the cover of the book “Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America” ​​by Randall Balmer. The book is edited by Agostino Bono. (CNS photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina)

“Passion Plays: How Religion Has Shaped Sports in North America” by Randall Balmer. University of North Carolina Press. (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2022). 192 pages, $25.

The title, “Passion Plays”, gives the impression that this book is about medieval moral dramas. Surprise! It’s about sports. As the subtitle suggests, the book attempts to show “How Religion Shaped Sports in North America”. Whether this will succeed is a very uncertain proposition.

The core of the book is formed by chapters describing how baseball, football, hockey, and basketball have influenced national life and culture in the United States and Canada, and vice versa. In this he does an excellent job.

It shows how baseball in the United States and hockey in Canada were efforts to develop a national sport independent of the games in Britain, as a sign of independence from the former colonial power.

It tells how football was developed by the soldiers of the North after the civil war in order to maintain their combativeness once the fighting was over. The sport was quickly adopted by northern universities even though some banned it due to violence. Ironically, once the southern universities adopted it and became adept, they were able to beat the northern schools, a symbolic revenge for the Civil War defeat.

The book explains the importance of these sports in the ethnic and racial integration of national society, especially in the United States. Baseball was important first to spotlight European immigrants and their offspring, then to African Americans. But it hasn’t been easy, even today.

Author Randall Balmer is a professor of religious history at Dartmouth University and has written numerous books on religion and American society. He credits his connection between religion and sports to listening to sports radio shows in New York, where callers were as passionate about — if not more — sports than they were about religion.

But his efforts to see religion as a molding force for the sport are failing. Many of his examples are forced and far-fetched. He equates the hockey penalty box where players go for committing a foul with the Catholic confessional, where one goes to be absolved of sins. The drinking of Stanley Cup champagne by players of the championship hockey team is called a reminiscence of the Eucharist.

When it comes to baseball, sainthood is like being inducted into the Hall of Fame. When it comes to relics, a piece of the True Cross is like an autographed baseball from the 1920s.

Considering the erudition and interesting tidbits that go into the sports side of the book, you would think that Balmer originally wrote it exclusively about sports and then someone convinced him that he needed something to increase sales.

For sports fans, absorb sports content and brush up on connections to religion. Or, just read them and laugh.


Bono is a retired CNS writer.

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