In sixth grade I walked to school every day with my next door neighbor and best friend Rick, or rather, we walked the first four blocks together. That’s when we parted ways. Rick, from a good Catholic family, turned left and walked the next two blocks to the parochial school; A Baptist, I turned right and walked the two blocks to the public school. (Two things have changed since then: nobody walks to school anymore, and Baptists don’t trust the public school system.)
We parted ways, Rick to go deal with the nuns, and I to go deal with Mrs. Higgins, who I was sure was meaner than any nun, though I couldn’t convince Rick of that.
Before getting completely out of earshot of each other, we had a little ritual. Rick would walk a little way down the sidewalk, turn and yell back at me, “You know you’re going to hell, don’t you?”
“No, you are.” I would confidently yell back.
We’d watch each other for a minute, satisfied that we’d both fulfilled our religious responsibilities.
“See you after school?” I’d ask.
“Here or at home?”
I’d shrug. He always asked the same question and we always met at the corner.
Today, nobody takes religion as seriously as we did back then, except maybe that preacher in Florida who has apparently decided the best way to turn the other cheek is to burn the Koran. As sophisticated a theological position as mine and Rick’s.
About the time Rick moved away and I no longer had anyone to exchange theological pleasantries with, a movement started up called the Moral Majority. They spent an inordinate amount of time and energy complaining that there were more of them than anyone else, but that they were just too polite to say anything — something they told us so often that they started to believe it.
Now days we have the Tea Party movement. The last vestiges of the Moral Majority, who apparently are all career politicians in the Republican Party, are wondering why people aren’t taking them seriously anymore.
Some might argue that politics has become the new religion in American. After all, your neighbors are more concerned which political party you belong to than which denomination. I’d argue that all you have to do is attend church, any church, during football season, and watch the pews empty out at 11:55 to know what the real religion in America is today. That pastor knows. If he wants anything in the plate, he’d better have the offering before kick off.
Football has bigger cathedrals; they’re called stadiums. And as big as some of those stadiums are, and as expensive the tickets, they’re easier to fill up on a Sunday than any church. Team affiliation is more important that religious affiliation. Republicans and Democrats are even willing to leave politics outside as long as their team is winning. I’m convinced that more people fall on their knees praying in football stadiums than in church, especially during the third quarter if they’ve misjudged the spread. Coaches? Isn’t it obvious? They’re the priests. Cheerleaders? Well, I’m not sure if they’re angels or demons sent to tempting us over to the wrong team. But I do think it’s interesting that football has the equivalent of that most ubiquitous religious symbol from my youth. On the field, these guys wear strange uniforms, never smile, and make sure everyone else follows the rules. Yes, the referees are the nuns of football. We even have a foreign religious influence that, while similar in many respects to good old American football, has strange and subtly disturbing differences that threaten the American way of life — soccer.
While arguing that football is actually a religion may be pushing the envelope just a little, it’s obvious that Americans have a religious bent. If we can’t find a release for our religious tendencies in church, they end up coming out somewhere else, for instance, sports or politics. That religious tendency may come from our Puritan tradition, from the need to group together behind our football team or in political parties, and insist that anyone who belongs to another group, not matter how much like us they really are, is going to hell, or at least not going to the Super Bowl.
I found Rick on Facebook the other day. He got a job with Chrysler and moved to Detroit. Right now he’s on temporary layoff. I told him that proved I had been right those many years ago. He countered that I lived in a place where the summer temperatures were about as close to hell as possible without actually making the trip, which proved he had been right. Some theological arguments just aren’t winnable.