A Knock Out Punch to Muscular Christianity?

Art Remillard

All this boxing talk has me thinking…

I’ve mentioned before Bill Baker’s outstanding Playing with God, which I cannot say enough good things about. Eric Mazur nailed it on the head in his review for The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.
Many will be relieved to see that Baker’s work is written in the style of a
retired historian more motivated to tell a good story than the need to justify a
methodological approach or theoretical perspective. It reads well, is
interesting, and is informative without being smothered by jargon, making it
well suited for undergraduate classes in religion and sports, or religion in
American culture generally. For those for whom an absence of heavy theory
is a liability rather than an asset, this work can easily be supplemented by any
worthwhile history of American religion.
I used Playing with God in my “Religion and Sports” course, and can attest that it works quite well in the classroom. As the weeks went by, though, it became clear that, as with any book of this nature, it is as much about the historiography of religion and sports as it is about Baker’s individual contribution to the discussion. Thus, I discovered that the historical account of religion and sports revolves around muscular Christianity, its rise to prominence, widespread influence, and lasting mark.

To be sure, Baker makes proper mention of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Native Americans. But these groups seem always to be set against a muscular Christian backdrop. In the chapter "Teammates and Soul Mates," for example, Baker makes use of Julie Byrne's O God of Players and NBA coach Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops. But the chapter concludes with a look at the current crop of Christian athletes who, Baker suggests, pay more attention to displaying their faith than living it. The author elaborates in the conclusion, lamenting that sports “has lost the moral compass that for more than a century taught Americans to honor boundaries, play by the rules, and work together for a common good.” Such was the basic agenda of muscular Christians that Baker believes contemporary athletes would do well to re-discover.

Baker's point is well taken. But the book's content makes me wonder about “everybody else” who lived in the muscular Christian era. I’ll offer one example. In 1908, pugilist Jack Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns to become the first black heavyweight champion. Brash, controversial, creative, and immeasurably talented, Johnson was also a self-described churchman and member of the Methodist Church. In 1910, after his mother died, Johnson praised her memory from the pulpits of black churches throughout America, imploring audiences to cherish the guidance of their own mothers. Despite his moral indiscretions (he drank, smoked, frequented brothels, etc.), Johnson might very well have been an influential Christian athlete for American blacks, much like Amos Alonzo Stagg was for whites.

But Johnson’s religious history, along with many others like his, awaits attention.


Mike Pasquier at: December 9, 2008 at 8:02 AM said...

Great post, Art! Correct me if I'm wrong (and I probably am), but it seems we sometimes use the term "muscular" in a way that doesn't suit descriptions of sport as it relates to non-Protestant groups. If by "muscular" we mean hyper-masculine, aggressive, energetic, religiously oriented activity, then perhaps it's also the case that Rocky Marciano (Catholic) and Max Baer (Jewish) fit this description. Hell, even Phil Jackson called himself a "hardwood warrior." Maybe it's something about sport that makes religion muscular, and less the other way around. Or maybe a difference between muscular (Protestant) Christianity and other forms of muscular religion is the evangelistic, moralizing qualities associated with the Protestant persuasion. But then again, when Max Baer wore a Star of David on his trunks in his fight against Max Schmeling, I have a suspicion there may have been some moralizing and evangelizing going on.

deg at: December 9, 2008 at 8:19 AM said...

Mike raises a great point, and I've got some questions to piggyback on his. Maybe you can help me out with this because I honestly don't know that much about this topic (I'll put Baker at the top of my free-time reading list to be proactive on this as well).

It seems to me that lot of sports and religion literature focuses on the "muscular" aspects of sports. But what about sports where bulk muscle use and conditioning aren't as important as the use of finer muscle use and conditioning? I'm thinking of the contrast between the physical skills and talent necessary to be a good boxer or football player vs. those necessary to be a good golfer or tennis player. I know I'm simplifying a bit and there's obviously some overlap between both forms of conditioning, but does Baker or others document the ways that religious expression or religious use varies depending on one's particular sport and athletic body? Are their noticeable differences historically? Why?

I'm also asking because I played competitive golf when I was younger and most of the literature on both seemed almost quasi-meditative, borrowing from pop Buddhism. There's the same sort of stuff for more strength-related sports, so I wonder if there's been some convergence over time.

John G. Turner at: December 9, 2008 at 9:20 AM said...

Art, do you know if Johnson continued to identify as a Christian or was identified that was by others after his various troubles began shortly after 1910?

Paul Harvey at: December 9, 2008 at 10:31 AM said...

From John Woolman to Jack Johnson -- now there's an American religious history trajectory for you.

Art at: December 9, 2008 at 10:44 AM said...

John--No clue. I accidently came by the story on Johnson's preaching while scanning an old issue of the New York Times. Everything else I know comes from watching Unforgivable Blackness. As I indicated, I’m curious to know more. I can’t imagine that Johnson himself was highly influential in church circles, but who knows. I have only a hunch that his in-the-ring heroics became material for religious reflections at the pulpit or after church.

As to the “muscular” appellation with other religious groups…. I agree. Catholics, Jews, et al. seem to have unique agendas and uses for sports, particular to their given situation. I have often wondered whether historians have made more out of “muscular Mormonism,” “muscular Catholicism,” and “muscular Judaism” than necessary. But having not really investigated the primary sources, I cannot say for sure. I am confident, however, that a de-centered history of religion and sports might cause a re-thinking of “muscular” wordings.

Last point, I think the word “muscular” is significant, but shouldn't be taken too literally. The phrase “muscular Christianity” originated in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and grew in the U.S. after the war. It applied specifically to white, urban, middle-class Protestants who were caught up in what Gail Bederman called the “masculinity crisis.” So, in order to put a “manly” stamp on Jesus, one tactic was to employ sports.

When it came to sports, hyper-masculinity was certainly part of the equation. Boxing was duly baptized. But so too were less confrontational sports. The Rev. James Naismith’s game of basketball had rules designed specifically to make it a physical expression of Christian values like grace and beauty. So, for example, “punching” the ball was considered a foul.

Baker does make mention of a wide-range of athletics, from golf and rowing, to football and baseball. Moreover, he documents the ambiguity on behalf of some preachers when it came to violent sports. But I can’t say I’ve ever really seen someone dive into the distinctions.

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