America: God's Chosen Country After All?

Paul Harvey

Maybe the Protestant Providentialists have it right after all: after England threw away yet another sure victory (see "Revolution, American") in today's World Cup match, evidence that God created America as an exceptionally blessed nation is clearer than ever. I guess David Barton is right after all. (Update: after the referee took away our victory against Slovenia, one may reasonably infer that God is not all that omnipotent after all).

More seriously (but still fun), I was about to post about religion and the World Cup, when Bradley Onishi, a grad. student at UC Santa Barbara, beat me to it (HT: John Fea). And his piece is a hell of a lot more interesting than what I was going to say, which was basically to repeat a variant of my quadrennial complaint about how basketball is a far superior sport to any other, including soccer, and inspires religious devotion from me, but seemingly from no one else. A taste of Onishi's piece:

If it is not about religion, it seems that the only means of explaining the phenomenon of the World Cup is through categories and concepts that we usually reserve for the religious and the sacred. In a strange way, the World Cup is about none of the forces that overshadow the day-to-day concerns of human life. The Cup is a very elaborate ritual, played out on the largest global scale possible. It transcends politics, economics, and religion by incorporating all of them. It does so by juxtaposing people, groups, national identities, particular belief systems, and political circumstances in manners that simply do not happen in any other setting. In 2006, the small African country of Ghana handed the USA a humbling and hope-crushing defeat. Where and how else in the world does that happen? In the first week of the 2010 Cup alone, Cameroon meets Japan, Argentina confronts Korea, and the freed colonies of the USA revisit mother England. You might tell me that the Olympics do the same thing. True, the Olympics provide a panoply of countries competing against one another in various games. But the World Cup does so in a concentrated setting vis-à-vis the one sport that throughout the world -- from Ghana to Germany to Senegal to Korea to Mexico to Chile to Slovenia -- creates overwhelming obsession, unbridled devotion, and, sadly, violent fanaticism. Starting to sound like religion yet?

By contrast, basketball is the most secular of the major sports that I know, even when there is a deep Protestant versus Catholic (Lakers versus Celtics) contest as there is going on now. I can't think of a sport with less religious ritual than the hardwood game; a little crossing of one' s self on the free throw line, LeBron throwing the chalk in the air, and that's about it, and virtually nothing from the stands -- distinct contrast to baseball (with its endless rituals), and football (with its players kneeling in prayer after crossing the goal line, and the whole ambiance of religion-nationalism surrounding the Super Bowl), and of course soccer, as Onishi explains here. And, for the World Cup, it's not just religion as nationalism, either, because then it would just be the Olympics, as opposed to something different.

My complaints about the superior aesthetic and visceral qualities of basketball aside, I got to see firsthand the religious frenzy induced by the "beautiful game" in Italy in 1982, when Italia won the World Cup semifinals when I was in Florence, and the finals when I was in Rome, whereupon I got to spend an evening riding around in some Italian stranger's VW Bug, shouting "Rossi! Rossi!" (the name of Italy's star striker). Oh what a night. That was a religion I could believe in.


John Fea said…
Great post. I remember that Italian victory in 1982. I was nowhere near Italy, but I was living in a largely Italian-American section of North Jersey. In addition to Rossie, my favorite player was the 40-year old goalie Dino Zoff. Forza Azzurri!
Rex said…
OK. Religion can be identified with celebration, and such are always fun. But everything that can be celebrated is not religious.

I have been known to comment that the "real" religion here in southern California where I live is "real" estate. It is worshipped by many.

Yet the distinction between religion and superstition still stands. Superstition imagines itself to govern outcomes (poor Greene, the GB goalie). Religion is for its own sake. Once upon a time, it was not who won or lost but how we played the game. Right. Those days are now ancient times. Pity us.

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