Bear Bryant V. God

Southern Baptists Step Aside -- John Fea

I know that I am a bit out of my league here with all the Southerners and Southern religious historians who read and contribute to this blog, but I think Wright Thompson at may have identified the real Southern religion.


Anonymous said…
Is it Bear Bryant v. God? Or, should it be Bear Bryant=God? :)

I saw this article yesterday and, as someone in grad. school at Ole Miss, it brought up so many thoughts. I grew up in Virginia, which is not nearly as football crazy as the Deep South. Some may see Va. Tech football as the exception to that statement, but all in all, ACC basketball rules the roost in the upper South states of Va. and NC. After living for 7 years combined in Knoxville, TN and Oxford, MS, I have seen firsthand what some have called the "religious devotion" of SEC fans. If Paul Tillich is correct in saying that religion is "man's ultimate concern," then fall Saturdays represent the Sabbath for many southerners and Archie Manning, Billy Cannon, and Ken Stabler belong in the pantheon of saints.

Yet we must not carry the religion analogy/metaphor too far in our discussions of southern football culture. Those of us living in Miss. probably recall the story of a church sign reading "Go to Hell, LSU!" Fans in Arkansas probably recall a church sign from the 1960s reading "Football is only a game. Spiritual things are eternal. Nevertheless, BEAT TEXAS!" Speaking from experience in Oxford, however, local churches (both conservative and moderate) aren't too thrilled (to say the least) with what goes on in the Grove on Saturday afternoons. I have even smelled the lingering stench of alcohol and urine in our own building on Monday mornings following football weekends. Many pastors and congregations have spoken out against the culture of alcohol on the Ole Miss campus, which is magnified 20-fold when there is a game on Saturday.

The scholarly writing on college football and southern evangelical Christianity generally argues that, following the 1920s (particularly after Alabama's historic Rose Bowl win over Washington in 1926), southern evangelicals embraced football as part of a modernizing, progressive South. Winning on the gridiron was a good to way to stick it to those "damn Yankees" in other words. Though that is the case, I think we need to make sure that we distinguish between embracing the sport as it exists between the lines of play and the culture that exists in the stands, on campus, and in local bars. My pastor (Methodist) occasionally uses Ole Miss football analogies in the pulpit, but he finds the obsessive and "hedonistic" culture described in the ESPN article to be a problem. Perhaps there is still a battle being waged between those who live out their ultimate concerns on Saturday night (or Sat. afternoon) and those who live out those ultimate concerns on Sunday morning. Or, perhaps some are just trying to figure out what is that ultimate concern as they stumble into church on Sunday morning with a football- and alcohol-induced hangover!

I'm curious to see what the readers here think of what is NOT addressed in the ESPN article: the issue of race. After all, if you walk through the Grove on a Saturday afternoon, it is not a model of racial diversity, especially for the state with such a large African-American population. Look in the stands during an SEC game and, in spite of all the strides made in integrating previously all-white state universities over the past 40 years, nearly all the fans are white.

Thanks for posting this very intriguing article.
Bland Whitley said…
It's become something of a cliche to say that in the South, college football is a religion. As do most cliches, this one propels me into armchair skeptic (as opposed to armchair quarterback) mode. What do people really mean, here? What makes something a "religion?" The fact that a lot of people care a lot about it? Is that sufficient? I think we need to be a little more precise. It's a fun comparison, and certainly the evangelicalism that pervades much of southern culture has influenced how folks respond to their teams. But stylistic similarities need not imply religious devotion.

Note--today's grumpy harangue brought to you courtesy of a hangover incurred while watching football last night.
John Fea said…
Bland: For a conversation on what qualified as "religion" check out the comments on my previous post on "Disney Religion."

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