We’ve all heard it and winced at it before. The quarterback has just thrown for 300 yards and three touchdowns against the most ferocious defense in the league in leading his team to victory. No sooner does the ubiquitous sideline reporter stick the microphone into his face and begin asking a stunningly trite question when the quarterback segues into a mini-testimony of his religious faith.

“First, Ahmad, I’ve got to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …”

There’s also a myriad of lesser forms of this behavior. The receivers who kneel in momentary prayer after catching a ball in the end zone, the defensive backs who pound their hearts and point to the sky after bringing one back the other way. This more subtle form of acknowledgement of the Divine doesn’t seem to offend people as greatly, but many still find it distasteful.

Why is that?

A number of ESPN writers recently had a discussion of both the phenomenon and their feelings about it, and it was interesting to see that most of them, on both sides of the issue, missed the point entirely. While there may be some players who seriously believe God has chosen the victors in advance – indeed, how can the Almighty not have chosen a side if he is the omniscient control freak that many Christians believe him to be – I’ve heard this example brought up and denigrated by more critics than I’ve ever heard in more than two decades of copious football watching.

I’ve certainly never heard a reporter ask a player to clarify whether he is thanking God specifically for the victory, or for creating life, the universe and everything. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). Indeed, the only time one sees an interview ended more abruptly is when John Francois Kerry is asked how far he has gone in imitating the philandering behavior of the man whose initials he happens to share.

Some of the ESPN writers defended the overtly religious on the grounds of advertising. After all, sports is used to advertise everything from Sharpie pens to beer, so why should the players not use it as a platform to advertise their faith? This point was grudgingly accepted, although not without some grumbling about how reducing the glorious ineffable to the level of the Coors Twins is not really appropriate. Of course, there were plenty of those who looked askance upon Jesus Christ’s willingness to associate with the harlots of his day too.

The essential point, in my estimation, is to recall we live in a society that glorifies and worships the famous. Not for nothing do we call them idols. While there are those who slaver to bathe in the esteem of others, there are many who do not – especially those who have been taught that all praise and glory and blessing and honor belong to the Lamb of God alone.

I do not see that these various gestures are designed to draw attention – how could they be when the eyes of the crowd are already focused upon the player? They are, instead, sincere efforts – however clumsy – to deflect glory to where it is more rightly due. Of what importance is a touchdown, even one upon which an entire season hangs, in comparison with the fate of mankind? Nor is it necessary to share these beliefs in order to respect the honest and humble intentions of those who demonstrate them so publicly.

It is hardly reasonable to expect those who worship God to accept pagan-style idolatry directed at them with equanimity. The apostle Paul, facing the same situation, tore his robes with horror.

Are these athletes hypocrites? Of course they are, for we are all hypocrites. There is only one kind of man who is entirely successful in living up to his standards and that is the man who entirely lacks them.

But if Janet Jackson can bare her breast to sell her music, I do not see why anyone should have a problem with those who merely bare their hearts to share what they believe to be the truth.

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