In this final week of the year, the Arena is taking a break from new content, but I hope you will enjoy some highlights from the Arena this past year: posts and interviews that were popular with readers when they first ran, but also incite us to think more deeply about various aspects of human flourishing and/or the intellectual life in this season of celebration, reflection, and planning for the new year.
In this interview, Paul Emory Putz, Assistant Director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary, discusses his current book project, under contract with Oxford University Press.
What is the focus of your current book project? What are the big questions that you are investigating and the main stories that you hope to tell in this book?
I am writing a history of American Protestant engagement with sports in the twentieth century. The title right now is The Spirit of the Game: Christian Athletes, Big-Time Sports, and the Transformation of American Protestantism.
The project started as a dissertation nine years ago. I was inspired in part by a desire to know my own story. I grew up in Nebraska, in a community and state strongly shaped by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. As I became a historian, I thought that studying the FCA and other evangelical sports ministries could provide a unique lens into transformations in American Protestantism and American culture over the course of the twentieth century.
But I also wanted to study the Christian networks in American sports because I wanted to know more about my own formation. I wanted to explore the origins and development of the ideas I had been taught about what it means to be a “Christian athlete.”
As I’ve put the manuscript together, I’ve really centered on three broad themes.
First, I’m engaging with sport history scholarship. I’m showing how Christian coaches, athletes, and ministry leaders, working over the span of the twentieth century, developed their own networks and organizations within American sports. That organizational infrastructure—what I call the Christian athlete movement—shaped the development of American sporting institutions and ideologies while also advancing particular ways of making meaning in and through athletics.
Second, I’m in conversation with scholars of American religion. I think sports can provide a unique on-the-ground lens into the messy boundaries between “mainline/ecumenical” and “evangelical” Protestants. I try to show how sports can help us see the shifting center of American Protestantism—from the ecumenical/mainline establishment that held sway until the 1960s to the Sunbelt evangelicalism that claimed to represent the mainstream after the 1970s (and that included a subset of ecumenical/mainline Protestants).
I also try to show how Black Protestant leaders and institutions have shaped the story. The questions I’m continually asking: Given the great diversity in theological backgrounds and perspectives among Christians in sports, what is prioritized by leaders within the Christian athlete movement and why? Whose voice matters the most when determining what counts as legitimate Christian expression?
Third and finally, my book is also about American identity. It’s about pluralism, belonging, and the public spaces we share together.
I try to show how the leaders of the Christian athlete movement saw their efforts, at least in part, as an attempt to keep the United States aligned with their vision for society—one in which “ordinary” men like themselves (and they were usually men) were entrusted with the care and guidance of the American project. They believed sports were a crucial space for forming and shaping future generations in a way that protected so-called “traditional” values while also inviting room for gradual change and progress.
In one sense, it is remarkable how much they achieved. Compared to one hundred years ago, there are far more athletes and coaches today willing to publicly champion Christianity as a formative influence in their lives.
In another sense, however, the success of the Christian athlete movement remains tenuous. Unlike other forms of evangelical popular culture, including music, books, and television, evangelicals cannot simply create their own big-time sports league. Instead, the pluralistic nature of the sports industry means that evangelicals have to participate within an organizational infrastructure whose boundaries and priorities they do not dictate. Accommodation is required, a poor fit for the increasingly militant and zero-sum culture war approach that has shaped our public life.
Can you give us a taste of something surprising or unexpected that you have found in your work on this project so far?
One big surprise was to see how central ecumenical/mainline Protestants were to the creation and development of the Christian athlete movement. I found correspondence where early FCA leaders collaborated with the National Council of Churches, insisted they would never become “another Youth for Christ,” and made it clear that they did not associate with the National Association of Evangelicals.
I’ve written elsewhere about a couple other research discoveries. One was that legendary basketball coach John Wooden misremembered (if we’re being generous) the source of his famous “Seven Point Creed.” In the grand scheme of things, this is not a big deal. But in my manuscript I make the case that it highlights the hidden mainline Protestant sources of what later became categorized as “evangelical.”
I also found correspondence that showed a leading Christian football coach of the early twentieth century, Amos Alonzo Stagg, using his influence to advocate for Japanese Americans during World War II. I think there is a tendency to associate outspoken Christian athletes and coaches with conservative political activism, as if that is the entirety of what they represent and are about. But from the first decade I examine (the 1920s) up to the last (the 1990s), there are always people who do not fit neatly into expected categories. I try to do justice to that complexity and nuance.
What are the broader questions that fascinate you in your reading, thinking, and writing?
I’m fascinated by the meanings we make of sports.
To me, the fact that so many people assign profound significance to games suggests that something really important is going on. And I think we should take sports seriously as a site of embodied intellectual inquiry and moral formation, a space where people learn what they should value, what type of person they should become, and what type of world they should participate in creating.
Basically, sports are not simply an escape from real life, but are always both a reflection of the culture in which they take place and a force shaping and transforming that very culture. I like to read and learn from people who help me understand how and why and in what ways that is so. Sometimes those people are writing specifically about sports. But sometimes those people aren’t writing about sports at all—instead they’re writing about culture, theology, religion, or some other aspect of history.