Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for the people's hearts and minds.
Perhaps you think this an overstatement. Perhaps you should exchange this book for one you can color in. (I'm sorry; that's an awfully mean thing to say to someone who just bought your book.) Think of it this way: suppose an alien were to visit Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, or Baton Rouge — and if you don't believe in aliens, you can substitute a Canadian. Suppose this visitor — we'll call him Corso — were to spend a week observing the ordinary citizens of those towns. What do you think Corso the alien would conclude about the religious beliefs of those average, everyday people?
Well, on Sunday morning he'd probably see them make their groggy, wrinkled-shirted way to a steepled building where some sort of ceremony had begun ten minutes before they arrived. Inside, he'd watch as they mouthed the words to songs, then struggled to stay awake while a man spoke for less than twenty-five minutes. Then, for the rest of the week, this place would be the furthest thing from their minds, unless by chance something tragic happened.
Corso might be justified in concluding that church, for most, was a court-ordered punishment.
On Saturday, Corso would see something completely different. The people would wake up early, carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past, then drive, sometimes for hours, to a hallowed campus where some sort of ceremony is scheduled for much, much later that day. All afternoon they would eat, drink, and 'fellowship' with friends, family, and strangers. Then, when the time came, they would all enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and likeminded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate like they're at a wedding reception on Fat Tuesday.
After he sees this, I think it's safe to say Corso will think he's found the one true religion — and he'll probably convert on the spot.
Football is big down here in the South. Real big. From peewee to junior high, high school to college, and even the NFL, southerners love their football. And the fans of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are arguably the most ridiculously passionate fans in America. Consider: each spring nearly half a million fans attend spring practice games at the twelve SEC schools. Did you catch that? Practice games. This year alone, more than six million people will witness an SEC game in person, tens of millions more will watch on CBS or ESPN, and at least a dozen will read this book.
Football is a cash cow for the SEC's institutions of higher learning. This year, the combined athletic budgets of the twelve schools exceed 800 million dollars. That's more money than the GDPs of twenty-four of the world's poorest countries. Granted, I don't know what GDP stands for, but this figure sounds impressive nonetheless.
But before you start feeling too bad for God, I want you to know he's doing okay down here as well. In a nation that has historically considered itself Christian, the southern states are by far the most Christian-y. A 2004 Gallup Poll that tracked religious affiliations state by state showed that in eight of the nine SEC states, over 86 percent of people considered themselves Christians. 1 I began to scour the Internet for a poll that wasn't six years old but lost focus after I discovered peopleofwalmart.com.
Of course, not all people who tell Gallup they are Christians are what other Christians would consider Christian — they might not even follow John Piper on Twitter, know the words to "Shout to the Lord," or invite friends to see Kirk Cameron movies at their church. Granted, Scripture is silent on the part social networks play in salvation, but clearly at least some of the 86 percent of self-reported Christians are nothing of the sort. Perhaps they just picked up the phone one night in 2004, and when someone asked if they were "Christian" or "Other," they chose the former. Christianity, believe it or not, is the southerner's default setting.
So we've established that God and football are both pretty big down here, but which is bigger? Well, I've got a theory.
When you attend a church here, you will almost certainly hear people talking about football. Worshipers will gather before the service and discuss in reverent tones what went right and wrong the day before. The pastor will usually reference Saturday's happenings by either praising a team's win or mourning its loss, while oftentimes taking a playful dig at the misfortunes of a rival school. Churches sometimes encourage this blending of faith and fanaticism with "wear your team's colors" day or by having viewing parties for big games — with half-time testimonies, naturally.
Conversely, God doesn't get a lot of play in SEC stadiums, unless a player injures his neck or your team is lining up for a last second field goal. And sometimes God is called upon to do some damning — usually of referees or offensive coordinators — but that's it. The SEC doesn't really have to add God or anything else to their product to fill the seats. There is no "wear your denomination's colors to the game" day.
Churches have to schedule around football. Apart from tailgates and viewing parties, a church event planned on Saturday in the fall is guaranteed to be a colossal failure. So far as I can tell, the SEC does not have to consult the churches when it makes its schedule. It makes sense to me that if one thing has to schedule around another, then that thing isn't as important to the people participating.
Apart from Christmas and Easter, only tragedy gives churches those SEC-like attendance numbers they so greatly desire. The first weekend following September 11, all twelve SEC stadiums sat empty, while the churches were filled to capacity. Depending on national calamities isn't really the best strategy to increase church attendance, but what can churches do? The people have chosen today what they will worship, and it looks like God is a two-anda- half touchdown underdog to the Tigers, Bulldogs, and Gators.
The people have chosen. You'd think I wasn't part of the problem . . .
1. Despite the best efforts of Tim Tebow, Florida checked in at a measly 81.6 percent.
Copyright © 2010 by Chad Gibbs
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Chad Gibbs found football at the age of eight, found God one year later, and has spent the rest of his life worshiping one of the two. He and his wife currently live in Auburn, Alabama, with their dogs Bob Vance and Harper. For more information, please visit www.chadgibbs.com.