Thank You Jesus

by Andrea Tabor

They should have been pretty standard stories: National Football Hall of Fame inductions and the Teen Choice Awards. But this year, these seemingly harmless headlines from the Sports and Entertainment sections are ruffling feathers across the blogosphere.

The problem? Faith freeze. When religion crosses into everyday life—entering the realms of law, education, politics, sports and entertainment—reporters tend to freeze it out.

Toni Monkovic, a sports blogger for the New York Times, complained that the 2009 HOF induction speeches were boring and over-saturated with religion. Many readers disagreed with Monkovic's assessment. “Maybe if you played pro football and saw your teammates bang up with concussions, broken necks and bad knees,” one commenter wrote, “You would thank Jesus or some other higher power for keeping you relatively safe and alive.”

Kudos to Kerry Byrne of the sports blog Cold Hard Football Facts. Byrne provided a thorough analysis of the religious speeches and their place in NFL—and American—culture. “In a sport in which pregame prayers have long been part of the culture, and in a league that historically represents traditional American values, and in a league that's manned disproportionately by Bible Belters from Florida through Texas, it's obvious that Jesus plays a dominant role in the culture of the pro football locker room,” Byrne wrote.

So should we really be surprised when former NFL coach Ted Cottrell says, “Our heavenly father is awesome” from the podium?

Across the pond, columnists debated the question of faith in cricket. With the same dry sarcasm of Monkovic's NYT piece, Guardian columnist Kevin Mitchell called a prominent cricketer's religious acceptance speech “the stereotype of boring American God-bothering.”

A few days later, a rival columnist at the Telegraph fired back, reposting one of Mitchell's columns from 2006 that described an act of religious reverence on the cricket field as “moving.” His conclusion was simply to leave matters of faith off the field and out of the sports press.

Even in Hollywood (liberal, godless Hollywood), “Thank you, Jesus” finds its way into acceptance speeches. In 2007, Miley Cyrus professed, “I have just got to say, praise God for putting me here,” as she accepted her Teen Choice Award. A little more than a year ago she was making Up with Jesus videos for Youtube. Now angry New Jersey mom/bloggers are asking why the 16-year-old, self-styled Jesus freak performed a “pole dance” at last week's Teen Choice ceremony.

But even as the young, rebellious Miley was praising God for her TCA surfboard, 40-something D-Lister Kathy Griffin remarked that “no one had less to do with [her 2007 Emmy] than Jesus.”

True to form, Griffin kicked up controversy again this year as she walked the Red Carpet before Sunday's Teen Choice Awards (on the arm of Levi Johnston). “Two years ago, I told Jesus to suck it, and this year they asked me to host the same show. Who would'a thunk it!? You know, being offensive does pay off every so often,” she said.

In both cases, celebrities are using Jesus to shape their image and attract their audience. It's as much a part of their brand as designer dogs and boytoy eye candy. We've written about how religious groups try to rebrand themselves, but we haven't seen much on how secular stars use faith to their advantage.

Kerry Byrne, the aforementioned sportswriter who probably doesn't tackle the topic of faith very often, had some interesting insights that others might key on. By delving deeper into the questions about religion's role in sports and mass culture, he helps answer the “So what?” question.

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