“Muscular Christianity” and the Penn State Scandal

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Posted on November 22nd, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Interfaith, News, Social Issues
Tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Copyright: BSD/Mike Pettigano

University of Nebraska Assistant Coach Ron Brown prayed on behalf of his football team and that of Penn State prior to their game on November 12th, in the wake of the latter university's scandal regarding former head coach Joe Paterno. Which you already know about if you haven't been living under a rock for roughly the past week and a half, so you don't need any commentary on it from me. But Brown thought that God needed a comment on the matter, specifically regarding manhood and young boys:

"There are a lot of little boys around the country, today, who are watching this game. And they’re trying to figure out what the definition of manhood is all about. Father, this is it right here. I pray that this game will be a training ground of what manhood looks like. And we will compete with fierce intensity. With the honor, and the gifts, and the talents that you've given us. And may we be reminded, Lord, as it says in John 1:14, that Jesus is full of grace and truth. May the truth be known!"

Indeed-- may the truth be known. And the truth is that a coach from a public university found it appropriate to use a scandal involving child molestation as an opportunity to teach little boys what manhood is, via a football and religious proclamations. I saw this  and thought "I can't be the only person believes this to be very, very wrong." And I'm not-- it's just that it's hard to articulate all of the things wrong about it.
Hemant Mehta decided to re-write Brown's statements to be something that is, in Mehta's eyes, more useful:

"Here’s what Ron Brown could’ve said to the teams — and the crowd of over 100,000 — that would’ve made a real difference — instead of the worthless tripe that came out instead:

'We’ve been through a lot this past week, but it’s nothing compared to what Jerry Sandusky’s victims have been through. We can never let something like this happen again.

If any of you ever sees abuse taking place — on the field, off the field, after you graduate — it doesn’t matter who the abuser is, go to the police immediately.

If you’re ever the victim of such abuse, please tell someone you trust what happened. It doesn’t matter what you think about the person who did it to you, and no one will ever think less of you for turning them in.

If you had nothing to do with the situation but you still want to help, well, we need more people like you. Please encourage your fans, friends, and family members to make a donation to a child abuse prevention organization.

That will do more for these children that our god ever can.'

That would’ve taken real courage to say, so I’m not surprised we didn’t hear anything even remotely resembling that before the game."

I suppose it would have taken real courage to say, but only because of the last line-- and that line should be left out. Everything else is not particularly courageous, but it is certainly important. It's what people need to hear and know, valuable information. It doesn't exactly take the place of what Brown said, though, because it's not ceremonial. It doesn't address the communal mood, the event that is about to take place. It's a comment that should be made in addition to something else, and here's the important thing...that "something else" should not be a prayer. This is something overlooked in Sean O'Neil's essay concerning what he calls "muscular Christianity":

"John Sandusky is an older man who used his prestige and power to abuse boys. Perhaps, then, Brown’s prayer about a redemptive display of masculinity merely reinforces a truism: that decent men would never abuse anyone. Since lines were transgressed in obviously horrific ways perhaps the boundaries of decency need to be reinforced in just as obvious a fashion. This still raises other questions, though: Who gets to re-draw these borders at such a sensitive time of (national) crisis? Also, what will young boys learn about gender from the dominant religious portrayals of manhood in muscular Christianity?

Muscular Christianity refers to the wedding of traditional conceptions of masculinity—such as bravery, chivalry, and athleticism—with evangelical Christian emphases on personal conversion and biblical devotion. Tim Tebow is perhaps the quintessential muscular Christian, combining religious and athletic vigor on the most visible athletic platform in the country: the National Football League.

Muscular Christianity is also developed in more pedestrian venues, on college campuses among groups such as the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. Evangelicals espousing some form of muscular Christianity (not a term that most would use) tend to interpret the Bible conservatively—especially with regards to sexual norms. Gay sex among consenting adults, for example, is usually labeled sinful in such evangelical contexts. There are few if any progressive religious voices in these settings. . .

If the only religious voices heard on the fields are the most conservative on issues of human sexuality, there may be few opportunities for athletes to combine vigorous athleticism, strong religious commitment, and fidelity to LGBT identities in the same breath."

Here are the sticking points for me in this:  1) "traditional conceptions of masculinity" and 2) "religious voices heard on the fields." Exclude them both, please.

Why? Let's start with the former. I hate to point out the obvious, but "LGBT identities" often do not conform to "traditional concepts of masculinity." Nor is there any reason why they should, considering that "traditionally masculine" people are often outright phobic or hateful of those who are non-traditional. Just as much or more than being brave, chivalrous (ugh) or athletic, traditional masculinity entails being straight.

And so far as I can tell, there is nothing about being non-straight, non-traditionally masculine, that inhibits one's athleticism. So maybe when it comes to football or any other sport, it would be better to call a spade a spade and emphasize that. Those attributes of character that are desirable to have also-- bravery, stalwartness, reliability, foresight, cunning, and so on-- are by no means exclusive to the masculine. Especially not the traditional kind.

(I will also mention, though I hope it's not necessary, the significance of focusing on how to tell/show young boys what it means to be a [traditional] man in the wake of scandal surrounding child rape. Just as with the scandals within the Catholic Church, there are plenty-- perhaps Asst. Coach Brown is one of them-- who interpret such an act as part and parcel of homosexuality. As something that gays just do, or that just gays do. This bigoted belief has no place on the football field or anywhere else.

Let it be emphasized: a decent person would not abuse anyone. Indecent people come in all sorts of gender and sexual configurations.)

As for religious voices on that field...why do we need those?

Even disregarding the question of whether it constitutes a church/state violation to have a coach for a public university's football team to deliver a prayer before a game, O'Neil's grievance above illustrates precisely the problem with having a religious invocation in the first place-- it creates a debate about whether it's the right religion. Whose beliefs should prevail.

Because for everyone who doesn't worship Jesus and/or doesn't appreciate the treatment of Jesus in the prayer given, the ritual becomes a period of discomfort rather than bolstering. And for many of those to whom the words about Jesus ring pure and true, any other religious message will seem either diluted or outright blasphemous. By all means, don't prevent the players from practicing their faith as they see fit. But leading everyone in a massive group prayer such as this seems designed to be unnecessarily divisive and yet squelch any minority views.

I can't help but wonder how many of those players kneeling around Assistant Coach Ron Brown feel resentful, silly, or confused. How many wish that a message acknowledging the situation but encouraging them to play a good game could be delivered without being wrapped in platitudes about what it means to be a real man and a real believer. How many of that group would never breathe a word about such sentiments, for fear that they would be ridiculed, hated, maybe even attacked by others.

How sad that is. And how completely unnecessary.

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Gretchen recently received her PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Aarhus in Denmark. She currently lives in Plano, Texas and is working on forming her dissertation into a book, and she serves on the Cognitive Science of Religion Consultation for the American Academy of Religion.


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