Of Gods and Games
Religious Faith and Modern Sports

William J. Baker

Playing, praying Americans and their complicated history


"This is a short and lively look at the connections between the seemingly  unconnected worlds of sports and religion. However, Baker argues in this easily accessible and deeply rewarding  text that American sports and American religion intersect with 'spiritual fervor.' . . . In short, Baker’s newest exploration of religion, play, and sport is an  excellent work by one of the best scholars of the field."
—A. R. McKee, Choice


That Americans take to sports with a spiritual fervor is no secret. Athletics has even been called a civil religion for how it permeates our daily lives as we chase our own dreams of glory or watch others compete. Few would deny our national devotion to sports; however, many would gloss over it as all of a piece. To do that, as William J. Baker shows us, is to miss the fascinating variety of experiences at the intersection of sports and religion—and the ramifications of such on a national citizenry defined, as Baker writes, “by the team they cheer on Saturday and the church they attend on Sunday.” With nods to modern and ancient history, Baker looks at the ever-changing relationship between faith and sports through vignettes about devout athletes, coaches, and journalists.

Of Gods and Games offers an accessible entrée into some of the larger issues embedded in American culture’s sports–religion connection. Baker first considers two Christian athletes who have engaged sports and religion on fundamentally different terms: Shelly Pennefather, one of the dominant women’s basketball players of the late 1980s, who left the sport for life as a cloistered nun; and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who has used his college and pro football careers as a platform for evangelizing. In discussing basketball coach Dean Smith (University of North Carolina) and football coaches Steve Spurrier (University of South Carolina) and Bill McCartney (University of Colorado) Baker looks at how each strove to honor faith amid sometimes complicated personal lives and ever-crushing professional demands. Finally, Baker looks at how faith inspired such sportswriters as Grantland Rice, who sprinkled his stories with religious allusions, and Watson Spoelstra, who struck a deal with God at his daughter’s deathbed (she recovered) and subsequently devoted his off-hours and retirement years to charity work.

George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion and American History

Page count: 96 pp.
Trim size: 5.5. x 8.5


List price: $22.95

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William J. Baker is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Maine. His books include Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, If Christ Came to the Olympics, Jesse Owens: An American Life, and Sports in the Western World.